Monday, January 17, 2011

Heeding the Lessons of History in Rwanda: An Interview with Joseph Sebarenzi

Dr. Joseph Sebarenzi was the speaker of the Rwandan parliament from 1997 to 2000. As a young boy, he hid under a neighbor's bed during an outbreak of violence as machete-wielding Hutu men pursued his family. Years later, he, his wife, and their young son fled a Rwanda on the brink of genocide. After this tragedy, he learned that his parents, seven siblings, and countless other family members were among the 800,000 Tutsi brutally murdered. As head of the parliament, Sebarenzi's advocacy for democratic reforms placed him at odds with then-Vice President Paul Kagame, and he was forced to flee the country once again under threat of assassination. Today, he lives in the United States and serves on the faculty of the CONTACT school at the School for International Training. His memoir, God Sleeps in Rwanda (Atria Books, 2009), tells his story and sounds a call for forgiveness and reconciliation.

This year, President Paul Kagame has secured another seven-year term, claiming 93% of the vote. Yet it was an election marred by the exclusion of candidates from opposition parties, a crackdown on critical media outlets, and violence against dissidents. Kagame claims no involvement in the latter. Could you talk about this?

The elections were marred by a crackdown on opponents, assassinations, and arrests of journalists to make sure the true opposition does not participate in these elections. For those of us who are familiar with Rwanda, it's not a surprise. It's something we expected, although some of what took place in recent months was unexpected to us. What was unexpected was, for instance, the assassination of the vice president of the Green Party, Mr. Andre Kagwa Rwisereka. What was also not expected was Kagame’s choice of his competitors, known to be close friends of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front; the people who are part of the ruling class. And of course, the assassination attempt against the former General Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa, where he fled earlier this year. President Kagame is allegedly behind these violent acts. We did of course expect that these elections would be rigged, but none of us would have imagined the occurrence of these terrible violations. We knew well that Kagame was not ready to allow these elections to be free and fair, because - as you can read in my book - Kagame has many motivations to retain power as long as possible.

In your book, God Sleeps in Rwanda, you described how as speaker of the parliament, you challenged the autocratic nature of Kagame's government, and you ended up being exiled from the country as a result.

Yes, that's true. And it's from that perspective that I give my point of view on these elections. A democracy with fairness and transparency is what we needed in Rwanda. That is what we tried to do back then in the late 1990s or early 2000--to build strong institutions, to design a form of democracy that fit the socio-political realities of Rwanda in the post-genocide era. But instead of letting the country move toward strong institutions, Kagame stealthily built himself into a very strong man, an autocrat who basically would stay in power as long as possible, using semblance of elections to make the international community believe that he has a popular mandate.

How do you respond those who point out that Kagame has spearheaded Rwanda's economic development? He's created stability; he's created a large amount of female representation in government. What do you say to those arguments?

You know, I can't deny that, but you need to put those in context. For instance, the increased representation of women in state institutions is not something that was built over time. What it required was for Kagame to take that decision, and on the basis of that decision, everything followed. That's one. Second, having women as majority in parliament - and in the other branches of government - does not mean they have power to help ordinary women improve their situations. So what is the point of having many women in a parliament that is rubber stamp? Yes, we need to have a greater number of women in state institutions, but it’s meaningless if they don’t have power to impact policies. This is one example of the things Kagame does to mislead the international community.

With regard to the economy, I think that if you look closely at what is happening, you will find that at least 50 percent of Rwanda’s national budget is funded by foreign donors. Also, there are many international non-governmental organizations operating in Rwanda because of the genocide; this helps Rwanda’s economy. You also have Western countries that feel guilty for not preventing the genocide or stopping it, and that now show tremendous generosity to help the government build the economy, and so forth. So Kagame’s role in the economic achievements is overstated. These achievements do not reflect a replication of what heads of state in countries like Singapore or South Korea did in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It is different.

You've also argued that the lessons of history must be heeded before it's too late. What are these lessons?

One is that as long Rwanda does not have political compromise between Hutu and Tutsi regarding how power is shared, there will inevitably be a renewal of violence. Rwanda has a very complex situation where Hutu are an overwhelming majority and Tutsi are a small minority. For the last 50 years there has been a power struggle between the two "ethnic groups," despite the fact that they share a language, they share a culture, and live side by side. As long as Rwanda lacks a consensus democracy to defuse the violent competition for power between the two communities, there may be another cycle of violence. And Kagame is doing nothing resolve this issue. Rather, his rule has kept or reinforced the tensions unresolved and alive – albeit buried under the carpet. So that's one. Second is the issue of justice. Rwanda has achieved some sorts of justice with regard to the 1994 genocide. Some of the perpetrators were arrested and tried in Tanzania by a U.N. court, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; others were tried in Rwanda using domestic courts; and others were tried using traditional courts called the gacaca. But all those tried and convicted--and some have been forgiven--are the Hutu who committed the genocide. The problem is that virtually no justice has been done for the Hutu killed before, during, and after the genocide. As long as Rwanda’s authorities champion a one-sided justice, they are making possible another ethnic-based violence sooner or later. Without justice, victims may seek revenge; may pass on their grievances to future generations; and soon or later opportunistic politicians will misuse genuine grievances and stir up animosity in an effort to acquire or retain power. It is important to note that justice does not have to be retributive. Rwanda can explore a truth and reconciliation commission approach. There are many issues other issues, but those two are the most pressing ones.

I'd like to go back to the issue of ethnic tension that you mentioned. A couple of the opposition leaders, Ingabire and Ntaganda--both of whom were barred from participating in the election--have been charged with violating a law that prohibits "genocide ideology," or speech that promotes ethnic division. Do you feel that Kagame's policy of downplaying the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi is helping to move the country forward, or is it increasing the risk of future violence?

He's actually increasing the risk of future violence, because people like Bernard Ntaganda and Victoire Ingabire are not extremists at all and they definitely don’t advocate for genocide. They don't deny the genocide, contrary to what Kagame’s administration claims. They simply are victims of injustice. And such injustice toward them may be perceived by some Hutu as injustice against their community, which increases the likelihood of further violence in Rwanda. For now, it just creates frustration, anger, and resentment. I think Kagame is misusing the laws on genocide ideology. He's using them as political tools against opponents, including Tutsi opponents such Mushayidi, who is by the way a genocide survivor. These laws should be used to go after the people who truly deny the genocide, and people who advocate division between Hutu and Tutsi--not against innocent political opponents.

It seems like it would be sort of a fine line, though, to determine at what point somebody is actually advocating violence or genocide. How do you make that distinction?

You just need to look carefully at what people say; look carefully at what people write. And on that basis, you can determine whether or not someone is denying genocide or advocating division between Hutu and Tutsi. And I have not seen that so far from Ingabire or Ntaganda. These are some of the more moderate Hutu we have. I know we have Hutu extremists, and we have Tutsi extremists Tutsi. Any extremism is wrong and it should be eradicated through an impartial application of laws – and of course through extensive education in order to change peoples’ minds.

In your book and elsewhere, you've strongly advocated for the need for reconciliation. How do you envision this reconciliation taking place, and what components would it need to have in order to be effective?

In my book, I offer some details about reconciliation. I think that one component of reconciliation in a divided society like Rwanda is to have justice on both sides. Whoever is implicated in either genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, or any other human rights violation, should be held accountable, regardless of ethnicity. Impartial justice is essential in the process of reconciliation. I am however mindful of the fact that Rwanda has so many perpetrators in each community that punitive justice would simply jeopardize hope for reconciliation. As I mentioned earlier, we need to have a mix of prosecutions and a truth and reconciliation commission, where those who have the highest responsibility are punished, but others are encouraged to tell the truth. If they tell the truth and apologize, then we can encourage the community to forgive. The ultimate goal should be reconciliation and lasting peace. Another component is power sharing in Rwanda. I advocate for a consensus democracy, which means a democracy with all its attributes, but one that is suitable to the context of Rwanda: a history of interethnic violence, a small minority, an overwhelming majority, etc. We should find a compromise along the lines of what we have in the United States in which states are represented equally in the Senate, whereas in the House of Representatives, states are represented based on the size of the population. The other thing about reconciliation, which I mentioned in my book, is peace education. We need to educate young people from a very early age, and instill into them the ideas of love, forgiveness, and empathy; ideas of seeing themselves first as human beings, as God's creatures, before they see themselves as Hutu or Tutsi. If we do that--and of course we need to work on the economy, and we need the assistance of the international community--I am sure that Rwanda can firmly move toward reconciliation.

I'd like to switch gears a bit and ask you about the lessons that the international community can learn from what happened in Rwanda in 1994. In your book, you described the hate speech that filled the airwaves prior to the genocide, in which Tutsi were referred to as "cockroaches." In the U.S. one often hears dehumanizing rhetoric against immigrants, against Muslims, and against other groups, especially on talk radio. In one particularly striking example, the popular radio host Neal Boortz said, "Muslims don't eat during the day during Ramadan. They fast during the day and eat at night. Sort of like cockroaches." How concerned should we be about this kind of speech?

I cannot talk about specific rhetoric against specific groups, but suffice to say that any dehumanizing speech is dangerous. I hear some inappropriate speech in the U.S., and it makes me sad. But the good thing is that the U.S. has very strong institutions. There is a deep-rooted rule of law. If some of personal attacks or attacks against some groups happened in a country like Rwanda, you would see violence the next day. But those are the things people need to watch carefully. The international community should learn from what happened in Rwanda, because people don't wake up one day and take their machetes or their guns and go after their neighbors. It starts with words. It starts with what people write. So people should pay attention to all that, and prevent [violence] before it's too late. Anything can happen anywhere anytime if the seeds of violence are allowed to develop. And coming back to what happened in Rwanda, people should watch those early signs of violence, such as the pre-election violence, the suspension of independent newspapers, persistent exile of political figures, arrests without charges of military officers, etc. These are early signs of violence. When the international community stands by, it renders a disservice to peace in Rwanda and in the region. It’s imperative that the international community engage - without further delay- Rwanda’s authorities to ensure that democracy is build in consensus way, and lasting reconciliation is promoted.


Anonymous said...

This interview renews my hope for Rwanda. I can't wait to read his book. I wish more of our politicians (Rwandan or American) felt like this.

Chief said...

First, a bit of correction here: 800,000 brutally murdered were not tutsi only. In fact, the majority of this number were Hutus not Tutsi. RPF, in its own version of the story, has managed to narrow the 10 year long Rwandan conflict into 100 days and portrayed it self as a saviour. But if you look further, from 1990 to 2003, Kagame and his RPF are the main culpit of this tragedy.

Secondly, I totaly agree with Mr. Sebarenzi: "Joseph is among the very few Tutsi genocide survivors that insist that true reconciliation cannot be achieved solely by forgiving the Hutu perpetrators of 1994 genocide while keeping silence about the mass killings against the same Hutu community, which is also denied the opportunity to bury, mourn, and remember their loved ones who perished in the violence." (Why I like Joseph K. Sebarenzi"