In search of home and hearth

Before I move further, I want to say goodbye to Professor Wangari Mathaai, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and ‘Tree-hugger in Chief’. Our natural environment is something that we take for granted a bit too much but Prof. Maathai was someone who, through her advocacy work and political travails, made planting trees ‘sexy’. While some people couldn’t understand why she was awarded the Peace Prize, an honor that she shares with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi, I believe that the Nobel committee hit the nail right on the head when they awarded her this prize. I believe that the next major global conflict will not be one caused by stresses due to ideological differences (the nonexistent ‘Clash of Civilizations’ was simply a conflict fomented in the minds of US neo-conservatives on one hand, and Islamic fundamentalists on the other) but rather bread and butter issues, such as clean water and arable land.

Through her Green Belt Movement, the Professor reclaimed thousands of wasteland, simply by planting trees. While that sounds easy now, at the time, she had to contend with dangerous land grabbers and corrupt politicians happy to put personal interests before the needs of their citizens. She got locked up and tortured for her pains. The lesson that her life has taught me was that as mankind develops more and more, we have to make sure that the very environment that sustains our progress keeps up with us.  We are close to a global population of seven billion people and we need to think about not only how we shall feed these increasing mouths but how we shall do so in a sustainable manner. Rest in Peace Mama Mathaai.

I read in yesterdays issue that the Rwanda Housing Authority (RHA) is planning to begin a campaign to encourage Kigali residents to start building residential apartment buildings. Talking to the New Times reporter Charles Haba, the Managing Director of Century Real Estate, said that the “best way to effectively and efficiently utilise the available land is to live in apartments.” No truer words have ever been spoken. In fact, it’s mind-boggling that we are even having this kind of discussion.

Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, we have a growth rate of about 2.7 percent per year  and the fact of the matter is that we simply cannot afford to build our homes the way our fathers did. Kigali’s population is now close to one million people; imagine if each and every person decided that they were going to buy a plot of land to build their home on? The price of a plot would simply skyrocket and hyper inflation would befall us. Luckily, almost everyone rents their place of abode. However, the rent of even a simple three bedroom house in modest neighborhood is out of the price range of the average salaried worker. What then happens is that this worker ends up living in a hovel. This wouldn’t occur if there was another option. This option is the high-rise apartment.

I agree with RHA belief that apartments are the way forward; however, I don’t believe that the onus of building these apartments should be put on the shoulders of Kigali landlords. Building an apartment block is an extremely costly endeavor and for such a project to turn a profit would take forever. No one individual would, or could, invest in any kind of affordable apartment. The only entity able to do that is the government. So, what the RHA should be doing is encouraging the State to invest in this kind of real estate. Only when this happens shall the private sector jump onboard the bandwagon. Every citizen deserves to call a place home, irrespective of whether they are a secretary or a Secretary-General.

Somalia will always need food aid, or will it?

According to a UN official that was interviewed by a New York Times reporter, Somalia might lose up to 750,000 of its citizens before the next rains. This death toll is unacceptable and, as it’s wont to do, the UN is at the forefront of the efforts to mitigate this disaster; Tristan McConnel, quoting UN figures, wrote in the Global Post that $2.5 billion is needed to provide the food aid that is required. Everyone, and their dog, has jumped unto the ‘Save Somalia’ bandwagon and this time, unlike before, Africans are getting involved.

Prominent African artists Youssou N’dour, Angelique Kidjo, Hugh Masekela and K’naan have written an open letter to African and world leaders to invest in long-term agricultural projects to improve food security and avert famine. In Rwanda, following the Governments donation of $100,000 to the aid effort, young people formed the Rwanda Youth Campaign for Somalia (RYCS) early this month.  The RYCS aims to raise $1million in two months through benefit concerts and the like.

Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College, has warned that “unless the international response changes, the 2011 Somali famine will be to the Obama administration what the 1994 Genocide was to the Clinton administration…a terrible stain”.

Guess what the Somali famine and the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi also share, other than a feeble US response?  The fact that these two events happened in ‘slow motion’. Unlike the Japanese tsunami or the Pakistani earthquake, Rwanda and Somalia are tragedies that occurred step by step, systematically becoming worse and worse, until finally the floodgates opened and people started dying like flies. The genocide here didn’t just happen after the infamous crash, despite what some people would like to think. Machetes were first imported from Egypt, arm caches were built, people were given militia training, target lists were compiled and radios spewed hatred.

In similar vein, Somalis didn’t just wake up to biting hunger. Civil war and the lack of a functioning central government has been part and parcel on life since the fall of Siad Barre. This has been followed by a total lack in investment in agriculture and civil infrastructure. Piracy and its causes (which are never discussed), the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the American War on Terror, the lack of support to the AU peacekeeping troops and the belief that Somalia is an ‘intractable situation’ are the real causes of this famine;  the drought was merely the last ‘nail in the coffin’.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, President Kagame said something that I hope world leaders heard loud and clear. “We need to take a good look at the toll that traditional diplomatic mediation can have on the lives involved in conflict areas. Too often, while resolutions are being debated and refined, people are dying. And sometimes when those resolutions are eventually adopted, enforcement is slow, or they only halt the conflict for a short time but with no sustainable solutions”. While in this instance he was talking about conflict mediation, international disaster response suffers from the very same problem. While things get worse and worse, and as people start dying, instead of quick and decisive action all we get is more and more alarmist talk. And when some action is finally taken, instead of dealing with the causes of the problem, all it does is simply deal with the symptoms and not the disease itself. While making sure that food aid gets to the hungry mouths in Somalia of paramount importance, when the rains finally come and people start planting again, the issues that caused this humanitarian disaster in the first place wouldn’t have dissipated. And unless these issues are solved, Somalia will always be one dry spell away from disaster.


Rwandans are marching, that much is true. But only where we want to go

I’d never really felt the urge to read the ‘Liberation’, the French-leftist newspaper founded by Serge July and the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in 1973, until only recently. First, because I could barely understand the intricacies of French leftist politics. Secondly, because my French was too rudimentary to even begin to unravel the intricacies of French leftist politics. So, in a few words, I’ve made it a habit to steer well clear of Gallic newspapers. However, I’ve decided that this bias of mine is counterproductive because I’ve missed real journalistic gems courtesy of my French colleagues. Sadly however, Sophie Bouillon’s 12, September 2011 piece in ‘Liberation’ titled “On se dit bounjour, mais elle rest mon ennemie: Réconciliés à marche forcée par le président Kagame, les Rwandais taisent leurs douleurs afin de redresser l’économie de leur pays” is nothing but fool’s gold.

Ms. Bouillon, 2009 winner of the prestigious Prix Albert Londres for best French journalist, made the biggest mistake that a journalist can make, in my opinion. She blatantly lied and intentionally looked for scandal, even where it wasn’t. While I simply don’t have the space to write down her entire thesis on Rwanda’s development and reconciliation policy, I will give you some translated excerps.

She begins her piece in Gisenyi, where she is interviewing Alice, a 53 year old genocide survivor who lost her husband and two children in April 1994. During the interview she found out that Alice’s late family was denounced by the wife of their neighbor, the husband killed them. What surprised Bouillon was that the wife, who denounced them and directly led to the three deaths, lived just next door. In Alice’s words, “we say hello when we meet. We live peace.  But in reality she is still my enemy”.

That sounds makes perfect sense to me. And if she spoke to any survivor in this country, they would tell you that living next door to those that killed their kin is extremely challenging. Nothing new there. But where Ms. Bouillon goes off the rails in is her next paragraph.

She said that the RPF had informers in each and every neighborhood in the country (where she got that tidbit of information I have no idea, she did not attribute any source to base that ‘fact’ on) and falsely said that forgiveness was mandated by the Gacaca law (the wife of Alice’s family’s killer begged for forgiveness during the Gacaca proceedings against her).

She then goes on to directly blame Alice’s psychological and emotional trauma on the ‘forced’ forgiveness.  While I cannot discount the fact that seeing the woman who denounced her family walking around the village is traumatic, we cannot that this woman saw her family hacked to pieces. The ‘pain in her heart’ that Sophie Bouillon talks about is probably post-traumatic stress disorder.  Somehow trying to blame the Government’s policy of reconciliation for her trauma is unfair.

After milking Alice’s emotional story, she comes out with what I call the ‘same old story’ of ethnic politics. Quoting Victoire Ingabire, she says that “genocide is acknowledged but crimes committed by the RPF “. Again, this is shoddy journalism. If she had done even a bit of research, she would have found out that trials against RPF troops that committed war crimes took place, and death sentences were meted out to these soldiers.

I think the next paragraph that followed her ethnic spiel was the most insulting to all Rwandans who’ve worked so hard to make the Rwandan renaissance possible. While admiring the fact that “social security works, infrastructure is good and that by 2020 half of the population should have access to electricity”, she says that this kind of growth is because there has been “massive looting of Congolese coltan mines”.  Well, again if she had done even a little research she would have found out that Rwanda is in the forefront of the Central African mineral certification programme and is attempting to tag all the minerals mined and traded in the country. So, far from being the ravenous country of pirates that she’s attempting to portray Rwanda as, we are following a policy of transparency.

She goes on and on, saying that Rwanda’s press is muzzled (ignoring that there are 26 radio stations, 32 newspapers and a three TV providers), the political opponents are expelled (in my experience, they leave by themselves), that there is Umuganda (a clean neighborhood, the horror), that adultery is punished (this is part of the 1977 Penal Law; the criminal code that is being rewritten doesn’t make adultery a crime) and that listening to music in public transport is prohibited (anyone who goes travels in the mini-buses knows this isnt true).

While Rwanda has its challenges, to attempt to make it seem as dark, scary and repressive as North Korea is a disservice to your readers Ms. Bouillon. Shame, shame.

Enjoy your time in the sun because it is but a fleeting moment

Only if you’ve been living under a rock would you not know that the President Paul Kagame has been on a state visit to France since Monday. This trip has whetted the appetites of political commentators both in Kigali and Paris and it’s easy to see why. On one side is President Kagame, former supreme commander of the Rwanda Patriotic Army, a rebel force that took on and defeated the French-supported Habyarimana regime, and the man that guided Rwanda into the embrace of the Commonwealth. And on the other hand is President Sarkozy, a man who, on one hand visited Kigali in an attempt to improve ties, while on the other hand appointing Alain Juppe, a man whose hands were tainted with Rwandan blood, as foreign minister.  In other words, this visit was one guided by the highest levels of political brinkmanship. So much so that, Mr. Juppe saw it fit to skip town for a bit and let matters go on without him.

This trip was also an opportunity to every Tom, Dick and Harry, who’s ever had an issue with the Rwanda of today and its leadership, to get their 15 minutes of fame. Boy, what a mélange of strange bedfellows. Standing outside and making quite a din was an assorted bunch, including anti-Joseph Kabila protestors, Victoire Ingabire supporters, Rwandan dissidents and Parisians with a bone to pick with the Rwandan president. Among this cacophony of noisy protest one could find members of the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RWB).

Bearing straight to the first camera and microphone that he could find, Jean-François Julliard, the RWB secretary-general earnestly said, “the climate for the media in Rwanda is so oppressive that the country is gradually losing its journalists. Those that do not flee abroad either censor themselves or are arrested. Two women journalists are currently serving sentences of 7 and 17 years in prison. A journalist was gunned down outside his home in Kigali in 2010. The remaining critical media are harassed or have gone into exile.”

Well, if this man was Pinocchio, he would have had a nose the size of telephone pole by now. But what he and his organisation peddle, isnt the truth but rather what they want the truth to be. If they were even a bit fair, they wouldn’t say that Rwanda is Africa’s third worst place to be a journalist, only being above Eritrea and Sudan. But this is what they do; they twist the facts and do whatever they can to thrust themselves in the news and thus stay relevant.

The RWB wasn’t the only organisation seeking a slot on the evening news. All these groups, hitherto unknown, understood that the France trip was a bonanza for them. And truth be told, it was. For two whole days, anyone who had an opinion that they wanted to air on Rwanda was given an opportunity to do so. But guess what?  The President of Rwanda has left, the public’s attention WILL move onto the next big thing and the people, who had been seeking attention, will be left with nothing except discarded placards and sore throats.

So, while the RWB and others might have scored a few points in the media game, in the long run they’ve done nothing of note. On the other hand, look at what Rwanda has been able to accomplish. It’s been able to strengthen diplomatic ties with a member of the UN Security Council, put its points across in the international media and sold itself as a destination for French investors. These goals aren’t only short term but rather medium and long term.  20 years from now, this trip will be seen, not as just a mere media exercise, but rather the time that Rwanda and France finally put to bed the ghosts of the infamous  Francafrique.

10 years after 9-11, Rwanda must keep vigilant

Today, New Yorkers, and the rest of the United States, remember the thousands that died during the horrible terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Watching the Twin Towers fall right here in Kigali all those years back, I felt the breath get sucked out of me. All I could think was, “what does this mean for all of us, if Americans aren’t safe what chance do the rest of us have”? For weeks after that horror, the question on everyone’s lips was, “what exactly will happen now”? Well, we know what happened. The Taliban was bombed to smithereens, Saddam Hussein will never torture another Iraqi again and Bin Laden is at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. A lot of bad, nay evil, men have felt the winds of change blow upon their cheek and that’s a good thing. The ‘War against Terror’ is a word that entered the American lexicon post 9-1. However, it’s been one that had been on the lips on Rwandans even before that.

When the forces that orchestrated the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi fled into Zaire they did not simply dissipate into the rainforest and throw away their arms. In fact, not only did they not lay down their arms in the tent cities in Tingi-tingi they even recruited more people into their army in the full sight of the world’s media. This army wasn’t going to stay in Zaire cooling their heels; they were planning to launch an offensive into Rwanda. And over a period of years they did just that; making incursions into Rwanda and killing Rwandans. The murder of the young women in the Nyange Secondary School, who refused to separate into Hutu-Tutsi groups, by the marauding gang of killers was probably the darkest period the country faced since April 1994. But there were many other un-named victims of this terror as well.

Over the last two years, Kigali has been rocked by grenade attacks that left people dead, maimed and scared. And as we’ve learnt during this week’s trial that pits Victoire Ingabire, Vital Uwumuremyi, Tharcisse Nditurende, Jean Marie Karuta and Noeli Habiyaremye (who are being all charged under the 2008 anti-terrorism law) against the National Public Prosecuting Authority, the forces that killed the Nyange girls would love to continue their campaign of mayhem.

Reading the Guardian newspaper a few days ago, a blogger wrote that the ‘war against terror’ is over; that it had been won by the good guys. I found that article absolutely ludicrous. This war didn’t begin in 2011 and it certainly isnt over now that we are remembering those that lost their loved ones ten years ago. It’s a continuous fight that each and every nation in the world must partake in. It will not be won simply by deposing one leader or another. It will be won by the sustained pressure of all civilized nations.

The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), a grouping that  brings together Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, this week had a meeting in Kigali. The meeting, which brought together the Defence ministers of those countries, met to figure out ways to combat the armed groups terrorizing the region; groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army and the FDLR. These groups are a real problem and I’m pleased they are being recognised as such.

This war against terror isnt about being too afraid to live life. It’s about recognizing the realities of the kind of world we are living in. We mustn’t become slaves to fear; if we did, the terrorists would have won. But sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that there isnt an issue is something we can ill afford.

Our judges are passing with flying colors

As everyone probably knows by now, after numerous fits and starts, the criminal case against Victoire Ingabire, who is charged with giving financial support to a terrorist group, planning to cause state insecurity and divisionism has finally begun. And it was about time. I was getting tired of reading about her unfair imprisonment in ‘maximum security’ on the Internet. For too long she seemed like a victim that was being unfairly harassed by the State, but now that the case has begun, finally, people will have the opportunity to learn why she’s been in prison for almost a year now. And on top of that she’s been allowed to mount a rigorous defense, going as far hiring British legal eagle and ICTR defense lawyer, Ian Edwards to take on the might of the National Public Prosecuting Authority (NPPA).

Various ‘experts’ in all things Rwandan had immediately deemed the charges “politically motivated” without even analyzing the merits of the case. Opening the case to the full scrutiny of the general public was a masterful stroke by the Judiciary because it will force people to acknowledge the facts of the case.

I’m not saying that the judges will necessarily agree with the Prosecution, that is their prerogative; however, the Prosecution will be given the opportunity to state the facts as they see them. And the defense will be also given the opportunity to dismiss these facts.

I think that it’s important that this judicial process be seen as transparent, not just for the benefit of our foreign detractors, but to the general public as well. They must feel that the process is free, fair and transparent.

For too long, Rwandan courts have been called ‘proxies’ of the Executive branch of the Rwandan government by all and sundry despite the fact that the ICTR ruled that Jean Uwinkindi could be transferred to Rwandan courts to face the charges of genocide because they had demonstrated that they could “enforce the highest standards of international justice”. This standard includes ‘ judicial independence’.

This is a great opportunity to prove what any unbiased observer of the justice system in Rwanda already knows: that despite the judiciary’s teething problems, it’s in fine mettle now.

Sitting in court on Monday, admiringly watching the way the judges shot down the Prosecutions plea to postpone the trial and then conducted the day arguments, I almost wished I had joined the legal profession. I was proud to call these judges my ‘learned friends’. If, as critics have said, the judges are in the thrall of the Executive, would they have thrown out the application to postpone the trial? I think not. This wasn’t the act of a panel of judges working hand in glove with the NPPA. Rather, it was decision made in order to facilitate a speedy judicial process while protecting the rights of a Rwandan citizen-in this case, Victoire Ingabire.

Looking around the courtroom, I saw members of the diplomatic corps, national and international journalists, human rights workers, members of the FDU-Inkingi (the un-registered party that Mrs. Ingabire heads) and curious observers and, while talking to some of them, not even one could fault the proceedings so far. This landmark trial, and the manner in which it enfolds in the next couple of months, will show just how far we’ve come. Not just as a judiciary but as a country as well. From my initial observations, we’ve come quite a bit and our judges are evidence of this.

Our athletes are running on empty

Adrien Niyoshuti, the only athlete that has booked a ticket to next year’s London Olympic games, was leading the Rwandan delegation at the All-Africa Games that begun yesterday in Maputo, Mozambique. As the fourth best mountain-biker in Africa, he is the only real chance that Rwanda has to get some kind of award in these Games. Truth be told, the rest of the delegation are nothing more than mere tourists who, in between sightseeing, will run, jump and swim in vain. If I was a betting man, I would put a little money on him winning at least a bronze medal, the first medal Rwanda might win since Maricienne Mukamurenzi’s silver medal in the 10.000m race in 1987. The last time we were close to seeing our flag being raised at the winner’s podium was in 2007 when Dieudonne Disi finished fourth in the half marathon.

Our lack of top athletes in rather confusing. We have the perfect altitude to spawn top endurance runners. Top athletes do their training in places like the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands because the thin air helps them produce more red blood cells, making them able to utilise oxygen more efficiently and run faster and for longer distances. Our athletes don’t have to worry about high altitude training; the entire country is a high altitude zone. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I found that almost everyone living in this country had the red blood cell count of Paul Tergat. Look at all the hills in this country, some of them are absolute monsters but still people live on them. I can only imagine the stamina levels of someone born on these hills; throw in the low fat, carbohydrate diets of the boys and girls living here and you have the building blocks of a proper athletics programme.

In Kenya, these building blocks are picked out in primary school, followed in secondary school and groomed to be top athletes. In Rwanda, nothing. We don’t have post-primary athletics’ competitions that showcase the best of each and every region in the country (and if we do, then it’s obvious that they aren’t a big deal).  So, fellows such as Disi are simply bolts out of the blue. We aren’t creating an athletic programme; we are just making do with what falls into our lap. And presently, the ‘manna from heaven’ is coming in drips and drops. So, what should we do? Put the athletics federation to task. Why aren’t we producing athletes? Is it possibly because they are too lazy to go about things the right away? Is it possibly because Rwandan athletes always get wildcard passes to major athletic competitions, and therefore don’t need to qualify the way other elite athletes qualify?

Rwandan football was going the same way of athletics a while back. Our national team, the Amavubi Stars, was made up gnarly veterans of the game, men who started playing for the team in 1996. And as these successful veterans retired they were replaced by Congolese misfits, and others who should have never worn the shirt. After years of mediocrity, the football federation finally decided to actually invest in the game. What’s the end result? Our boys have sat at the very top of the table of youth football, and I’m sure that this has only whetted their appetites for more success.

Rwanda Athletics, I beseech you. Do things the right way, we have the ability to be among the best in Africa. I’m sure that the next Usain Bolt running around somewhere and all we have to do is unearth him and then reap the rewards.