Rwanda: the ambiguity of leadership…

Observations and thoughts about Rwanda from a person with no direct knowledge of the country or its people...just a true interest and curiosity (second post in a two-part series)

Paul Kagame and the RPF did what the international community was unable or unwilling to do…end the 1994 genocide.  In addition, the UN failed to answer Rwanda’s call for help in closing and dispersing the refugee camps in east DRC that were housing escaped genocidaires.  Hence, Kagame and the RPF harbor resentment towards and distrust of the international community and the UN, as evidenced by their response to the leaked report.  This resentment and distrust is understandable…but should past failings of the UN and the international community preclude them from attempting to uncover the truth now…to expose atrocities and crimes committed by all sides?  That is the fundamental question.  In essence, the inherent ambiguities of justice are rearing their ugly heads once again.  

Does the fact that the RPF stopped a genocide and has since stabilized a county absolve it of any responsibility for its own misdeeds?  Does the fact that its own atrocities may be less in number (yet similarly heinous) than those committed by the previous regime make them less important?  Should we pick and choose which brutalities we investigate and condemn based on the achievements of the leader in charge or out of fear of disrupting a fragile peace?

I believe the answer to these questions is…probably no.  However, there are decent counterarguments for each question…which play off the inherent complexities of a fractured, post-genocide society, which call into question the very concept of justice.

Many very informed people have questioned the wisdom of the UN report…including the aforementioned Philip Gourevitch.  However, there are several bloggers that disagree (see texasinafrica and congosiasa). 

Despite the arguments to the contrary, it would seem that a full accounting of the truth, one that treats equally the atrocities committed by all sides, is the only path to long-term peace and reconciliation.  Any other strategy, be it strong-armed suppression of the facts or blind absolution of crimes due to the perpetrators’ stature or accomplishments, is merely a stop gap…one that seems destined to further foment hostility and the feelings of victimization and places the Rwandan government in an even more precarious position.

Which brings me to my main point about the ambiguity of leadership.  Leaders (presidents, generals, etc.) are rarely, if ever, all good or all bad.  This should be obvious…as leaders are fallible humans.  Their motives derive from varying sources and their actions and inactions affect different parts of the population in different ways, both positive and negative.  This ambiguity of leadership is a particularly important consideration in states undergoing transition, where the whims and powers of the leader or small group of leaders are often unfettered by institutional structure and past tradition.  Paul Kagame and his RPF government in Rwanda seem to be prime examples.

There is no doubt that Kagame and the RPF have had many successes since 1994.  Rwanda, within its borders, has become a very peaceful and orderly country.  As the NY Times recently reported, Rwanda has a growing economy, an improved health care system, and clean cities.  However, Kagame and the RPF have long faced criticism for what some consider their draconian control of power and information, often by highly questionable means.  Recent articles from NewstimeAfrica, The Christian Science Monitor, and the NY Times provide some background on the questions about Kagame, including commentary on the recent Rwanda presidential election in which the Kagame received 93% of the vote.  The proof of crimes against civilians and even genocide committed by RPF forces in the DRC would be the most damning condemnation yet of the Kagame regime.

It seems that the only thing we know about Kagame and the RPF is that the contradictions will never go away.  For as the TexasInAfrica blog aptly described the situation in Rwanda, “…there were never any good guys in this fight. Blood is on almost everyone's hands, and there's plenty of blame to go around.”  The important thing to appreciate is that these contradictions and ambiguities exist in every fractured society.  War is always ugly…and leaders do sometimes have to take objectionable actions.  That being said, slaughtering civilians, raping women and girls, and killing children can never be condoned…no matter what else the leader or regime has done to help his country and its people. 

The mistake the international community seems to make continually is to ignore the obvious ambiguities of leadership and “push all-in” with new leaders and governments.  These types of wagers are inherently risky…for if the negative aspects of a leader’s personality and regime begin to outweigh the positives…much political and real capital is wasted.  It would seem that a more pragmatic approach would be to work from the bottom up, bypassing the leadership and investing directly at the grassroots level to empower the common man and woman.  This is certainly not a new idea, but one that it seems could be more fruitfully and consistently pursued.  For by focusing on the people in a given country, the international community could in part avoid the waste of political and monetary capital that ensues when supposedly “good” leaders eventually show their flaws…as they almost always do. 

Instead of a neat conclusion here, I’ll opt for a confession.  While I’ve been putting these posts together, I’ve continued to read numerous news stories and blogs about the situation in Rwanda and the DRC.  What I’ve found is that…when it comes to war-torn and fractured countries and regions…it seems that the more you read and learn, the less you really know and understand.  This is quite vexing for me, because that is not at all how my brain is wired to work.  I’m a big believer in the power of knowledge…and I’m always searching for neat solutions for well-defined problems.  I will never have that satisfaction in situations like these.  It seems as if the best that any of us can do is try to understand the best we can and muddle through…continuing the continual quest for incremental progress.  For despite all the ambiguities and contradictions…I steadfastly believe there is always hope.  The stories of everyday people overcoming extraordinary odds in Rwanda, DRC, and in every tortured corner of our planet, through nothing more than the indomitable power of the human spirit, always inspire me to believe that things can and will get better…