Life Under Rwanda’s Terrifying Dictatorship

An interview with Anjan Sundaram, author of ‘Bad news: Last journalists in a dictatorship’
Image result for rwanda under kagame

By Zahra Moloo

Journalist Anjan Sundaram’s book on Rwanda exposes a terrifying dictatorship at the heart of Africa that few people get to hear about. Paul Kagame has tremendously succeeded – with the eager help of his western backers – to feed the world a carefully choreographed false narrative. His chilling tyranny is all- pervasive and deeply entrenched throughout Rwandan society.

Zahra Moloo: What took you to Rwanda and what inspired you to write this book?

Anjan Sundaram: I went to Rwanda in 2009 to write my first book about Congo and really I was looking for a quiet place. I thought the country was peaceful, even a little boring, a great place to write a book. I began to teach local journalists as a way to make some money and also engage with local society, but very quickly, I learnt that the local journalists I was working with were living and working in a climate of great repression. One of them had been beaten into a coma, after bringing up the harassment of the press in front of President Kagame of Rwanda. Another young woman had been in prison for many years and physically and psychologically abused, she was sick with HIV. These stories alerted me to the climate of repression that largely goes untold about Rwanda.

Zahra Moloo: Can you tell me more about the journalists you worked with in the program? One of your students, Gibson, started a magazine, and the stories that they were covering were very innocuous stories, about malnutrition, things that seem pretty normal on the surface. What was it, or why is it, so difficult to write about these kinds of issues?

Anjan Sundaram: The Rwandan government is extremely sensitive to any kind of criticism. It’s almost impossible to practice journalism in a normal way. I was shocked when I arrived and when I asked my students “Could you question the national budget?” and they said, “No way. Our lives and physical safety would be endangered were we to question government decisions, even basic government decisions.” Gibson was one of my most talented students, one of the students I became closest to. He was a student of philosophy, a remarkably intelligent man. What he tried to do was not to address the problem of malnutrition in Rwanda directly, because that would have been too dangerous. He began to write articles that inform mothers and parents how they might feed their children without explicitly saying that there was a problem of malnutrition.

Officially, hunger had been abolished in Rwanda. Agricultural productivity had increased several times and there was no problem of hunger. Even today, a month ago, there was a report of a hundred thousand people being affected by famine in Rwanda, and this famine is generalized in all of East Africa. There was a single report and we’ve heard nothing since. Same thing happened in 2007: there were reports of famine in South East Rwanda and North East Burundi. In North East Burundi, aid organizations came in hordes, feeding people, protecting people, saving people. In Rwanda officially there was no famine. We don’t know how many people died, whether they were saved or what was done to help them.

This is the situation in Rwanda. Any news that is seen as criticizing the government, that could be anything, the government takes very personally and sees it as criticism of its governance style.  For that reason, journalists remain silent, huge problems in society go untold and therefore unaddressed. I write in my book that a society that can’t speak is like a body that can’t feel pain.

Zahra Moloo: Going through the book, you really get into the lives of some of your students. Can you give a few examples of what happened to them over the course of your time teaching?

Anjan Sundaram: Among the twelve journalists I taught, none of them are practicing today. One of my colleagues was shot dead on the day he criticized Paul Kagame. Two others fled the country fearing for their lives. Others abandoned journalism or joined the presidential propaganda team. I’ve documented in my book over 60 journalists who over the last 20 years have fled the country, fearing for their lives, disappeared, been imprisoned, tortured, arrested or killed after criticizing the Rwandan government. That’s one journalist every four months. This intimidation and repression of the free press in Rwanda has gone largely untold in Rwanda and in the international press.

Zahra Moloo: And why do you think that is – why is it that this narrative persists, that Rwanda is a ‘successful’ country, that it’s very successful economically, that it knows how to carry out development activities? Why is there this silence?

Anjan Sundaram: The Rwandan government’s propaganda has been really powerful and it’s been amplified by the destruction of the local press. The international press relies heavily on local journalists for the news that we read. Any foreign correspondent worth his or her salt will tell you that the reporting is only as good as the local journalists they are working with. In Rwanda these local journalists are silent and this means that the foreign correspondents who come into Rwanda don’t have credible information. I remember I met a Russian UN worker in Rwanda, a few days after he arrived in the country and I asked him, ‘What do you think of Rwanda?’ and he laughed and said, ‘It’s just like the Soviet Union. I opened the newspaper this morning and there’s only good news.’

So many journalists who come into Rwanda and have not lived in a dictatorship might see these positive stories, all this good news and believe that it’s true. But people who’ve lived in a dictatorship know that one needs to listen differently to people in a dictatorship when they cannot speak freely. They see only good news; they see it as a sign that something is wrong here. So it takes a different way of listening. The Western press, I would say, is inadequately prepared to report on dictatorships in which the local press has been silenced in quite a sophisticated fashion.

Zahra Moloo: Can you talk about how you felt living there – you said when you arrived you found it was quite boring; you talk in your book about how there was an explosion and you arrived at the scene and there were authorities trying to cover up what happened and said, “Nothing is happening here.” Can you talk about how it felt to be living in a dictatorship like this?

The predominant sense one gets living in a dictatorship is of betrayal.
Everything betrays you.
Everyone you know can betray you.
Friends betray you.
Your very senses betray you.

Anjan Sundaram: The predominant sense one gets living in a dictatorship is of betrayal. Everything betrays you. Everyone you know can betray you. Friends betray you. Your very senses betray you. What you see as peace you realize is a silence that is created by fear. And so all your first impressions at some point are betrayed and it creates a feeling of terror when you can’t trust anything or anyone and that’s really the sense that I try to portray in the book. I experienced this a little bit growing up and I know other people in Rwanda who, having grown up in repressive societies, also felt the same.

But for the majority, it’s possible to live a really nice life in Kigali if you don’t want to confront the repression that is happening in society. This I think is the real achievement of the modern dictatorship where you don’t have spies following you in the street in trench coats, the phone doesn’t crackle when you’re speaking. Government officials wear Western suits and say, ‘We’re open for business.’ They’re very suave; they’ve been educated in the best western universities. They speak the language of the West.

I was exposed to the society Rwandans lived in because I was working with local journalists who were telling me, for example, when the government abused its citizens, when people disappeared, when people were found dead, when, for example, thousands of Rwandans made themselves homeless and destroyed their homes under government orders. I lived a double life in Rwanda where I was for the one part in this expat bubble and for another part seeing severe repression and fear on a daily basis.

What you see as peace you realize is a silence that is created by fear.

Zahra Moloo: What’s interesting about your book and what’s terrifying is that this dictatorship functions in such a way that people self-censor and self-police. I am wondering if you can talk about the system of surveillance in place in rural Rwanda – you talk about people destroying their own houses; you mentioned in your book how people can turn against their own families. Can you tell me more about how that seemed to work from your perspective?

Anjan Sundaram: The system that was used to execute the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 is still in place today. The country is controlled and monitored at a minute level. The entire country is divided into little villages, each village is about 150 families. Each village has a chief and an informer and orders pass from the centre to and from these villages very efficiently and you see the power of this system in benign things that happen. For example when the president bans plastic bags, plastic bags disappear overnight. That’s a good thing. When the president tells people to wear rubber slippers, they wear rubber slippers overnight. When he tells them to come out and vote, you see participation rates that are unheard of in other countries, 95% participation rates. And of course the president gets nearly 100% of the vote.

What this system means is that things that we consider private in the West are public matters in Rwanda – who comes to your house, when, who is staying there, who you are meeting, what are you saying to them. All of these things are public affairs and there’s very little privacy. I met, for example, a mother who was very proud of the fact that she had betrayed her son, who was a rebel, and had turned him over to the authorities. When I asked her about this, she showed no shame, no remorse. She said she had done a very good thing by betraying her child. I’ve lived and worked in other dictatorships and repressive states, and this is an extremely insidious and pervasive form of dictatorship where people know that their loyalty to the state has to come before anything else.

I might add that I once met a genocidaire, who was performing community labour as punishment or reparation for having organized and killed in the genocide. One of the things he said to me was that in Rwanda people don’t know where the state ends and where people begin. He said to me, “If we don’t know where we begin, and what our human rights are, then how can you understand that other people have rights that one needs to respect?”

I thought it was a very profound statement of the problem in Rwanda, the situation people face. Of course it doesn’t justify what happened in the genocide, but you begin to understand the kind of society people live in and why so many people complied when the order went out in 1994 to kill in the genocide.

Zahra Moloo: I wanted to ask you about the genocide. You talk about how the government does not want anyone to criticize its official narratives. What is the official narrative on the genocide and why is it so problematic to question that?

Anjan Sundaram: The government of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, its legitimacy, and his legitimacy to rule is based almost entirely on the narrative that he ended the genocide, he saved thousands or perhaps millions of Tutsi people from being killed and that his forces were the force of good in the face of incredibly deep evil. Kagame criticizes the West for not having intervened during the genocide, some of which is legitimate; the world should have intervened regardless of local political dynamics at that time.

But there are many facts that run counter to this official narrative. For example, Kagame himself requested UN peacekeepers not to be deployed in Rwanda during the genocide, which we know would have saved thousands or perhaps tens or hundreds  of thousands of lives, of Tutsi lives, and he did this because he felt that they would interfere with his military objective which was to take over the country.

During the genocide, there are credible reports of his forces conducting ethnically motivated massacres of tens of thousands of people. And subsequent to the genocide there is very credible evidence, and I’ve seen some of the mass graves myself, of his forces having killed tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in what the UN has called “possibly genocidal killings.” Qualified as “possibly genocidal” with the caveat that a court would have to make that determination. But they have seen similar tactics that were used against the Tutsi in the genocide in Rwanda used against Hutu communities by Kagame’s forces in Congo. These facts have been suppressed for a long time with the support of the international community because they felt that it would destabilize Kagame’s government after a very tumultuous genocide that could have led to the country being completely shattered.

What Kagame has seen is that he can get away with crimes on an enormous scale without questioning, without investigations, without even the smallest allegations and that has made him incredibly arrogant. Over time, over the last 15, 20 years, we’ve seen the repression not decrease but increase. Independent institutions in Rwanda are non-existent today, power is concentrated in one person, in Paul Kagame. What he’s done is retain and reinforce the system that was used to conduct the genocide. He says he’s doing good, but that system, as we saw in 1994, is extremely dangerous and extremely powerful and was used to conduct a genocide and there is no reason why it could not be used again.

Zahra Moloo: Despite everything that you’ve described, the government continues to receive a huge amount of aid from Western donors. How is this maintained and justified?

Anjan Sundaram: I think there are a few reasons. I think the world feels a lot of guilt for not having intervened in the genocide in 1994. They feel they can redeem themselves by supporting Kagame’s government and giving him allowances. Bill Clinton himself said that, “I am willing to make allowances for a government that has made as much progress as this one,” and Clinton was speaking with regard to the destruction of Rwanda’s press. And we’ve seen this time and time again from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair.

Another reason is that the international community, the Western world, has long relied on dictatorships to advance their own interests, whether it’s Gaddafi, or Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad. All these dictators received a lot of money and it’s very convenient for Western societies, they don’t need to deal with local parliament, with civic debate; they just need to deal with one person, the person in charge, and corrupt them or make deals with them and they can advance Western interests or their countries’ interests.

I think in Rwanda it goes another step where the international aid community has found that dictatorships can be quite useful to execute and implement their aid programs. Aid agencies come in, like DfiD and USAID, they come in with their aid plans and when the government approves them you have 95% compliance rates where the same plan in India or Bangladesh might have 30% compliance rates if they are lucky. So they come in with plans for people to wash their hands, or go and visit the hospital, and the Rwandan government essentially orders people to go and follow these rules and aid agencies have developed a perverse relationship with repression. They come back and say, “listen, we got 9 million people to wash their hands, we got two million people to go and see doctors before childbirth, 2 million women”. But they are not incentivized to tell you how they achieved those results.

Zahra Moloo: I believe your training program was funded by the EU – was there any response to your book?

Anjan Sundaram: All the international aid agencies know what I am describing. They are fully aware of the repression, so my book has made it more difficult for them to claim that ‘We’re helping a million people’ and therefore this aid is justified. In an emergency situation, I think the aid would be justified to save lives in an extreme situation, but what we have in Rwanda today is a situation where aid is being used to ostensibly develop the country. Under such circumstances, the international aid community is complicit in building and strengthening a repressive Rwandan government that uses those same mechanisms to repress people. For example, the international aid community finances security forces. These same forces are then used to torture, kidnap, disappear people who have criticized the Rwandan government. All the benefits that Western aid is providing to Rwandan people are benefits that the Rwandan people would lose were they to criticize the government.

Zahra Moloo: Can you talk more about this link between Rwanda and Israel?

Anjan Sundaram: Sure. It’s a link that until recently was very shadowy and not talked about a lot. More recently we’ve seen reports of Rwandan government officials visiting Israel and Israeli military units and vice versa. There’s a very deep relationship between Israel and Rwanda because what they see is a similarity between the holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. In fact, the narrative of the Rwandan genocide has been built on the template of the holocaust and on the template of a narrative where there was one side that was good and another side that was evil. Whereas, at least in the case of Rwanda, which I know well, that narrative is far more complex. Victims and people associated with victims went on to be complicit in massacres and ethnically motivated killings as well. So the narrative has been falsely constructed, but it is a powerful narrative and there is a close relationship between Israeli and Rwandan military services, and intelligence services.

More than one Rwandan military officer told me about how they’d been trained by Israeli military and even Congolese rebels in eastern Congo who were backed by Rwanda told me about how they had received Israeli military training. They showed me Israeli rifles that they had, Israeli guns. And told me very specific details about the training they received, survival training in the desert, knowledge of what plants to eat and how to survive in harsh and hostile environments, know-how in training that would be very difficult to come by in Central Africa. Even proxy rebels in Congo benefit from such training. But it hasn’t been widely publicized, this relationship between Israel and Rwanda, and for that reason, at least to my knowledge, the details are sparse and scattered.

Zahra Moloo: Your book is fascinating, but also very bleak. What possibility is there for people to have some sense of the future?

Anjan Sundaram: I think the situation in Rwanda is very grave. There is increasing likelihood that any transition of power will be accompanied by violence.  Since the 18th century, transition of power has always been accompanied by violence. We’ve seen dictatorships around the world, when there’s concentration of power and the destruction of independent institutions, that leads to violence later on, so Rwanda is in a very fragile and dangerous place today. That said, there are a number of very good people in Rwanda and outside Rwanda, good journalists, activists, politicians, all of these people can be harnessed and can be brought to the table to help rebuild Rwanda and help take it in a direction that would create a foundation for lasting peace.

The international community is a key player in any possible dialogue because they give nearly a billion dollars in aid to Rwanda every year. Were they to bring Rwandans who want to build democratic institutions to the table, force Kagame to dialogue with them, and force Kagame to re-build some of those institutions, there would be hope for Rwanda. All is not lost.

* The audio version of this interview was originally aired on Amandla: Interview with Anjan Sundaram