Play a bit of squash with life

A few days ago a friend of mine asked me a question that took me slightly aback. “If you wrote a book right now, what would it be about?” I’ve been asked a lot of interesting questions but this one really got me thinking. For once you put your thoughts on paper, and you’re lucky enough to have these thoughts published, they will live long after you’re dead and buried. So when I was asked what my literary legacy would be I thought about it long and hard. Although I did a smidgen of law a few years ago I wouldn’t ever call myself a expert in legal matters, so my area of academic study couldn’t possibly be something I wrote a book about. Ditto to politics, social affairs and environmental issues because, while I can write a few pages about any of those topics, I’m the proverbial ‘jack of all trades but master at none’. However, I’m a ‘master’ at one topic: my own existence.

If I had to write a book today it would be an authorized biography; it wouldn’t be simply a vanity project, although vanity might play a small part in the entire proceeding, I feel that I’ve lived a colorful enough life to dish out some lessons. So, dear esteemed Sunday Times reader, for the price of this paper you will enjoy my abridged biography, ‘The Human Squash Ball: The Life and Times of Sunny Ntayombya’.

The biggest lesson that I will dish out today is that ‘you can only play the cards that life has dealt you’. Some people are born into wealth and opulence. Or at least in some kind of stable familial background. I, like a lot of other Rwandans was born in exile. The first places that we called home were refugee camps. No one wanted to be born under a UNHCR plastic-sheeted tent but a lot of us were. I wouldn’t have minded being born close to Central Park, New York in the Trump Towers but I wasn’t. And that is, like the French say, la vie. But just because you weren’t raised with a silver spoon in your mouth doesn’t mean that you are cursed to failure. But the way you look at the world and the situation you’re in WILL affect your chances of living a happy and fulfilled life.

People often ask me how I got where I am today, despite the mistakes I made. Those that don’t know me think I’ve always been a reasonable young man. That would be the furthest thing from the truth; I was a bit of a hoodlum and a bad student to boot. What changed? I found my ‘fire’. Everyone has a certain fuel that drives them. For some its pride and for others its approval. For me it was, and always has been, the desire to prove my detractors wrong. So, whenever I was told my teachers that I would amount to nothing that fueled my fire. Whenever my folks looked at me in a disappointed manner that fueled my fire. Funnily enough, whenever I was talked ‘up’ I invariably ended up on my rear end. And that is perhaps why I actually enjoy receiving emails from irate readers of this column: these letters make me a better and more thoughtful writer.

So, I bet you’re asking why I call myself a ‘human squash ball’.  Well, the very nature of a tennis ball is that the harder you hit it, the faster it comes back at you. Well, when you discover and then fully maximize your fuel (no matter what it is), despite what life throws at you, you will be able bounce back and come back even harder.

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Mr. Rwigema has proved what we knew all along

The Rwanda I know and love is a warm, lovely country full of hardworking and extremely focused people. It has dreams of being a middle-income country in about a decade, it has some of the lowest rates of corruption in Africa, it has a no-nonsense leadership, and it has clean streets and children in school. But if you listened to some of the worst critics that Rwanda has, you would think that everything I’ve just written is simply hogwash. In the eyes of various ‘human rights’ groups like Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders, exiled former political leaders and their friends and certain foreign academics and politicians Rwanda is a dark place where children are sent to island prisons, where journalists are shot, politicians are exiled and killed and people are terrified of the State. There is lovely English saying that I like to use, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. While one can throw all sorts of allegations and what not, the truth is what finally comes out eventually.

Pierre Celestin Rwigema is back in Kigali. For those of you who don’t know him, eleven years ago he was the Prime Minister of Rwanda. Eleven years ago, yet again, he fled into exile for reasons that he later found to be unsubstantiated. Addressing a press conference at the Novotel, he said he was misinformed and asked for forgiveness. “I know some people are still angry with me because of the language I used, but I apologise”, he said. Blaming his former party colleagues of lying to him and frightening him into seeking political asylum in the United States, he continued to say that “anyone following Rwanda’s evolution would wish to be part of it. This is why I chose to come back and be part of the good cause. Seeing what has been done in Rwanda I am ready to keep building this country and serve the people of this country, who have gone past trivial issues like ethnic sentiments”.

This is all straight from the horse’s mouth. Now, let’s try to be logical here. If Rwanda is the death trap that all its critics say it is, then why is someone who obviously has a lot to lose returning home? He was comfortable in exile (and even if he wasn’t, exile surely wouldn’t ever be as bad as an assassin’s bullet); he probably had a home and a social life. He had so much to lose if he actually believed the ‘hype’. But he didn’t and doesn’t. He’s now home and ready to be part of the Rwandan socio-economic miracle. So, what does he know that all the soothsayers of Rwanda’s imminent doom don’t? Nothing.

The truth of the matter is that everyone knows the truth of what Rwanda is and what it aspires to. However, the critics understand that belittling Rwanda and the Rwandan leadership puts bread on their table and they will not let the truth come between them and a fat paycheck. The professional ‘Rwanda-haters’ will not change their minds on Rwanda but what they are most afraid is that the average man in the Paris or London street, who are their target audience, will change their minds on Rwanda because of positive news. If these people had their way, Rwanda would go up in flames. But Mr. Rwigema’s return is a slap in their face because it exposes the fallacy that they’ve been peddling all these years. Rwanda isnt the graveyard that they say it is; rather it is a place where each citizen is asked to play their part in the “New Rwanda”. Let me finish with a quote from Congolese music legend, Koffi Olomide. “The truth takes the stairs while lies take the elevator. But it gets there eventually”.

No one deserves to end up like the ‘King of Kings’

When Colonel Gaddafi called the people of Benghazi  “rats” and promised to eradicate them I was horrified, was this going to be another ‘Rwanda’, a situation where hundreds f thousands die as the entire world watches, impotently wringing its hands? That isnt what happened and to say that I breathed a sigh of relief is an understatement. However, I cannot say I supported the ensuring actions of NATO. Its one thing enforcing a no-fly zone and making sure that the Gaddafi armor can’t hurt civilians. It’s another thing overtly supporting the rebel action and, as I found out, bombing the convoy of a fleeing man.

It seems to me that all the news I get is about how Libya ‘should move forward’ and what it will be like now that ‘Gaddafi is gone’. And honestly, that is okay. But I totally disagree with is the ‘death porn’ that has been on the news. Why did we have to see the bruised and battered body of the Colonel? And so vividly? What was the point?

Today, the head of the BBC multimedia newsroom Mary Hockaday, defended its use of mobile phone images showing Gaddafi just moments before his death because, and it quote, “it was editorially justified to convey the scale of Thursdays dramatic and gruesome events. We judged that it was right to use some footage and stills, with warnings about their nature”. Can I call this statement total hogwash?

Britain is at war right now in Afghanistan and its troops are dying. The same goes to the United States. Who has ever seen the bloodied image of a US or British trooper? No one. What we’ve gotten in the news are respectful image of stoic, grieving families. And that is how it should be. No because it is ‘editorially justified’ but because that is what is right. The fact that bloodied bodies can be editorially justified in one case and not in another brings me to an uncomfortable topic: covert racism. They would have never crowed over the body of a lily-white man the way they did in Gaddafi’s last moments.  The same goes for Saddam Hussein. After hanging him, what news value was there to show him strangled with his tongue lolling out? What bothered me the most in this saga are many people’s reactions to the grisly images. People are going on Twitter, a social media site, complaining that children could see the images: is that seriously their only complaint?

Why don’t they complain that NATO aircraft, using a UN Security Council resolution (which talked about saving civilians and enforcing a no-fly zone) actually bombed the Colonel as he attempted to flee from Sirte? Yes, as he was running away towards the southern border with Chad he was picked off. He wasn’t in a tank, an armored personnel carrier or even a pickup mounted with machine gun. No. He was in a SUV. He was clearly not taking offensive action.

I know that he wasn’t a good man or even a good president. He tortured people and imprisoned them unjustly. He sponsored international terrorism and had the unhappy knack of interfering in the domestic affairs of African nations. He rambled on and on during UN General Assemblies and he had weird female bodyguards (who didn’t do much for him in the end obviously). But let us not forget that he was a man. A man that did a lot of bad things but a lot of good things as well. We can talk about a post-Gaddafi Libya without acting in an unsavory fashion. Muamar Gaddafi is dead, stop making it such a titillating spectacle.

Let us never allow the terrorists to win

For the last couple of days, I’ve been feeling an emotion that I honestly never thought I’d have for Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu: pity.

I happily admit that he often rubs me the wrong way and that I’m biased towards his party, the Likud because of some of the views it espouses. Where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned, I’m more often than not pro-Palestinian. I think that that is because I was once a refugee and at times, I hear an argument in the Israeli right-wing body politics (which Likud dominates) that sounds eerily like Juvenal Habyarimana’s, “Rwanda is like a full glass of water, if you add anymore water it will spill”. I think that he is a huge hindrance to the peace process and I wouldn’t mind seeing the back of him. Anytime ‘Bibi’, as the Prime Minister is also known, or any Likud leader for that matter sweats I become a happy man. But the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange isnt a moment that I enjoy.

Gilad Shalit was captured and held hostage for five years by Hamas after its guerillas tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing two members of his tank crew in the process. Quickly he became the most famous hostage in the Middle East, if not the world. After years of talks and what not, the soldier is home. But at the cost of releasing 1,027 Palestinians guilty of horrendous crimes, including founders of the armed wing of Hamas and the organizers of suicide bombings and other attacks in which scores of Israeli civilians, including children and teenagers, were killed.

Acknowledging the hurt that his decision invoked, the Prime Minister said that he was “faced with the responsibility of the prime minister of Israel to bring home every soldier who is sent to protect our citizens”. I fully understand where his decision is coming from. The Israel Defence Force is not a regular army as we know it here, made up of men and women looking at the military as a career choice. Almost every Israeli citizen of a certain age has to do a few years in the army, and only a small percentage avoids the armed service. As a result of this, their army is a ‘sacred cow’.  But in the larger context of the fight against terrorism, should nations allow themselves to be blackmailed into making decisions that aren’t in their best interests? Because while Sergeant Shalit is now safely home, so are terrorists.

The thinking that terrorism and murder are ways to get your way isn’t strictly a Hamas invention. Here in Rwanda, co-defendants in the Victoire Ingabire trial have testified in court of similar skewed thinking in the ranks of the FDLR, Paul Rusesabagina’s PDR-Ihumure and Coalition des Forces Democratique (affiliated to Mrs. Ingabire’s FDU-Inkingi). According to testimony from Major Vital Uwumuremyi and Lt. Colonel Noel Habiyaremye, while the DR Congo based rebels realized that they couldn’t overthrow the Rwandan government through open warfare, the strategy that they came up with Mrs. Ingabire was to launch numerous attacks in various parts of the country, terrorizing people and destroying infrastructure: slowly bleeding the country until the exhausted government is forced to negotiate with the political leaders.  This isnt a new strategy at all. The insurgency the north and west of Rwanda in the late 1990’s sought to force the Rwandan government’s hand. Thankfully this didn’t happen here.

But it has happened in other places, Northern Ireland comes to mind. It galls me that terrorists are rewarded for the lives they take; they should be in jail instead. I completely subscribe to the maxim ‘no negotiation with terrorists’ because to do so is to make yourself vulnerable to blackmail. What will happen when Bibi do if two soldiers are kidnapped this time? Will he release 2,000 prisoners? He has dug himself into a hole and I pray that such a situation never comes to pass.

MUTZIG OWES ME 6000 FRANCS, AND AN APOLOGY

I hate to sound like I’m always complaining about one thing or the other: I really don’t want to be ‘that’ guy but I really can’t help it. There is always something that draws my ire. This time its last week’s Mutzig Beerfest and the Blackberry blackout. Let me begin with the Bralirwa event.

The ‘Beerfest’ is a yearly event that Mutzig sponsors; one pays six thousand francs and in return you are promised as much beer as you can drink and a barbeque dinner. Having attended last year’s event and had a good time I was eager to repeat the experience. Trudging up to Juru Park I was welcomed by smiling attendants and well-armed policemen and women. After collecting a mug I walked to the first beer stall and what I saw wiped the smile off my face. At each and every beer booth I saw a heaving mass of humanity, driven mad by thirst. While I might be exaggerating a little bit, I’m not by that much.

There were winding lines of impatient customers and the beer servers looked extremely harassed as they were harangued by all and sundry. And while I sympathized with the servers manning the beer kegs, the Beerfest customers had every right to be angry. The event was poorly organized and it seemed as if the Bralirwa organizers were ambushed by the numbers. Except they obviously weren’t; they should have known that they would be dealing with thousands of people simply by counting how many tickets they sold. If they had done their planning well, they would have erected more beer tents to deal with the thousands and there would have been more toilets. Instead fights began breaking out at the beer tents and people started relieving themselves in the tall grass. It was disastrous.

But what’s really got my goat was the fact that Bralirwa (and the Mutzig brand people) haven’t made an official statement explaining the fiasco. I believe that we, the customers, should get an apology. People paid their hard-earned money expecting one thing and instead got something totally different. That is something akin breach of contract.

I’m however not holding my breath. It’s become something of a culture here to expect people to ‘ihangane’ (bear with it). I have no idea when this culture shall change. At least, MTN acted differently during the Blackberry server issues. They sent everyone on their network SMS’s apologizing for the blackout and I commend them for that. But is a mere apology enough? I think not. MTN customers pay a monthly fee of Rwf 20,000 for Blackberry Internet services and heaven help you if you forget to renew your monthly subscription, your services are cut off immediately. And that is the way it is supposed to be. I’m of the opinion that if there is an issue emanating for the service providers side then they should bear the responsibility to compensate the customer. Apologies aren’t enough. How about giving each and every Blackberry service subscriber additional airtime? MTN can certainly afford it and as a public relations gesture, it would be certainly welcome.

I might sound like a grumpy old man, but for too long I’ve felt underappreciated and taken for granted. And it’s the biggest corporations in the country who’ve disappointed me the most, despite the fact that they have huge resources. All I know is that I will not go to next year’s edition of the Beerfest unless there is some kind of reassurance that this year’s debacle will not ensure yet again.

I’m Ugandan, RRA better get its filthy paws off my ride

I have absolutely nothing against paying my taxes. Sure, I might not like the fact that I pay thirty percent income tax but at least I can see where my money goes. It goes straight to our silky smooth roads, affordable healthcare and free primary school education. My thirty percent pays the wages of the policemen and women who stand all day in the burning sun making sure I can go about business without a thought. It goes to our military and the civil service. Say what you will about the various issues that Rwanda deals with, but the fact that this government is efficient is something that everyone takes for granted. Taxes are the lifeblood of the state and I believe that anyone not willing to pay their taxes are the worst kind of citizen, selfish and irresponsible. Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA) has a sacred duty to do all it can to increase the state coffers and they have done quite well; last year, they collected 491 billion francs in taxes and they expect to do even better this year. That’s great; just as long as they don’t act illegally to do so.

And truth be told, it’s my opinion that the ongoing clampdown on foreign registered vehicles might not fall within the parameters of the law in each and every case. Talking to the New Times,  the Director of Taxpayer Services at RRA, Gerard Nkusi Mukubu, said that an operation, being undertaken with the Traffic Police, is targeting foreign-registered vehicles belonging to Rwandans, who ‘claim’ to be foreigners.“We know some nationals who acquire permission (to drive foreign-registered cars) under the guise of being foreigners. This is illegal and will not be tolerated; only non-Rwandans are allowed to do so”, he said.

I can understand why the issue of this type of tax evasion galls the RRA so much.  A local car importer, Sam Ruterana, says that the price of a vehicle in Rwanda is more than three times the price of a similar model in Uganda. “I bought a Toyota Ipsum from Uganda, last year, at about Rwf1.5 million, after taxes. The same car here was priced at Rwf5 million with taxes”. So, when someone refuses to register a vehicle in Rwanda, millions are being lost. And the RRA has every right and responsibility to run after those tax evaders.

If this was Uganda, where dual nationality isnt accepted, this crackdown would be easy. However, in Rwanda Article 7 of the Constitution states that “dual nationality is permitted” and that “no person shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her nationality”. I was born in Uganda and am therefore a Ugandan citizen, with all the rights of Ugandan citizenship. These rights include the right to Ugandan documents such as driving permits and vehicle registration. I am Rwandan as well, with all the rights of Rwandan citizenship as well, including the right to residency here. And I sure that there are thousands of Rwandans just like me, who have Ugandan and Rwandan nationality. Throw in those with Burundian, Kenyan, Tanzanian and Congolese citizenship and you have tens of thousands of people. None of them are ‘claiming’ to be foreigners, they are. Rwandan citizenship isnt forced on anyone; it is a right, not a burden. RRA doesn’t have the right to force a foreign citizen to register a car in the country, especially when they have followed the law to the letter.

Michel Karangwa’s story mustn’t be repeated. His wife’s car was impounded even though she lived in Uganda and the 14-day pass was still valid. That is a totally illegal seizure of someone’s private property and I sincerely hope that RRA and the Traffic Police apologies to the Karangwa family.

Instead of acting outside the parameters of our law, maybe reduce the tax on cars. That way, people will able to afford locally registered cars in the first place. While RRA might lose the amount of tax on a single car, it will be able to tax a lot of cars coming into the country and being registered here.

KIGALI COUNCIL HAS LOST ITS MIND!!!!!!!!

Well, there go my Friday evenings. Kigali City Council (KCC), in its infinite wisdom, has decided to finally enforce a 2008 directive banning taxi motorcycles (known locally as ‘motos’) from Kigali’s streets after ten at night. I heard the news on Friday night while enjoying a night out with the lads and truth be told, I didn’t believe it at all. Thinking it was one of those Kigali rumors I went straight to the New Times website and, hidden under an innocuous headline “Taxi motos get operation guidelines’, I found out that the news was actually true.

Motos are one of those ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ kind of things. Many a time I’ve thought that I was going to meet my Maker while sitting on the back on a moto; after all, as Traffic Police boss Celestin Twahirwa noted, 80 percent of all the accidents in this country involve motos. But on the other hand, I’ve thanked the heavens for the motorcycle taxis as I’ve gotten to meetings on time, a feat I wouldn’t have dared to dream possible if I was in a car.

The directive has a lot of really smart initiatives in it. Motos will now have to ride at the extreme right of the road, avoiding most of the mouth-drying swerving that many reckless motorcycle taxi operators were prone to engage in order to beat the traffic. And the sight of kids, hanging on for dear life, with heads too small to safely wear helmets, as the moto roared by will be no more either courtesy of the directive, which bans passengers below the age of twelve from riding on motos. These two directives are simply smart and I cannot, for the life of me, understand why it took three years to enforce them.

However, the 10pm directive is confusing and, with all due respect, wrong. What makes it extremely confusing for me is that the ‘directive’ is ‘flexible’. Is a law, which is what this directive is, ever flexible? In this case it is, strangely enough. Bruno Rangira, KCC’s communication honcho, muddied the waters even more when he told the New Times journalist that, “the understanding (between the moto operators association and the traffic police) allows motos to operate for 24 hours and we will not change this unless otherwise”.

 

If a moto wants to work beyond 10 pm they will need to seek ‘official authorization. The problem is this; who gives this authorization and what are the criteria for this authorization to be given? Nowhere in the directive is this explained. And how many motos will be able to get this authorization? What will stop each and every moto driver from getting this authorization? And if they all get the ‘official authorization’ won’t be past ’10pm’ rule end up being pointless? And anyway, how can you prove if a motorcyclist is a taxi operator or not? If they remove their vests they look like any other motorcyclist. Won’t they simply remove their vests after ten and still continue working?

Ignoring all the practicalities of this particular directive, how will this directive make life for us better? After ten, buses barely operate unless you live in Nyamirambo and not many citizens can afford to take cabs or buy their own modes of transport.  At the end of the day, what this directive is doing is making life unduly difficult for the thousands of people who live in the city. Kigali is becoming a 24-hour a day city but this simply isnt possible if there isnt a reliable transport system.

This is, sadly, one of those decisions that aren’t thought through and instead of having a tacit agreement between the moto operators and the traffic police, I’m calling for that directive to be formally declared null and void. As soon as possible.