By Andrew M. Mwenda
Who should lecture the other about how to exercise restraint in the face of severe security threats?
Last week, I was invited by Rwanda’s minister of foreign affairs, the pleasant Louise Mushikiwabo, to attend a public lecture by United States permanent representative to the United Nations, Susan Rice, at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. She gave a great speech, highlighting the tragedy of genocide Rwandans faced in 1994 and the courage and resilience with which they have reconstructed their lives, their public institutions, their economy and their international standing. Most of her speech – possibly 85 percent – was filled of praise of what Rwandans have achieved.
However, towards to the end of her speech, Ms Rice said that “friends should also speak frankly to friends” adding that “the political culture in Rwanda remains comparatively closed. Press restrictions persist. That civil society activists, journalists and political opponents of the government often fear to organise peacefully and speaking out. Some have been harassed. Some have been intimidated by late-night callers. Some have simply disappeared.” This part of the speech was out of sync with the first part where every achievement she mentioned was accompanied with real-life examples backed with facts and figures. Here, she made assertions without any effort to substantiate them.
First, I have a problem with western leaders when they come lecturing to their African counterparts on how to manage their countries as if our leaders are children. Indeed I had always wondered whether an African leader visiting the US would be allowed to speak like that to an American president until I had coffee with the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker in Washington DC.
Crocker told me of how he took Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to meet then President Ronald Reagan in the late 1980s. According to Crocker, Mugabe proceeded to lecture Reagan on the faults of American policy towards Nicaragua. The CIA was funding a terrorist organisation, The Contra rebels, to wreck havoc on the population in an effort to overthrow the Sandinista government. Mugabe told Reagan that policy was wrong for world peace. “It was the last time Mugabe met an American president,” Crocker told me, suggesting that Mugabe was discourteous. I told Crocker that most American and Western European diplomats do exactly that when dealing with African leaders. Mugabe may have learnt the behaviour from them. Croker looked a little unhinged at this unexpected rebut.
Rwanda has many problems – I can list a million without thinking. Yet as Ms Rice concluded her speech, I felt she was pandering to claims of international human rights organisations and a few dissidents without reference to facts or context. More importantly, the view by people in the West and their African-elite cheerleaders that our systems are primitive and theirs saintly is not only wrong but has also been the basis of many misdirected attempts to usurp our sovereignty – with disastrous results. Yet judged by US standards, Rwanda has demonstrated greater flexibility, tolerance, accommodation and understanding than America in the face of similar dangers.
On 9/11 2001, the US lost two and a half buildings, four planes and only 3,000 people in a country of 300m i.e. 0.001 percent of its population. In response to this, the US declared the “world had changed” and then proceeded to behave like a bull in a china shop. It imposed onerous rules and regulations on its own population and on all countries all over the world that make some of Stalin’s practices seem benign. It began wire-tapping everyone’s phone without court sanction, invaded and occupied two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) tens of thousands of miles away and is still there a decade later. It began bombing Pakistan and killing innocent civilians in what it calls collateral damage. It now carries out assassinations of alleged Al Qaeda leaders almost on a daily basis. It has imposed draconian rules in every airport around the world where people are finger-printed, photographed, X-rayed, undressed and indecently touched and humiliated.
The US also arrogated itself power to open everyone’s bank account anywhere in the world to its scrutiny. It officially began to run torture chambers at Abu Gren and Guantanamo Bay. It outsourced some of the torturing to its brutal allies in the Middle East, suspended many civil liberties at home and began jailing people, including US citizens, without trial. It bombed headquarters of media organisations that criticised its actions, jailed without trial and tortured journalists who reported such actions – all in the name of ensuring that not a single life is lost to terrorism again. The US has insisted that it cannot have any discussion with its enemies – it exports death to them.
In doing this, we must remember that America actually has strong institutional traditions, extraordinary intellectual resources, the best technology anyone can master, its defence budget is larger than the defence budgets of the rest of the world combined and its economy is the largest. These endowments should make America a more sober, calm, mature, confident and responsible player on the global scene as opposed to being paranoid. While some of its actions after 9/11 are justifiable in a free and democratic society, most are actually Stalinist and unjustifiable.
Yet in spite of all the above observations and criticisms regarding its response to 9/11, I still believe – by and large – in the greater moral good of America, the richness of its democratic process, the creativity of its institutional designs, the depth of its intellectual traditions and the profound goodness, generosity and humanity of its people. Indeed, I bring forth some of these criticism only to show that ensuring the security of a nation and its people is a very complex exercise that can make the actions of the most well intentioned state and leaders look draconian, unfair, brutal and unacceptable. Indeed, the first presidential order Barak Obama signed upon entering the Oval Office was to close Guantanamo Bay because he claimed George Bush was being wrong. His first term is nearing an end at this torture chamber is still running. Therefore Bush was not monster after all as Obama had tried to portray him. The issues must be more complex.
Let us now visit Rwanda, a poor country with very young, weak and fragile institutions, a poorly developed human resource base, limited technology, a poor economy amidst abject poverty of its people. Only 17 years ago, this country lost one million people (not 3,000) – almost 13 percent of the total population of the country (not 0.001 percent). Unlike America where the enemy was a foreigner from distant lands and could be controlled through border security, in Rwanda the enemy was the citizen where neighbour killed neighbour and a father killed his children and wife. It is a country where mass murder was organised by the state, mobilised by the mass media and executed by millions of ordinary citizens. And unlike America, Rwanda did not lose only four planes and two and a half buildings – it lost an entire country and 60 percent of its GDP.