Rwanda is news, and being miscast can come with the territory, but it has come to a point where to understand the country as it actually is, it is necessary to ignore much of the media and even academic research about it.
It would take a sizable book to show every example of this, but one might start close to home, with two recent stories in the East African newspaper.
The East African is by any measure, the region’s biggest newspaper, and one might expect it to manage a balanced picture of stories in its own backyard. At least most of the time. As it is, when it comes to Rwanda, the paper has all too often fallen short of this most basic of journalistic requirements.
“Rwanda’s grand vision for the future leaves the poor on the curb”, the paper declares. It’s a great headline. Perhaps that might be the problem. The approach seems to be, think of a story about Rwanda, come up with a good headline, and then try to squeeze a story into it.
Inevitably, it’s a glaringly poor fit. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any story on Rwanda which might fit such a headline. The other latest offering from the paper is no less incongruous: “Rwanda at the centre of bad, broken and repaired relations.” As headlines go, this one is not bad either, but it too suffers from the same problem. It is a headline looking for a story, rather than the other way round.
The first headline seems to have been prompted by Rwanda’s housing problem. And here one must envy the journalist. He or she managed to tout the same story to two different newspapers, on two different continents. Nice pay day if one can get it.
First it appeared in the London based Daily Mail, it then travelled the 4,000 or so miles to the East African. The editors clearly deemed it that good. It must have been that headline. The good ones do sell a story.
The story’s first outing in The Mail got the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF)’s arch detractor David Himbara, so excited, one worried about his blood pressure. “A must read for anyone interested in Rwanda’s socio economic development” he pleaded, breathlessly. When it comes to Rwanda, Himbara is an alchemist in reverse, tirelessly looking for base metal in every golden nugget from his homeland.
That Rwanda has a housing problem is beyond any, let alone reasonable doubt. It is a challenge they share with almost every country on the planet, including many of the richest and most advanced nations, certainly the entire continent of Africa. But look a little closer, and rather than the cursory snapshot with which the East African contented itself, and a different, more interesting story emerges.
Social housing, universal healthcare and education, combating malnutrition, these are concepts foreign to Rwanda until the post 1994 RPF led government took office. It is the first time in Rwanda’s history that people can boast a government which understands that it exists only to serve them. And boast is the operative word. Many Rwandans, especially those in urban areas will tell you that making ends meet is a struggle, yet almost everyone of them will tell you of their satisfaction with their government, a rare phenomenon around the world, Africa especially. It is a wonder that this fact does not intrude in what most news outlets, including the East African write.
Rwandans experience what outsiders, especially outside media either fail, or disdain from seeing. That their country remains one of the poorest in the world, and it is testament to the extraordinary achievements attained, that it is sometimes all too easy to overlook that fact. This perception of greater resources than is actually available can be attributable to the government’s efficiency in stretching the little it has as far as possible, and to spread it equitably.
This is not to say the wealth gap is not a problem as it is anywhere else in the world, but unlike many other places, and certainly on the African continent, the increasing wealth gap is tempered, and may in the long run be narrowed by the Rwandan government’s approach of being “people centred”. It is an approach that has the wellbeing of every citizen as a first priority.
The Housing policy is a case in point. Within its limited resources, Rwanda has a policy to house those least able to house themselves. The challenges are great and varied. A majority population on low income, and virtually no savings, limited land, and an ever increasing population.
Yet, the government is making significant advances of meeting its aspiration of ensuring decent accommodation for every citizen. Several affordable homes have been built, and the programme continues as resources allow.
Historically, people lived where they could. Such housing policy as existed was a colonial arrangement, which prioritised the export of raw materials above and beyond people’s needs. Emphasis was put on settling people where they could be reached to carry goods to ports or airports. Little changed following an independence that was independent in name only.
Homes were built in swampy areas, on vertiginous sides of hills. No facilities, or services. The crude term “Bannyahe” does not mean upon where you can defecate, as the East African emotively, tendentiously attempts to translate, it means where do they defecate? It is a term the RPF found in existence, a call for help, to which the RPF led government is responding.
Ironically, this is often in opposition to people resistant to change or demanding more money for their properties than is available, the example in Nyarutarama quoted by the paper for instance.
For years now the government has directed people not to build on potentially dangerous sites, on, or near marshlands, slippery slopes. During the rainy season of 2018, more than 200 people lost their lives in landslides and floods. In a particularly tragic instance, an entire family of four perished, buried under a landslide. They had been under orders to relocate and were due to move the next day.
To avoid more such tragedies, the government decided that evacuations would be compulsory. It is about these that the East African, BBC Gahuzamuryango, and just about every Rwandan detractor got so excited.
There were perfectly legitimate questions to be asked of local authorities. They had after all had years to implement the policy, and for too many people, their removal seemed sudden. It is however also true to say that many people knowingly flouted the law, although many did so with knowledge of their directly elected local authorities.
Local government in Rwanda has been consciously decentralised, to give people greater control over how they are governed, down to how their taxes are spent. How the removals were organised will have been within local government jurisdiction.
There is an almost desperate effort among some journalists, and media networks to negate the true nature of the Rwandan government and paint an image of uncaring callousness.
“We either move them, or the natural disasters will move them” BBC Gahuzamiryango quoted President Kagame, the words selectively taken out of the President’s State of the Nation address, to make him seem unconcerned about the victims of these natural disasters.
The actual text couldn’t be more different. In fact, it’s night and day. The President specifically, and deliberately interrupted his state of the nation address, to respond to an issue he considers of particular importance. He directly challenged the local authorities who allow people to build in areas like marshlands, in direct contravention of building regulations.
Some people, he said, built where they should have and nevertheless fell victim to natural disasters. Others knew full well that they were building on land where it was illegal to build, precisely because the areas are susceptible to being engulfed by these natural disasters. These people then demand compensation, when the predicted disaster befalls them.
“But” he continued, “they are all Rwandans, they are our own, they are our responsibility. They are our people, our families. So how are we going to solve this issue, which has existed for so long…” Do BBC Gahuzamiryango and the East African aim to mislead, or are they simply misled?
Depending on whether they intend to mislead, or are themselves misled, the other headline from the East African either misses, or deliberately ignores a more interesting story, the better to paint Rwanda in the naughty corner.
Far from Rwanda being “at the centre of bad, broken and repaired relations”, the country has in fact shown great forbearance under extreme and constant provocation, from some of its neighbours.
Btu, again, never let the facts get in a way of a good headline, seems to have been the approach. And it transpires, somewhat oddly, that the journalist, for reasons best known to himself, chose to use a pseudonym for his by line.
To be fair the does at least give a nod to balance. But even here, the idea of balance is used to distort the reality. Since 2015 when Pierre Nkurunzinza chose to impose himself on his own country, through means that can only be described as bloody and foul, he has sought to use Rwanda to distract attention from the crimes he is committing against his own people.
Like all Banyarwanda and Barundi (natives of Rwanda and Burundi, respectively) extremists, Nkurunzinza has only ethnic division to bolster his position. His plan was and remains childishly transparent: project himself as the leader of Bahutu against Batutsi (Hutu and Tutsi, respectively), set against Rwanda that recognises no such divisions.
The ploy largely failed, because many of his rivals for power, themselves Bahutu, would not sign up to it. It has however not stopped him declaring Rwanda, “an enemy state.” Burundi has become a haven for the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), an armed group made up of the former genocidal Rwandan army and the murderous Interahamwe militia, and their affiliates.
Recently, these affiliates have included the so called P5, the armed wing of five parties, which include former Rwandan general Kayumba Nyamwasa’s Rwanda National Congress (RNC), and until her change of name, Victoire Ingabire’s FDU-Inkingi.
In response, Rwanda has drawn a line in the sand, warning Burundi not to cross the border, but beyond that, it has studiously ignored every provocation, even as it continues to receive Barundi refugees, fleeing their psychopathic head of state, and his Imbonerakuri militia, Burundi’s version of Interahamwe.
To talk about “both sides” in this instance as the East African does, is to perversely ignore the truth, in the name of balance.
Similarly, with what the East African coyly refers to as the “impasse” between Rwanda and Uganda. The root cause of the conflict between the two otherwise close neighbours, has been, to date, Uganda’s still inexplicable decision to give moral and material support to groups like Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC, who dream of overthrowing the RPF led government.
And it is at the RNC’s behest, that Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) continues to randomly round up Rwandans living in Uganda, illegally detaining them, torturing them, with some dying under these conditions. Two weeks ago, Pascaline Nyiramwiza a young woman became one of these victims, when her torturers cut off part of her arm. She is now recovering in hospital.
The East African draws a discreet veil over all of this, and like the Ugandan media diverts attention away from the real issue, to what they call the “border issue.” There is in fact no such thing as a border issue. In March of last year, Rwanda partially closed the main border post of Katuna for reconstruction, directing most traffic to other border openings.
What Rwanda has done, is advise its citizens not to travel to Uganda, for their own safety. And this too is being deliberately misinterpreted as Rwanda stopping free movement of people. What neither the East African, nor Ugandan media will say, is that unlike their Rwandan counterparts in Uganda, Ugandans continue to live and come and go as they please in Rwanda, safe and protected under the law.
And hasn’t the story of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) not been twisted long enough?
To give a simplistic outline of a story that deserves a book, in 1994, France which had backed the genocidal forces of then Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, gave its defeated proteges safe conduct into the DRC, then Zaire, under another of France’s African henchmen, Mobutu Sese seko Wa Zabanga. From there, fed by the International community, they regrouped and begun attacking Rwanda, in their words, “to finish off where we left off.”
Rwanda, asked, cajoled, and begged the International community to move the combatants away from Rwanda’s borders, to an internationally stipulated distance, for such armed groups. When their pleas consistently fell on deaf ears, they took matters in their own hands, and invaded the DRC, to secure their nation’s security. And so, begun a protracted conflict, which sucked in other neighbouring countries, including Uganda.
Rwanda consistently argued that its wish was for good neighbourly relations with the DRC, if only the country would stop being a base for groups like the FDLR, which posed a threat to Rwanda.
It should come as no surprise therefore that no sooner was a government willing to take Rwanda at its word was installed in the DRC, than relations between the two countries quickly improved. The East African seems mystified by it all, declaring that “whatever the reason behind these developments…” Well, the reason is that Rwanda now believes it has a partner, who genuinely wants to rid the DRC of all armed groups, which is why so many of them now head to Burundi, and Uganda.
Perhaps the East African might do better, if instead of depending on AFP and Reuters for stories in its own backyard, it properly engaged with Rwanda, and looked at the country critically, but from a well researched, well informed position. This is what the phrase “telling our own stories” so beloved of African journalists means.
It does not mean telling African stories through the prism of Western media, who are inevitably burdened by preconceptions of Africa that come with understanding Africa, through Western culture and perspectives.