By Andrew Mwenda
The common message against President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is that he is a ‘media predator.’ The Ugandan ‘democracy’ crowd claim I cannot host a show like Andrew Mwenda Live in Rwanda. Yet the threat to the show would not be Kagame perceived intolerance. The show would fail if it adopted the Ugandan format because of poor strategic positioning largely due to the fact that Rwanda’s political context is different.
Andrew Mwenda Live was a success because it was rooted in Uganda’s reality ‘ of widespread government corruption and incompetence in delivery of public goods and services taking place alongside a rapidly growing economy. I knew myriads of our people who suffer one million and one indignities when trying to access basic public services in medical care and education, and many other Ugandans who see the unresponsiveness of power to the concerns of ordinary people would form the bedrock of my listenership.
However, I also knew that all statistical and even anecdotal evidence showed there was economic growth. There is a broad elite consensus in Uganda in support of this view. The middle and upper classes are accumulating wealth. I focused the show on debating corruption and incompetence which were increasing as rapidly as the economy was growing. This meant that the vast majority of Ugandans were not sharing in this growing wealth of our nation.
Yet it was my relations with people in government who wanted to expose this rot rather than with the opposition that made my work successful. How could I have access to cabinet minutes or those of the army high command, or inside goings-on in State House while relying on the opposition who did not sit in these high councils of state? This experience taught me that the most important vehicles to promote accountability were always in positions of power but who were morally outraged by corruption.
Andrew Mwenda Live format cannot work in Rwanda because of a different context. Here is an extremely poor African country whose government is able to ensure effective and efficient delivery of public goods and services i.e. provide healthcare even middle and upper income countries cannot, offer scholarships to ordinary citizens without political connections and a president who routinely orders the jailing of corrupt officials. To host a show condemning government for corruption and incompetence would be ridiculous. You could win over a lunatic fringe, but not a broad listenership.
During the last elections in Rwanda, I began a live radio talk-show in Kigali titled ‘Rwanda Decides’ every evening. On the last day of the show, I invited Kagame as guest. I brought out all the accusations against him by his critics and threw them at him with a candidness that even Andrew Mwenda Live at its best would never have done to Yoweri Museveni ‘ the tolerant and liberal president of Uganda. Kagame calmly defended himself and explained every detail of the accusations against him.
The show was being syndicated on every radio station in Rwanda and streamed live on the net. People called in ‘ 90 percent to support Kagame, 10 percent to attack me for ‘interrogating’ their president as if he was in a court of law. One listener said of me: ‘No wonder you always get yourself jailed in Uganda.’ Whoever wants a copy of the live radio show should come with their personal writable CDs at my office. The ‘timid’ Rwandan media have been playing the show repeatedly in Kigali; government owned television has been broadcasting it.
Kagame critics therefore face a serious problem. If he is against free speech, why did he allow this show where he was accused of all sorts of evil things to be live in Rwanda and to subject himself to that questioning? If God exists in heaven, he knows I am telling the truths that Kagame had no prior idea of the questions I was going to ask. I simply told him I want him to answer concerns raised against him by critics. His press office asked me for specific questions and I refused. Yet he freely turned up ‘ and before time; he arrived at 6.40pm for a show scheduled for 7pm.
Recently, Kagame’s former ‘closest allies’, Kayumba Nyamwasa, Theogene Rudasingwa, Gerald Gahima and Patrick Karegyeya wrote a long document attacking the president personally; accusing him of suffocating free speech and being corrupt. I consider Karegyeya and Rudasingwa to be my friends. So I sent them each a message promising to summarise their accusations against Kagame and publish them in The Independent.
I informed them that I am beginning a live radio show in Rwanda to promote public debate and invited them to make their case to the Rwandan people. For purposes of fairness and balance, I told them I would invite officials of RPF to debate them. If they feel strongly about their allegations, the best place is not BBC, VOA and Daily Monitor but on Rwandan local radio airwaves.
Now, you would expect that Rwandan radio stations would be terrified of hosting such people. I called my friends Albert who owns Contact FM and Kelvin of City FM. Both got excited and were calling me every day to ask when I can pull it off. None waited for state house to approve. When I met Kagame, I told him of my plans ‘ just to see his attitude. He welcomed the idea with great enthusiasm but told me that none of the four would dare accept an open debate of their allegations against him on Rwandan radio featuring RPF officials. He said he was willing to bet on it. He was right because neither Karegyeya nor Rudasingwa had accepted my offer.
What kind of tyrant is this that allows a foreign journalist to host a show in his country and ask him all sorts of tough questions and he sits there patiently answering them? What media predator is this that allows his most formidable critics to appear on a live radio show in the country, including his former chief of intelligence services who is accusing him of murdering opponents? Which timid radio stations are these that accept to host Kagame’s enemies as soon as I proposed it?