The President and the Playwright

Adekeye Adebajo

The Guardian (Nigeria) and Business Day (South Africa), 21 August 2017

One of the most curious mutual admiration clubs of recent times has been that between recently re-elected president of the small land-locked Central African state of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and Nigerian Nobel literature laureate, Wole Soyinka. In his rich 2006 memoirs, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, Soyinka described Kagame as “seven foot plus, every inch exuding intelligence and discipline…a formidable force to encounter….one of the continent’s rare breed of leaders.” The Nobel laureate went on to note that “Kagame belongs to that uncommon leadership order beside whom one would willingly march into battle.” In 2012, Soyinka was a guest of honour at the celebrations of Rwanda’s “golden jubilee” as an independent nation, during which he praised the country as “a model of reconstruction [which] must be regarded as a model of how great human trauma can be transformed to commence true reconstruction of people”, before going on to note that “Rwanda has indicated that however thin the hope of a community can be, a hero always emerges.” A year later, Soyinka described Rwanda as a “paradigm for the continent” in a talk at Howard University in Washington D.C. Kagame returned the favour by delivering the keynote address at a launch of a book of essays honouring Soyinka’s 80th birthday in Accra in 2014, describing the Nobel laureate as “an unapologetic exponent of the universality of African values.”

Paul Kagame (right) greets Wole Soyinka at a book launch in Ghana.

Wole Soyinka has been one of the most consistently eloquent campaigners for human rights across Africa over the last six decades: he was detained for 27 months by General Yakubu Gowon’s administration during Nigeria’s civil war, an episode captured in his 1972 prison notes, The Man Died; he wrote a stinging rebuke of autocrats that alluded to Kwame Nkrumah’s repressive rule – Kongi’s Harvest – in 1965; and lampooned Uganda’s Idi Amin, Central African Republic’s “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa, and Equatorial Guinea’s Macias Nguema in the 1984 A Play Of Giants. Soyinka was also the most eloquent critic and a formidable activist who was forced to flee General Sani Abacha’s repressive military junta to go into exile in the United States (US) in 1994. He was subsequently sentenced to death in absentia three years later, and returned to Nigeria only after Abacha’s death in 1998. In his satirical 2002 play, King Baabu, the Nobel laureate portrayed Abacha as a bumbling, brainless, brutish buffoon and a semi-literate, greedily corrupt military general who exchanges his military attire for a monarchical robe and a gown. With this stellar fictional and activist background, it is hard to understand the mutual admiration between Soyinka and Kagame: one of Africa’s most repressive rulers.

To no one’s surprise, Paul Kagame was re-elected to a third presidential term this month with 98.6% of the vote. The election was scarcely free and fair, as genuine opposition was not allowed to compete against the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ruling party which uses not just political muscle, but control of key economic sectors, to maintain itself in power. Nine supposedly independent political parties had supported Kagame for president – reminiscent of the five parties that had backed Abacha in 1998, famously dismissed by veteran politician, Bola Ige, as “five fingers of a leprous hand”. The Green Party and an independent were the only opposition candidates in Rwanda’s recent polls, and even they complained of harassment of their members by government officials. In contrast to the vociferous Western condemnation of neighbouring Burundi’s Pierre Nkurinziza’s creatively interpreting the constitution to run for a third presidential term last year, the condoning of Kagame’s similar shenanigans by guilt-ridden Western donors resulted in a deafening silence in the Rwandan case.

Kagame had earlier been prevented from running for president again after two terms, but a “spontaneous” petition had resulted in a 2015 referendum in which an incredulous 98% of voters handed him another potential 17 years of power that could see him have five presidential terms and rule until 2034. Only 10 people voted against this constitutional amendment in a population of 11 million people! It is unlikely that Kagame – a member of the Tutsi minority – would win a genuinely free and fair election in Rwanda. After the country’s Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu, resigned in 2000 and subsequently formed a political party, he was arrested two years later and sentenced to 15 years in jail for “inciting ethnic violence”, thus ensuring that he could not contest the 2003 presidential election against Kagame.

In his defence, Kagame’s supporters rightly note that he and his army halted the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people, when powerful members of the international community had spectacularly abdicated their own responsibility: the United States (US) and Britain in particular, insisted on the withdrawal of the 2,500-strong United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force in Rwanda which could have stopped the genocide if strengthened, while France trained and armed the génocidaires. Kagame’s supporters further point to high economic growth rates of 8% in the last 17 years; falling poverty and socio-economic inequality; and increased gender equality (with 56% female parliamentarians). Rwanda’s per capita income increased from $150 in 1994 to the current $700, and poverty reportedly fell from 57% in 2006 to 40% in 2014. Kagame’s fans also note that the regime has tackled corruption; attracted foreign investment; created a national air-line; kept the streets clean (even banning the use of plastic bags!); established the country as a technology hub; and built infrastructure such as roads, a conference centre, and a new airport. It is not only Wole Soyinka who has been infatuated with Kagame. Former US president, Bill Clinton – who ironically did the most to prevent any international action during the 1994 Rwandan genocide – and former British premier, Tony Blair, have also praised Kagame’s “visionary leadership”, leaving one to wonder whether they apply different standards in measuring the achievements of African leaders.

Kagame’s apparent achievements must be closely scrutinised. He has consistently won presidential polls with over 90% of the vote (95% in 2003; 93% in 2010; and 98% in 2017) as if acting like a cheating student, awarding himself marks in an exam whose results have been predetermined. Such large presidential majorities are the preserve of dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. They are not how democratic leaders are elected. In response to claims that Kagame has kept the streets clean, Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, also famously made the trains run on time.

Rwanda is a highly militarised state in which soldiers are ubiquitous. Kagame clearly runs a police state in which dissent is brutally suppressed. Human rights organisations and civil society are stifled; opposition parties harassed; and the media muzzled. Even talking of Hutus and Tutsis is regarded as “divisionism,” as if such a complex phenomenon as ethnicity can simply be wished away with an autocrat’s magic wand. Though he often likes to portray himself as a media-savvy president, Kagame’s regime has clamped down harshly on media freedom. According to the BBC – whose Kinyarwanda service in Rwanda was blocked in 2014 – in the last two decades, an estimated eight journalists were killed or “disappeared”, 11 were convicted to lengthy jail terms, and 33 have been forced to flee the country into exile. Many journalists thus tend to self-censor (though there are some critical call-in radio programmes), and investigative journalists are frequently harassed. Last February, for example, the police seized the computers of two journalists of the East African newspaper.

Critics such as Belgian academic, Filip Reyntjens, have also questioned the fiddling of Rwandan government economic figures to make the regime look better. Part of Rwanda’s economic performance is further accounted for by the fact that this growth was from a low base, and fuelled by Western guilt at having passively watched a genocide and prevented international action to stop it. Half of Rwanda’s budget a decade ago was accounted for by foreign aid; it remains about a fifth today. Like many African countries, Rwanda has also experienced growth without transformative economic development. About 80% of its population still lives below the World Bank’s poverty line of $3.10 a day. In a fit of folie de grandeur, Rwanda is sometimes described as the “Singapore of Africa”. The comparisons between Kagame and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew are, however, pure fantasy: though Lee was autocratic, he was also a genuine Cambridge-trained intellectual who transformed his city-state into becoming one of the world’s most developed economies.

Paralleling domestic repression, Kagame’s regime has also been accused of sponsoring assassinations of its opponents abroad. His former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, was killed in a plush Sandton hotel in Johannesburg in 2014. Though Kigali officially denied involvement, Kagame noted shortly after the murder: “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it. Anyone, even those still alive, will reap the consequences.” This chilling warning seemed to equate betraying the country with betraying its leader: a common trait of fellow autocrats like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.

Aside from his repressive domestic role, Kagame has also played a destabilising regional role. Several UN reports have accused his soldiers – and those of Uganda – of looting the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) mineral resources, after Kigali and Kampala invaded the country twice from 1997, becoming embroiled in a conflict that has resulted in over 3 million deaths. An estimated 200,000 people – including, doubtless, innocent civilians – were killed when Kagame’s troops entered the eastern Congo in 1996/1997 in pursuit of former genocidal militias who were launching attacks into Rwanda. Kagame has also sought to “launder” his image by hosting the African Union (AU) summit in July 2016, and chairing a report to reform the continental body.

Wole Soyinka once described Nigeria – under the brutal regime of General Abacha – as enjoying the “peace of the graveyard”. Rwanda, under Kagame, now appears to be in a similar situation. Though one should acknowledge the progress that the country has made 23 years after a traumatic genocide, Kagame’s repressive rule could paradoxically make another genocide more and not less likely. By establishing a system that relies for its survival on a man suffering from a “messiah complex” rather than on the more solid foundations of stable institutions, the demise or elimination of that ruler could bring to the surface all the pent-up frustration, resentment, and anger of the suppressed Hutu majority. The seeds of the system’s destruction may, in fact, lie within it. Kagame once noted, that if he had not been able to groom a successor by 2017, “it means that I have not created capacity for a post-me Rwanda. I see this as a personal failure.” He is, of course, correct. The mistake that autocrats like Kagame often make is to assume their own personal immortality.

The big puzzle, however, remains why Soyinka, an activist Nobel literature laureate – who famously noted that “the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny” – and who has spent a six-decade career championing human rights across Africa, can not see through the myth of a developmental dictator, and condemn this repressive system unequivocally. What explains this curious relationship between the president and the playwright?