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Conservation: What Do John Muir’s Writings and Thoughts Mean Today?

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Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America.

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What Do John Muir’s Writings and Thoughts Mean Today?
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John Muir is widely acknowledged as the “father” of conservation thinking, indeed considered by many to be a conservation hero whose standing straddles two centuries. Whether or not that is justified is a different issue, but the pinnacle of this adulation is probably the reference to him as the “Father of the National Parks”. A historical examination of the global network of protected areas shows that the original US National parks like Yellowstone were the inspiration behind the establishment of similar structures all over the world.

From a personal perspective, there are a number of different things that inspired my childhood fascination with wildlife and wild places, and a major one was the wonderful hardcover book “The American Wilderness” by John Muir, a somewhat unlikely read for the typical African child, but part of my experience spending part of my childhood in the United States. Others were the romanticized and shallow portrayals of African wildlife in films like “Born Free” and “Serengeti Shall Not Die” by Joy Adamson and Bernhard Grzimek, respectively, which were made in the 1960s, but really became staples in the 1970s. One theme that endured the test of time from the turn of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century has been the dominance of white people in the global conservation narrative.

When we read the works of John Muir today, what stands out to critical observation is his gift of expression and passion for the wilderness he talks about. However, therein also lies the deep malaise that grew from charismatic men like him, and their gift for imparting their belief.  Conservation practice around the world today is based loosely on the fortress conservation model developed in 19th Century North America. Reference to history books reveals to us portraits of a society that had little or no place for any human perspectives that weren’t Christian, Male, and white. These dominant perspectives were enforced by continuous violence, perpetrated on Native American nations, women, black slaves brought from Africa, and Hispanic people from further south.

One of Muir’s more famous works, Our National Parks, was published in 1901 and this caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. They corresponded regularly and in 1903, Roosevelt visited Muir and they undertook a camping trip in Yosemite. To this day, it is still considered the “most significant camping trip” in history. There, together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Roosevelt’s expansive conservation programmes. This was the beginning of the global protected area network, driven largely by hubris and the need for self-actualization through the purported protection of “nature”. This convergence of ideas between these two famous men also conferred acceptability to the notion of “pristine wilderness” devoid of human presence. The seeds of racism in conservation practice were also sown during this time by Muir, who regarded Native Americans as “unclean” and something of a stain on the pristine wilderness that was Yosemite.

The perceptions of European colonists around the world determined what part of biodiversity was worth killing and what was worth saving, resulting in a strange situation where they simultaneously occupied the place of killers and that of “saviours”. Even today, where the intrinsic values of biodiversity seem to be indelibly stained by the needs of tourism, the desires and aspirations of white people continue to influence what in nature is to be eliminated as vermin, what is to be hunted for prestige as trophies, and what is precious enough to be protected through the use of force and violence.

In some cases, species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”. Indeed, conservation practice is one of the few facets of human endeavour where duplicity is accepted as the norm, with endangered wildlife protected with military might, while those who are wealthy enough gladly pay for licences to kill them for fun. We have Muir’s contemporaries like Teddy Roosevelt who were extraordinarily proficient killers of wildlife celebrated as pioneers of conservation. To fully understand the true import of John Muir’s story and legacy, conservation scholars ought to delve into American history to understand the context within which he was living and marvelling about this “beautiful wilderness” within which he found himself.

Firstly was the creation of Yellowstone National Park in March 1872. This park is widely acknowledged to be the foundation upon which the development of protected areas as a conservation tool grew into the widely held paradigm that we see today. We know very well what Yellowstone is in the history of America as written by the European colonists, but what is Yellowstone on the ground? A two million acre expanse of land from which the ancestors of the Kiowa and Crow Nations were excluded in order to provide a recreation area for the settler colonists. Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it “erases” indigenous people from landscape and lexicon. Even today, the history of Yellowstone as detailed in the US National Parks’ service website does not have any account of the Native Americans’ role in the history of the park. The history of Yellowstone National Park is therefore resolutely “white”.

Species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”.

The efficacy of terrestrial wildlife conservation is widely (and erroneously) stated by science to be proportional to the geographical size of the “protected area”. Conservation science knows, but never acknowledges that the geographical size of a protected area is also directly proportional to the degree of violence required to establish and maintain it. This thinking is also an inadvertent admission that present day conservation science is based on settler colonialism, primarily the notion that wildlife cannot sustainably share landscapes with humans. The sharing of habitats, landscapes and resources with wildlife is an ancient and present reality of indigenous populations all over the world. It is a widely accepted fact that human populations, consumption patterns, and carbon footprints have changed irreversibly over the centuries. However, humans are a unique species in that we are able to change the carrying capacity of their habitats through behaviour. When we examine this capacity for behaviour change through the prism of natural resource use, it is conservation practice in its purest form, the very essence of civilization.

From their own historical accounts, the settler society in North America was still a very primitive and violent society in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the gun becoming an essential part of everyday life for people everywhere, in farms, in the wild, and even in urban settings. The Hobbesian nature of North American settler society of the period gave rise to the second amendment to the US constitution giving every citizen the right to bear arms. This was a self-justifying law, because the right to bear arms, in itself gave rise to the overarching “self-defence” justification for bearing arms.

This is the world in which John Muir distinguished himself through his appreciation of wilderness and natural spaces. Through his appreciation for wild spaces and his gift for writing, he managed to bring nature “home” for the white settler population, gathering a vast following in the process. The amount of interest in nature that Muir managed to garner was also a reflection of the entitlement to it that was felt by the European settler population. The settler population’s admiration for nature made no reference to the Native American nations that they found living with, and using these resources. The universal admiration for National Parks also reveals ignorance or tacit acceptance of the fact that protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement. The peace and tranquillity that protected areas represent, is actually a result of areas being “cleansed” of the indigenous people that used them, an act that in itself reduces the owners of resources to the level of a nuisance that needs to be removed, or otherwise dealt with.

Racism is very difficult to deny or escape in conservation literature over the generations and Muir wasn’t immune to this difficulty. His writings revealed a grudging admiration for the ways in which the native Americans lived off the land on naturally available resources while leaving a very light footprint on the landscape. Muir’s own limitations in this regard were brought into sharp relief by his inability to find sufficient food during his forays into the wilds of Yosemite, the main limitation that curtailed the amount of time he could spend out in the wild. He was conflicted in the manner in which he regarded nature as clean and pristine, while regarding the natives who blended so well into it as “unclean”.

Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it ‘erases’ indigenous people from landscape and lexicon.

Despite being a typically detailed and expressive writer, Muir’s work studiously avoids mentioning any positive interactions with, or assistance from the Native Americans, although he does describe interactions and conversations with Chinese immigrants. This starkly illustrates conservation’s greatest prejudice—the disregard for indigenous peoples. It does not stand to reason that Muir could have spent so much time exploring, sketching, painting and describing Yosemite without regularly encountering its original residents. This was a deliberate effort to erase them from the Yosemite narrative and it is a sad testament to the culture of conservation that this erasure was accepted without question for over a century.

Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible, for instance in the way he refers to the Natives’ knowledge of their environment as “instinctive behaviour”, a description commonly used in zoology to describe the behaviour of various wildlife species. In addition, there is the conflicted manner in which one who considers himself a naturalist grudgingly admires indigenous knowledge, while stating that it is beyond the remit of what he describes as “civilized whites”.

Another vital lesson that contemporary conservation scholars should draw from Muir’s descriptions of his experiences is the nexus between western Christianity and conservation’s attendant prejudices.  Muir grew up in a staunch Christian family and the spiritual tone is very “audible” in his writing, particularly when describing beautiful features and landscapes. More telling, are the repeated references to the Native Americans as “unclean”. He expressly refers to “dirt” on their faces, but it is a well-known fact that face painting is an integral part of the culture of many Native American nations. Moreover, personal hygiene was never an important attribute of 19th century “civilized white” outdoorsmen. This was more a reference to “heathen” in the biblical sense—recognizing them as human, but unable to attain the imagined level of “cleanliness” upon which he placed “civilized whites” and nature.

Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible

In order to understand the impact (or lack thereof) that John Muir had on the behaviour of the “civilized whites” of his time, we need to examine the state of biodiversity in North America at the time. His lifetime (1838-1914) straddled a period of precipitous decline in wildlife species that had astounded settlers by their sheer abundance. The Bison roamed the prairies in the tens of millions until the early 19th century, but were hunted down to less than a hundred animals in 1880. They were killed for their tongues and hides, with the rest of the animal left out to rot. Even by contemporary standards, the sheer destructiveness and bloodlust defy belief. Some heroes like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody are still celebrated today for having single-handedly killed thousands of Bison.

Two notable declines of avifauna in North America also occurred during Muir’s years, namely the Ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon—species that neither posed any danger to, nor had direct conflict with human populations. The passenger pigeon’s decline was far more precipitous and it finally went extinct when the last specimen died in captivity in 1914. To put this into context, the passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds. They were hunted by the Native Americans for food, but the precipitous decline and eventual extinction was driven by the arrival of Europeans and hunting for food on a commercial scale. The ivory-billed woodpecker was also decimated by hunting, probably driven by the fact that it was a large, brightly coloured and highly visible bird.

Protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement.

The casual destruction is starkly illustrated by reports that in the late 1940s when the bird was critically endangered some hunters and fishermen were still using ivory-billed woodpecker flesh to bait traps and fishing hooks. Given the low level of technological advancement at the time, these extirpations demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to killing, which indigenous populations around the world are neither psychologically equipped to understand nor to perpetrate.

The unique neurosis of conservation interests and naturalists is notable in the fact that the final precipitous decline of both these species was driven by collectors who went out to shoot specimens for private and institutional collections. The inexplicable pride that collectors have in writing scientific papers about the “last collected” specimen is a feature that excludes indigenous people from extirpating species, because even where they are hunters, an animal that is reduced to a few specimens is no longer worth the energy and time required to hunt and kill it. For a “conservation scientist” however, when there are only two left, there is an irresistible compulsion to find them, kill them and collect them. The reward is fame through media coverage, scientific publications, promotion in academia, and bizarrely, conservation grants to help “prevent extinction ever happening again”.

The hundreds of skins of these decimated species that remain in the collections of universities and museums bear silent witness to the wanton destruction done in the name of conservation “science”. So the most important question of our times is, if we claim that John Muir inspires our conservation work more than a century after his passing, why wasn’t he able to stop the mass extinctions precipitated by the destructive nature of his fellow “civilized whites” in North America during his lifetime? It is very difficult to find any records of his trying to do so, despite all his lofty social connections. The lack of concern from conservationists over the actions of white people obviously isn’t a new phenomenon.

Conservation being a “noble obligation, therefore, set the stage for the exclusion of the proletariat, and the celebration of the nobles, regardless of what they actually do. Our state of knowledge in 2021 needs to acknowledge that sustainable use of natural resource is the cornerstone and a necessary preoccupation of indigenous civilizations all over the world. This is uncontestable because the indigenous societies that didn’t have this culture died out, leaving only ruins as evidence of their past existence. The fact that wildlife and biodiversity still exist side by side with these societies implies that conservation was, and still is part and parcel of their cultures and livelihoods. In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language because it was simply a principle governing how people lived their lives. The word used most often in Kiswahili, for example, is uhifadhi, which translates more accurately to “keep”, more akin to an item kept on a shelf than a living system with producers and consumers.

Therefore, conservation as a structured, abstract and discrete concept is a creation of destructive people, those who need to create barriers to their own consumption, which extends far beyond the remit of their needs and into the realm of wanton destruction. It is a concept that lives very comfortably with contradictions and duplicity, for example, the protection of wildlife not for its intrinsic value but in order to satisfy the desires of those who seek dominion over it. This fundamental flaw is the reason why wildlife conservation in Africa still remains and has been unable to escape from racism and violence to this day. Its mind-set grew from the thoughts, imaginations and deeds of Theodore Roosevelt and his bloodthirsty harvest of wildlife during his 1909 Kenya safari. The animals he brutally killed for his self-actualization are still displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (which sponsored his trip and still celebrates this slaughter to this day).

Many euphemisms have been used to describe his trip, including high-brow terms like “expedition” and “scientific collection”, but the truth is that he was neither a scientist nor and an explorer. He was a wealthy American seeking self-actualization and to demonstrate dominance through the slaughter of African wildlife. This is still the profile of westerners’ involvement in African conservation even in the 21st century, with the only notable difference being that some of them are now women and some come to “save” rather than slaughter our natural heritage.

Looking at the story of John Muir, there is so much importance attached to his association and closeness to Theodore Roosevelt, which of course is perceived as a significant bolster to his already considerable credentials as a conservationist. So who was “Teddy” Roosevelt and what does he mean to those of us seeking harmony with our natural heritage today? He was a picture of the self-interested need to possess and dominate nature that so often masquerades as love for nature and wildlife. This sentiment is also a very comfortable redoubt for racism, because it instantly places indigenous people living in situ in the position of “obstacles” to conservation and the survival of ecosystems. Roosevelt was an unabashed racist, and conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds.

Racism amongst individuals wasn’t remarkable in early 20th century America, but scholars of conservation today must pause for thought at the manner in which racists are accepted and celebrated by individuals and institutions in our field. The American Museum of Natural History in New York features a larger than life bronze statue of Roosevelt at the front entrance. He is astride a magnificent horse and flanked by two people on foot: a Native American, and a black man. The location of the statue implies appreciation of Roosevelt as a conservationist, but the statue itself portrays Roosevelt as a conqueror of sorts, giving a nod to white supremacy. We in conservation accepted it and never once questioned its message. It took the social upheavals and racial tensions of 2019 to commence discussions around its removal, almost 80 years after it was erected.

There are many cases in history where racists escaped odium because their prejudices were closeted. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t of that ilk. He described Native Americans as “squalid savages” and justified the taking of their lands to spread white European “civilization”. It isn’t difficult to imagine that this sentiment played an important part in his affinity for John Muir, especially since the creation of national parks was a faster and more effective way to appropriate lands belonging to indigenous people. It still is, all over the world. The following are excerpts from his spoken and written words. One of the most starkly racist statements from a world leader was probably Roosevelt’s expressed opinion on the lengthy genocide perpetrated by European settlers on the Native American population. “The most righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman . . . A sad and evil feature of such warfare is that whites, the representatives of civilization, speedily sink almost to the level of their barbarous foes.” 

It isn’t a stretch of imagination to perceive the possible part this sentiment played in the mutual admiration between Muir and Roosevelt. Muir’s regard of Native Americans as “unclean” would have been bolstered by the unequivocal support of a racist president. This in turn, would have greatly enhanced the moral acceptability of the violent eviction of Native Americans to make room for the National Parks that are so celebrated today.

Roosevelt’s racism wasn’t restricted to the natives and this was his opinion on the annexation of Texas in 1845: “It was of course ultimately to the great advantage of civilization that the Anglo-American should supplant the Indo-Spaniard.” His opinions on black people probably give us the most pause for thought when we examine the spread of fortress conservation around the world’ On slavery, Roosevelt said: “I know what a good side there was to slavery, but I know also what a hideous side there was to it, and this was the important side.” He also believed that the “average Negro” was not fit to take care of himself, and this was the cause of what he referred to as “the Negro problem”.

It isn’t debatable that Theodore Roosevelt was racist, and racism isn’t a new malaise afflicting societies around the world, but it is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world. Judging from the views he aired in the public domain, Roosevelt’s bigotry borders on white supremacy, but he was a much admired figure during and after his presidential tenure, receiving many accolades, including the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. In the 100 years since his death in 1919, he has been relentlessly celebrated as a champion of nature with a slavish devotion that only conservation and religious cults are able to inspire. He is praised for “setting aside” land for National Parks, even though it didn’t belong to him, and the process was in violation of Native Americans’ rights.

In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language.

Conservationists even celebrate the centenary of his slaughter of Kenyan wildlife, somehow seeing it as the inspiration for their conservation work. It was meticulously documented in photographs and journals, but through it all, Africans were conspicuous by their absence from the narrative. Photos therein depict hundreds of black porters carrying heavy loads on foot, while Roosevelt and his white companions rode on horseback. The inspiration for the bronze statue outside the American Museum of Natural History is obvious. His detailed journals narrating his direct bloodthirsty interaction with African wildlife without “interference” from indigenous populations helped give rise to  the myth of an untrammelled African “wilderness” devoid of human presence or influence.

Sadly, this still remains the cornerstone of what western tourists aspire to experience. It is ludicrous that conservation science even extends this fallacy to the rangelands of East Africa, which archaeology acknowledges to be the cradle of mankind, having developed in the presence of humans for over a million years. Indigenous peoples have been vilified by conservationists for generations as “primitive”’, “unclean” and “uncivilized”, but it is now time for us to acknowledge the truth and confront the fact that those dubious distinctions are actually features of conservationists and their chosen profession.

As we evolve into more intellectually astute or “civilized” practitioners of conservation, we will have to look at how attitudes have been shaped by Christianity, in nations where the settler colonialists included Christian missionaries. Dominion of man over other creatures is a well-known Christian tenet and dominion over the same in foreign lands is an expression of expansionism and imperialism over lands and peoples. An examination of the fortress conservation model and how it has been practiced around the world, its perceived successes and failures is basically a walk along the path trodden by European colonists in partnership with Western Christian missionaries.

The fortress conservation model has either died, or had to remodel itself radically in those societies where Christian missionaries and colonialists found strong and structured religious traditions that preceded them. Knowledge of this history is vital in the understanding of contemporary conservation narratives. China and India are the world’s two most populous nations. They are also home to a magnificent array of biodiversity, including iconic endangered species like the giant panda and the tiger, respectively. A common narrative in the conservation arena today is the claim that human populations are compromising the space available for wildlife and space needs to be “secured” for wildlife in one way or another. We have known for some time now that this is a racially biased concern because it is never said in reference to any country whose indigenous inhabitants are white, despite the fact that some like the UK have relatively high population densities and hardly any biodiversity worth speaking of. Countries like my homeland (Kenya) that have a well-developed tourism industry have the added intellectual burden of selling a spurious product which presumes to place indigenous people in the position of bystanders and props. Terms like “winning space for wildlife” are de rigueur in conservation circles with the attendant loss of resource rights remaining unsaid.

Closer scrutiny of all the noise surrounding human population as a challenge to conservation will reveal that China and India are prominent by their absence from this discussion. You are unlikely to hear of China’s human population being described on global platforms as a threat to the survival of the giant panda, or India’s population as a threat to survival of tigers. A similar argument could be extended to Indonesia on the nexus of population density, coexistence with biodiversity and low penetration of Christianity, which has now been replaced by conservation as the most effective vehicle of Caucasian hegemony in the world today.

Conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.

Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America like John Muir, who then presumed to claim ownership, concern and value for natural heritage beyond that of the Natives in whose presence this entire ecosystem had evolved. Today, it is incumbent upon conservation practitioners plying their trade away from their homelands to correct this by understanding and accepting local people’s aspirations.  We need to accept that these aspirations could include the desire for us to go away and leave them alone. We in conservation need to read more into the social sciences and move away from the imagination that ours is a field of biology. The Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe accurately (if inadvertently) describes conservation’s neuroses in his 2006 paper entitled Settler Colonialism and The Elimination of the Native. We must realize that the challenges we are facing aren’t discrete events, but a flawed, cruel and unjust structure, that must be dismantled before it collapses on itself.

The foibles and faults of Individuals like John Muir, therefore, aren’t the problem as much as the structure that they and others created that removes humans from nature and worships the resultant falsehood as a fetish. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Serengeti, Kruger, Tsavo, Corbett, Kaziranga and all the other national parks around the world are monuments to this fetish. We must value them, not just for their ecosystem values, but for the memories of the brutalized populations who were victims of their creation and continue to be victims of their maintenance. Anything else is patently false. We in Africa are constantly under assault from “saviours” who love African wildlife but hate African people. We must temper our celebration of conservation “icons” with knowledge of their deeds and context. If we do this, we’ll understand that someone like John Muir was just a relatively sensible member of a brutal and primitive colonial settler class who appreciated nature and sought to take it away from its indigenous owners.

It is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world.

The relentless need that westerners have to impose the colonial model of conservation on indigenous peoples of other races is less about concern for biodiversity and more about the need to deny the existence of the civilizations that preceded them in these lands. In my experience, one of the highest forms of civilization is the capability of living with wildlife for millennia without destroying it, and for this alone, indigenous peoples deserve to be celebrated, and not vilified, displaced and occasionally killed. This regular injustice has been accepted and celebrated for the last 100 years, until completely unrelated events in 2019 gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, global consciousness of racial injustice has been heightened, with calls for the removal of monuments to racists around the world, including Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History.

Things came full circle in July 2020, when the Sierra Club distanced itself from John Muir, its icon and founder, admitting that he was actually a racist. Is this new information? No it isn’t. John Muir was one of those people who achieved “icon” status in their lifetimes, so society has always been aware of what he said and his thoughts. Our acknowledgement today of his prejudices is simply a sign that the primitive conservation field is gradually becoming civilized. Ideally, we shouldn’t regard the legend of John Muir as an inspiration for anything we should do in the future, but as a prism through which we can view the false edifice we refer to as “conservation”. It is also a glimpse into conservation’s dark past—one that we should neither forget nor repeat. Through this prism of historical knowledge, “Yosemite” is an essential historical work for anyone who understands where conservation has come from, and where it should be aiming to go.

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Mordecai Ogada is a carnivore ecologist from Kenya and co-author of The Big Conservation Lie.

Long Reads

Polls and Ballots: Getting Into the ‘Weeds’ of Election-Based Survey Research

This is the third in a series of articles that will review and comment on surveys related to the August 2022 general election, providing analytical tools to enable the reader to assess their credibility and potential impact.

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Polls and Ballots: Getting Into the ‘Weeds’ of Election-Based Survey Research
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Given that it is well over a month since my last piece in the series, it is an understatement to say that much has happened in the intervening period. The three main developments that are covered here are: the changing positions of the two main presidential candidates, the earlier use of polls by political parties in the selection of candidates to augment or replace the usual nomination contests, and the announced selections of deputy presidential running mates by the two main presidential candidates just hours before the official deadline for doing so. In addition, a brief comment on TIFA’s more recent Nairobi County survey is offered.

‘Horse race’ update

Although several other firms have recently released presidential contest polls, I will ignore them here due to their lack of credibility (but shall take up this issue in a subsequent article) and concentrate on the three “mainstream pollsters” whose results this series has been tracking: TIFA Research, Infotrak and Radio Africa. The table below shows the reversal of fortunes of Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga found by all three firms:

Survey Firm  Sample Size / No. of Counties Survey Dates  Odinga Ruto Others Undecided / Won’t Vote/NR
TIFA Research 1,719 / 47 17 May 39% 35% 3% 23%
Infotrak 9,000 / 47 23-27 May 42% 38% 1% 19%
Radio Africa/The Star 4,780 / 47 8-9 June 45% 39% 3% 13%
Combined Average 42% 37% 2% 17%

Several comments help to explain these figures.

First, regarding data collection dates, although the TIFA survey was conducted the day after the announcement of former Gichugu MP and cabinet minister Martha Karua as Odinga’s DP running mate—with the announcement of Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua as Ruto’s running mate having been made the day before—not all respondents were able to name them.  Specifically, while 85 per cent of all respondents could name Karua, only 59 per cent could name Gachagua.  Several factors may account for this discrepancy, the two main ones being the much more public and “celebratory” event revealing Karua at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre compared with the more restrained and entrance-restricted one for Gachagua at the DP’s Karen residence, and Karua’s far larger public and political profile. This contrast notwithstanding, TIFA also provided correlation data that showed no statistical difference in expressed voting intentions for the two presidential candidates between those who did and those who did not correctly identify their running mates. (These correlations were based on the somewhat greater proportion of such Karua/Gachagua running mate awareness among those who elsewhere indicated that they intend to vote for Odinga or Ruto: 90 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively).

Specifically, the TIFA data reveals that slightly more of those aware of Karua as Odinga’s choice declared their intention to vote for him—41 per cent vs. 39 per cent for all respondents, and only 25 per cent among those who did not name her.  Further, among women only, there is a 9 per cent difference in this regard: 37 per cent vs. 28 per cent.  Yet similar results for Ruto’s running mate invite caution in concluding that knowing that Karua was Odinga’s choice itself made the difference. That is, considerably more of those respondents who could name Gachagua expressed a Ruto voting intention than those who could not (42 per cent vs. 26 per cent), with a nearly similar gap among women (37 per cent vs. 26 per cent).

Of course, if Gachagua were female, one would be tempted to conclude that gender per se accounts for this difference among respondents of both genders. That not being so, however, it would be necessary to explore other variables to account for this clear association of running mate knowledge with the propensity to vote for either Odinga or Ruto. A possible variable here is simply an interest in the presidential election/politics generally. This is apparent in that, among only those stating they are “undecided” about their presidential vote choice, significantly more could not name either Karua or Gachagua as compared with those who could: 23 per cent vs. 13 percent with regard to the former, and 18 per cent vs. 11 per cent with regard to the latter.

Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor.

Moreover, since neither Infotrak nor Radio Africa provided any such “running mate awareness” profile among their respondents, it was not possible to pose this question with regard to their data.  The question as to whether—and how—any of these firms will attempt to measure this “running mate” effect in their forthcoming polls thus remains.

Next, compared to the results in the most recent previous surveys of these three firms, Odinga’s gains are significant. In TIFA’s late April survey, Ruto enjoyed a 7 per cent advantage (39-32 per cent), in Radio Africa’s, a 5 per cent lead (46-41 per cent), while in Infotrak’s previous poll, he and Odinga were tied (42 per cent each). In other words, Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.

In addition, if all the respondents who declined or failed to name any candidate in these three polls are removed from the calculation, the most recent results are as follows:

Survey Firm  Total / Named Candidates Only
Re-Adjusted Margin of Error
Odinga Ruto Odinga Lead
TIFA Research 1,719 / 1,324:  +/-2.7% 51% 46% 5%
Infotrak 9,000 / 7,290:  +/-1.1% 52% 47% 5%
Radio Africa/The Star 4,780 / 4,135:   +/-1/5% 52% 45% 7%

In other words, since “Undecided”, “No Response”, and “Won’t Vote” are not options found on ballot papers, removing such survey responses from the calculation gives a more accurate picture of where the race actually stands: Odinga now enjoys leads that are beyond each firm’s margin of error (the slightly greater ones reflecting the reduced effective sample sizes). This is so even if it is reasonable to believe that some of these “no preferred candidate” respondents actually have one but were shy about revealing it for one reason or another.  (An attempt to “dig deeper” into the likely preferences of such respondents —at least those who will vote on 9 August—will be included in a subsequent piece in this series.)

At the same time, aside from those respondents who state that they will not vote—and even among those who declare that they will “definitely” vote in the surveys that included the relevant question—it is impossible to predict the levels and variations in voter turnout, even if, as Charles Hornsby has shown, such turnout rates have followed a fairly consistent pattern over the nearly six decades of Kenya’s independence.

Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.

All the above notwithstanding, given Odinga’s still quite modest lead in all three of these recent polls, the period remaining between when these three surveys were conducted and the election itself, together with expected (if unknown) differential turnout rates across the country, could still be the deciding factor (with turnout itself being a function of a complex combination of self/communal motivation and “external” mobilization, i.e., by individual candidates and/or political parties).

Nevertheless, it may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead.  Moreover, it can also be concluded that unless the proportion of votes for all other presidential candidates (of which there are just two as of now) amounts to more than at least 3 per cent, a runoff contest is unlikely. That said, the fact that George Wajackoyah received 7 per cent in a mid-June Nairobi poll conducted by TIFA does at least raise this possibility.

A final set of additional comments about these three polls may be offered.

First, while both TIFA and Infotrak employed their previous methodology of telephone (i.e., CATI) interviews, Radio Africa for the second time conducted its poll via SMS messages. Based on 4,780 respondents, the margin of error is shown as +/-1.5 per cent. This is correct, but contrasts with the incorrect figure in its previous survey of +/-4.5 per cent for a sample of 3,559, a mistake that I had noted in my previous piece. At the same time, however, this Radio Africa survey once again reports a considerably smaller proportion who declined to name a preferred presidential candidate as compared with the other two surveys—13 per cent, as opposed to 19 per cent by Infotrak and 23 per cent by TIFA.  Could this be because of the methodology used? That is, if those who receive the initial SMS can tell that it aims to collect data for a presidential elections survey, do many of those who have not made up their minds decline to participate so that a significant proportion of “undecided” responses are not even captured or reported? The fact that a source at the Star indicated that fewer than 10 per cent of those contacted via SMS for these surveys choose to participate suggests that this might be the case. This would also mean that for an achieved sample of 4,780, nearly 50,000 SMSs were initially sent out inviting participation.  Further, unless the Radio Africa data-base has fairly detailed demographic details for all the interviewed respondents, it seems it would be impossible to weight the data so as to accurately depict the “population universe” the respondents purport to represent—whether the entire Kenyan population as per the 2019 Census or the total of registered voters, at least as reflected in the 2017 Register (since the current, updated version was not available at the time of these surveys). That the Star’s report on this survey fails to include any demographic information about the achieved sample (even education levels as required by the Publication of Electoral Polls Act, 2012) makes it impossible to know.

The above discussion raises one other question about the achieved samples.  As I pointed out in my first piece for The Elephant, there are two basic requirements for “representative” samples. One is that the pool or data base from which respondents are selected must accurately represent the purported “population universe”. The other is that the process of selecting the relatively small number of respondents for interviews must be absolutely random, that is, without any bias, whether intentional or otherwise. While it is safe to assume the latter condition is strictly adhered to for the surveys reported here, a question may be raised about the former. That is, how precisely do these companies’ data bases reflect the “population universe” of adult Kenyans (or of registered voters, if respondent selection is restricted to them)?

For Infotrak and TIFA, this boils down to the mobile phone numbers from which their samples are drawn.  How many do they have, and do their distributions for both their national and sub-national results reflect the country’s reality on the ground, at least as captured in the 2019 Census?  It has been stated that both of these firms regularly collect mobile numbers in the course of conducting household or “face-to-face” surveys, whether the phone number acquired belongs to survey respondents themselves or to another household member (in cases where the respondent does not personally possess one).

It may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead.

In any case, two questions arise here.  First, how many Kenyan households lack even one mobile phone owner/user? Second, at least in terms of the content of the questions being asked in CATI surveys, would a survey on public and political issues, such as one dealing with the forthcoming election, produce measurably different results if the data obtained came entirely from such phoneless individuals or households?  While it is possible to compare the demographic profiles from respondents with and without such phones in previous surveys, the most precise way to answer this question is to conduct two surveys with the same content and at the same time but with respondents drawn from these two distinct “population universes”, an undertaking that I am not aware of having been done by any of these firms.  (During the period of my previous employment, I did undertake such an experiment, but that was over ten years ago when mobile phone ownership was far less extensive than it is now. Consequently, I do not feel it would be useful to present those results here.)

One reality that can be reported, however, is that according to the 2019 Census, some 20 million households have (or had then; the number has surely increased) such phones, most of those without being found in parts of the country outside the networks of all of the mobile network providers. Still, even in parts of the country covered by such networks, a few people, mostly the very poor, are without them.  With an adult population (i.e., 18 years and above—those who are routinely included in the sort of surveys discussed in this series) of around 25 million, this equates to some 85 per cent. And here I must correct Prof. Karuti Kanyinga who asserted in a recent Sunday Nation article that CATI surveys cannot be representative, since “only 47 per cent” of Kenyans owned mobile phones at the time of the 2019 Census. He evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults. As for Infotrak, in presenting presidential contest results for all 47 counties, one would want to know how extensive—and how representative—their mobile phone database is for each one, especially those mainly northern counties that still lack extensive network coverage.

Also, in the latest Infotrak survey, the 47 counties were divided into three categories: Odinga “strongholds”, Ruto “strongholds” and “battle-grounds”. Yet the lists are slightly misleading, in that the margin of error for these county results in several cases exceeds the difference between these two candidates. That is, the apparently impressively large sample of 9,000, when divided by 47 counties, yields a sub-sample average of only about 190 respondents per county, which has an associated margin of error of +/-7.1 per cent—equal to about a 14 per cent spread.  This means that any county results that fall within this range indicate that, in reality, either candidate could actually be leading. For Odinga, this removes Mombasa and Garissa from his list of 20 “strongholds”; for Ruto, the same applies to Laikipia and Isiolo from his list of 16.

Party nominations

One notable aspect of this electoral cycle is that, based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams. These have been conducted not just for measuring presidential candidate and party/coalition popularity as well as the salience of particular issues at the national, regional and county levels, but also, in particular contexts, for the selection of candidates so as to avoid the “messy” process of nomination contests. Just where and when such polls were used, whether as the sole basis for the awarding of nomination certificates, and whether they were used together with “consensus” and even voting, remains a subject for very rigorous research (hopefully by some energetic doctoral students).  What is clear, however, is that party and coalition leaders saw their main benefit as eliminating or at least significantly reducing the cost and acrimony of holding nomination elections, and even more potential acrimony when nominations were awarded in the absence of any competitive process at all (i.e., “dished out”, in Kenyan parlance). As the Sunday Nation reported just as the nomination period began, “The issuing of direct tickets to Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) hopefuls has caused unrest in the party strongholds, marking the start of a traditionally tumultuous season of political party nominations.”

Kanyinga evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults.

The Azimio coalition, and the ODM party in particular, have trumpeted their use of such research tools—albeit in particular, and limited, contexts—in selecting their flag-bearers.  This first came to my attention early this year when this coalition’s campaign chairman, Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi, who is known for his appreciation of “hard” data, was reported to have declared that the services of a pollster had been engaged “to conduct research that will help in determining popular candidates to fly the coalition’s flag in the August General Election”.  This same media report, quoted “a source” in the Odinga camp as saying that the data collected would be used to identify the “most popular candidates for all positions from MCA to governor”, and that this method was also aimed at “curbing violence” that is often generated by contested primaries. ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna was even more specific, revealing that the (unnamed) pollster had so far covered 15 counties with this figure to double “in the coming weeks.”  As he put it, “We want science to guide us.  We need not subject aspirants to an elective process when we know who is ahead of the others”, and he indicated that such direct tickets would be given to aspirants with “more than 20-30 percentage points over” their nearest rivals.

Subsequently, however, we saw controversy erupt in such places as Mombasa, where the opinion poll “losers” complained that they were being “unfairly” deprived of the chance to test their popularity with actual party members through primariesone of the several methods allowed for such candidate selection by the ODM party’s constitution.

While it cannot be denied that such competitive primaries have often triggered intra-party violence among rival supporters, several questions arise in connection with this “opinion poll” option.

First, as the chairperson of ODM’s National Elections Board, Catherine Muma, explained in a TV interview at the time, these polls were not restricted to party members as documented in the list that was filed with the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties, but to all people in a particular electoral unit. Given that actual ballot choices on 9 August are not limited to candidates of one party, this makes sense. But here, one would want to know if any “filter” questions were used, so that only those registered as voters in that unit were interviewed (since, especially in a town like Mombasa, a substantial minority are registered and vote in other parts of the Coast region, and even beyond). Also, were respondents asked to indicate who they thought would be actually vying for particular seats before being asked to indicate their preference?  If not, how could the popularity of any candidate be gauged against that of others?  And if they were asked, but mentioned only a few of them, then what? That is, with polls conducted a full four months before the election, it was unrealistic to expect that the eventual ballot “menu” for such seats could be known. More generally, at this preliminary stage of the electoral calendar, which factors determine an aspirant’s popularity that a poll could measure?  In particular, do incumbents have an advantage because of their name recognition, or a disadvantage, at least among those unhappy with the status quo and who are looking forward to punishing incumbents?  And further, if the samples for such polls were not limited to party members, does this not diminish, if not completely negate, the value of such membership itself?

Based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams.

Even if such polls were used much closer to the election—perhaps based on an understanding between coalition partners that those who performed poorly would drop out (at least before the ballot papers are printed!)—how “scientific” are they in terms of reliably indicating actual outcomes? ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna, as reported by NTV on 5 April, made the curious assertion that: “There is not a single time when the science has misled us, and those on this podium can bear me witness.  When we did the scientific poll in Msambweni [before the 15 December 2020 by-election] the actual results were exactly the same as what the science [of the poll] was telling us. The science and the results were spot-on.”

Since he did not identify the poll (or polls) he had in mind, I can only refer to the two polls I am aware of, both released in early December, just a few weeks before the by-election when voters should have been aware of all the candidates, and knew at least something about the main ones. Their results, together with the IEBC’s official results, are as follows:

Msambweni By-Election Poll/IEBC Results (Rounded Figures – Main Candidates Only)

Survey Firm/IEBC Publication Date Margin of Error Feisal Bader Omar Boga
Radio Africa/The Star 3 December, 2020 5.5% 29% 54%
TIFA Research 3 December, 2020 5.5% 36% 46%
IEBC: Official Result 15 December, 2020 —— 56% 39%

Both surveys had a margin of error of about +/- 5.5 per cent based on their respective sample sizes.  That means, for example, that in the Radio Africa poll, Boga’s support could have been as low as about 49 per cent, and in the TIFA poll, his support could have been as high as about 51 per cent, an indication that their results were pretty much in agreement.  But the conclusion should be clear: both polls were “wrong”.

So, was Sifuna referring to some other poll, perhaps one never made public? (Surely not the poll results released by the Bader campaign on social media on 18 November showing him with 74 per cent as against just 23 per cent for Boga!)  In that case, and if the official results mirrored it “exactly” (according to Sifuna—that is, an “upset” ODM loss), then we must assume either that the ODM campaign team, believing the contest was a lost cause, simply gave up (which surely would have caused Bader’s margin of victory compared to the poll to increase), or continued its campaign efforts to try to overcome Bader’s lead, but without any effect whatsoever.

There are several possible explanations, none mutually exclusive, as to why the two published polls failed to match “the reality”, perhaps most important among them: that, as in any election, differential voter turnout across any electoral unit cannot be predicted precisely. Moreover, by-elections invariably attract fewer voters than do general elections. In this Msambweni case, it was just under 40 per cent, and quite varied across the wards.  As such—and especially in such a by-election context—even “scientific sampling” can often yield misleading results.  In addition, however—and evidently more important—is that according to other reports at the time, Boga’s team was not nearly as active on the ground as Bader’s, in large part (I was told during a visit to the area this January) because the Boga campaign team “relaxed” after seeing these two polls, whereas Bader’s put even more energy into their efforts.

This is not to say that such polls are useless when parties/coalitions seek to identify their most-viable-candidate options.  But it is clear that their use should be accompanied by considerable caution, since their “science”, in terms of predicting popularity—and thus an election’s outcome—may be limited at best, especially when voters are not yet aware of the full and final ballot menu.

Choosing running mates

Let me turn finally to what has been perhaps the most remarkable use of surveys so far in this pre-election period: that conducted by UDA in identifying a running mate for their presidential candidate, William Ruto.

The DP himself made clear just prior to his announced choice at his Karen residence 15 on May that a “general public” poll of some 10,000 respondents had been conducted (although it remained unclear by whom) in the greater Mt. Kenya region, an exercise that was supplemented by an “electoral college” poll among area MPs. In both cases, we were told, Tharaka Nithi Senator, Prof. Kithure Kindiki, was the overwhelming choice (“90 per cent”). Yet almost in the next breath, the DP revealed that he had settled on Rigathi Gachagua (as noted above). In fact, prior to this announcement, it was reported that the DP had made this decision some time earlier—the “rag sheet” Weekly Citizen had headlined this choice in its 1-7 November publication! It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place.  The fact that Senator Kindiki chose not to attend this event, and only issued a statement later, served to underscore his own dissatisfaction with the process, or at least with the decision. Whether he would have attended had these poll results not existed or been released must be left to speculation; he subsequently re-joined Kenya Kwanza’s campaign activities.

Aside from whatever internal polling was conducted by the main presidential campaign teams, publicly released surveys exploring this issue were at least equally off the mark. In both Radio Africa’s early April survey and TIFA’s a few weeks later, the “best” running mates for Odinga in terms of bringing in the most additional votes as identified by respondents were Peter Kenneth, Kalonzo Musyoka and Karua, in that order. Likewise, both Radio Africa and TIFA identified Musalia Mudavadi as Ruto’s “best” choice, with the ultimate “winner”, Rigathi Gachagua coming in second in the Radio Africa poll—followed by Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro—and third in TIFA’s, behind Kirinyaga governor Anne Waiguru.

Closer to the actual day of the announcements, Infotrak results were nearer to the eventual reality with regard to Odinga’s “best” choice, Karua placing first, followed by Musyoka and Kenneth. For Ruto, however, the results were less “accurate” than in either of the two other polls on the issue, with Gachagua nowhere among the top three, those positions being taken by Mudavadi, Kindiki and Waiguru, respectively.

In none of these three cases would it be “fair” to criticize the pollsters for “getting it wrong”, since it would be expected that respondents’ choices are far more a reflection of their general familiarity with these political figures, rather than of any intimate knowledge of the factors being considered by the presidential candidates themselves and their closest associates. For the latter, while adding “the most votes” is clearly a critical one, other factors include, especially, the “depth” of one’s (and one’s friends) pockets for campaign resources, the personal “chemistry” between the would-be president and deputy as well as the “fit” of their policy agendas and priorities, and the perceived capacity of the deputy to run the executive in the president’s absence (or even permanent exit from office for whatever reason). In other words, the “ideal” running mate must have enough political stature and following to help the two of them win the election and then govern, but not so much as to constitute a rival or threat to the dominant position that the constitution bestows on the president.

It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place.

At the same time, in this 2022 context, several of these factors—whatever the weight given to each—are unlikely to apply equally to considerations by the Ruto and Odinga sides. This stems from the widespread assumption that whereas if he wins, Ruto would certainly attempt to extend his incumbency in 2027, there is rather less certainty that Odinga would do so due to his age, however healthy and vigorous the 77-year-old appears to be at present; indeed, some unconfirmed reports have indicated he has agreed to a single term.  As such, there is likely to be more jockeying for influence—and ultimately, executive power in 2027—on the Azimio side of the partisan equation following the inauguration ceremony, eventually if not immediately.

TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey (20 June)

Contest Candidates and Percentages
Governor J. Sakaja – 40% P. Igathe – 32% Others – 9% Undecided/NR – 28%
President R. Odinga – 50% W. Ruto – 25% Others – 8% Undecided/NR – 18%

The results of TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey carried out on 20 June have invited numerous queries as to how Johnstone Sakaja, the UDA/Kenya Kwanza candidate for governor, could clearly be more popular than Polycarp Igathe of Jubilee/Azimio, whereas the former’s presidential candidate is only half as popular as the latter’s (25 per cent vs. 50 per cent). While the data does not suggest an explanation, several “common sense” factors do. First, Sakaja has been in Nairobi public life for nearly a decade, first as a nominated MP, and then as the current senator. He has also been highly visible, frequently appearing on TV talk shows and taking well-publicized positions on various county and national issues.  Prior to the 2013 election, he served as chairman of presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance Party (TNA), at the time “the youngest person in the world” to hold such a position (according to Wikipedia).  By contrast, relatively few (in Nairobi, at least) had heard of Igathe before he was selected by then Nairobi gubernatorial candidate Mike Mbuvi Sonko to be his deputy governor running mate for the 2017 election on behalf of the winning Jubilee party. He then largely vanished from public life after only six months, when he resigned from this position, having fallen out with Governor Sonko, who would later be removed from office through impeachment. More broadly, given the general absence of clear policy or ideological differences in Kenya’s political parties, especially perhaps in terms of county-level issues, it is clear that “personality”, including one’s personal “track record” is more salient for many voters. Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor. As such, while party/coalition identity certainly has some salience, it is far from overwhelming, at least for this forthcoming Nairobi gubernatorial contest. Regardless, how much rhetorical attention/support Sakaja will give to Ruto during his Nairobi campaigns between now and the election will still be interesting to watch. However, should the current investigation into Sakaja’s Uganda Team University degree result in his disqualification, this issue may become moot though at the time of TIFA’s survey, an impressive 20 per cent of those who declared their intention to vote for him also indicated they do not believe his Team degree is valid!

Concluding point: heading to the home stretch

Whatever the frequency of both public and internal polls so far, it may be expected that it will increase in the remaining five weeks or so prior to 9 August. In addition to the regular, roughly monthly, surveys by Radio Africa, TIFA and Infotrak, it is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election. The main media houses have also shown an increased interest in these surveys, in terms of sponsorship as well as coverage (in both news bulletins and talk shows).

It is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election.

Just how much such poll results—and their accompanying/reactive commentary—may influence actual voting patterns remains a subject for a future piece in this series. So, too, does a consideration of how such devices might help to answer another major question about Kenyans’ voting behaviour: how can the split about presidential choices, especially within particular ethnic groups, be understood?  In this context, it will be argued that simply posing this question should help to dilute the greatly overstated mantra that “all Kenyan politics is ethnic”!

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Where is Exiled Former Rwandan Journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga?

In spite of the official denial of involvement, the arrest and disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga is proof that the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana and the Rwanda genocide that followed is, tragically, still claiming new casualties.

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Where is Exiled Former Rwandan Journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga?
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The last time eyewitnesses saw former Rwandan journalist and activist Cassien Ntamuhanga alive was on the 23rd of May 2021 when he was arrested by agents of the Mozambique National Criminal Investigation Service (SERNIC). On arrival in Mozambique, Ntamuhanga had asked for asylum and refugee status because of persecution back home in Rwanda and, therefore, according to international humanitarian law, he was a protected person in Mozambique—at least until his request for asylum was heard and determined by the competent authority in Mozambique. Those protections included protection from arrest and refoulement—forced repatriation back to Rwanda, his country of origin, which he had fled because of persecution.

Ntamuhanga was first taken to the Inhaca Island Police station before being transferred to Maputo. He had been living on Inhaca Island since he fled Rwanda in 2017. At the time of Ntamuhanga’s arrest, a man in civilian clothing who had accompanied the policemen who arrested him was heard speaking to him in Kinyarwanda. The SERNIC, Mozambique’s police service and the embassy of Rwanda in Maputo have all denied any knowledge of the “alleged” arrest of Cassien Ntamuhanga although several eyewitnesses in Inhaca have confirmed having witnessed the arrest.

As of this writing, the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga are unknown. The fact of the matter is that the last time Cassien Ntamuhanga was seen in public he was under the custody of men in the uniform of the Mozambique police service and SERNIC. The arrest of Cassien Ntamuhanga, former Rwandan journalist and critic of the Rwanda government has rung alarm bells because his disappearance, which has been denied by both Mozambique and Rwanda police, falls into a pattern of such disappearances of Rwandans in Rwanda or in exile only for their bodies to be found days later.

Both SERNIC and Mozambique’s police service have denied holding Ntamuhanga in custody. Ntamuhanga had fled Rwanda after escaping from custody after he and Kizito Mihigo had been arrested and charged with treason. Both had been arrested in 2014 and charged with plotting terror attacks against Rwanda and plotting to overthrow the Rwandan government. These very serious charges had been brought against Ntamuhanga and Mihigo by the Rwanda prosecutor. At the trial of the two, the Rwandan court sentenced Kizito Mihigo to twenty-five years in jail on a verdict of treason and terrorism against the state. Ntamuhanga, who was accused of terrorism, inciting disaffection against the government of Rwanda and for genocide denial, was convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison in 2015.  In 2017, Cassien Ntamuhanga escaped from prison and fled to Mozambique from Rwanda.

On the 6th of May 2021, Cassien Ntamuhanga was tried in absentia in Rwanda and handed a 25-year prison sentence for facilitating terrorist activities and for financing from abroad the making of bombs to be exploded in Rwanda. At Cassien’s trial, his alleged accomplice told the court that Ntamuhanga had paid the accomplice to make bombs to be used to overthrow the government of Rwanda. And then, on 23rd May 2021, Cassien Ntamuhanga disappeared.

***

Uzabe Intwari

“Be a hero, my child

I love you and through that

I love Rwanda

That’s why I am dedicating it to you

Be a hero,

Be important for Rwanda”

Uzabe Intwari, Be a Hero, is a song Kizito Mihigo sung in 2019 urging peace and reconciliation. Rwandans admiringly called him Inuma, the Dove, because of his courageous campaign for peaceful coexistence and reconciliation among all Rwandans. A year after he sang this song, Kizito Mihigo hung himself with a bedsheet from the window of a police cell that has no windows.

To win us with honest trifles, then to betray us in deepest consequence

Given the disappearances of Rwandans in Rwanda and abroad, a deeper look at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga demands of us that all voices speak up and refuse to be silent any longer following this latest disappearance. For, in the end, even Macbeth had to listen when the cries of Scotland’s many widows demanded of King Macbeth an accounting. There is an aptness in seeing events in Rwanda through the frame of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. For Shakespeare’s play is very much the needed journey into the psyche of the repressive and coercive Rwandan state. Here are the events that precede General Macbeth’s accession to the throne of Scotland, which at the time was fighting both a Civil War and an Invasion by a foreign army (Norwegian).

A year after he sang this song, Kizito Mihigo hung himself with a bedsheet from the window of a police cell that has no windows.

As Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, and Banquo his fellow general, walk from the latest battlefield in the Civil War in Scotland, three witches hail Macbeth with the titles of Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cowdor and King hereafter. And then immediately afterwards, news comes that King Duncun has invested Macbeth with the titles and dignities of Thane of Cowdor, the rebel who General Macbeth had just recently killed on the field of battle. After this surprising news, Banquo comments on how startled and deeply disturbed Macbeth looks—when what the Witches had just told Macbeth is nothing but good news on his fortunate new stature. But Macbeth looks reflectively at Banquo and reminds him that the witches who have made him (Macbeth) the Thane of Cowdor had also prophesied that Banquo would be the father of many Kings who would go on to rule Scotland although he (Banquo) himself would never be King—the Witches had called Banquo lesser than Macbeth yet greater. And then, reflecting on Macbeth’s rapid change of fortune, Banquo warns:

But ’tis strange,
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence. (Act I Scene 3, Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

Shortly thereafter Macbeth invites King Duncun to his estate and there murders the King and seizes the throne. The promises given to Macbeth by the instruments of darkness have been fulfilled—Macbeth is now the King of Scotland and among his first acts is to murder Banquo whose son Fleance barely escapes his father’s assassins to join the growing force of opposition to the King in exile. In his palace, Macbeth the new King of Scotland finds the Ghost of Banquo haunting his every waking moment. And so “to make assurance double sure” as Macbeth says, he goes back to the Witches for prophecies of the future and to learn how to protect his throne from the fate that had befallen his predecessor, King Duncan.

At his second encounter with the Witches, the Weird Sisters warn Macbeth to beware of Macduff, a Scottish nobleman and leader of the opposition against his (Macbeth’s) increasingly repressive rule. The Witches further advise Macbeth to harshly stamp out all dissenting voices without fear of any consequences because none of woman born shall ever harm Macbeth—his power and that of the state of which he is the head is proof against any and all opposition and conspirators because Macbeth “shall never be vanquished until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come”—an impossible proposition because no forest can walk up the hill to attack Macbeth’s well defended castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth builds a formidable intelligence service and sends them out to spy against opponents at home and abroad. And so he can boast that:

“There’s not one of them but in his house I have a servant fee’d” (Act I Scene 3)

As in Rwanda, so in repressive and authoritarian Scotland; Macbeth has good reason for the fact that his trust in his well-educated and highly trained state intelligence service is absolute, justified. Yet his wife is driven insane and then to death by the unwashable sight of King Duncan’s blood on her hands. Macbeth finds that in spite of all his powers of command over the state, he cannot command a calm and stoic forbearance in his partner in crime. What drives Lady Macbeth insane and kills her is the fact that she cannot wash away the haunting blood of King Duncun from her hands that she keeps obsessively washing. And it is from the moment of these scenes of dread unknown to Scotland inside his own home and marriage that Macbeth discovers that the power that the instruments of darkness had put in his hands is power, yes, but also, to his horror he discovers that it is a power against which his own humanity is helpless. It is a horror that Macbeth cannot even share with anyone else outside of his inner circle. And to his greatest horror, this same dread turns the power that he had craved so much into but ashes in the soul.

A deeper look at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga demands of us that all voices speak up and refuse to be silent any longer following this latest disappearance.

And thus, the instruments of darkness begin their work of betraying Macbeth “in deepest consequence”. In the end, after all his trust in their dark powers, the Instruments of darkness that he had embraced forsake him when indeed great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill comes. The forces which will liberate Scotland from Macbeth’s dictatorship have arrived led by Macduff—he that was “none of woman born” because he was ripped prematurely from his dead mother’s womb. Having assassinated Scotland’s leader, King Duncun, Macbeth finds that the only way to assure his security is through more bloodshed. This in spite of the warning that the Weird Sisters had given him: security is mortal’s chiefest enemy. In his quest for will-o’-the wisp security, Macbeth embarks on an endless campaign of repression and assassination world without end.

Poignantly, Macbeth will have to watch helplessly as the horrors of his Faustian bargain destroy the mind of his steely iron lady, Lady Macbeth. The only security for him now is to remain in power forever, but mortals are mortal—or, as Lennox sardonically puts it, men must not walk too late—or else when they die violently, the fearful son fled into exile might find himself ever so rightly, ever so easily, accused of being the murderer of his luckless father.

The original sin

Right from the assassination of Seth Sendashonga  in exile in Kenya in 1998, to this latest outrage—the forced disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga on 23rd May 2021—there is a context that Rwandans silently acknowledge but which the rest of the world may need to understand because the violence that these exiled Rwandans are subjected to reflects the situation, the larger context of violence and impunity, that birthed post-genocide Rwanda. And it is that context that the rest of the world needs to understand given the indifferent silence coming out of Rwanda on the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga just as has happened when other Rwandans have met a tragic end either within Rwanda or abroad.

Much like Scotland in the grip of murderous King Macbeth, Rwanda is in the grip of a murderous regime at whose head is a ruler haunted by the assassination of Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana. Rwanda will only know peace when the true facts of the death of President Habyarimana are publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda by all Rwandans. There is a divinity hedges the person of the King, the Bard of Avon once said—the assassination of the president is no small matter to be swept aside because Rwanda must move on past the genocide. In the meantime, as in Scotland after the murder of King Duncan, Rwanda and Rwandans continue to pay the terrible price of that death that has never been acknowledged, never been investigated, never been accounted for.

The assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana is Rwanda’s Original Sin, which unless acknowledged and expiated, there is never going to be any peace for the current powerholders in Rwanda, however many more Rwandans are assassinated in the name of national security. Until the assassination of President Habyarimana is publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda, the death of the President is the terrible cross that every Rwandan must bear. Yet the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana was not a horrific aberration, it did not come out of the blue. There is a precedent, and that precedent is the haunting, poignant figure of Fred Rwigyema, the leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front until his assassination in Uganda just before the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPC) began its last major incursion into Rwanda that would set the stage for the terrible last phase of the civil war and the genocide that followed as inevitably as night follows day.

Fred Gisa Rwigyema. Magnanimous Rwigyema—for his superlative battlefield tactics and treatment of outpaced and outmanoeuvred opponents in northern Uganda, he was gratefully nicknamed the god of war by those he had defeated on the battlefield. In Africa’s vicious counterinsurgency operations, it is very rare for such accolades to be bestowed upon the victorious government’s battlefield general by those he has just defeated. It is indeed a rare accolade by rebels to a government soldier anywhere in Africa. General Fred Rwigyema was that rare African General who earned battlefield honours from his defeated opponents. And there is more: for General Fred Rwigyema was a soldier’s soldier—even apart from the fact that he was that rare soldier whom his defeated enemy was always happy to surrender arms to.

Macbeth finds that in spite of all his powers of command over the state, he cannot command a calm and stoic forbearance in his partner in crime.

Fred Rwigyema’s vision of the RPF was of the RPF as a movement for all Rwandans. All. General Fred Rwigyema’s vision of Rwanda was of a country where all Rwandans would find a place as Tutsi, Hutu and Ba’Twa—and still find the space to live together as Rwandans. Rwanda first and always. That was the vision of General Fred Rwigyema—and it was the reason why Hutus joined the RPF without any doubts as to the motives of the rebel army. The General’s vision was the reason why the Ba’Twa, who are always so afraid of the latest turn of national events in Rwanda —formed the formidable, silent and unseen backbone of his intelligence service. After witnessing and hearing of his storied counterinsurgency campaigns in northern Uganda, the Ba’Twa had embraced the General with open arms, for General Fred Rwigyema’s RPF were all Rwandans fighting for a better day for their country. Their return to Rwanda from exile was anticipated with joy and love for Rwanda. And in Rwanda, the return of General Fred Rwigyema was as eagerly anticipated by the Rwandans in the north who had heard of the General’s reputation for magnanimity, especially in the north of Uganda where he had led a fabled counterinsurgency war against the remnants of the Obote regime.

Counterinsurgency warfare is scorched earth war, war to the knife, war to the death. And yet, General Fred Rwigyema executed counterinsurgency operations in northern Uganda that left the locals full of admiration for this soldier-statesman. On the 1st of October 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda from Uganda. And on the 2nd of October, General Fred Rwigyema was dead. Shot dead accidentally, according to later RPF reports. If the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana triggered the Rwanda genocide, the death of General Fred Rwigyema on the second day of the invasion of Rwanda by his motivated RPF was a tragedy whose cost Rwandans would not discover for decades. Like Banquo’s Ghost upending national events in Macbeth’s Scotland, General Fred Rwigyema’s enigmatic smile haunts Rwandans wherever they go. The haunting vision of a Rwanda that acknowledges Hutu as Hutu, Tutsi as Tutsi, Ba’Twa as proudly Ba’Twa—and still forges these three into the supple bladed steel of a proud and stable Rwanda. O General Fred Rwigyema. What a vision. And what a tragedy. For that vision of a Rwanda of the three proud nations (Hutu, Tutsi, Twa) died on the second day of the invasion that General Fred Rwigyema intended would rid Rwanda of ethnic supremacy once and for all time.

In General Fred Rwigyema one sees the Rwanda that could have been. And in his death, one sees the prologue to all the horrors that would afflict Rwanda and her neighbours in the decades to come. The death of General Fred Rwigyema was a loss with which the African Great Lakes Region is only now beginning to reckon. The cost of the General’s death has been too high for this region. Yet in this poignant loss there is a hard lesson for the Great Lakes Region: our perennial instability and its terrible toll in blood and treasure always springs from that same place where the adulation of General Rwigyema springs from: we in the Great Lakes Region are always greatly enamoured of charismatic leaders, not institutions. When such a great leader passes from the scene prematurely or in the fullness of a life well lived, we are always left bereft. The lesson, as ever, is a poignant one: in our failure to cultivate viable, lasting national institutions, we have left ourselves and our countries open to the vagaries of capricious fate. Get a charismatic leader of vision and magnanimity like President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and the nation reaps big in terms of stability. Get a charismatic leader of capricious intent like Iddi Amin and suffer the cost in lives lost and spend decades trying in vain to repair the irreparable damage. And even when the visionary leader comes, his departure is always a catastrophe to the nation because his successors feel called upon to knock down his legacy—just for the sheer pleasure of boy-like cruelty, malice and revenge.

In General Fred Rwigyema one begins to understand the driven vindictiveness, the unquenchable rage that drives the state to expend scarce resources in pursuit of exiles in faraway countries like South Africa, Canada, and Mozambique. Behind every question that Rwandans ask about the horrors that the state is inflicting upon all Rwanda, there is the patient, enigmatic smile of General Fred Rwigyema. Behind the driven insatiable pursuit of the wealth of neighbouring countries, there stands the Ghost of General Fred Rwigyema: quizzical, gentle, aloof, questioning, mocking, never to be appeased by the baubles looted from neighbouring countries in the grip of their own national traumas. And the unaccounted for deaths continue to haunt Rwanda: King Mutara III Rudahigwa, President Grégoire Kayibanda, General Fred Rwigyema, President Juvenal Habyarimana, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Umwamikazi Rosalie—the gathering of the angry and the impatient and the forgiving and the patient ghosts grows ever bigger, the list of their names ever longer.

It is hard to live up to the high standards of the illustrious dead. And so we lash out at those who would, even unintentionally, remind us of their unreachable visions, their rigorously high standards. Self-questioning, consensus seeking, patience, an instinctive empathy for the humanity of the other side: inhumanly high standards. Hence the impatience with that past. Hence the taboo on any talk of involving the old royals in any attempts at reconciliation. And, please, whatever you do, do not mention the monarchy. And please, whatever you do, do not mention the foundational covenant which, for the sacred stability of the land, the illustrious Gihanga, founder-hero, made with Rwanda. And please, whatever you do, do not talk of reconciliation. Reconciling with whom? Reconciling for what? And, hence the taboo on the mentioning of that name, Fred Rwigyema, in the hearing of the leader.

Rwanda will only know peace when the true facts of the death of President Habyarimana are publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda by all Rwandans.

Yet that self-mocking smile accompanies us everywhere we go. We see the ineradicable face in every face in the crowd. So we lash out at any idealist young man, woman who reminds us of that enigmatic presence who sits ever so patiently at the head of the dinner table every evening. Is it the Ghost of Banquo? Or is it the Ghost of that troublesome Fred Rwigyema and his nostalgias for a bygone time? We lash out at any questioner whose patriotism is instantly questioned—because they were not there when we were fighting for all this. What do they know? And so we lash out, single them out. Crush them. One by one—or all at once. For we live a charmed life—and we have this divine cachet to turn these naïfs into meat for the crocodiles. So we make them our training partners even if they are unwilling and they pay in blood—pay like Sewell, that naïf who faced General Macbeth in the naive innocence of callow youth and paid with his life; let every callow opponent come forth one and all. Just so that we can give the intelligence apparatus some live fire practice. And there is a kind of glee, a kind of insane greed for violence in the heart of the state when yet one more opponent is discovered and state resources are mobilized against him. Then, at the presidential intelligence headquarters, one notices an increased tempo in affairs, a quickening of pace, a tighter, happier smile, a sense of the blood beating faster in the heart, the pulse ticking steadily at the temple. Like an eager Macbeth putting on his armour gleefully, greedily even, before the time of battle arrives, these Rwandans now in the grip of a fate they no longer control, are driven to put on a greater show of national purpose. Even when the enemy threat is no longer a more restrained Congo or a wiser Uganda but a lonely exiled Cassien Ntamuhanga, heartsick for the fabled hills of his beloved Rwanda.

That famed Rwigyema sense of proportion, that calm sense of perspective, that lucky coup d’oeil that Fred was so famed for in the midst of a developing crisis—that is all gone now. It is all about hunting down lone Rwandans in foreign lands and caning domestic servants. So we lash out. And the language gets more intemperate, more brazen too; even as a distraught family mourns the murder of Patrick Karegeya, the head of state can warn the other exiles that, for them too, it is but a matter of time. And there is no need for any pretence anymore at consultation, at listening to the other side’s view: the other ones whom General Fred Rwigyema would always listen to so patiently. So what of them? Who needs them? Rwanda does not need them. We are all Rwandans here. General Fred Rwigyema’s vision of a Rwanda of Hutu, Tutsi, Twa? No need. We are all Rwandans here so do not ask me whether I am Tutsi or what have you. And so we lash out. And the remembrance days get longer, the memorials more lavish, more obscene, more outrageous each year. Kwibuka: lest we forget—and naïfs like young Sewell standing gangly and callow before Macbeth with a sword in his right hand—these naïfs did not even know what there was that so needed to be forgotten in the first place. They did not even know that we lead a charmed life. So their questioning, their ridiculous demands for an accounting are all a naive tilting at windmills. And so young Sewell falls to the General’s sword without even seeing where the blow that cut off his life came from. They cannot see me coming: I am as the leopard, the eagle, the silent running predator. I will come at them out of left field.

In this journey of anguished self-examination at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga, one knows that wherever Cassien Ntamuhanga is, as the strong Christian that he is, were he able to reach out, he would ask that the Church in Rwanda pray for him. So once again, the Church finds itself called upon to intervene for the sake of Rwanda on the side of the beleaguered individual whose life forever stands forfeit because the state is yet to address the value of the life of the Rwandan. Only the Church can help Rwandans to retrace the path towards the sacredness of life. As the Church in Rwanda stood with Rwandans when Rwanda descended into the abyss, some clergy, unfortunately, walked with them that pushed Rwanda unto the abyss of the damned. The sacredness of the life of every Rwandan—leader or ordinary faithful— is a call in which all of us still look to the Church. Only the Church has the stature to stand with the ordinary Rwandan against the might of the unaccountable Rwandan state. Only the Church will help Rwandans to rediscover the sacredness, the cherished value of human life in Rwanda. For without that reverent realisation of the sacredness and the worth of each Rwandan’s life, all life is forfeit in Rwanda, and if the sacredness of life in Rwanda is forfeit, then Rwanda itself is forfeit.

In General Fred Rwigyema one begins to understand the driven vindictiveness, the unquenchable rage that drives the state to expend scarce resources in pursuit of exiles in faraway countries.

Mwami Mutara III Rudahigwa’s unexplained death in Bujumbura would set the stage for the deaths to come in Rwanda. The death of the king while on a visit to Burundi planted the seeds of the rancour that corrodes Rwanda’s national psyche to this day. Allegations of his poisoning by Belgian authorities have persisted to this day. The unexplained death of the king robs Rwanda of stability because whenever followers of another assassinated leader demand an investigation, their demands are blithely ignored because of the precedent set by Rwanda’s failure to judicially investigate the death of Mwami Rudahigwa and thus give his followers closure. His followers’ calls for an investigation have always been ignored by the successive rulers who have come to power in Rwanda since the revolution of 1959. Yet any Rwandan leader who ignores the calls to investigate the king’s unexplained death is giving hostages to fortune. “There’s such divinity doth hedge the person of a King” (Act IV Scene 5, Hamlet by William Shakespeare). No Rwandan leader has ever acknowledged the need to investigate the death of King Mutara III Rudahigwa – and the followers of the current leaders have been equally silent about the King’s unexplained death abroad. As for King Mutara III Rudahigwa’s followers, the death of the King on the 25th of July 1959 is an occasion for such deep mourning that you would think the king has just died this past July.

So what happens when your leader, in his turn, dies an unexplained or an unnatural deathwhich tends to be the special end Rwanda inflicts on its leaders? Whenever his followers gather to commemorate the life of King Rudahigwa, the current occupant of state house Kigali should look back to the fate that overtook his predecessors who blithely ignored the pained call for closure by King Rudahigwa’s followers. It is a call that has been ignored every year by each subsequent ruler of Rwanda. The meaning of this act is deafeningly loud, for when a ruler deems the life of his predecessor to be without worth, he speaks urgently, insistently, imperiously, to the future. And such a leader will not value the life of any of the citizens from whom he expects due regard as the leader. The stability of Rwanda is anchored in the sacredness of each individual’s life. When the ruler forfeits the life of but one of his subjects, his is forfeit. It is the unresolved end to the life of King Rudahigwa that has made the life of each subsequent Rwandan leader such a fraught life. And the fragility of the life of the leader is at the foundational roots of the instability that has rotted the core of the Rwandan state.

Like Banquo’s Ghost upending national events in Macbeth’s Scotland, General Fred Rwigyema’s enigmatic smile haunts Rwandans wherever they go.

All Rwandans have mocked and excoriated the ceremonial that surrounded the life of the King. But as Rwanda continues to pay this very high price in instability, the unappeased presence of His Majesty King Mutara III Rudahigwa waits out there in Nyanza. The unspeakable crimes perpetrated by the monarchy against Rwandans in the past have precluded any mention of the monarchy in the national non-discourse in Rwanda. Rwandans, like the son who rejects the name his father gave him, have the right to try to reject their monarchical heritage; yet they will fail in this—as they have failed in the past. And the cost of failure is this periodic decent into the abyss because the unrestrained Rwandan state does not recognize any right to life, liberty or life’s pursuits. Any call for accountability, for restraint when it comes to the king, is immediately dismissed out of hand as an unrealistic attempt at returning the monarchy to power. As genocide denial, even. Yet the continued dismissal of the King’s followers’ call for justice is but a measure of how fragile the new normal in Rwanda is. The call for an accounting for the fate of the king is a call for justice; the decision on the fate of the monarchy in Rwanda was the prerogative of Rwandansand they did exercise it. In embracing the state with its arrogant lack of restraint when it comes to the fate of the king, Rwandans continually signal to the state that it can continue on its unrestrained, unaccountable patheven though that road is guaranteed to lead all Rwanda into the abyss.

The life of the individual is only as sacred as the life of the leader is; the life of the leader is only as sacred as the life of the individual is. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s life is as sacred as is the life of Rwanda’s leader; and the converse is also absolutely true. The fate of Grégoire Kayibanda, Rwanda’s first President, speaks to the urgent need to reckon with the fate of the king. When President Grégoire Kayibanda was overthrown, he was placed under house arrest and starved to death. There has been no attempt to atone for this terrible tragedy for Rwanda. President Kayibanda was Rwanda’s president and the worth of a Rwandan hinges on the worth that Rwanda places on the life of President Kayibanda. Atonement is overdue here and Rwanda stares deep into the abyss as each day it ignores the harrowing fate that his successors visited upon President Kayibanda. For the leader of the nation to starve to death is for the nation to starve to death. Rwanda needs to raise its voice for and speak the name of President Grégoire Kayibanda for the sake of the nation’s continued good health and stability. Rwandans must act with restraint towards their leaders if they expect Rwanda to act with wise restraint and forbearance towards each Rwandan. It must be a living nightmare to be the leader of a country where you live with the horrific knowledge that the citizens who call you excellency starved your predecessor to death. It is the kind of history that does not bode well for an enlightened and forbearing leadership.

Perhaps the unpredictable quicksilver character of Rwandan leadership (which is glossed over as Rwandan leader-order) is learnt from the nightmare mirror that is the fate of President Kayibanda. And yet Rwanda continues to ignore the roaring voice of this quintessence of the Rwandan psyche. President Kayibanda’s cold unconcern at the rampaging mobs who executed the seed-genocide of his reign was but a harbinger of things to come for Rwanda. In the shrieking ghost of President Kayibanda one hears the shrieking cries of the dying and the howling roars of the marauding mobs. His reign was but a rehearsal for the Rwanda that would be. He stands present there in the Rwandan national psyche together with the roaring mobs of his reign dancing to bloodcurdling songs while the dying shriek the name of Grégoire Kayibanda in all their despair.

Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with President Grégoire Kayibanda and his traumatic reign is Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with fate. It is a failure of national nerve that means that each generation of Rwandans cruelly kicks this overdue reckoning down the road to the next generation—their own children. It is a cruel father who points the vengeful ghosts of his own forefathers in the direction of his toddler son. Mama ni mama, angali mvi, your mother is your mother even if she is whitehaired. Mercurial President Grégoire Kayibanda belongs in the Rwandan national arena as surely as the thousand hills belong to Rwanda. Of course, it does not follow that just because he stands present in the national psyche Rwanda will do right by President Grégoire Kayibanda. Yet the price Rwanda has already paid for its amnesia over Rwanda’s first president is a price very few nations are willing to pay. Yet Rwandans seem ever ready for their periodic plunge into the abyss. Is it stoicism? Or is it a national death wish? A stoicism that makes you hand over the fate of your daughters into the hands of your worst enemies? A death wish that plays Rwandan roulette with the lives of other peoples’ sons? There is a mercurial side to the Rwandan psyche that mirrors the quicksilver Rwandaness of President Grégoire Kayibanda.

Even as a distraught family mourns the murder of Patrick Karegeya, the head of state can warn the other exiles that, for them too, it is but a matter of time.

The assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana through the mid-air shooting of his plane over Kigali on the 6th of April 1994 as he returned from the Arusha peace talks together with Burundian head of state Cyprien Ntaryamira is as harrowing as anything that the unaccountable Rwandan state is capable of inflicting upon Rwandans. After decades riding the roller coaster that is Rwandan leadership, Rwanda sent this favourite son for African Union-mediated peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania beginning in 1992. At first, these talks looked like the usual game of Rwandan roulette. That appeared to be the forgone conclusion regarding the Arusha peace talks—until Kinani took to them in earnest. And, suddenly, a vision of the future of Rwanda peeps through the communiqués from Arusha that takes your breath away. Suddenly, in Arusha, this African strongman looks his rebel opponents in the eye and calls them Rwandans. Yes, Rwandans. Men whose fathers and mothers and siblings he had locked out of Rwanda forever when he had famously declared that Rwanda is full and cannot accommodate any other person in the name of returnees. And suddenly, out there in Arusha, the armed opposition looks at President Juvenal Habyarimana and in him they see their leader, the President of Rwanda. And suddenly, not so suddenly, out there in Arusha, a vision, a vista of a Rwanda of all Rwandans opens out before the astonished gaze of all Rwandans and the watchful international community. In the annals of peace talks and peace-making, the Arusha peace talks rank right up there with the treaties that established the post-war European system after the Second World War. Alas, Rwanda. Alas, President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Alas, Africa. These moments in Arusha are as supernal as the vision that the future shows Macbeth, and that he spectacularly misapprehends. If ever there was a moment when all Rwandans looked into the future of Rwanda—and there saw a Rwanda at peace with itself—it was at these peace talks in Arusha.  And like a Macbeth convinced of his special place in Scotland’s fate, the protagonists in Arusha each misapprehend and misinterpret the vision of the future that, for a moment, Rwanda had shown them. The extremists on both sides rush to claim centre stage—and two shrieking surface-to-air missiles curve the bloody signature to the Arusha peace talks over Kigali’s beautiful night skies that tragic April evening. The vision in Arusha vanishes and like a Macbeth vowed to put all opponents to the sword—babes in their mothers’ arms and all—from Arusha a terrible note is sounded for the first time when there in Arusha a vow is made to return to Rwanda and execute “the Apocalypse”.

President Juvenal Habyarimana returned with the signed peace document aboard the presidential Dassault Falcon. But that evening the presidential plane would never land at Kigali International Airport. Those two shrieking surface-to-air missiles raced for the presidential plane—two fiery javelins streaking over Kigali’s darkening evening skies. And the presidential plane exploded into a ball of flame and crashed into the grounds of state house Kigali, Rwanda. On board were the presidents of two countries—Rwanda and Burundi. The Apocalypse had claimed its first victims. And as the genocide gathered pace and the RPF forces fanned out of the north and roared for the east and the south in a race against time to save the lives of doomed Rwandans, the shattered former government forces raced westwards towards Zaire and with them they carried the remains of slain President Juvenal Habyarimana. Eventually they would give the president’s remains a haunting hasty ceremonial Hindu burial at Ndjili Airport in Congo ex-Zaire.

The anguish that the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana has occasioned Rwanda and the whole of the Great Lakes Region is incalculable. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Rwanda will not know peace as long as President Juvenal Habyarimana’s mortal remains are not returned to Rwanda and accorded the burial honours the president deserves. Any attempt at a lasting peace in Rwanda is doomed to fail as long as the president’s name remains but a silent, unspeakable, unspoken, tabooed name even as Rwanda’s national discourse gathers pace abroad. Of course, within Rwanda you cannot at present talk of any credible national discourse. Much like Macbeth’s Scotland where any mention of slain King Duncun was taboo, within Rwanda any mention of President Juvenal Habyarimana is fraught with danger. Yet Kinani stands there waiting for that national discourse to reach and start being heard within Rwanda—waiting, waiting, a dark, enigmatic, brooding presence. In the imposed amnesia over President Juvenal Habyarimana’s fate, Rwanda dances on the edge of the abyss. Rwanda is a country on the razor’s edge, and only in an honest reckoning with the fate it has meted out against its leaders is there a glimmer of a possible pathway to the future. For Rwandans deeply crave peace. And yet, the man who brought Rwanda peace languishes unmourned in the outer darkness out there in exile and at the shadowy edge of the Rwandan national psyche. For Rwanda, the road to peace must pass through President Juvenal Habyarimana’s mausoleum right there in Kigali, Rwanda—whenever it is in future that Rwandans will decide to build that mausoleum to Kinani, Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana. When that day of reverence for the lives of the leaders of Rwanda comes, then citizens like Cassien Ntamuhanga will walk freely in Rwanda knowing that their lives, too, are sacrosanct under law.

Only the Church has the stature to stand with the ordinary Rwandan against the might of the unaccountable Rwandan state.

No Rwandan leader has ever paid a higher price while in power as Agathe Uwilingiyimana paid while in office as Rwanda’s premier. A patriot who embraced the vision of a Rwanda in which all Rwandans would have an equal space as of right, Premier Agathe paid a price that no leader should ever be asked to pay for the sake of his or her country. Yet, illustrious stateswoman that she was, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana stoically rose above her personal tragedy to serve Rwanda faithfully to the very end. When you look at Premier Uwilingiyimana, it is Simonides’ epitaph for King Leonidas and the valiant three hundred which immediately comes to mind: “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” Stoic courage against impossible odds: Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Courage over and above the call of duty: Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Fidelity to one’s oath even when the price already paid and yet to be paid is an impossible one: Illustrious Agathe Uwilingiyimana. To stand at one’s station to the last hour and even if there was yet a glimmer of escape, refusing to take it so as to stand with those who had no one to offer them any escape: stalwart Agathe Uwiligiyimana. Like the fierce lioness standing between her cubs and death, to stand between your loved ones and catastrophe knowing full well that it means that your life is forfeit: Stateswoman Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Teacher of a nation. Mwalimu we are ever so sorry. And even after Rwanda visited a traumatic horror upon her, she still served Rwanda as its leader. And even when, on the second day of the Apocalypse, the genocidaires came for her, she came forth to face them. Alone. Unarmed. Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Rwanda’s leader. Words cannot speak fully to the true measure of Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s leadership in Rwanda.

And yet, even after the horrors it inflicted on this stalwart leader, Rwanda and the United Nations still dare to call Rwanda’s national catastrophe the Genocide Against the Tutsis. As for the United Nations, that august body has a long tradition of abandoning Rwanda at the country’s hour of need. The latest being the tepid response it has made over the forced disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga. As for Rwandans, their silence even as Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s memory suffers this treacherous damnatio memoriae, the message is as plain as day: until the day that Rwanda will choose to atone for the national wrong it has done to the premier, Rwanda will not know true peace. And yet it is unthinkable that Rwanda will ever abandon its obscene and self-serving “Genocide Against the Tutsis” to mourn all Tutsis who died in the Genocide and all Rwandans who died defending Tutsis. It is an impossible thought—yet in its unthinkableness is the harbinger of Rwanda’s future. Rwanda must punish all those who committed atrocities against Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana to the full extent of the law. Only then can Rwanda expect to deserve the full measure of its claim to sovereign statehood. The Rwandan will only get the full measure of his or her rights when Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana is accorded these same rights posthumously. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.”

When President Grégoire Kayibanda was overthrown, he was placed under house arrest and starved to death.

The full measure of the national treasure that Rwanda expends in pursuit of perceived enemies like Cassien Ntamuhanga beyond the borders of Rwanda is the same full measure that Rwanda must expend to accord Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana justice if Rwanda expects to know peace. No individual Rwandan can claim safety so long as Rwanda refuses to atone for its atrocities against Premier Agathe Uwiligiyimana. Rwanda will not find atonement until Premier Agathe Uwiligiyimana is accorded the full measure of justice and redress by Rwanda. The harrowing fate that has overtaken Cassien Ntamuhanga is the fate that Rwanda reserves for each Rwandan so long as there is only silence when it comes to Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” The lesson is that Rwanda must treat its leaders with wise restraint and utmost dignity and honour. To be the leader of a nation is a thing of great honour and reverence. Once appointed to office, a leader is a person that all Rwanda must honour and revere unconditionally.

The caveats Rwanda puts on the honour and regard due its leaders is the unwitting curse that each generation of Rwandans just picks up unthinkingly on the journey towards the latest iteration of the national catastrophe. The fate that befell Rwanda for its cavalier show of disrespect towards Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana is the reason why the aged, like the leader, were sacrosanct beings in Rwandan culture. The hand that Rwanda lifted to strike at the Premier is the curse that led Rwanda unto the abyss. Them that the gods would damn they first make proud. Even as Rwanda walked into the Apocalypse, the anticipation and the eagerness of Rwandans was the one noteworthy fact that observers noted of Rwanda’s national mood at that time. And the fact that even now there is no move in Rwanda towards redress for the wrongs a reckless nation inflicted on this gracious leader, that fact alone, is enough of a riposte unto them that claim the mantle of Rwanda’s infallible leaders. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” It is Rwandans who will convince their leaders that the life of a leader is a sacrosanct treasure, that the life of an ordinary Rwandan like Cassien Ntamuhanga is a sacrosanct treasure.

The genocide raced right across Rwanda in all its fury that April of 1994 and, finally, the mass slaughter reached Butare, Southern Rwanda, where Umwamikazi (Queen) Rosalie Gicanda had been banished to internal exile ever since Rwanda chased her out of the royal palace in Nyanza after the Rwanda Revolution of 1959. Rosalie Gicanda became Rwanda’s Queen in 1942. In 1959, King Mutara III Rudahigwa died in questionable circumstances in Bujumbura, Burundi, and in the same year, the Rwanda Revolution abolished the Rwanda monarchy. Speaking in Cape Town, South Africa, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan used the phrase “wind of change” to describe the epochal political changes that were sweeping through Africa in the 1960s. In Rwanda, the Revolution is called Muyaga, the wind of destruction, because it destroyed the structure of Rwandan society that was anchored in the balance of power between the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa, with the monarchy as the arbiter between the different sectors of Rwandan society.

With the monarchy—the shield that stood between Rwanda and the abyss—removed, Rwanda now begun its bloody race to the bottom that would culminate in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. When in 1962 Rwanda stripped Umwamikazi Rosalie of her titles and hounded her out of the royal palace, the Queen stoically settled to a quiet life in Butare in the hope of protecting her subjects from retaliation by the murderous mobs that periodically targeted her for vilification and persecution. Throughout the decades of internal exile and banishment in Butare, Queen Rosalie Gicanda kept her head down and avoided any public pronouncements that would lead to further pogroms against the remnant of her subjects who still lived in Rwanda after the revolution.

Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with President Grégoire Kayibanda and his traumatic reign is Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with fate.

Banished from the royal palace, stripped of all her titles after the abolition of the monarchy in 1962—for Rwanda that was not enough. A campaign of sustained vilification selected Queen Rosalie to be Rwanda’s bête noire in the years after Muyaga. On the 20th of April 1994, a detachment of the Rwanda intelligence service arrested the Queen and her small retinue and murdered them near the Rwanda National Museum. One little girl survived to speak of the murder of revered Queen Rosalie Gicanda. The assassination of Umwamikazi Rosalie Gicanda in the Rwanda genocide is a curse that Rwanda will struggle for decades to expiate. Full atonement for the death of the Queen is the only way for Rwanda to protect the lives of all Rwandans from the vagaries of a lawless and unaccountable state. As long as Rwanda does not recognize the sacredness of the life and person of Umwamikazi Rosalie, Rwanda cannot begin to even accept that atonement for this horrific crime is overdue. And yet, Rwanda will never accept that, in assassinating Umwamikazi Rosalie Rwanda, Rwanda damned itself. And in that refusal to recognize the fateful crime against revered Umwamikazi Rosalie, Rwanda walks with an albatross round its own neck. Indeed, there are sections of Rwandan society where these words of abiding sorrow at the fate of the Queen instantly meet with violent rejection. Until all Rwanda embraces the true symbolic meaning of the role of Umwamikazi Rosalie in the life and future of Rwanda, Rwanda will continue to stare at the abyss. The sheer rage that Rwanda still fans against the Queen, that is the seductive siren song of the abyss to which Rwanda is still listening with eager attention. Rwanda is still courting the abyss, Rwanda is still stoking the flames of a new genocide because Rwanda has adamantly refused to atone for the ills committed against this great African stateswoman, Umwamikazi Rosalie.

Gentle, gracious and stoic in her decades of sorrow in the wilderness, Umwamikazi Rosalie never accepted the continual offers to go into exile. The calls for the queen to flee Rwanda grew insistent once those two surface-to-air missiles had brought down President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane. Even as the genocide approached Butare, the queen refused the many insistent and desperate offers of safe passage for her out of Rwanda. Umwamikazi Rosalie stayed in Butare to the bitter end. Stoically, the Queen stayed with her subjects who were being slaughtered in the Rwanda genocide. And in Butare the genocide came with an especial fury because Butare is not only the spiritual heart of Catholicism in Rwanda. Butare, this beautiful city of soaring plainsong is also the mystical heartland of Rwanda as a nation and of Rwandans as a people. Butare of high learning and philosophical debates, Butare the spiritual home of Rwanda And so, in this chronical of tears and abiding sorrow, Queen Rosalie saw it fitting that, here in Butare of religious visions and soaring plainchant, she would stand to the bitter end.

Much like Macbeth’s Scotland where any mention of slain King Duncun was taboo, within Rwanda any mention of President Juvenal Habyarimana is fraught with danger.

The debt the Rwanda owes Umwamikazi Rosalie is the very survival of Rwanda as a nation now and into the future. In her decades-long persecution and suffering, Umwamikazi Rosalie is Rwanda’s curse. In her stoic acceptance and forgiveness of Rwanda’s atrocities against her, Umwamikazi Rosalie is Rwanda’s possibility of future blessings and prosperity and peace. Yet there are sections of Rwandan society that would pluck up and burn to cinders the black marble of her mausoleum in Rwanda. Rwanda’s rejection of the Queen, Rwanda’s fury against Rosalie Gicanda, that is the measure of Rwanda’s damnation. As we seek for even a whispered word about the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga, Rwanda must acknowledge the roots of its cavalier disregard for the rule of law, due process, rights of the accused and the value of the life of each Rwandan. The roots of Rwanda’s lawless lie in Rwanda’s horrific persecution of Umwamikazi Rosalie. Every Rwandan hopes for safety and the chance for prosperity for themselves and for their loved ones. Every year on the 4th of July, Rwandans celebrate Liberation Day and declare anew their aspirations for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There, in the person of Rosalie of Splendour, there in the person of persecuted, excoriated and exiled Umwamikazi Rosalie, there in the person of Queen Rosalie, is every Rwandan’s claim to the right to safety, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—even if they violently reject the Queen.

What will the United Nations ever tell the Premier?

In the above reprise of Cassien Ntamuhanga’s fate against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s “Scottish” play, there speaks to us an urgent message because ever since the Rwanda genocide, the hounding of Rwandans like Cassien Ntamuhanga by the state is a totalitarian horror that has engulfed not only Rwandans within but also those abroad. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s targeting by the Rwandan state finds strong resonance in King Macbeth’s Scotland. In post-genocide Rwanda, opponents of the RPF powerholders face jail and assassination both inside and outside Rwanda. And like Macbeth boasted, the president of Rwanda has boasted that Rwanda has one of the best intelligence services in the world—resourceful enough to strike at Rwanda’s “enemies” anywhere in the world. And with this we come to the harrowing events that have overtaken the life of Cassien Ntamuhanga, the former Rwandan journalist who was arrested in Inhaca, near Maputo, Mozambique.

It is Rwandans who will convince their leaders that the life of a leader is a sacrosanct treasure, that the life of an ordinary Rwandan like Cassien Ntamuhanga is a sacrosanct treasure.

Cassien Ntamuhanga has not been seen in public since his abduction—and abduction is the right legal term here because ever since his arrest, state officials in Mozambique and in Rwanda have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. For its part, the government of Mozambique must publicly state the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga, for he had applied for refugee status in that country. And the government of Rwanda must tell the world of the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga given previous patterns of forced disappearance and murder or attempted murder of Rwandans living outside the country. At least one Kinyarwanda-speaking foreigner was present at the moment of Cassien Ntamuhanga’s arrest in Inhaca. The forced disappearance of former journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga must be the urgent concern of all Africans and humanity concerned for peace and reconciliation in Rwanda—and for peace and stability in the countries neighbouring Rwanda. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must tell the world of the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga as he had applied for refugee status in Mozambique at the time of his disappearance. By virtue of his refugee application in Mozambique, Cassien Ntamuhanga had automatically acquired the legal protection of the UNHCR. Even before the determination of his refugee application, the UNHCR owed Cassien Ntamuhanga a moral duty of care. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, must intervene in Cassien Ntamuhanga’s case and demand that the latter be handed back into the care of the UNHCR because seeking asylum and safe refuge abroad is a basic right of all persecuted persons fleeing their country of birth. As an applicant for refugee status in Mozambique, Cassien Ntamuhanga is legally protected from repatriation to Rwanda and, setting aside the fact that the two countries do not have an extradition treaty, Mozambique cannot legally deport Cassien Ntamuhanga back to Rwanda. If Cassien Ntamuhanga ends up in Rwanda through a forced repatriation, Mozambique—and the UNHCR—would be in serious breach of international treaties governing the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

As for the United Nations, that august body has a long tradition of abandoning Rwanda at the country’s hour of need.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances needs to take up the case of Cassien Ntamuhanga because failing to intervene in this case will see Rwanda sink further into repression to the detriment of all Rwandans’ efforts at reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. Further, the case of Cassien Ntamuhanga is urgent to all because peace in Rwanda is vital for the whole Great Lakes Region. As past wars have proven, when Rwanda descends into anarchy, the whole of East and Central Africa pays an inhuman price in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed. This is a special call to the Commonwealth because had it not been for the global health crisis occasioned by COVID-19, Rwanda would have been handed the chairmanship of the Commonwealth in 2021. The Commonwealth bears a moral responsibility and a duty of care towards events in Rwanda and thus this appeal to the Right Honourable Patricia Scotland, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth to convene an urgent meeting with Rwandan authorities and get answers on the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga. Having invited Rwanda into the august body, the Commonwealth needs to impress upon Rwanda the need for it to abide by the Commonwealth values of adherence to due process rights, accountable government, political pluralism and, above all else, respect for human rights.

This call on the international community to intervene is made without being blind to the fact that the Rwanda government has worked hard to convince the world of the justice and rightness of its position—witness the successful Rwandan efforts to rewrite the narrative on the Rwanda Genocide. For years, the Rwandan government wanted the world to see the genocide as targeting the Tutsi population only. In the end, in 2017, Rwanda finally convinced the United Nations to change the designation of the Rwanda genocide to the Genocide Against the Tutsi. This is a great disservice to those non-Tutsi Rwandans who died because of their opposition to the genocide and to the genocide ideology. The name change is a great disservice to illustrious Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the valiant Rwandan leader who paid a very high price indeed for her patriotism to Rwanda. Even before the genocide, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her family paid horrifically for her love of Rwanda and her courageous decision to stand by the vision of a Rwanda that stands for inclusivity and respect for the rule of law. During the genocide, many Rwandans who opposed the killings were targeted and killed together with the Tutsis whom they sought to protect from harm. What can the international community tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana who lost her life in the genocide now that the United Nations has agreed to call it the Genocide Against the Tutsis? Rwanda now quotes the United Nations to justify the erasure of dead Rwandans from the record by calling it the Genocide Against the Tutsis. What can the United Nations tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the Hutus and the Twa who were killed because they opposed the genocide? The Twa lost a very large number of men, women and children to the genocide so what can the United Nations tell them of their loss now that the murders which took place are only the Genocide Against the Tutsis? Or are the lives of Hutus who died protecting Tutsis from the slaughter not worth a bullet as the genocidaires told these valiant Hutus before killing them too? What of the Twa? Does the United Nations General Assembly not consider their lives worth a bullet just as the genocidaires had said? Are the lives of these Hutus and Twa not worth honouring through remembrance? Is the United Nations agreeing now with the genocidaires who prophetically boasted that by the time they would be through with their “work” of mass murder, there would be none left to tell the tragic stories of their victims? Is the United Nations now in agreement with this horrific boast of the genocidaires? It is a terrible irony that the United Nations, which abandoned these Rwandans at their hour of greatest need, has now abandoned them in death too. It is a case of rubbing salt into the wound. It is a horrific travesty of all the values that the United Nations claims to stand for. Thus, it is absolutely no wonder that the UNHCR has failed Cassien Ntamuhanga just as it failed Rwandans at the start of the genocide by evacuating foreign nationals and leaving Rwandans to the tender mercies of the Interahamwe. Cassien Ntamuhanga is in the hands of the Rwandan security services. There can be no doubt about that. The only urgent thing remaining to be done is for the Rwandans to be pressured to produce Cassien Ntamuhanga in open court to answer to lawful charges—if any.

When remembering the dead is an act of high treason 

The pattern of events surrounding Cassien Ntamuhanga’s forced disappearance mirrors and is closely intertwined with the story of gospel singer Kizito Mihigo. Before detailing the events surrounding Ntamuhanga’s disappearance, it is important to first recall the events surrounding the tragic end of Kizito Mihigo. In 2014, the Rwanda government arrested Kizito Mihigo and charged him with conspiracy to kill the president, plotting against the state, complicity in terrorist acts and murder. The Rwanda government then banned Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu and all of Kizito Mihigo’s songs. Kizito’s song Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu had urged reconciliation among Rwandans but it had also urged the remembrance of all of Rwandans who had died in 1994—both Tutsi and Hutu. At the end of his trial in 2015, Kizito Mihigo was sentenced to ten years in prison for planning to kill the president of Rwanda and for conspiring against the government of Rwanda.

The assassination of Umwamikazi Rosalie Gicanda in the Rwanda genocide is a curse that Rwanda will struggle for decades to expiate.

After Kizito Mihigo’s conviction and jailing, he was pardoned by President Paul Kagame in 2018 but was rearrested in February 2020. On 17th February 2020, the Rwanda Bureau of Investigations announced that Kizito had hanged himself in his cell in Remera Prison, Kigali, Rwanda. In interviews before his death, Kizito said that the charges against him arose from his songs—especially Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu—that urged Rwandan reconciliation. Kizito Mihigo’s mission of peace and reconciliation urged Rwandans to look towards forgiveness and remembrance of all of Rwanda’s dead. This message of remembrance of all of Rwanda’s dead during the Rwanda genocide—both Hutu and Tutsi—struck a raw nerve within the Rwanda government of President Paul Kagame. The Rwanda government condemned the song Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu, The Meaning of Death, as an act of genocide denial because in his song, Kizito Mihigo had equated the deaths of the Tutsis who died in the genocide to the deaths of Hutus who allegedly died in revenge killings in Rwanda and in the Congo where Hutu soldiers, militia and civilians had all fled to after participating in the mass slaughter of Tutsis, moderate Hutus and Ba’Twa. Singing in remembrance of the Tutsi victims of the Rwanda genocide and at the same time singing in memory and remembrance of the Hutus who died in revenge killings after the genocide was seen as an unforgivable act of moral equivalence—and an act of genocide denial. In Rwanda, the charge of genocide denial carries a heavy penalty.

Now, Cassien Ntamuhanga, Kizito Mihigo’s co-presenter on Radio Amazing Grace and co-accused in the 2014 trial in Rwanda, is missing, last seen in Maputo, Mozambique in the company of Mozambique’s security agents and at least one Rwandan-speaking stranger.  As Al Jazeera says in its flagship programme “Inside Story”, “Rwanda is often portrayed as a shining example of what can be achieved in Africa.” One thing that post-genocide Rwanda has shown that it can achieve is the kidnap, forced disappearance and murder of government critics in foreign countries in America, Europe, the Arab world and extensively throughout Africa. Now Cassien Ntamuhanga’s forced disappearance has once again shown that Rwanda is a shining example of what the African state can achieve once it sets its mind to the task. Because Cassien Ntamuhanga had applied for refugee status in Mozambique, it is urgent and vitally important that the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees speaks out and demands to know from the Rwandan and Mozambique government of his whereabouts. The office of the Special Rapporteur on forced disappearance and torture, Houri es Slami must stand with Rwandans and call for the immediate release of Cassien Ntamuhanga as the initial step towards restoring the latter’s human rights. Protecting the rights of Cassien Ntamuhanga and according him protection as a refugee in Mozambique is a difficult but noble task. This is vitally important because in spite of his long tenure, President Paul Kagame will one day surely vacate office. And when that time comes, he will want to leave Rwanda in the hands of a man whose respect for the rule of law and the constitution is unwavering. A basic principle in jurisprudence is that the ruler must make laws that he would be happy to see executed, implemented by his own worst enemy. The whole of Rwanda must strive for this principal to be included in Rwanda’s stymied process of reconciliation and peace with justice.

Rwanda must acknowledge the roots of its cavalier disregard for the rule of law, due process, rights of the accused and the value of the life of each Rwandan.

If the international community is unable or unwilling to call Rwanda to account, then Rwandans from all sectors of the nation must be willing to initiate this process of reconciliation. Every Rwandan has a state—and a stake in the stability of that state. Speaking out against abuse Rwandans will be entrenching the culture of accountability. And it is only through a constant and sustained engagement with the state through the accountability institutions of Rwanda (the courts, the national assembly, the church, etc.) that the rights of all Rwandans and the rights of the individual will be protected in a sustained, sustainable Rwanda that is ready to protect the rights of the individual. Protecting the rights of the individual Rwandan is the only guarantee that the state and Rwanda itself will survive the looming transition from the leadership of the current Rwandan president.

In the meantime, the president lives like a man under siege. And the future stretches ahead of the president as a barren wasteland of empty tomorrows and more tomorrows. The sense of futility and entrapment is the reason why the long gone despised African dictators constantly changed their countries’ constitutions—all in search of the elixir of immortality that would make them life president in fact and not just on paper in those constitutions that in their hearts they despised so heartily even as they rewrote them to anchor their desire for immortality on paper. Like a terrible fever, the desire of the African ruler for immortality has caught up with the current crop of progressive African leaders. As the darlings of the western world, these African leaders can do no wrong—the New York Times once admiringly characterised President Paul Kagame as the world’s favourite dictator. Like the Weird Sisters whom Macbeth encountered on his way to the throne through a sea of blood, western media loves these African rulers and their authoritarian crackdown on the very institutions that brought them to power in Africa.

Like the Scotland led by Macbeth, the African state is a graveyard for the opponents of the regime who are prosecuted and persecuted under the war on terrorism clauses that were written into these African constitutions at speed. Their sense of futility is the reason why the leadership lashes out at exiled opponents and neighbouring states—if only for the giddy excitement and sense of national purpose. In the meantime, Rwandans and neighbouring states suffer the consequences of the leaders’ constant attempts to justify their actions to the ever-smiling Ghost of Fred Rwigyema and the enigmatic dark presence of the president who is waiting ever so patiently for an accounting of Rwanda’s role in his assassination. Thus, in the meantime, Rwanda feels justified in trying a singer and a journalist under the terrorism clauses of the amended Rwandan laws. We lash out.

The Renaissance Africans

For Rwanda, and for Africa, the tragedy is that after the admired “African Renaissance” presidents have violently killed and silenced the legitimate opposition to their rule, there remains no middle ground in Rwanda just as there remains no legitimate dissent in many of the African countries led by these African Renaissance leaders. In Rwanda, as elsewhere in Africa, what now stands between the ruler in state house and immortality is the armed opposition in exile and underground. The current powerholders will easily dismiss this discredited and exiled force as genocidaires and effete intellectuals. Yet Rwanda’s powerholders must remember that they, too, were once discredited and despised exiles. The lesson is taught over and over again every time a Rwandan seeks reform in Rwandan society only to be confronted with the charge of treason and genocide denial. Every time legitimate dissent is delegitimized in this manner, the message gets across to all Rwandans: the illusion of freedom is just that. The message gets across that there is no real freedom in spite of the beautifully written statutes. When moderate reformers like Kizito Mihigo, Cassien Ntamuhanga, Andre Kagwa Rwitsereka, Seth Sendashonga, Patrick Karegeya are killed or exiled or abducted and disappeared or murdered in exile; when the legitimate opposition—Victoire Ingabire Muhoza, Diane Rwigara, Fred Barafinda—is discredited and criminalised, the message gets across that in Rwanda freedom of speech, assembly, the right to choose one’s own leaders, these are not human rights, these are crimes. Eventually the legitimate opposition will be eliminated in Rwanda. Eventually the legitimate voices of dissent will all be criminalised, murdered, silenced.

As past wars have proven, when Rwanda descends into anarchy, the whole of East and Central Africa pays an inhuman price in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed.

Then what? The next lesson is there in the past of the RPF powerholders themselves, in their childhoods as stateless exiles and as despised foreigners: once all legitimate dissent is either killed or driven into exile, it transforms. The years of exclusion drive underground all alternative voices and there they become transformed into an armed rebel force. Discredited as they are, insignificant in number as they are, mocked and laughed at by the Rwandan president as they are, many Rwandans are starting to listen keenly to the message of the exiled opposition like the Rwanda National Congress. And the RNC itself is working hard to reach out to all sections of Rwanda society. Rwandans in exile learnt the message from the RPF powerholders: it is always a work of the long haul, a work of generations. This patience, this willingness to take the long view is the one asset that the Rwandan president does not have. Hence his constant intemperate outbursts against the liberal opposition. It was a shock to the whole world when the president openly boasted that he is ready to hunt down opponents even abroad when, after the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of the external intelligence service in South Africa. The president said, “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” and on another occasion, “You cannot betray Rwanda and not get punished for it,” and “Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price. . . Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.” It was with a feeling of horror that the world listened to the president telling the world after the death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo that he is not a singer. It was with a feeling of dread and deep anguish that the family of Assinapol Rwigara pleaded with the police to allow them access to him as he struggled within the wreckage of his car in that 4th of February 2015 road accident from which the police took him alive only to announce that he had died of his injuries.

Leaders like Karegeya and Mihigo are the moderate forces in Rwanda. Eliminating them leaves a vacuum that extremists from both sides are only too glad to fill. Looked at against the background of the exile and the return of the current powerholders in Rwanda, the current Rwandan exiles are making baby steps. Eventually they will grow and walk and start to run for the hunger for the return; in this world there is nothing more powerful than this in the mind of the exile. This hunger for the return home is a force that the current powerholders in Rwanda know well. Perhaps they no longer understand the power that sustained them for decades as despised exiles and refugees until the call of home pulled them back into the fray in Rwanda.

The sustainable long-term route for all Rwandans can only be the route of dialogue that is inclusive of all sectors of Rwandan society, whether they are living inside or outside Rwanda. Rwanda cannot survive yet another cataclysm, even though the powerholders in Kigali are ever orchestrating “incidents” in neighbouring countries with the aim of provoking yet another major regional conflagration. The current leadership of Rwanda came to power through a catastrophic regional crisis in the Great Lakes region triggered by an apocalyptic implosion in Rwanda. As a result of this origin, the current leaders in Rwanda are fatally wedded to the idea that in a crisis they thrive, that in a crisis they are the masters of the strategic long game. Hence the eagerness from Kigali for continual crises in the Great Lakes Region. Hence the periodic irruption of lawless groups like the M23 Movement in Eastern Congo. What the leaders in Kigali have not learnt is that the Great Lakes Region has learnt the bitter lesson that the Rwandan strongmen have been teaching it.

What can the United Nations tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the Hutus and the Twa who were killed because they opposed the genocide?

Rwanda will continue to engineer provocations in the region, but as the M23 experience showed, the region is learning how to call the RPF’s bluff. It has been a bitter lesson learnt the hard way – but the region must not forget this lesson. The RPF adventurists must be mustered through a combination of regional containment and the nurturing of a viable alternative culture within Rwanda, a culture of inclusiveness and non-supremacist acceptance of all Rwandans. The hard lesson that Rwanda has taught the Great Lakes region is that East and Central Africa cannot survive another Rwandan Apocalypse. It is urgent that Africans and the international community intervene in Rwanda to support and sustain the legitimate opposition for that is the only sustainable route out for Rwanda. This is why the RPF’s policy of rendition or assassinations of its opponents abroad—which is a policy that the RPF has executed right from the beginning of its accession to power in 1994 (Seth Sendashonga’s assassination in 1998 as the noted tragic case example)—is an unlawful policy that the international community must counter and contain.

Containing Rwanda’s external aggression and adventurism is a cost effective alternative to reacting to another regional cataclysm ignited by Rwanda. External aggression, renditions and assassinations abroad, this part of Rwanda’s foreign policy must be challenged by the international community.

As a refugee fleeing persecution in Rwanda, the United Nations failed to protect Seth Sendashonga in Nairobi in 1998. Looking back one can see that Seth Sendashonga’s assassination in Nairobi was a tragic missed opportunity for all. The RPF’s self-justifying reaction to the death of Seth Sendashonga set the stage for all the subsequent assassinations abroad. There is a terrible poignancy to the fate of Seth Sendashonga after he fell out with the RPF powerholders. Had the international community challenged the assassination of Seth Sendashonga more aggressively, more collectively, the assassinations that followed that of Seth Sendashonga would have been harder to execute for the RPF powerholders. The indifference to Seth Sendashonga’s fate signalled to the RPF that it could get away with murder but the international community will find that one day it will have to make a start somewhere; at some point, the international community will have to draw a red line against the RPF’s policy of assassinations inside Rwanda and abroad. This is why the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga must be a red line for all peoples inside and outside Rwanda. Through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the international community has the structure in place to challenge these forced disappearances and assassinations.

The RPF’s self-justifying reaction to the death of Seth Sendashonga set the stage for all the subsequent assassinations abroad.

Of all the nations that have a moral obligation towards Cassien Ntamuhanga, Belgium—which lost ten soldiers through savage torture while they were protecting Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana—deserves to take centre stage in the pursuit of justice for Cassien Ntamuhanga. Belgium spent decades in the pursuit of justice for its valiant soldiers who met a tragic fate while protecting Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana after Rwanda abandoned her. The deaths of these Belgian soldiers was a tragedy of its own kind; they were the only ones who died while defending Rwandans. Belgium owes these valiant soldiers the honour of continued engagement with Rwanda in order to nurture the culture of respect for the worth of the individual.

Throughout the centuries of persecution in exile, Israel has always found one or two who would with honour stand with the House of Israel. Out of a profound gratitude for the courageous ones who have succoured Israel in Exile, Israel designated a special honour for them by designating them “the Righteous Among the Nations”. One hopes that one day, in the not too distant future, Rwanda too may enrol these courageous Belgian soldiers and recognize them as “The Righteous Among the Nations” who have succoured Rwandans when they have suffered persecution in Rwanda or, like Cassien Ntamuhanga, abroad.

Above all others, however, it is the United Kingdom which has both the moral and the strategic imperatives to intervene to thwart this policy of assassinations both inside and outside Rwanda that is a documented continual breach of international norms by the RPF powerholders. Through targeted sanctions against the leaders who bear direct responsibility for this murderous policy, the Rwandan state must be made to realise the high cost of assassinations and political repression of the legitimate opposition. Only through such targeted sanctions will the Rwanda government realise the very high cost that comes with extra-judicial killings in Rwanda and abroad. The disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga can so easily turn into the death of yet another Rwandan in police custody. Cassien Ntamuhanga deserves better than the indifferent silence with which Rwanda has greeted his disappearance. Rwanda knows the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga. Rwanda must be compelled to produce Cassien Ntamuhanga in public, safe and well—as safe and as well as he was on that 23rd May 2021 when he was arrested in Inhaca by that combined force of officers in Mozambique police uniform, the SERNIC and Kinyarwanda speaking strangers.

And you all know, security is mortals’ chiefest enemy – (Act III Scene V, Macbeth)

There is a deeper lesson here as well on Rwanda’s search for that elusive will-o’-the-wisp called security. Just as Macbeth, in a vain bid to assure his own security in power, killed all opponents and drove the rest into exile, so has president Kagame killed opponents and driven the rest into a terrible exile in order to assure his own hold on power. Yet, as the Weird Sisters warned Macbeth, security is mortal’s chiefest enemy. The driving ambition for security is what drove all African dictators to embrace murder and repression. It is the drive, the spiritual hunger in the soul, which drove Macbeth one more time to make a Faustian bargain with “the instruments of darkness”. Yet when Macbeth is shown the vision that his heart demands that the three Weird Sisters show him, his heart breaks at what he sees: the Weird Sisters show Macbeth a vision of a long line of Kings of Scotland ruling far into the centuries to come—all descended from the bloodline of his hated slain enemy, Banquo.

A basic principle in jurisprudence is that the ruler must make laws that he would be happy to see executed, implemented by his own worst enemy.

The deeper lesson is that in the longer term the violent powerholders in Rwanda have no future in the Rwanda to come. Rwanda will survive its current turmoil just as it survived its descent into the abyss in the Apocalypse, the name that the genocidaires called their genocidal attempt to wipe out the Tutsi race, their Hutu opponents, and the Ba’Twa. In the reckoning with the Rwanda genocide, the world always forgets the near annihilation of the precarious Ba’Twa. And therein is fate’s trump—always. For the fact that the Ba’Twa lost ten thousand of their number from a population of merely thirty thousand in 1994 speaks of the catastrophe staring all Rwanda in the face in future should Rwanda fail to reckon with the genocide which overtook the Ba’Twa.

The future of Rwanda is out of the hands of Rwanda’s current powerholders. Try as they might, rewrite constitutions as they have, jail opponents at home and assassinate critics abroad as they have, the ruling powerholders in Rwanda are helpless against the tide of time which Macbeth saw only as one bloody red tide. Rwanda will not descend into another apocalypse. Rwanda will not descend into yet another genocide—even though that is the card that the current powerholders in Rwanda are holding over a cowed and silent Rwanda. For feared dictator Macbeth, when it was that mysterious time for the great Birnam Wood to move against high Dunsinane, it seemed impossibly against the laws of physics. And yet. And yet the King still felt that he had a trump card up his sleeve that he could play: the prophecy of the Weird Sisters that none of woman born could kill or dethrone Macbeth.

This is the constant refrain that autocratic African Renaissance leaders always repeat to their countrymen, that without them their countries would have sunk into the abyss never to rise again. Against their silent African subjects, these enlightened African despots always brandish their impeccable credentials. It is no accident that in the military academies of the world, current and future elites study Paul Kagame’s military campaigns under the admiring rubric of “the world’s greatest living general”. At West Point, Sandhurst, Saint Cyr and points East, General Kagame’s campaigns are the high point of graduate and postgraduate work in military school. Yet the world’s greatest living General forgot the caution which fate speaks to him above. It is a warning arising from an instinctive people’s touch that General Rwigyema worked like a charm: national strategy is more than winning battles as Von Clausewitz repeatedly insists. Strategy is what you do with the battle, and that means hour two after you have defeated your opponent. General Rwigyema knew how to win over defeated enemies to the cause of nation building.

In Rwanda, as elsewhere in Africa, what now stands between the ruler in state house and immortality is the armed opposition in exile and underground.

The Rwanda now celebrated at Saint Cyr is an armed camp where any spark can set alight the powder keg. There is no way in which Rwanda can be viable before President Juvenal Habyarimana’s death is thoroughly investigated in public in Rwanda and a reckoning made. There is no way that Rwanda will know peace while the remains of President Habyarimana languish abroad. The president is all of a piece with the national catastrophe of Rwanda—but in the name of all that is sacred, President Habyarimana was the President of Rwanda. He was the President. The failure to bring closure for Rwanda on the death of the president has plunged Rwanda into deeper trauma. Hence the quick resort to assassinations. Hence the quick resort to violence—it is the enigmatic dark presence of the president demanding an accounting by all Rwandans. Failing to account for the president’s death only legitimizes the next set of genocidaires intent on seizing power in Rwanda. Even as the Renaissance Men are fated abroad, back home in Rwanda they are buying up whole armouries for the genocidaires waiting in the darkened corners of Rwanda’s psyche.

As they are fêted abroad, back home in Rwanda, back home in Africa, this has created an aura of invincibility around these African Renaissance statesmen. This admiration on the world stage directly translates into oracular infallibility at home. He is the president, he is the one the world is lauding, feting, not some dead name in a long ago battlefield, not some forbidden name whose charred remains came down on a fiery aeroplane. He is the one. He, not some singer because He is not a singer. He, not some obscure journalist who fled abroad. He. Because of their stature on the world stage, these African statesmen have the cachet of Macbeth; none of woman born shall ever harm them. These African Renaissance leaders are protected by the best security in the world, the best health care that money can buy, the best education from the most prestigious universities and academies in the world. These leaders are African Immortals but the people they rule with an iron fist can disappear without trace, without any consequence to the leaders. As Cassien Ntamuhanga has disappeared without any consequences for the rulers in Rwanda and in Mozambique.

Rwanda will continue to engineer provocations in the region, but as the M23 experience showed, the region is learning how to call the RPF’s bluff.

That aura of invincibility that surrounds African Renaissance leaders is even more palpable around these Rwandan powerholders—but with a fateful twist. The current Rwandan leaders are wrapped in the special aura of the Rwanda genocide even as the genocide itself has become contested ground between the Rwandan government and the survivors. Survivors are especially distressed at the way in which the genocide has become a strategic political tool of the government: the insistence by the government that the remains of the genocide dead must remain on continuous display even when survivors want the remains of their loved ones back so that the survivors can accord their dead honoured burial. Insidiously, these survivors have themselves found the charge of genocide denial being levelled against them. As a journalist, Cassien Ntamuhanga found himself grappling with this deeply traumatic dilemma. Those at Radio Amazing Grace where Cassien Ntamuhanga once worked have not hesitated to condemn the Rwandan government on this matter on the charge of “heathen practices”. On this contested ground, even the remains of the dead of the genocide have now been weaponized. A deeply Christian man, Cassien Ntamuhanga grappled with this matter to the day he fled Rwanda. To grapple with this extremely sensitive matter does not take away from the historic role that the RPF played in saving the remnant of the Tutsis and rescuing Hutus from the grip of the genocidal ideology of the Habyarimana MRND government.

Looked at against the background of the exile and the return of the current powerholders in Rwanda, the current Rwandan exiles are making baby steps.

When it comes to this matter, the deep and abiding distress and moral dilemma of the Rwandan survivors of the genocide is palpable. The treatment of the remains of the victims of the genocide is an explosive matter in Rwanda and it has split families down the middle—just like the genocide itself tore families apart. With sensitivity and compassion, Cassien Ntamuhanga had struggled with this matter for years as a survivor and as a journalist on the frontline of reportage in post-genocide Rwanda. It was a poignant turn of events for Cassien Ntamuhanga when his activism on behalf of survivors and memorialising the dead was turned by the state into a charge of destabilizing Rwanda, terrorism, inciting disaffection against the government of Rwanda and for genocide denial. It is ironic that a man who had grappled deeply and sensitively with the issue of the remains of the genocide dead should now find himself facing these charges.

In raising the charge of genocide denial against Cassien Ntamuhanga the state had driven a burning sword right into the heart of the survivors’ activism. And Cassien Ntamuhanga was now facing the spurious charge of genocide denial. In a Rwanda where authority is sacrosanct, there was going to be no questioning of the charge of genocide denier against Cassien Ntamuhanga. In a deeply hierarchical society where respect for authority is deeply ingrained, the fact of the charge of genocide denial against Cassien Ntamuhanga was itself enough to sow the seeds of doubt even among those who had stood side by side with him in the long years of fighting for the memories of the genocide dead. For Kizito Mihigo this matter would lead directly to his death when he composed Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu, his meditation on the meaning of the deaths of Rwandans in the genocide and in its apocalyptic aftermath in Congo ex-Zaire. For Cassien Ntamuhanga it would lead to a 25-year prison sentence until his escape from prison and from Rwanda. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s activism would lead, in absentia, to another 25-year prison sentence  in 2021.

Their bodies turned into a fiercely contested battleground, the remains of the victims of the Rwanda Genocide had been weaponised. Speak of honoured burial at your peril: genocide denier. The dead will not know peace while the leadership still has need of them: the world must not be left to forget, never mind the fact that memory cannot be commanded at gunpoint. Such talk is genocide denial, a high crime in this Rwanda. Cassien Ntamuhanga is a victim of this existential fight for the right to craft and tell the official narrative of who is a Rwandan and what colours the national team wears. Contested ground: even all of Kizito Mihigo’s songs were banned and banished from Rwanda’s airwaves. Cassien Ntamuhanga found his way out of Rwanda with state agents hot on his trail. Now he has joined the ranks of “the disappeared” in Rwanda. May Cassien Ntamuhanga’s family reach him soon. And when his family finds him, may Cassien Ntamuhanga be found safe and well.

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The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism

Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.

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The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism
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What is knowledge? Is knowledge as objective as mountains, valleys, oceans, lakes and rivers, or is what constitutes knowledge determined by culture? We usually presume that knowledge has to do with understanding the world as it is rather than as we might imagine it to be. Many of us assume that the more academic certificates one has, the more knowledge one possesses. Yet scholars now point out that knowledge can only be properly understood if we consider insights from a variety of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy, among others. In ancient Athens, “politics” was understood as the management of the affairs of the city-state (polis). However, in line with the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, many now understand politics as the activities of acquiring and retaining coercive power, and it is in this latter sense that I speak here of the politics of knowledge production. “Economics” comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law”, “management” or “principle”), literally “the law, management or principle of the household”, but has come to refer to the management of a society’s resources.

Knowledge production directed by politics and economics

As I pointed out in “Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought”, knowledge production is an integral part of social processes, and therefore necessarily laden with social, moral, political, and, most importantly, economic considerations. As the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake observed in Social Science as Imperialism, science in any society is apt to be geared to the interests and impregnated with the values of the ruling class that ultimately controls the conditions under which it is produced and consumed by financing research, setting national priorities, controlling the education system and the mass media, and in other ways. Thus, the choices of subject matter and methodology are heavily influenced by priorities identified in specific economic, social and political contexts: this set of dynamic interactions with economics as its foundation is what the late Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, following Karl Marx, referred to as “political economy”.

Besides, the transmission of knowledge reflects a society’s economic structures. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire memorably highlights the distinction between “banking education”, in which the learner is a docile and passive recipient of knowledge from the teacher, and which therefore reflects the capitalist power hierarchy, and “problem-solving education” entailing a dialogical approach in which both “teacher-students” and “student-teachers” teach and learn. Tragically but not surprisingly, six decades after formal independence, most schools and universities in Africa continue to deploy banking education in line with the capitalist power relations characteristic of the societies in which they function.

To illustrate the point that the production and transmission of knowledge are greatly influenced by politics, Leonhard Praeg, in A Report on Ubuntu, presents a hypothetical conversation between a South African philosophy professor of European descent and a young African postgraduate law student who is considering registering for a second master’s degree in philosophy. At one point, she challenges the professor’s presentation of philosophy as an objective and universal enterprise by highlighting the fact that the choice of who to include in any philosophical discourse is itself a political one:

Well, it seems obvious to me . . . that the most fundamental starting point for any philosophical conversation should be questioning the mechanisms that decide who is included and who is excluded from that conversation and whose traditions of thought will or will not be invoked in that conversation. Perhaps the most fundamental questions, the questions that every conversation should start with are political, questions such as: How is the difference between the included and excluded legitimized and what kind of institutional arrangements exist to safeguard and perpetuate certain kinds of knowledge at the exclusion of others?

Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge

In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe explains that colonialism and colonization basically mean “organization”, “arrangement”. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers organized and transformed non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs:

[I]t is possible to use three main keys to account for the modulations and methods representative of colonial organization: the procedures of acquiring, distributing, and exploiting lands in colonies; the policies of domesticating natives; and the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production. Thus, three complementary hypotheses and actions emerge: the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective. These complementary projects constitute what might be called the colonizing structure, which completely embraces the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of the colonizing experience.

Indeed, the Western imperialists only left their colonies in Africa and elsewhere after putting in place numerous structures to ensure their ongoing, albeit covert, control of the economies of the said territories. For example, in the late 1930s France created the CFA Franc Zone, comprising 14 West and Central African countries as well as the Comoros, bound by a monetary cooperation policy ostensibly to ensure the financial stability of its members, all of who used one or other of the two versions of the CFA Franc as their currency. Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Swynnerton Plan in Kenya sought to mitigate the unpopularity of the British colonial regime by creating an African land-owning petty middle class that would be driven by an imperative to protect its property, and thereby view itself as having shared interests with the European settlers after the country’s independence.

Furthermore, the Western imperialists “left” only after ensuring that their former colonies adopted liberal democratic constitutions based on individualist capitalist values rather than on the communalistic outlooks of the peoples of Africa. They also ensured that the colonial territories embraced Western legal systems. For example, on 12th August 1897, the British invaders declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders declared the legal systems of the peoples of present day Kenya null and void, or, at best, relegated them to the status of “customary law” presumed to be inferior to the British legal system. This situation still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenya frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of Kenya’s various peoples. No wonder “customary law” remains a highly marginalised area of study in most universities in Africa decades after independence.

Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”.

Similarly, the colonisers demeaned the diverse intellectual inventions and innovations of the peoples of Africa in areas such as medicine, environmental conservation, culinary arts, and creative works (such as songs, poems, fables and legends) among others. For example, they used the paradoxical and pejorative term “witch-doctor” to refer to indigenous healers, thereby deliberately conflating the restorative roles of healers with the destructive acts of wizards and witches. Indeed, due to that outrageous deliberate colonial conflation, most Kiswahili speakers in Kenya now do not appreciate the distinction between mganga (“healer”) and mchawi (“witch/wizard”), thereby failing to appreciate that even a medical doctor trained in a Western-type medical school is a mganga, and only refers to him or her as daktari from the English word “doctor”. No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19, or that any innovations they might develop to manage the scourge must be validated in Geneva, Washington DC or elsewhere outside the continent or under the direction of institutions based outside the continent.

No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19.

A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The colonial establishments therefore systematically downgraded indigenous languages, referring to them as “vernaculars”—a term used to denote languages spoken by “uncivilised” communities and contrasted with “literary” or “cultured” languages. Thus, the typical child in Africa undergoes instruction at school using English, French, Portuguese or German, thereby losing his or her cultural grounding through the lack of proficiency in his or her mother tongue; and it is much worse than that, for he or she begins to disparage indigenous languages. Many of us have heard the claim by our compatriots that the languages of the peoples of Africa are incapable of mediating scholarly discourses. This claim is oblivious to, or deliberately ignores, the fact that the Western languages with which many associate academic discourses have acquired their proficiency in scholarship only because of borrowing heavily from a variety of languages, and nothing, except a colonised mentality, prevents speakers of the indigenous languages of Africa from enriching them in similar fashion.

Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony

In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe is particularly unhappy that, long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage:

The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly “Afrocentric” descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.

This sorry situation, Mudimbe tells us, is partly due to the fact that “[S]ince most African leaders and thinkers have received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism.” He also points out that the structures of the colonial establishment remained firmly in place after formal political independence:

In the early 1960s, the African scholar succeeded the anthropologist, the “native” theologian replaced the missionary, and the politician took the place of the colonial commissioner. All of them find reasons for their vocations in the dialectic of the Same and the other.

Mudimbe further observes that colonialism creates an imaginary African past in a bid to fabricate “the other”, perhaps best exemplified by tourist art. He notes that in this subjugating environment, any solid evidence of science or philosophy in Africa is dismissed by the colonisers, as illustrated by the case of Dogon astronomy which holds that the planets rotate around their axes and revolve around the Sun, but which Western authors such as Carl Sagan explain away as knowledge obtained from a Western visitor to the Dogon. Mudimbe is emphatic that anthropology was specifically designed as a tool of Western imperialist domination with which to paint the peoples of Africa as frozen in a stage of “development” long transcended by Western societies.

A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

According to Samir Amin, current academic programmes in the social sciences in African Universities have been prescribed by the World Bank and allied authorities in order to destroy any capacity to develop critical thought. Unable to understand concrete existing systems that govern the contemporary world, the brainwashed cadres are reduced to the status of “executives” implementing programmes decided elsewhere, unable to contribute to changing that world rejected by their own people. Similarly, Claude Ake observes, “The West is able to dominate the Third World not simply because of its military and economic power, but also because it has foisted its idea of development on the Third World through the institutions and activities of knowledge production.”

The humanities (such as literature, music and philosophy) are not doing any better, as the Western canons continue to enjoy an exalted status in the various disciplines under this category: many philosophers from Africa still take great pride in their knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and so on, while thinking very little of philosophical works by scholars from their own continent, and much less of the intellectual creations of their compatriots with no Western-type formal education. In like manner, many literary critics from Africa enjoy a sense of great accomplishment from their mastery of European literary classics while tacitly believing that nothing of similar grandeur is to be found among their own peoples. Besides, many scholars in Africa take great pride in having their works published in Western Europe and North America by what they happily refer to as “international journals” and “international publishers”, while considering publications from university presses in places such as Kigali, Dar es Salaam or Harare as of inferior status, thereby continuing to lend credence to the almost hegemonic Western system of knowledge production decades after formal independence.

Yet another important aspect of the hierarchical process of knowledge production has to do with the way in which events are reported. Many think that reports in media such as books, print and electronic news outlets are objective sources of knowledge. However, scholars of critical discourse analysis have repeatedly illustrated that such reports promote the interests of the economically dominant classes. Thus in a capitalist context, the bulk of mass media promotes the interests of the owners of capital. For example, where the police violently stop a workers’ demonstration, the media are likely to report “Four Demonstrators Shot” rather than “Police Shoot Four Demonstrators”, thereby suppressing the fact of who shot them. Similarly, school textbooks covertly and overtly promote capitalist values and advance the view that any challenge to such values is a threat to “stability”.

Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.

In Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?, I pointed out that humanity is currently confronted by a world dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain, resulting in a fusion of technologies that is integrating the physical, digital and biological spheres. Think of how all manner of people can determine where you are if you forget your mobile phone “Location”  function on, or listen to your conversations and view your actions if you unwittingly allow an app to access your microphone and camera. Already phone manufacturers are including contact tracing apps in their devices, and many phones now have the option of a fingerprint instead of a series of numbers for passwords. Through the enormous power of artificial intelligence (“AI”), all these data are quickly analysed to produce detailed profiles of phone users—where they go, what they like listening to and watching, what they buy, among others. In short, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”), privacy is now an illusion. Yet the bulk of these new technologies are owned by large corporations domiciled in the West and East, reducing the peoples of Africa to mere consumers subject to the whims of the owners of the technologies. All this raises the real possibility of a global dictatorship headed by the owners of these technologies reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and it boils down to who controls knowledge production.

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower. This is precisely what Western imperialism has subjected the peoples of Africa to. Similarly, in the preface to his celebrated work, Epistemologies of the south: Justice against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos indicates that he seeks to defend three important postulates:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammars and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

Nevertheless, there are several encouraging initiatives to address the epistemic injustice in Africa. The valiant struggle of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has consistently pointed out that using African languages in creative writing is an act of decolonising the mind, Kwasi Wiredu, who advocates for the same approach in African philosophy, and the six African philosophers who wrote book chapters in their mother tongues for the edited volume Listening to ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, are all efforts at challenging the hegemonic Western system of knowledge production. Besides, the research and teaching projects in African languages, African oral and written histories, African oral and written literatures, African music, African art, African philosophy, among others are evidence that a sizeable number of academics in Africa have perceived the problem, and are determined to contribute to the turning of the tide.

Yet several intellectuals who have raised their voices against global capitalism and the attendant hegemonic Western system of knowledge production have borne the brunt of state violence: Samir Amin was forced into exile from his native Egypt in 1960 for his Marxist but anti-Stalinist views; Paulo Freire’s success in teaching Brazilian peasants how to read landed him in prison and a subsequent long and painful exile; Walter Rodney’s exposition of the damage inflicted on Africa by European mercantilism that evolved into capitalism in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa resulted in his imprisonment in his native land of Guyana, and his death as a result of a car bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana, remains a mystery, as does the plane crush that cut short Claude Ake’s life during the autocratic reign of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Sani Abacha regime in Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka escaped Abacha’s murderous hand by a whisker; Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent time as a detainee without trial in a Kenyan maximum security prison for organising a peasants’ theatre group to perform his anti-capitalist plays, and later went into decades of exile, and the list is much longer than this. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the exploited and oppressed peoples of Africa must continue to innovate in a bid to contribute towards the true liberation of their continent.

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