Controlling the historical narrative in Rwanda is key to the regime’s power
By Tom ZoellnerTom Zoellner is professor of English at Chapman University and the author of “Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire.”July 12, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT2
Tucker Carlson recently went on an attention-grabbing screed about how America’s history of racism gets taught. He garnered headlines by calling Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, “stupid” and “a pig” for defending a class on the subject taught at the U.S. Military Academy. Carlson then made a comparison of America to another country that managed to be both absurd — and surprisingly apt:
“The question is, and this is the question we should be meditating on, day in and day out, is how do we get out of this vortex, the cycle, before it’s too late? How do we save this country before we become Rwanda?”
The absurd part is what Carlson was trying to say: that the teaching of critical race theory in schools and universities would lead to oppressed people of color picking up machetes to slaughter White people, an ethnic cleansing that would resemble the 1994 genocide in the small East African nation of Rwanda, in which 800,000 people were slaughtered at the urging of a government made up of the majority Hutu ethnicity.
Rwanda holds an important lesson for America’s culture wars today, but not in the way Carlson thinks. Rather, in Rwanda, political leaders have rewritten the country’s history to gain political power, just as the right wing is now attempting to do in the United States. In fact, the greatest asset of the dictatorship in today’s Rwanda is its mastery of the past. “Within Rwanda today, hegemonic power relies for much of its justification on a certain reading of history,” the Smith College scholar David Newbury has concluded.
President Paul Kagame has insisted on a clean story about what happened in 1994, with no dissent permitted. The official version is that the Hutu ethnic group, driven by ancient hatreds, contrived to have a plane carrying then-President Juvénal Habyarimana shot down with a shoulder-mounted rocket. The inside-job assassination was falsely blamed on the Tutsis, touching off a period of slaughter that lasted 100 days. Kagame’s army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, fought its way into the capital, took power and instituted an inclusive government in which nobody pays attention to ethnic labels any longer. The genocide perpetrators were tried and convicted in international courts, and village-level killers were brought to justice, as well. Thanks to the discipline and organization of the RPF, the country rebuilt itself into a jewel of the region, with a booming economy, clean streets and no crime. Visitors are taught this version at the many genocide memorials stacked high with the bones of slaughtered Tutsis.
But the reality is far more complicated. The genocide was sparked by a combination of factors. The Tutsi minority had dominated the country until 1959, when many fled on the eve of national independence from Belgium. Tutsis in exile formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded from neighboring Uganda in 1990. When a peace deal was brokered in 1993, it didn’t solve these tensions.
As the coffee economy collapsed, the failing regime in power was growing desperate. When the plane carrying the president was shot down in June 1994, the RPF said it was done by Hutus then in power as a ploy to start a massacre, while Hutus blamed the RPF. For 100 days, Rwandans slaughtered each other. Most, but not all, victims were Tutsi. And the RPF committed hundreds of thousands of reprisal killings during and after the official 100-day demarcation of the genocide, systematically wiping out entire Hutu villages.
Talking about any of this is a grave taboo in a society where the governing class is almost exclusively Tutsi and the genocide must be seen only as a one-way affair.
Intellectual violators can be charged with crimes like “divisionism” or “trivializing the genocide” and can be sentenced to 10 years in prison. The press is ruthlessly censored; schoolbooks omit complicated realities; there is no independent judiciary where those accused can get a fair hearing. (Disclosure: I was the co-writer of a 2006 memoir by Paul Rusesabagina, the man whose life story was featured in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” He was kidnapped by the regime in August.)
Disputed national histories and weaponized skeletons are nothing new, of course, and the politics of “your grandfather killed my grandfather” have long been used to fire up populist movements, cast blame and solidify power. Opinions about the status of West Bank settlements, to name but one example, are often peppered with interpretive references to who did what to whom, not just in 1948 but in the Book of Joshua. But in Rwanda, the regime’s control of the historical narrative is directly connected to the country’s place in the global networks of investment, aid and tourism.
Western guilt over not intervening in the 1994 genocide has turned Kagame into an international figure of renown and driven billions of dollars of corporate investment and direct aid. Bill Clinton told Kagame repeatedly that not deploying U.S. troops to halt the slaughter was the biggest regret of his presidency.
Yet a new book by British journalist Michela Wrong,“Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad,” argues that this historical lever has been pulled for cynical ends. “I get shocked when people succumb to it,” former regime official Theogene Rudasingwa told her. “Because at the end of the day it’s Rwandans who killed Rwandans. We wreaked damage on one another, so this whole notion of the Americans and the international community and the British saying, ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa,’ I just don’t see the basis for that.”Story continues below advertisement.
Guilt also helped explain why the West turned a blind eye to Rwanda’s warmongering and exploitation of minerals in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo from 1996 to 2003, a conflict that cost an estimated 5.4 million lives and enlarged Rwanda’s budget. The pass given to the RPF’s behavior is partly an outgrowth of how the West wants to see the primary victims of the 1994 genocide as “the good guys” in a complex neighborhood. Allowing for more historical complexity or a reckoning with RPF excesses threatens international support for Kagame’s regime and for Rwanda in general.
In an environment that remains fraught, teaching unapproved history can be hazardous to an instructor’s health. After Rwandan professor Leopold Munyakazi gave lectures characterizing the 1994 genocide as a conflict over political power more than ethnicity, he was jailed on preposterous charges that he had participated in the killings himself. Ethnicity has to remain at the center of the official narrative because it gives a simple — if incomplete — explanation for the genocide and for the need of a strongman like Kagame to stop it from happening again. Munyakazi was eventually cleared of those accusations but sentenced to nine years in prison for the intellectual crime of “genocide revisionism.”
Western academics also feel the heat. A team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley consulted with the government on how to teach history but found “multiple points of view, debate and discussion are discouraged” in favor of a narrative that shines the best possible light on Kagame’s presidency. When Colgate professor Susan Thomson did fieldwork in the rural southwestern part of the country, she found schools teaching students that “deep seated and seething ethnic hatred that Hutu have for Tutsi is the root of the Rwandan disease.” After she published her research, she was declared persona non grata and told her fieldwork was “against national unity and reconciliation.” This depends on a stark reading of the past that vilifies the Hutu in perpetuity and keeps them from participating in an inclusive government — which now does not exist despite propagandistic claims to the contrary. This creates widespread resentments and a threat to long-term stability.
Carlson elicited guffaws and disdain by comparing the U.S. experience of historical argument to that of Rwanda. But he may have unknowingly picked an excellent case study in how manipulations of the past can create a poisonous form of politics.