Writing about Rwanda: President Kagame’s fellow travellers

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Writing about Rwanda can sometimes seem like walking through a minefield. At first you think you’re facing a barrage of controversies, which, among researchers, is nothing new. Then you quickly realise it’s not that at all, but a storm of denunciation and intimidation.

One example is the September 2017 op-ed piece published in Le Monde by a group of historians and activists critical of a booklet on Rwanda in the well-known informational series “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”), written by Filip Reyntjens. The op-ed claims the book says what it doesn’t and misconstrues what it actually does say.

How do the authors go about this? The op-ed makes use of arguments accusing certain writers of revisionism that have been regularly appearing in the press since 1994. These arguments have appeared in the media in France (Le Monde, Libération and AFP), the United Kingdom (The Guardian) and the United States (New York Times, Washington Post, Voice of America and the Associated Press). They have also appeared in articles written by the Kigali-based RNA (Rwanda News Agency).

Accusations of revisionism

One of the methods used for challenging authors writing about Rwanda is to delegitimise them. Accusing them of revisionism is the most commonly used method – most likely because it is viewed as the most effective. This method has a few different versions. At the head of the list are those who deny the reality of the genocide against the Tutsis, a justified accusation that we wholeheartedly share.

But it has become increasingly common to pin the revisionist label on authors who also bring up the mass crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), especially from 1993-1997. Authors who challenge the official narrative of the genocide and the post-genocide situation are also forcefully denounced. This narrative is promoted to the Rwandan public and suffers no criticism within the country or sometimes outside it as well. Rwandans who criticise this version of events are accused of being “divisive” and are subject to imprisonment, while non-Rwandan critics are suspected of revisionism, as evidenced by the op-ed on Reyntjens’s book that appeared in Le Monde.

Another form of attack, which is more distinguished than the previous one, accuses authors of distorting the moral meaning of the historical record. According to the accusers, this consists of trivializing the genocide of the Tutsis and putting it into perspective by introducing analytical factors they consider unacceptable – for example, any mention of the risks taken by the RPF and its leader when launching the 1990 military offensive, including risks to the Tutsis living in Rwanda. Here the rule is that authors should not introduce any matters unrelated to personal accounts of the genocide as told mainly by witnesses, escapees interviewed in Rwanda. It is, for example, permissible to show that the RPF was able to stop the genocide as it advanced through Rwanda, but any reference to the RPF’s criminal actions should be struck from any legitimate narrative; by doing so, the authors would be committing a form of symbolic cruelty towards the surviving Tutsis.

Yet another version casts doubt on Rwandan reconciliation after July 1994, reconciliation being an official position that all “friends of Rwanda” must share even though it is not grounded in any rigorous empirical studies or unstructured interviews.

Lastly, a French version introduces a special type of accusation against revisionism, stigmatising anyone who does not acknowledge French military and political officials’ direct support as the genocide unfolded. The trial-without-investigation launched against Filip Reyntjens by the op-ed in Le Monde is one example of this type of accusation. We want to be clear that we’re not trying to deflect attention from France’s responsibilities towards Rwanda from 1990-1994 (at the very least), i.e. before, during and after the genocide of the Tutsis.

Competitive orthodoxy

We have only presented a partial list, which is thus open to criticism. What can be said of this list? The authors of these intimidating critiques are mainly the “Intellectuals (les "clercs” in the French version, a term borrowed from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu), which in this case include journalists, professors, researchers and lawyers. Most of them have strong credibility in their professional field, which gives them the legitimacy to act in the public arena, as evidenced by the mainstream media’s interest in their comments.

Some of these intellectuals bring to mind the fellow travellers of the Soviet Union and Maoist China from previous eras. We see an analogy with the intellectuals one-upping each other’s orthodox views: these strictest of fellow travellers deny the systematic violence committed by the current Rwandan government against opponents even as they are executed or imprisoned. They also deny the strict controls imposed on the population, claiming they don’t “notice” it.

In this respect, the French print press differs significantly from the English-language press (United Kingdom and United States), which regularly discusses and condemns the human-rights violations currently being committed in Rwanda and the dictatorship governing the country.

In addition, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch periodically publish investigations into these violations and the dictatorship’s practices. For example, Jason Burke, a Guardian reporter in Kigali, wrote “A Darker Side to Rwanda’s Recent History” in early August 2017. An 11 August 2017 editorial in the New York Times, “Democracy Is Rwanda’s Losing Candidate”, describes the situation in a similar way. Based on a report published by Human Rights Watch, the editorial also recognises the government’s successes, particularly in the area of public health.

These types of accusations are discounted by proponents of the orthodox stance supportive of Rwanda’s president and his policies. We could cite a large number of op-ed pieces and comments demanding this type of orthodoxy over many years. We won’t include a list of their authors.

‘Sociology is a combat sport’, Pierre Bourdieu (2002).

Echoes of the Kravchenko affair

Because such matters almost inevitably lead to engaging in a “combat sport”, as Bourdieu would say, let’s not forget that during the Kravchenko libel trial in 1949, Communist lawyers and media denied the crimes committed by the Stalin regime while hurling insults at their opponents. We’re not bringing up this trial to compare Rwandan prisons with the gulag, which would not be true. Instead, we’re mentioning it to recall a Communist argument analogous to the one used in Rwanda’s case, which dismisses a complex history rigorously based on the historical and political context – including the dark side of the actions carried out by the leaders of the current Kigali regime since the early 1990s. In our opinion, recalling the history of the anti-Kravchenko argument draws attention to the consistent tendencies of certain intellectual factions to unconditionally back political regimes which others, supported by evidence, characterise as criminals.

For fellow travellers, there was no gulag in the Soviet Union. Similarly, for supporters of the Kigali regime, the murders and arrests of opponents and the strict controls over the Rwandan population simply do not exist.

Translation from the original French by Crash, Médecins Sans Frontières.

This article was originally published in French