By David Himbara
Rama Isibo Rutimirwa is gone but will never be forgotten. Rama’s passing on reminds me of the words of William Shakespeare: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” Shakespeare meant that an individual who lacks courage suffers the feared effects of death many times, while the courageous person does not think about death until it arrives. Rama’s courage was extraordinary. He did not hesitate to speak truth to power, knowing full that he risked imprisonment, disappearance or even death at the hands of the iron-fisted Rwandan dictatorship.
Dear Rama Isibo Rutimirwa, not even death can break the bond you had with countless Rwandans. How can we forget your courageous words you wrote to Fred Rwigema about the state of the current Rwandan totalitarian regime? There are your extraordinary words…
A Letter to Fred Rwigema by Rama Isibo Rutimirwa
It’s been 22 years since you’ve been gone, your memory lives long, the more they try to extinguish it, the more it rises. You will always represent lost hope, what could have been and what we aspire to. You died too soon, a true hero of Africa, celebrated in many nations, your picture is like Che Guevara, handsome youth that belies an eternal optimism. I was too young to ever seriously talk to you, I never knew what your ideology was, but every ideology begins with an attitude that nurtures a belief. Your attitude is what formed our belief, that look in your eye that said “We can do it!” in that way you can never die, we had waited 30 years from 59–87 for that one sign. That belief died momentarily when you died, but a legend was reborn, and from this legend people got the strength to believe again. Today you would be amazed how far we have come, there are modern shining skyscrapers in Kigali, roads are perfect, it is peaceful, we are home, just like you dreamed.
We almost take this dream for granted, you would hardly recognise any of the people at the top, but of course you cannot expect the same guys to be on top. RPF is so many things now, it is a monolithic party that dominates the political landscape, it is also a multinational corporation, it is also an army, and a state of mind. To be truthful Fred, I don’t know what I believe anymore, I feel like such a hypocrite, I idly stand by while people destroy everything to gain so little. The RPF has gained the world but lost its soul, it believes in objectives, not ideology, it takes, it is not given, it is the embodiment of sheer naked power. We do not have politicians, we have people with sheer naked power, and people with access to sheer naked power. Some have turned into greedy hogs and are just stripping it bare, paying themselves a “Liberation bonus” when the real fighters we never acknowledged. All our families have fallen soldiers and injured brethren, they, like you, are rarely mentioned. We can mention your name on two days, July 4th and October 1st so we will honour you today.
“State of Play”
Rwanda is at a crossroads, it has been living beyond its means for quite some time, going full steam ahead, without question, without discussion, like a battering ram pounding down the walls of poverty. All debate was crushed, the inryaryas took over, hypocrites and sycophants “Nje ndabona nta kibazo boss!” It was fine as long as the buildings kept going up, human rights could be forsaken for clean government, press freedom could be forsaken for because of the threat of Genocide, justice could be forsaken because we could not afford it. How did we get to this position, we are as weak economically as ever, we are as weak diplomatically as ever, and we have lost allies over a period of negative headlines. From just before the election, the Kayumba saga, death of opposition figures, arrests and jailing of journalists, Ingabire saga, Congo saga, on and on. If this was Benin or Honduras you would think it was a pariah nation, but Rwanda wants to live in its own moral universe, it wants its unique history to afford it leeway in basic human rights development, but it is the derogation of these rights that will bring the next cycle of violence to bear.
“Just not in Rwanda”
In that sense, Rwanda is like Israel, lives by its own rules, it wants to fit in but be different. I tired of defending arrests of journalists, of jailing opposition leader because you disagree with them. I tired of defending our right to attack Congo, knowing the millions who suffer as a result. I tired of explaining to my western expat friends why no independent opinions were allowed on public media. I tired of explaining that fear that is unspoken, the looking over your shoulder when you speak. A person who has lived in a democracy, knows a democracy, and if you have to look over your shoulder then chances are that you aren’t. So all my generation are hypocrites and liar, they believe in freedom of speech “Just not in Rwanda”, they are Western liberals, some believe in gay rights “Just not in Rwanda.” Most have passionate views on US politics, on taxation, on abortion “Just not in Rwanda” and many advocate for people in far-off countries who are detained without trial when we have people detained without trial here “Just not in Rwanda.”
Every nation has a FEAR and in Rwanda it is the Genocide happening again, it is what keeps the peace. It is the automatic excuse for any arrest of a journalist, or justification for lack of democracy but it is also allowing corrupt people to get away. It is the mutual fear between a master and servant, the master fears revolt, the servant fears the master’s power. That is the relationship between a ruler and the ruled in Rwanda, and will always be if we never change it. The Ruler is given unlimited power and from this the Ruled expect everything to change, it is fine until it goes sour. This is how we got here, we found a tattered and torn country after 94, the RPA was the only functioning institution. The genocide was ended by force, not voluntarily, but the seeds of doubt were already being sown. When you see the Free Syrian Army which is supported by the West and by all means is the next government of Syria, you see the FSA being accused of war-crimes before they even come to power, there is a pattern. The RPF were similarly accused during the Liberation war, even though they were the “good guys” it was to serve as leverage in the future against the RPF. So two prime fears dominate the power psyche, an internal revolt and external justice.
Death of reason
“When people feel inadequate they feel any criticism is an insult.”
The death of reason is so gradual, you hardly notice, you just slide into a stupor. It starts with the “Koolaid” that is the name of the super-sugary drink that refers to the mental brainwashing you get when you first get here. Rwanda is a victim of the West, they hate us for nothing, they were never there for us during the genocide, if we don’t rule this way then “They will kill us again.” I consider myself a hereditary RPF member, I got it from both sides of my family, you could never criticise the RPF, but every believer must have a crisis of confidence. It was worse for me, I left as a teen, saw the war from afar, felt even guilty because I could have even served the last few months. When you look at the rewards soldiers got, they were scant, many left with rancour, the ones who won the spoils were the ones closest to the top leaders but did little fighting. It is impossible to write a history of the RPF because it cannot agree on its own history, history has been rewritten to airbrush out people who fell out like Kayumba, and other current favourites have been inserted into history when they were mere schoolboys at the time. In Rwanda our history always serves the current regime and is contorted to suit the current picture.
Reason dies slowly, first it is frowned upon, then shouted down, then banned, and then you cease to think it, until you cease to think altogether. I learnt to watch my mouth for a while but younger people grew up in a world where you just don’t say, think or write anything controversial or political until it kills their imagination altogether. How will they innovate? You are brought up in a society where independent thought is punishable by jail, speaking out is punishable, writing is punishable. Will my children be born into this world of no imagination; will they grow up watching their tongue? All this talk of cyber-futuristic techno-savvy hub and we cannot allow contrary opinions. Last year I was threatened by government officials for tweeting our president about our need to reduce imports and move towards productions. I apologised, the fuss died down, then aid is cut, then its agaciro, agaciro, we need to reduce imports and move towards production. People still say to me “Watutse Affande” when I did no such thing, that showed me the other face of the situation. Every supporter has that moment when your childish innocence was broken, when you ask “If they can do this to their own, then what of ordinary baturagye?”
The big payback/ingaruka yi ngaruka
Every action has a reaction, in Rwanda there is going to be a payback for all our foolhardiness over 10 years. We lived off aid, didn’t bother with commerce, thought the aid would last forever and Western guilt could be milked forever. Now they are cutting, people are looking cautious, the global slowdown is going to grip. People have lived off loans, accumulated debt, spent on consumer goods, set up NGO’s aimed at “Empowering” some poor victim somewhere. Instead of moving towards production, and generating cash, the government, for all their words, was hugely complicit in this Aid-debt bubble. Its workers and leaders were eating first in this economy, most diaspora people think this economy is not safe to do business in, your property can be taken at anytime and sudden whims are the norm. Tigo invested some $300m and their CEO was given 1hr to leave the country simply because he angered the president. How can a multinational invest in a country that makes less than $300m and be expelled in minutes without due procedure? For all the reforms, the attitude of those in power is the biggest obstacle to investment. The idea that “This country is my personal property and you people are alive because of me, I can kill you, crush you, anytime I want because I have the power.” Investors see that straight away at the airport, a delicate house of cards waiting to fall.
You never truly feel at ease, all my friends will say this, there is an undercurrent, we all know things are not well, that this method of government is unsustainable but maybe we are weak, maybe we just settle for what we can get out of it. Maybe one can get a Rav-4, a nice house, and expensive schools for your kids, a plush lifestyle by any standards but there is always the ticking clock, you know the alarm is going to ring but you don’t know when. So we trade our principles for privilege, enjoy the lifestyle, but at the back of your mind, you know one day the party will be over, or maybe the music stopped and we didn’t notice. Every one of us has that moment when we look in the mirror and ask, “Do I really stand up for what I believe?” The privilege comes with a downside, that look, the look that the downtrodden give you when you walk past, as if you are responsible for their misery. Then they call me boss when I’m a socialist at heart, I’m the oppressor, I am the hated. The unspoken part of the bargain is that “If he goes, we all go” that has been the way in Rwanda since time immemorial, power is concentrated not just in one’s hand but in a single finger, so when that leader goes, most of Rwanda goes with it. Critics are ostracised, their families too, passports and identities taken away from them. Little children pay for the price of their parents, brothers for their siblings, sisters for their brothers.
God cannot abandon Rwanda, we have prayed too much. Rwanda is not well with God, despite all our righteous indignation, we cannot say we have clean hands. The chickens will come home to roost, the result of many years of dumbstruck silence when we saw minor things going wrong but we never commented. For all our mistakes we shall pay, hopefully we will learn to debate matters and not decide things behind doors. My prophecy for Rwanda is growth and success, but one based on solid ground, that uses the hard-work ethic of the Rwandans to make goods for export. I worked once at the Roll-Royce plant in Derby, I watched semi-illiterate Pakistanis make Jet engines, so a Ruhengeri villager can make a car. My prophecy for Rwanda is that the leaders will see the need to open up, to learn that criticism is not hatred. We will open up politically and then have the biggest boom Africa has ever seen but a boom based on solid ground not indicators. These industries the RPF commandeered will now be the millstone around its neck, most are loss-making and will file for bankruptcy in the coming year, they are uncompetitive and will not make it.
There is a whole underground economy in Rwanda, the Abacuruzi of Mateus have so much money stashed away, plus property, stock, and credit lines. These businessmen have been neglected and pay only nominal taxes, getting them to release the money is the problem. This deficit we have accumulated had to be somewhere, outside yes but also inside, all this money we spent on consumer goods is somewhere, billions of dollars in cheap Chinese goods, it is still here. The diaspora is ready to invest, they just need an attitude change from those in power, we have to build the private sector at all costs. What is 30% of Nothing? That is what we are fighting over now, we need to see liberalisation, or all the assets RPF has will just flop to be worth nothing. What of the credit bubble? Overinflated houses at 18%Apr, that is criminal, but the bubble kept getting bigger and bigger and houses worth $100,000 were the norm, people were lent 10 times their salary. Amazingly, it can be fine if all owners hold on to their houses.
Too many people have prayed for Rwanda to go down, we can’t let it happen again, if it does happen then we all deserve to die, let them say “Abanyarwanda bananiwe kubana.” It cannot happen, or there is no God, Rwandans believed God returned to sleep in Rwanda, it is the only reason why we recovered from the Genocide. Every nation goes through growing pains, Rwanda thinks it can be in a political coma forever and that is not possible. We will learn that we can get along, that every man must pay for his sins, that God turns all things to good. People should look to history, all things change, a nation goes through growing pain, matures, and prospers. The good RPF is doing is so great, on child mortality, women’s rights, social reconciliation, and so many things. It deserves its credit, but one aspect of our life is stunted, we are being kept from politically maturing. Maybe they do it out of trying to protect us, like if you lock your child away so no one can hurt it, but the first moment it encounters pain it was break down. Every generation has that defining moment where a society breaks along generational lines, when the younger generation agrees with the objectives but not the methods. Can RPF move towards exercising more soft power, other than the sledgehammer approach? My friends say “You don’t know how these people think, they don’t care.”
No more Fear, no more silence, no more, no more, no more. I am a Rwandan, I always was always will be, I was never given my country by any man, I will never give up on my country.
Long live Rwanda