How to be a ‘Paul Kagame critic’ and stay out of jail.

I wished to write this story because I felt that there was an old misunderstanding that needed clarifying. Stories are half-told, journalists pressed to stick to editorial lines, foreign politicians succumb to pressure and priorities of local Rwandans typically unreconciled with those of international newsmakers.

Who is a Kagame critic and how do they practice criticism?

Criticising a sitting president is not a crime. Once he petitions our vote, we have the right to hold him accountable and criticise his policies. Rwandans do it all the time; in bars, in homes and most notably on twitter and other social media. I run a chat-group dedicated at ‘critiquing’ Rwandan policies…

But Kagame critics do not kill people. They do not orchestrate bombings in the city of Kigali, publically throw their weight behind terrorist groups and call for armed struggles against a legitimate government. Kagame critics do not deny the genocide against the Tutsi and when they criticise him, they shouldn’t do on his ethnic affiliations, his physical appearance or attack other people related to him, because that constitutes ethnic stigma, which is known in Rwanda as ‘genocide ideology’ and possibly the biggest crime that one can commit in a post-genocide society.

Foreigners say Rwandans are afraid to speak. But that assertion lacks modesty. The truth is Rwandans speak all the time – among themselves, that is. Just because someone is not talking to you, doesn’t mean they do not talk, they just do not see how talking to a foreigner about their own problems will help solve them. This is a bit like saying a girl who does not want to go out with you does not like men; she does, she just doesn’t like you…

There is more to it; during the genocide against the Tutsi, Rwandans turned to the international community to help them. Nothing came of it, and a million people were slaughtered as a result. It is therefore understandable that Rwandans rely on themselves ever since.

International media uses the term ‘Kagame critic’ loosely. Indeed it would be a terrible misnomer to refer to Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah as a ‘Netanyahu critic’, to Bin-Laden as a ‘George Bush critic’ or to Joseph Kony as a ‘Museveni critic’. It is true that these men criticise their respective enemies, but that is not all they do. When you speak to inmates, everyone in Rwandan prisons is apparently an innocent Kagame critic. But that’s not why they are there, they simply became critics of a system that did not let them get away with their crimes…

However, not all ‘Kagame critics’ who got into trouble did because they broke the law, killed people or denied the genocide. But those who didn’t, including Diane Rwigara and her family were detained, tried, then acquitted by courts of law. They remain vocal critics to date, they do not hide their dislike of the president and his political party. But they now do so, within the ambits of the law.

Just like anywhere else, the Rwandan system is not perfect, as a resident, I know. There may be individuals who are detained unjustly and as a lawyer I operate on the assumption that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. For those who aren’t guilty, I have seen that sooner or later the system rehabilitates them.

Political discrepancy.

After the Genocide against the Tutsi, the RPF-led government made a political choice to ban ethnic profiling from political and social life. They did that legally, in a Constitution. One should be able to openly disagree with that policy, petition parliament and courts of law to strike it down, speak openly about its shortcomings or negative effects. However one cannot act as though the policy doesn’t exist or out-rightly violate it. We do not only respect laws that we like, we respect all laws.

Secondly, Rwanda maybe a small African country, but it has a constitution. And as a sovereignist state, the Rwandan Constitution has primacy over international law, this is true for most countries in the world, including the US, France, UK, China and Russia: the five UN Security Council members. I read international law in school and I may not like the way this hierarchy of norms is structured here, but I live in Rwanda, and I cannot base on America’s first amendment to practice my ‘freedom of conscience’ in Rwanda.

In the nineties, Neo-Nazis went through the streets of New York holding signs saying Hitler was right to kill Jews. When Jews sued them, the American Supreme Court ruled that these people were merely expressing their opinion, as protected by the First Amendment. Now try that in the streets of Tel-Aviv…

Finally: There is a reason university professors aren’t famous, nobody reads their work. It is not exciting to read long essays contextualising policies and ending with reasoned recommendations. Life is hard and everyone goes through their fair share of daily frustrations. Populists know how to exploit people’s basic instincts and bring out their angers and frustrations. It is much easier to direct that anger to ‘others’: we saw it with Donald Trump, Brexit, the Le Pens, etc.. That ‘others are the problem’ speech is what is prohibited in Rwanda and frequently lands ‘Kagame critics’ in jail.

So I urge all those who defend ‘Kagame critics’ to continue doing so, but look a bit further than the media soundbites and fictional tales.