By Jennifer Fierberg
In a recent four day trip to Washington DC, meetings and interviews filled my schedule during the US African Leader Summit. Fifty heads of state from Africa descended upon DC to discuss topics of growth, infrastructure, food security, trade and various other political topics. President Obama made it clear that there would be no private meetings between himself and any of these dignitaries. President Obama did make the following statement in regards to the event: “I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world – partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.”
Numerous side events were held around DC to delve deeply into how the U.S. and Africa can forge stronger bonds in trade and business relationships with the US with the underlying goal of rivaling China’s foothold on the African continent.
However, along with this historic event came many protests and lobbying efforts in order to inform U.S. leaders that this forum is hosting many leaders who have committed horrific human rights violations and abuses in their own countries. Petitions circulated via the internet to stop certain leaders from being accommodated by the US government and paid for with US taxpayer monies. Further, many groups organized protests around DC in order to make their message louder and more visible to those attending the sessions.
One such African President that garners much negative attention no matter where he travels is President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. He makes numerous visits abroad for various reasons but at each event he is met by protesters. In Europe he draws the largest crowds and in one visit to London last year he was met with an angry crowd that pelted his motorcade with eggs and horse dung. In Toronto, Canada one of the cars in his motorcade was victim to a large rock being thrown through the window leaving a large hole that was quickly covered by his security services. These persistent groups are quite clever in finding out the Presidents patterns and protesting even at his hotel and all the stops he makes.
President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is intrinsically attached to President Kagame, faces the same situations when he travels abroad. President Kabila does not travel quite as often as President Kagame but protesters come out in mass to meet President Kabila in quite impressive ways. The Congolese in the U.S. are able to mobilize quite quickly and are able to gather large crowds in order to make their concerns heard. In an unfortunate turn of events during the summit a protester was beaten quite badly by one of President Kabila’s security officers that he suffered a concussion as well as lost teeth. The event was caught on camera and now there is an open investigation into this incident.
President Kagame was met with many online petitions and written materials to education President Obama about the litany of crimes committed since President Kagame seized power in 1994. There was also a protest at the White House organized by those opposed to President Kagame. This protest was held at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave directly in front of the White House. All permits and restrictions were followed including the fact that the protesters were not allowed to stop moving at any time or they would be arrested for not following the rules of the protest permit. Throughout the course of the day there were about 65 total protesters who marched from 10am to 2pm in the heat of day. This strongly committed group took only one rest in the shade for ten minutes before getting back up and continuing their purpose. Some members of Rwandan oppositional political groups were present including the Rwanda National Congress as well as the FDU. None of the high leaders were present. The passion and determination of this group was not deterred at any point and they marched, held signs, chanted and sang the entire four hours. This group came from around DC, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and Iowa. Their resolve was a powerful sight to behold. This group of people was focused on making sure the US government was aware that President Paul Kagame is war criminal and that he continues to commit human rights violations in Rwanda with the full support of the US government. This writer has nothing but the utmost respect for these amazing protesters.
Nevertheless, as I watched these intensely dedicated and brave Rwandans I could not help but wonder why are there not more people to help make this statement? Rwanda has approximately 25 opposition groups in exile who all stand against President Kagame and are vocal on social media as well as in the press but why can’t these 25 groups mobilize at least 100 followers each to attend such a protest? Or even 10 people per opposition group? This writer took to social media to ask Rwandans why they think Rwandans shy away from these protests and the answers were quite interesting. Some of the answers include:
“The problem with many Rwandans is their finances; there are so many Rwandans who cannot afford a plane ticket from Dallas, Phoenix, to DC or New York. For me personally I kind of keep a low profile because I don’t want my father to be bothered anymore.”
“Truth of the matter is opposition is really fractionalized…you will notice that some protests will have certain people while others have a different crowd. Organization and preparation is very compartmentalized between different people. It will be like that until opposition matures and becomes all inclusive.”
“The way Rwandan intelligence agents have been hunting down dissidents has gotten to a few people, so now they are reluctant to show their faces.”
“Kagame has a track record of killing opponents…and their relatives.”
“Costs, fears, disagreements/fragmentation, personality, question of effectiveness weighed against risk.”
“I would rather write to Obama, or any other than go march.”
“Simple. We are cowards. Cowardice is a trait wherein fear and excess self-concern override doing or saying what is right, good and of help to others or oneself in a time of need—it is the opposite of courage. As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge.”
“Rwanda has always been under some form of dictatorship. The population is always cowed – reduced to sheepishly following orders to kill people. Kanjogera regime in 1890s-1930, Kayibanda 1962-1973, Habyarimana’s 1973-1994, Kagame’s 1994-present – cowed population. Hardly any would dare question authority! It is our nature – authority is almost god in Rwanda. That’s us – that is Rwanda!”
“Rwanda faces a very strange and evil system you may not realize. I talked to Rwandans participated in manifestation their pictures taken by DMI, in return their families inside Rwanda are still paying the price. For the engaged people, politicians, and activist like me we are mature and we fear nothing. If you look at Col. Patrick Karegeya death this is terror system but I have a dream.”
“Families pay the price whether their relatives go to demonstration or not. 11 million Rwandans are in prison – whether their family members participate in demos or not. Using the excuse that their people back home will suffer is cowardice – people will suffer anyway!”
“There may not be many Rwandans committed to the cause as you seem to assume. A large number use false name, some play games.”
“50+ people showed up when 1,000 were expected? Even leaders of 30+ political groupings failed to pitch. And Rwanda president arrived in style with first daughter in toe?”
As you can see there are common themes as to why people do not show up to participate in such protests. As I have often thought, President Kagame has achieved one of the most powerful tactics of any dictator in history; he has created an environment where Rwandans do not trust each other. It is not ethnic, it is community wide and it has devastated the ability for political opposition groups to organize and to thrive.
Upon returning home from this event a young female Rwandan university student in Canada contacted me in order to discuss the event. This writer was in awe of her wisdom and observations of the Rwandan Opposition groups. Her first question of me was, “how many people came and how many women were present.” I have spoken to this young woman many times over social media and via skype during the last year and her insights never fail to intrigue me. This young woman is not politically active in any opposition group yet she also stands against President Kagame. She states her reason for not joining in any opposition group is because she “does not see herself represented in any way in any of the groups.” She asks me often where the women in these leadership roles are and where are the youth? I do not have answers for her. The Rwanda National Congress has posted pictures of a sizable youth movement in South Africa but in the pictures I do not see any young women. Also the Rwanda Dream Initiative, led by Faustin Twagirimungu, builds their platform on the youth of Rwanda being the key to future progress in the country but the actual “foot to fire” part of this movement has yet to surface in public ways besides social media. Neither she nor I believe this is an intentional act but it does beg the question “where are the young women?” This young woman is very smart and is knowledgeable on Rwanda even though she has maintained residence in North America most of her life. She would be a strong asset to any political organization but I fear she will remain on the sidelines until she feels her interests are being addressed.
President Kagame and the RPF are at their weakest point historically. Nations are withholding aid, his foreign backers are beginning to shy away from him and when he speaks publically he appears as a man who is at the end of his rope with only the hope of changing the constitution in order to remain in office in Rwanda. There is little doubt that he will not abide by his constitution and allow democracy to reign but he will change the constitution via his parliament, making it appear as though it is their idea, and run again in another “fixed” election in 2017 where he will again win by more than 90% of the vote.
The Rwandan opposition has to organize. These 25 groups have to set aside their desire for power and ego building statements and take public action that unites Rwandans worldwide. There is nothing politically that President Kagame has done that any strongly organized opposition group cannot undo, including the ability to assist Rwandans with trusting each other again. Until this is achieved President Kagame will always hold all the cards in the game of politics.