For many, the word “Rwanda” still inflames so many emotions: some that stir the soul and others that shatter it. Positioned in the heart of Africa, it is a nation that has lately kindled global approbation for its phoenix-like re-emergence from the annihilating ashes of its antiquity. A country of hope, girded by the memory of mistakes and unified behind a charismatic–if controversial–leader, Paul Kagame.
Late last Sunday, however, the Unified Democratic Forces (FDU) and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) held a joint meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa. The question on their minds: whether President Kagame should be pursuing the dissolution of presidential term limits.
Which is, in fact, what he’s doing.
But the real question prompted by this news … Why was it held in South Africa?
Couldn’t these dissenters of opinion hold such a congress within the borders of the country in question itself?
What’s really happening in Rwanda right now?
“The meeting condemns in the strongest terms possible the current manoeuvres by President Paul Kagame to amend the constitution allowing him to stand for a third term,” a closing statement from the parties reads. “The meeting calls upon all Rwandans, all neighbouring countries and the international community to roundly condemn the efforts by President Kagame to endlessly perpetuate himself in power in Rwanda.”
In power since 1997, Kagame has been heralded by some “Rwanda’s savior,” disparaged by others as a political “strong man” who crushes his opposition under the banner of the nation’s genocidal wounds. He divides as much as he unifies: alternately polarizing the people when he imprisoned his opponent Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza through what some called a “sham trial” that branded her a “Hutu sympathizer” and “genocide denier,” but then campaigning again for their hearts with his monthly acts of community service.
Incontrovertibly, Rwanda’s list of achievements in the wake of his election remain worthy of boasting.
Trumpeted as “the safest place to live in Africa,” a Gallup poll just this past year placed Rwanda at the very top of its list, with 92 percent of its people reporting they felt safe in their surroundings, followed by Niger at 84 percent. This accomplishment was nigh miraculous, after the drastic reductions in Rwanda’s murder and rape rate that were reported between 2008 and 2010.
Called a “revolutionary” achievement, women compose 56 percent of the country’s parliamentarians, including the speaker. Furthermore, by law, women must hold 30 percent of the seats in government, including local government.
Two years ago, in what has been labeled “a world first for a developing country,” Rwanda made it a national priority to revitalize its environment. It even went so far as to ban plastic bags, with glowing results in the nation’s capital Kigali.
Even here, though, could there be an ulterior motive, meant to limit Hutus? A study by the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation suggests yes.
“At a glance, this seems to be a positive environmental policy,” the study reads. “However, the true intent of the law is more sinister. Another law simultaneously enacted prohibited bare feet in the city. Poor [primarily Hutu] Rwandans do not typically own shoes, and other countries’ poor citizens have gotten around the ‘no shoes’ law by wearing plastic bags over their feet. Since plastic bags are now outlawed, this is no longer an option for Rwanda’s poor, and they are effectively banned from the city.”
So on the subject of his third-term pursuit, one commenter tellingly remarked, “I like Kagame. Africa needs more of his type. However, he also needs to initiate a succession plan so that he [doesn't] end up becoming a Museveni.”
In other words, Yuweri Museveni, who has been president of Uganda since 1986. His presidency, too, launched to the adulation of many, only to become blemished by the bloodshed that was the Second Congo War as his term progressed.
The Museveni comparison was echoed by others.
“Going by the nyayo [footsteps] of his political father, Museveni,” opined a reader named Vahid Olero. “What would you have expected?”
Another resident called it the “curse of Africa’s strong men.”
“People who do good and before long have power seep into their heads and clones convince them the country would go to flames without them,” the reader remarked. “True leaders do their part and leave strong institutions to outlast them. Come on Kagame you have done Rwanda and Africa proud, don’t seek [a] 3rd term.”
Three years ago in March marked the beginning of an outpour of claims from Rwanda concerning human rights violations at the hands of its military intelligence, according to Amnesty International: reports of enforced disappearances, torture and grenade attacks, which were launched under the banner of “investigations into national security” as the August elections approached.
But as one Rwandan pointed out to me on Twitter, my own home country of America does not score well with A.I. on the subject of Guantanamo Bay.
Still, if everyone walked around avoiding the topic of pointing out specks because of their own planks–we’d have an epidemic of blurred vision, no?
“If Rwanda is making the progress it is said to be making, then a part of [it] would understand … the rule of law should never be compromised,” another commenter observes. “[If Kagame] is a true statesman [he] should be grooming a successor and if he is as good as he says or believes he is, then the Rwandese won’t mind electing the party.”
These remarks reverberate the meaning of eerie but oft-quoted line from The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Will Kagame remain Rwanda’s redeemer, or be its ruin?
That question creates another crossroads for the international community: whether this time it truly is a sovereign nation’s business and none of ours, or if we are indeed turning a blind eye, yet again, toward “Africa’s heart.”