The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a new leader.
Unlike advanced democracies like Kenya, that leader was not be chosen by the British public. The new Prime Minister was chosen by a narrow clique of Conservative Party members — just 0.26% of the overall population. They are older, whiter, more male and affluent than the overall population, and generally live in the south of England.
From outside it is hard to understand recent politics in the UK. Following a year (and a career) of scandals, Boris Johnson finally resigned as Prime Minister — only to remain in office for another two months. Given the grave problems facing the nation, he argued it was important to have a steady hand at the wheel, before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to business — organising more parties, skipping critical COBRA meetings, and enjoying back-to-back holidays.
The Tory MPs who defenestrated Johnson (despite him clinging limpet-like to the windowsill at Number 10) immediately pivoted to defending him. He got all the big calls right, they said sycopathcially, describing the person they had just sacked for major repeated scandals. Boris Johnson had been fined by police for flouting COVID restrictions in Downing Street — the same restrictions he formulated and publicly announced in Downing Street. He had narrowly survived a vote of no confidence, and there remain serious concerns about secretive visits to a Russian’s parties in Italy. In a stunning twist few saw coming, the final straw was a sex scandal he wasn’t personally involved in.
The UK faces serious simultaneous crises. One of the worst COVID death tolls in Europe was spun into a world-leading vaccination drive, but the NHS and the economy remain on their knees. An oven-ready deal for Northern Ireland was poorly defrosted, and Scotland also looks set to tear the Union apart, but Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative and Unionist Party, to give them their full title, only pours fuel on both fires. The sunlit uplands of Brexit are yet to be seen from the queues of lorries at Dover. Massive price rises led to double-digit inflation for the first time in forty years. Soaring costs and falling wages have led sober commentators to warn of civil unrest by Christmas.
Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appeared amazingly detached from reality. One public leadership discussion barely touched on climate change, a fairly key area when Glasgow hosted COP26 in November. Meanwhile, the news was full of images of London literally on fire. Thankfully the fires have been put out by devastating flooding, but climate change was impossible for either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, the two front-runners, to address in any serious way, given lobbying pressures on their own party. They soon U-turned on the cost of living crisis, regional wage controls, tax reductions and their stance towards power prices because they are so out of step with the mood of the country.
Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appear amazingly detached from reality.
Instead, all both candidates had to offer were increasingly unhinged culture war soundbites and empty posturing. The main issues facing the UK, Daily Mail readers would assume, are migrant boats, gender-neutral pronouns, and historians analysing Britain’s imperial history. How on earth has a self-described long-standing democracy descended to this level of childish tantrums? (I avoided the word mature, but decrepit/senile were my other option.)
There has been much discussion about the racial diversity of Tory leadership candidates. Of the initial eleven candidates, a narrow majority were not white. Sunak offered the possibility of Britain’s first non-white prime minister before his ratings tanked. Was the UK too racist for this to happen?
In many ways this is the wrong question to ask. Class and wealth have always trumped issues of race in British society. Long before Harry married Meghan, Queen Victoria was godmother to Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who played a substantial role in Britain’s suffragette movement. Sunak went to the right schools, and is now incredibly wealthy, in part thanks to his fortuitous marriage into one of India’s wealthiest families. Despite marrying into wealth, he reflects Tory beliefs about personal aspiration, opportunity and achievement through hard work, in ways commentators on the Left often miss. Modern racism is less about skin colour than cultural norms and allegiances. Sunak’s expensive fashion tastes horrify some, but are genuinely and unproblematically aspirational for others.
I have family members who sound like Priti Patel and others who sound like Rishi Sunak. It mostly depends on which schools they went to. I received my own pronunciation from listening to BBC radio a lot as a child, and I sound alien in the area of East London I grew up in. I am constantly surprised by the positive reaction my accent receives from strangers. I am really not as smart as I sound, but it opens doors — in ways which are genuinely disturbing.
Priti Patel didn’t stand a chance in the Tory leadership hustings, but nor, I expect, would Liverpudlian Nadine Dorries. They both directly appeal to an extremely right-wing base, but lack the cultural polish to appeal to the party of aristocratic deference. Truss has lowered her speaking voice and speed to sound more like Margaret Thatcher, her cosplay role model. Former Prime Minister David Cameron was left unaccountable by the media for his disastrous premiership because he sounded right, and ticked all the right boxes.
In this respect the Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley. Once they stepped up to the microphone after the game, between their wonderfully boisterous celebrations, it was clear they came from very different regions of the country. None of them had the Oxford Union polish beloved of the British establishment. Some had to work two jobs while playing at an elite level because of the low levels of pay in women’s football.
Contrast this with Nadhim Zahawi, one of the leadership candidates, who made much of his touching refugee story — his Kurdish family had fled Iraq when he was a child. Zahawi made headlines some years ago in the MP expenses scandal, having asked the British taxpayer to foot the bill for heating his horse stables during a period of crippling austerity. Even less mention was made this year of his grandfather’s role as governor of the Central Bank of Iraq under British rule, with his signature appearing on the country’s banknotes. Not such a typical refugee story after all. Meanwhile, a hundred thousand people from Hong Kong are estimated to have quietly relocated to the UK over the past year, with little coverage of this exodus in the media, or disquiet from the right; these are the “good” type of migrants.
The Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley.
I am reminded of how the Imperial (and later Indian) Civil Service first accommodated non-white applicants in the Indian colony (although they had to apply in London from 1854-1922). As historian John Beaglehole describes it, the selected candidates would through training “have been transformed into brown Englishmen”. These “Brown Sahibs” then faced the complex issue of where their loyalties lay. In many ways, this is little different from the co-option of the Kikuyu Home Guards in Kenya, the British Chinese of Singapore, or going much further back, how the Roman Empire expanded. A large empire simply can’t be created or sustained by violence and extraction alone. It must co-opt local populations, and provide genuine benefits to them. This adds a murky moral complexity to empires that should not be ignored.
At the Home Office, Priti Patel made plain her lack of empathy for migrants, building on Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. This seems hypocritical given her parents’ own migration from Uganda. However, again, the reality is more complex. They see themselves as the good immigrants who strive to integrate into UK society seamlessly. Patel’s father stood for local council elections for the borderline xenophobic UKIP party.
There is also, of course, a long history of racism and colourism within communities from the subcontinent. Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order. Patel’s parents migrated in the 1960s — before Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972. This year is the 50th anniversary of that traumatic event. I was not totally shocked to see an hour-long discussion in Leicester mention the deaths of up to half a million black Ugandans under Amin, but then quickly move on to discuss white and Asian experiences. There was no interest or concern about this apparently peripheral fact, and no black speakers on the panel. A discussion on the same theme held at Makerere University in Kampala barely overlapped in content. The cultural rifts are still complete.
This is gradual progress for a community traumatised by several layers of migration and still wrestling with integration within the UK. In my experience, this community is only beginning to process the convoluted nature of its own existence. Indians in the diaspora are gradually learning to talk about Partition in 1947, but the majority of Asians in East Africa have avoided that horrific rending. Their story is instead taken to begin with the forced exodus from Uganda, and then their struggle to get settled in the UK.
Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order.
What they understand less are the dire conditions in British-ruled India that led them to take such risky voyages to try their luck in East Africa to begin with. Those stories are rarely told and have largely been forgotten, but I hope may be explored more over time. While this community still tries to prove they are the model minority, and fear future expulsion, they are less likely to look critically at their own complex history within the Empire. (Nikesh Shukla’s 1996 anthology The Good Immigrant explores these themes in some nuanced detail.) Priti Patel’s attitudes are not hypocritical in this lens, although this does not excuse her unconscious racism. As with many of the Tory leadership candidates, she is still trying to become a perfect brown Englishwoman.
Suella Braverman, replacing Patel at the helm of the Home Office, is the daughter of Kenyan and Mauritian economic migrants to the UK in the 1960s. She seems determined to pursue an even harder line against current migrants. Unlike Patel she has the polish of a Cambridge education, and outperformed her in the leadership election. The new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, was born to Ghanaian parents; Foreign Secretary James Cleverley’s mother is from Sierra Leone; International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s parents were Nigerian migrants, while the new Environment Secretary’s parents were Sri Lankan. Zahawi is still in government, but moved from a one-day stint at the Treasury to run the Cabinet Office. This represents an unprecedented level of diversity in the highest levels of political leadership.
Although this looks like the British Empire coming home, breaking through a political glass ceiling against racial diversity, it may instead be a glass cliff. This is where minorities are overrepresented in risky and precarious positions. Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised. While they may all now be true believers, appealing to the fringes of the party at several levels, they have been placed in situations where success is extremely unlikely given the crises Britain faces. When problems arise, they won’t just be scapegoated individually. The wider communities they superficially represent will also be tarnished.
The lack of LGBT representation throughout Truss’s cabinet reflects a more sinister imperial throwback resurrected in modern culture wars about trans rights. Traditional values often mean ones imposed by Victorian societies on colonies with more complex understandings of identity and gender. It is unclear how much further right Truss will lean on such issues.
Returning to the Tory leadership contest, this superficial diversity of race and gender hides a deep and more dangerous homogeneity. Groupthink is the real problem with the Conservative leadership candidates. They are surprisingly ill-equipped to understand, let alone deal with, the genuine problems facing the country, and so need culture wars and scapegoats to pin deeper problems on. The last scapegoat was Europe, but Brexit is turning out to be an enormous act of economic self-harm, just as predicted. Leaving the European Union also now makes it harder to blame all the UK’s current problems on Brussels.
Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised.
Both Truss and Sunak studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford (PPE), a degree widely seen as preparation for political leadership. As a Guardian headline put it in 2017, PPE is “the Oxford degree that runs Britain” before listing a rogues’ gallery of graduates who wielded substantial political or cultural power. The three-year degree gives its graduates a superficial sense that they understand political issues, but more importantly that they are following in prestigious footsteps. It conveys a right to govern. I see no coincidence that it was instituted in the 1920s just as the former Imperial Civil Service was being wound down.
This isn’t just a problem on the political right. Leaders from other parties are conditioned to believe they understand the key issues, wherever they stand ideologically, and that endless debates at the Oxford Union are somehow the way to resolve them. The entire political debate has become frozen within a tired game, with set moves and strategies, where everyone assumes they have the answers.
Even Boris Johnson’s extraordinary moves to rip up long-standing diplomatic allegiances, trashing relationships and legal precedents, resonated with long-established beliefs on the far-right edge of this established game board, and were drummed up relentlessly by Britain’s populist media oligarchs. Both Truss and Sunak now have to appeal to that fringe, regardless of more widespread popular opinion. But the fringe is part of the game.
As Dr Kay Sidebottom has also commented regarding the leadership debates, rhetorical styles of argumentation and debate are also rooted in whiteness and patriarchal notions of leadership. Instead of open questions and curiosity, leading to fresh insights and open to genuine cross-pollination of ideas, debates tend to dissolve into amusing jibes, pugilistic point-scoring, and superficial rehashing of the same tired issues. Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to. Many figures in the media also studied PPE, and confuse this form of political theatre with substantive politics. The degree is based on speaking insightfully and convincingly about unfamiliar topics in small weekly high-pressure tutorials — not on true depth of knowledge.
So in response to a devastating cost of living crisis, and what NHS leaders are warning will be an unprecedented humanitarian crisis Truss and Sunak had little new to offer. Conservatives still believe privatisation, tax cuts and further deregulation will fuel innovation. This is despite the evidence of several decades of similar policies leading to rivers overflowing with raw sewage while privatised water companies bank huge profits instead of investing in capacity. The previously privatised but then partially renationalised rail network is paralysed by underinvestment and strikes.
Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to.
The only way to fix the NHS, they aver, will be to privatise it, although that is still too deeply unpopular to say out loud. Sunak looks to the United States as a model, even though healthcare outcomes in America are far worse per dollar than in most of the G7. Britain’s low productivity, they assume, must be due to work-shy workers, despite all available economic evidence that even people in traditionally sustainable work, teachers and nurses amongst them, now need to resort to food banks.
These policy positions almost amount to theological faith but reflect a particular and rigid way of seeing the world, a form of shallow arrogance and lack of genuine curiosity. I have some unusual insight into this because I too studied PPE at Oxford around the same time as Truss and Sunak, albeit almost by accident. My heart was set on zoology, but a few weeks before the application deadline, I heard for the first time about a subject called Philosophy. I hadn’t known people could study the questions I was asking in my own head, and changed my options accordingly.
Until then I had focussed on sciences, but economics as one of the social sciences should have been easy to adjust to. Instead I repeatedly bounced off it. The theories did not seem based on evidence, or rigorously tested, but were instead more conceptual and ideological. It was only several years later, with further studies in the Philosophy of Science and further reading, that I began to understand why.
Economics split from the other natural philosophies at a critical juncture when Newtonian physics was in its ascendancy. In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers. Economics acquired an almost Creationist religious belief in systems achieving a healthy equilibrium through the workings of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Less predictable concepts about entropy, chaotic non-linearity, and the complexities of biology were only unravelled much later in other sciences, and are yet to upgrade mainstream economic thinking.
What we now see in politics reminds me of clashes between rival paradigms in the history of science. Adherents from opposing schools of thought would talk past one another, often using the same shared words but embedded in contrasting networks of meaning. Their underlying assumptions and choice of key examples would be different. These were confusing periods but preceded what is known as a paradigm shift, to an entirely new way of seeing the world. This feels similar to how people on the broad right and left of politics talk past one another. I now think both sides are grasping different pieces of a jigsaw, but missing the overall picture.
In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers.
An example forgotten outside geology is illustrative. Since the early 1800s Neptunians believed the world’s rocks were formed in water, while Plutonists believed volcanism was their source of origin. Both sides advanced different examples that seemed to bolster their own cases, but they were largely talking past one another. The reality was far more complex, and only fully explained with the discovery of plate tectonics in the 1960s. Both sides of a long-standing mainstream scientific debate, which spilt into elements of mainstream culture, were actually blindfolded and fumbling around a far larger elephant in the room. The surface of the earth is dynamically and constantly reformed by far older and more complex processes than any of them could have imagined.
I feel there are similarities with this current period of politics. Generalising wildly, both “sides” of the political spectrum see elements of reality, but fail to see the whole picture, or identify the underlying mechanisms behind it. For example, while people on the left decry the privatisation of the NHS, they simply do not grasp the depth of the financial crisis the UK has been in for decades. They assume there is actually enough money to go around, but it has been diverted in different ways. This is as much a failure to understand reality as the right’s focus on privatised healthcare, but each discussion barely overlaps with the other. Some people genuinely believe individual choices should always trump overall societal outcomes, and mistrust state programmes. This is of course an entirely false choice where public health is concerned, as the pandemic underlined. But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed. Our collective understanding remains fragmented, misleading and superficial.
The First World’s focus on PPE as a degree also seemed detached from the realities I knew from India and Africa, and that I saw while working with refugees in the Balkans as a student. I often say it took me years to unlearn what I had picked up, largely through working with children, spending extended periods in rural areas, and as a peace worker in South Africa. The models of human nature and understanding of global history were just hopelessly incomplete or, more dangerously, misleading. If you graduated with PPE and surrounded yourself with people with the same education, those beliefs would only become more entrenched with time.
Much of mainstream policy thinking within PPE privileges the most extreme outlier imaginable — Britain’s historic experience. Britain’s industrialisation then global dominance is unconsciously still a model for “economic take-off” in other countries. The reality is that most places, including Britain itself, have never actually offered enough sustainable jobs for everyone. This is a huge blind spot in mainstream thinking — both on the right and on the left — but we are still all promised it will lead us to a mythical Canaan. Either slashing taxes and regulations will unleash greatness, or focussed taxes and strategic investments will. This simply denies much actual global human experience.
But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed.
For a short period of time, Britain was globally dominant in an extraordinary way. It was the industrial workshop of the world, as well as militarily the only superpower by far. The deeper reasons for that dominance have actually not been fully understood. The real reasons were neither economic free trade and great men with Enlightenment ideas, nor ruthless capitalist exploitation and the stripping of other continents’ wealth. When you dig a bit deeper than these superficial but widespread and satisfying narratives, the real reasons are more complex and remain a little unclear.
This iconic period of relative wealth was also a time of massive social deprivation within the British Isles, but again not always in the ways people imagine. Free trade did not stimulate this growth, but only followed once Britain was so dominant it worked to its advantage. While Britain achieved an economic take-off other countries still wish to emulate, this went hand in hand with simply astounding levels of emigration, as people left for better opportunities elsewhere in the colonies. In some years, more Britons left annually than died in total during the First World War.
More importantly for people wanting to create Empire 2.0 now, the original dream proved hollow. The return of the British Empire to Britain’s own shores, in the form of Windrush and then the East African Asian exodus, was never expected, and laws had to be drawn up hastily to block further migration. Countries within the Empire had been fully expected to grow self-sustaining thriving economies of their own, and a place for Britons to keep migrating to from a small crowded island with bad weather. This wasn’t just a failure of the British Empire; it was not predicted by mainstream economic theory in general. Population growth alone is no explanation, since Britain’s own economic growth took place at a time of unprecedented population increases.
Again, something seems badly broken in the wider theories of economics, but you would not learn this within the confines of the degree I studied, and neither did the Conservative election candidates. Given their insistence on talking up Britain, and decrying “woke” historians, they also have a particular blind spot to seeing why their simplistic ideas about free trade unleashing creativity did not work then, and will not work now. More recently, idolising Thatcher’s period in power ignores the massive infusion of wealth from North Sea Oil, as well as technological and financial innovations that cannot be repeated now. Fancy dress makes for fun photoshoots, but not substantive policies.
The realities worldwide remain complex. The people who work hardest are often the poorest, while privilege often determines outcomes. At the same time market economies have genuinely lifted billions of people into previously unimaginable levels of material comfort and security. Capitalist exploitation isn’t the main reason for poverty — being excluded from modern markets and infrastructure can be an even worse fate. Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.
The history of science is littered with examples of how prejudices and parochialism limit our thinking. In some ways this is inevitable, as science is just a complex structure of good prejudices — our imperfect ways of understanding and predicting the world around us, absent the mathematically clear language of God early philosophers sought. In other ways, it can lead us badly astray.
For example, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale fossils in Canada, which document an unexpected range of both early and novel body forms. Despite excavating over 65,000 specimens between 1910 and 1924, he never actually understood what he was looking at. His preconception that life moved from simple to complex clouded his vision. These incredible fossils went largely unremarked on for another forty years, when fresh eyes recognised they represented animals which had simply never been seen before — 508 billion year-old fossils had the power to astound science, but science had to be open to that possibility.
Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.
Another example is Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz, who realised glaciers could explain a lot of erosion patterns and landscapes in his homeland. British geologists dismissed him out of hand, largely because they had little first-hand experience of glaciers within the British Isles. Ice could not possibly be so important. When the foremost geologist of his time, Charles Lyell, recognised that glaciers created the unique landscapes of his own family estate in Scotland, he was wary of giving public support to Agassiz. In a similar way, rich British elites have no understanding of the corrosive power of poverty, or are unwilling to acknowledge it.
People can travel an enormous amount without leaving their bubble of elite cities, social classes and limited conversations. Sunak surprised and alarmed a group of British schoolchildren last year by enthusiastically claiming to be “a total coke addict”. He had no awareness that for normal British children since the 1970s this sounded like a serious drug addiction. (Sunak collects Coca-Cola variants from around the world, his favourite being the Mexican variety because it is the only variety flavoured with cane sugar.) Instead of sounding likeable, this just made him sound more elite and out of touch with a country boasting a record number of food banks.
Truss has travelled through almost every flavour of British politics, attending anti-nuclear protests as a child, representing the Liberal Democrats at university, and being a strong Remain candidate in the Brexit referendum. She also has photoshoots around the world, as her tax-payer funded Instagram account attests. (This was actually a smart move, given a superficial electorate.) However, it is unclear how much she has learnt from any of these journeys. Both Truss and Sunak have burnished their images, but the moment they speak on policy they sound tone-deaf, callous and hopelessly out of touch with everyone except the tiny Conservative membership who themselves inhabit a narrow media bubble. Their candidates’ leadership campaigns prompted numerous U-turns on substantive issues, and even left most Tory voters missing Boris Johnson.
Some of these U-turns were quite extraordinary. The Conservatives aim to “level-up” the country by diverting resources from the South-East to their new but vulnerable Red Wall seats in northern England. However, Truss announced pay cuts for people in the same areas then quickly had to walk her proposals back, in a dishonest fog of denials. In a country facing an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, all the candidates had to offer are tax cuts, and they initially refused windfall taxes on energy companies causing the most obvious pain. Even though climate change is becoming a visible issue, the leadership candidates were vilifying cyclists, and proposing to expand fracking for more fossil fuels.
The promise of economics was always growth leading to abundance — but something went badly wrong. People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist. Some sections of society must be to blame. Instead of abundance, they justify scarcity and advocate for painful trade-offs. Such observers focus on how some people must be holding our economies back, instead of asking why our economies don’t serve more people. Truss has said potentially damaging things in the past, blaming “workshy” British people for the country’s poor productivity, instead of understanding how high living costs cripple workers. Commentators like Yuval Hariri wonder if most of the world’s population are basically now superfluous in economic terms, putting the cart before the horse in an extraordinary assessment of value.
I am reminded in an odd way how early chemists became trapped because they believed fire was a substance, not a process. This belief was challenged by strange behaviours when they investigated processes of rusting and burning with precise measurements. Some metals gained rather than lost weight, whereas their theory led them to believe they would lose weight as they released the fire they were assumed to contain. Rather than such evidence leading them to question their assumptions, some postulated the existence of mysterious substances like phlogiston, with negative weight. Only in the 1770s did Lavoisier start unravelling the mystery, when he realised gases were a substance with weight. The discovery of oxygen finally explained what was really happening at a chemical level. The experts had the whole situation backwards because of their prior assumptions and earlier theories they now needed to question and ultimately reject.
People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist.
Current discussions of poverty and inequality feel the same to me. They are based on incorrect assumptions and models and so fail to see, let alone explain, much of the actual world around us. The “experts” who have studied these things in detail become intransigent. They genuinely see the world through an incomplete or failing paradigm, which biases what they pay attention to, and leads to damaging policy options.
The PPE I studied did not touch on either urbanisation or infrastructure. I now believe these are the largest issues we need to confront today. Low productivity in Britain is partly due to an inflated housing market, and cannot be addressed by simply cutting wages or taxes. Right-wing political thinkers were very influenced by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom but are now blind to recognise how soaring property prices are creating a new form of that social relationship, and lasting exclusion.
The Tory voters both candidates needed to appeal to are generally older, home owning, have savings and no mortgages — and many will be landlords themselves. They do not experience the same housing and cost-of-living crisis as the majority of the country. Instead, they feel out of touch with young people and their concerns. This is the gallery that the leadership campaigns played to, scapegoating a young and apparently workshy and feckless generation they barely understand.
(Silicon Valley ideas also inspire Sunak, but are digital distractions on top of deeper concrete issues. They also come from a similarly evangelical bubble of people echoing one another’s ideas, detached from wider realities kwa ground.)
At the same time, those on the left like to see corruption and greed everywhere, but their picture also needs challenging. Not only do workers suffer from crippling high costs, but so do most employers. The pressure for tax cuts comes not solely from plutocrats with mega-yachts, but also from small business owners. Companies are always under competitive pressure from capitalism, but now these pressures are becoming unsustainable. Focusing on rich outliers tends to obscure this, but stressed conditions are what has allowed unhealthy monopolies to become so dominant. In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity. When we only focus on aspects we see as parasitic, through outdated paradigms, we can easily miss this larger picture.
Returning to my prior interest in zoology, I was recently struck by an idea of Konrad Lorenz, the ground-breaking Austrian behavioural scientist. He talked of methodological Ganzheitsbetrachtung (holistic contemplation) when examining animal behaviour, but it can be extended to any complex system. This means putting aside preconceived notions to engage with the whole animal, in a spirit of love and respect, before zooming in on its various parts.
This summed up a lot of what I thought was wrong about the academic training I had received. Instead of looking at complex human issues with curiosity, they are usually approached with preconceptions and ideological biases. The analytic approach is often to separate out issues in a surgical way, and try to address them individually. This works well in engineering, but such a physics-based mind-set does not fit complex interwoven systems better analysed through the more appropriate understanding offered by biological lenses.
In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity.
A lot of our understanding of human behaviour and motivation is directly contaminated by such thinking. When individual animals are placed in a sterile environment and given specific prompts and rewards, their behaviour can become distorted and unhealthy. However, such experiments were used to directly inform economic thinking about human behaviours and rewards. It is only in more recent decades that scientists are studying animals in more complex environments, and drawing more holistic lessons for what we need ourselves.
For example, a rat isolated in a cage, presented with plain tap water or water laced with sweetener and addictive morphine, will soon poison itself to death. This finding coloured a lot of economic and social policy around addiction. New experiments in the 1970s questioned if the animals were responding to their artificially barren environment. Tests with rats in larger cages, with richer environments and other rats for company, did not self-medicate in the same way. This finding has profound implications in many fields, including social housing, but I’m not sure if Sunak has reconsidered his own coke addiction. How much do our unhealthy diets reflect our poor living environments?
Instead of taking each problem in abstract, putting it into a cage and prodding it, we need to take a more holistic and curious approach — which often means expanding the questions we ask. The housing crisis can’t be solved by building more houses in already overpopulated regions; we should ask why people are all moving to the same cities to chase limited jobs. Carbon emissions won’t be solved by electric vehicles, but by reducing the overall need to travel so much. Extremism in many forms won’t be prevented by deradicalising converts but by asking why so many people experience life as frightening and confusing in the first place.
We inhabit an industrial world designed around limited conceptual paradigms that have reached multiple dead-ends, and are currently failing. Simultaneous crises with the climate and fuel prices show that our current solutions are simply not sustainable. We need fresh conversations, ideas and new perspectives. One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism. They recognise there are few obvious, let alone easy, answers to deep-rooted problems. Britain has been left sifting through opportunistic dregs, and one of the worst cabinets in recent history.
Even outside Britain, it is possible to see a wider legacy in surprising ways. Frightening but normalised Islamophobia in India and radical terrorism across a wide swathe of Africa seem like polar opposites. Drug violence in Latin America contrasts with the resurgence of patriarchal militant Christianity in the USA. Russia’s imperial designs in Ukraine, Britain’s rehashed culture wars, and Bolsonaro’s attempts to deforest the Amazon can seem unconnected.
One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism.
At heart however, I believe all these social crises feed on the same pressures. Vast numbers of disillusioned people can’t see a viable future for themselves, and politicians come to power on the back of identifying scapegoats to blame as well as past (if illusory) certainties and golden ages. Lots of people simply can’t make a living in our current economic paradigm. Historically this has happened before, with devastating effects, in Weimar Berlin. With climate, food and energy crises, these pressures are only increasing. Instead of delivering abundance for all, economics is now making us increasingly desperate, and we need to understand the real reasons for this.
Britain faces multiple extreme crises in the coming months. Its specific problems are unprecedented, but many of the proposed solutions will be echoed around the world. Without leaders who really look afresh at these issues, without preconceptions and pre-set responses, these crises will only deepen and fester. Aside from frightening social pressures, climate change poses a genuine existential threat. This will not be addressed by pandering to the energy lobby, Daily Mail readers, old Marxists or radical greens.
In short, Britain now has a new leader, but not new leadership. We all need better.
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“If my husband touches you I will kill you”
Rape, abuse, neglect, and death threats: the lives of Kenyan women returning from Saudi.
TW: This article contains sensitive and graphic descriptions of abuse, rape and sexual assault.
The stories merge, one woman’s trauma echoed in another’s nightmare. One survivor’s smile waning bearing witness to another’s unhealed wounds. The nods of acknowledgement, the sighs of empathy. They’ve all been there, but they know each one’s hurt stings differently. Some eyes are bright with unshed tears, some are empty, some laughs are of gallows humour, a few of shared wins. Some scars are physical and on display, but the ones that fester most are invisible.
Through in-depth interviews and focus groups with Migrant-Rights.Org, Kenyan women share stories about their life in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. While they all speak of long work hours, poor or no pay, lack of nourishment, and verbal abuse, almost all who have been to Saudi Arabia share tales far more tragic. Rape, sexual assault, torture…every anecdote shared has physical or emotional evidence. The burns, the limps, the breathless gasps, the estranged families.
In a dank, badly lit room in Nairobi, 12 women come together. Four wish to go abroad, and the rest jaded with experience are eager to share. The advice flies around the room thick and fast, accompanied by mirthless laughs.
For what? another asks.
“For accommodating all the insults.”
“Be ready for sleepless nights.”
“There won’t be enough food.”
“Get used to a lot of black tea. A lot. And kubooz.”
“Panadol is your doctor. You have only that, however sick you are, even if you feel like you are dying.”
This draws loud laughs from everyone.
“Expect not to have sanitary towels.”
“Your own soap.”
“Or even drinking water.”
Ruth, who spent two years in Hafar Al Batin and Dammam, Saudi, is brusque with her inputs. “Expect that when your contract ends you won’t be let go easily.
The trauma continues as they arrive home. Many who return without meeting their goal come back to empty homes or hostile environments. A perceived shame for being a victim of abuse.
Like Celestine, who chooses to live away from her young kids. “I am homeless, I live with my friend Feith. I am scared to be with my kids. I am scared the demons in my head will take over and I will kill myself and my kids.”
You will be raped. You will be beaten. No action will be taken. You will have a child as evidence of rape. Still no action. The police, the embassy, the office all collaborate to make you work only. You have no rights.
Her friend Feith sits by her, reaching out with her good hand. The other hand is healing from severe burns inflicted on her by her employer. Feith somehow appears stronger. She escaped and helped Celeste out too.
(Report continues below, after Abuse Beyond Comprehension)
Abuse Beyond Comprehension
Sister Florence is a professional counsellor with Counter Human Trafficking Trust-East Africa (CHTEA). While the organisation has helped many returnees from Lebanon with a seed fund to start a business, Sr Florence has worked with dozens of victims of abuse who have returned from the Gulf states, including those that Migrant-Rights.Org helped repatriate.
The highly traumatised are taken to a safe house on arrival. “I meet them twice a day, as they need constant support. At least at the beginning. When they are in a good-ish place, we reduce the sessions.”
However, their families don’t always accept them.
“We have victims of trafficking from other countries in the world, but none as bad as the ones coming from the Gulf. Especially Saudi,” she says and wonders if it’s because of a clash of culture or misunderstanding. While victims from Europe are usually those trafficked to brothels or into prostitution, in the case of the Gulf, it’s women who go to work in households, she explains.
“Some things are beyond comprehension. Father and sons raping the worker, women standing by and not doing anything…Rape is taboo, but a rape like this is even worse. It is sex slavery. They become objects. They are beaten and burned. They are penetrated with bottles and vegetables. They are also forced into abortions. And if the pregnancy continues they are jailed.”
The taboo is so deep-rooted, that women don’t even use the word ‘rape’. “They will describe everything else. Say bad things happened to them, but the stigma attached to the word is so bad, that they won’t say they were raped. Healing is such a slow and tedious process. Some are suicidal and need to be observed all the time. Once they leave the safe house they still have to be monitored. All of this is resource-intensive, expensive.”
Sr Florence says the trauma women face begins when their documents are confiscated, and then their phones. It weakens them. “It is chipping away at their personality, their humanity. Still, people go, because there are some success stories.”
It’s not just women who are subject to sexual assault and rape. “I have also spoken to some men. They’ve been sodomised. Abused. But they keep quiet. They are working as watchmen or in construction. They don’t talk about it. They suffer in silence. Then they end up with problems of substance abuse, alcohol, drugs, being suicidal, unable to cope with what they’ve endured.”
She is critical of the whole anti-trafficking agenda for leaving men out. “There are safe houses only for women and children? What about the men? Even if trafficked they are seen as victims of labour abuse alone.”
(Continuation of report)
Despite what she went through, it’s Feith who provides succour to Celestine,28, whom Feith feels had it worse. As if torture needs to be graded.
The two women went to Saudi at the same time with the same agent. Celestine ended up in Hafar Al Batin in the east of the kingdom, not far from the Kuwait and Iraq borders. Things were not so bad for Celestine to begin with. “They gave me food. I worked 8 to 8. They treated me well.”
After two weeks, the husband started coming on to her, barging into her room, and knocking on the door when she would go for a shower. She informed the agent in Kenya, who did nothing. She could not tell the wife, who had told Celestine at the very beginning that if baba touched her, she (the wife) would hurt her.
“The man started coming to my room with a gun. On 3 February (2020), the lady was not home. He came and raped me. And he continued raping me over the coming months until November. In the fifth month, he raped and hit me with the gun on the head and I fainted.”
She was taken to the hospital but warned not to complain to anyone. She was sent back home with medicine and the sexual assault continued. “He would also hit me. There are marks all over here [patting her stomach, chest, genitals]. He would stomp my genital area with his boots. Then he started anal rape too. I would scream and cry in pain.”
They would never miss a prayer but would come back from the prayers and mistreat you.
She finally called Feith, who advised her to run away since the agent was of no help.
One evening as Celestine was deliberating her escape, the employer brought home six men and they threatened to rape her, kill her and dispose of her in trash bags. “I just ran. I found my way to the office. They called the police, but the police asked me to go get evidence from the same family. The agent said the same. I refused. They beat me and sold me to the brother of the employer.”
Celestine’s tone is flat and her voice soft as she recounts the months of horror, but silent tears fall steadily through the one-hour conversation. Feith asks her in Swahili if she would like to stop. She pauses for a sip of water and insists on continuing.
At the new house there were 30 people, she says. By then, all her injuries were infected, with pus oozing out, and no medication — none of which was considered evidence. Here again, she worked from 6 am to 3 am, with hardly any food and no pay.
“On 29 November, the son came to my room to rape again and started beating me. Now the bleeding was heavy (points to her genital area). They then served some food with something green in it and said it was medicine for Covid. A child in the house came and told me don’t eat that. A 10-year-old boy. He said it was poison.”
[Feith interjects. “Children save lives. So often they come and help.”]
Celestine developed terrible stomach pain and bleeding, as she had eaten some morsels. She was taken to the hospital. Finally, she was sent to the agency office, where she was locked up with other Africans with similar cases. “We all ran away to the police somehow. And they helped repatriate us in February 2021.”
The poison has affected her liver. The abortions she was forced to have, and other injuries from the beatings she received, have also impacted her health and made it impossible for Celestine to work. She receives some help through church groups but says she is still haunted by what happened.
“Therapy is taking time to heal. When I shower and see my scars, everything unravels again. It’s too difficult. I feel so dehumanised. My mind is not working,” she says.
All the returnees have some version of the sexual harassment they faced.
Sophia, who did a short stint in Saudi before escaping abuse and overwork, spent another three years in Qatar. “It was slightly better… I worked in different households. But everywhere you face sexual harassment. In the household, when you go out with the driver. Babas asking for massages. You have to be smart and resourceful to escape all this, but you don’t always succeed.”
“And the men in the house, every chance they get, they show their ‘pee pee.’ Absolutely no peace of mind. Can’t even sleep,” says Peris, who worked in Dubai.
Atieno, 26, went to work in Tabuk in 2018 but had to escape after three months. “Though the household was small, the man kept trying to sleep with me, was sexually harassing me. When I told the wife she got so angry she beat me and didn’t give me food. How is it my fault?”
Afraid the situation would continue to escalate, she managed to go to the police and contact the Kenyan embassy with the help of her friends.
“I had friends who helped and guided me. But many don’t have that support. They even kill themselves in desperation. In that house, the husband was molesting me. I screamed and he beat me. He did bad things. When I wanted to file a police complaint I was told it was expensive, so I did not. I already have a child I am struggling to take care of, and when that man did things to me I was scared of pregnancy. And even more scared of being killed. I am still dealing with what I went through.”
At the detention centre, you are raped… if you become pregnant they try to send you back quickly. If you have a child there you are stuck.
“You sleep with dead bodies; the detention centre is a brothel”
Vinne, a single mother who now works with other victims of abuse, listens to the group of women she brought together to share their stories (see Sisterhood of Survivors). She chips in with her views every now and then but watches closely as others grapple to say what they wish. Her voice is low, belying only briefly the feistiness within. Once the group disperses, she takes a seat to share her story.
“I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. I was 24 and an agency offered me a job in 2014. I didn’t have to pay a single cent. I was supposed to go to Dubai via Mombasa and was told I will be paid KES35000 (US$295). I ended up in Saudi. The thing is, your business with agents ends the minute you depart the country.”
After three days at the Jeddah airport, her boss picked her up. “It was a big house, and the work hours were long. The language was a challenge. There was another Kenyan working there too.”
The work she could manage, but the overtures from the men of the household was a different challenge.
“The man and his sons were sexually harassing me all the time. I complained to the madam but she wouldn’t believe me. I was threatened at gunpoint by the men. One day they were all out, and the eldest son attempted to rape me. We fought. I hit him with a heavy object I found near me. When madam returned the son complained and said he wanted me out of the house. But they kept me and the harassment continued daily.”
Four months later Vinne decided to escape. She took the opportunity to throw the garbage out to run away, along with the household’s other worker, Martha. Martha was caught. Vinne kept running until she ran into a man who offered to help her, and took her to a detention centre in the Al Rehab district of Jeddah.
“There, I regretted running away. Because that is where you saw people dying every day. You just see that, and there’s nothing you can do. You even sleep with dead bodies next to you. And there’s not enough food. No one cares.”
“These security guys want to have sex with you. In Saudi, it is so hard for men to interact with women because it is against their culture also, so this is the opportunity they get to sexually harass you and you are helpless and you can’t do anything. I became so sick. I was in the centre for two months and got pregnant due to sexual harassment.”
She says the embassy never came to her aid in the centre. When her family complained in Kenya, they said they couldn’t trace her. “I can’t forget that centre. People were dying. Fighting for food. Being raped. And no one to help us.”
Vinne recalls men coming to the shelter/centre and raping the inmates. “It’s just like a brothel, if you want to sleep with anyone this was your centre.”
She believes she was deported quickly because she got pregnant.
“When I returned to Kenya I was in the hospital in Kenyatta for four months, then was connected to the organisation Kudeha who helped me. They gave me support. Connected me to other organisations. My son is 6 years old now. In school. He does not even have an origin. I don’t know who his father was.”
Panadol is the fix. You can be dying, and they will give you panadol. However ill you are, you are not worth more than a strip of panadol.
Burdened with work and panadol as a panacea
Feith (31) went to Saudi just before the pandemic hit, in December 2019, the same time as her friend Celestine. She landed in Dammam and was taken to Arar, a city in the northern part of the Kingdom near the Iraq border.
She had to undergo a 14-day pre-departure training course and obtain a good conduct certificate in order to migrate. “The minute you land everything you were trained for vanishes. You are ‘dumb’ the first day.” It doesn’t help that the workers are given little to no time to acclimate to their new environment and are expected to hit the ground running as soon as they arrive. And the good conduct certificate means nought, as the employer’s conduct remains unchecked.
“The work hours were so long, and you had to survive on leftover food. My contract said I would be working for a family of four, but I lost count of the number I saw there. There were five families. My boss, his family, his mother, brother, mother-in-law… Another worker came the next year. We both still worked 17-18 hours. And we had to cook for their catering business,” recounts Feith.
While she was paid monthly, everything else about the job was taxing on her physically and mentally. With the first salary, she bought a phone and hid it. “When they first checked they saw I had two phones, they expect you to have two. So I made sure I had another.” That foresight would stand her in good stead when things went south.
“Every time we fell sick we were given Panadol. Once I was so ill I could not stand. There was severe pain here,” she says indicating the right hip which to date poses a problem. She tried contacting the agent in Kenya to no avail. Finally, on the fourth day of excruciating pain, she was taken to the hospital. “I told the doctor about my pain, they wanted me to do a scan the next day, before treating, and told my boss too. But they took me home and got me a strip of Panadol. I wanted to rest, but they made me cook for the catering business they ran.”
The following day Feith had to go to the hospital again for a blood and urine test, and once again, she was not allowed to wait to get the scan done. She had to go back home to cook for the catering clients.
“If you complain you get beaten.” Feith had posted on Facebook three days earlier about being ill. There were suggestions that she should run away as a last resort. The next day after preparing the morning meals, she made a dash. “I took my phone and put it inside my panty, took my blanket, and ran from the house. It was 12 noon. I walked in the heat, all the signs were in Arabic. One old man who saw me asked ‘binti (daughter), where are you going?’ He gave me water and called the police who came immediately. I had only my contract, but no passport or ID.”
The police called her employer and instructed them to bring her passport and iqama, took copies, and asked them to take her to the hospital or to the agency office. When they took her back home, Feith assumed it was to take her things and put her on a bus to the office in Hafar Al Batin, which was 12 hours from Arar by bus.
“But Baba demanded my phones and beat me up so severely. He said, ‘no police, no office, no hospital, the doctor said you are ok.’ They forced me to go cook.”
While she was cooking, the employer started ranting at her again, looming over her from behind – ‘You are here to work not to be sick. In Saudi, there is no sickness. I buy you, you are my property.’ As Feith turned to speak to him, he picked up the kettle of hot water and poured it on her.
“I felt nothing, they burnt my right arm. I was numb. I was doing everything and yet I was being treated badly. I went to the bathroom and took out my secret phone, took a photo of my arm and sent it to my husband. He sent it to the agency, who sent it to the office in Saudi. And they sent the photo to my boss. I told the other Kenyan in the house if I die, tell people. She was new.”
The employer threatened her with a gun and made her record a video statement saying he did not hurt her and it was an accident. The wife warned her not to change her statement. She was later sent to the office, where she was given three options. Work and finish the contract, work for another house, or to pay for a flight and go home. Seeing no reprieve, Feith attempted to run again. She ran by a Red Crescent tent and received some help, but the police returned her to the office again, asking them to resolve her case. “I didn’t get any medical help for my hand. There were some Ugandan women there who tried helping me and said my hand will rot at this rate. That’s when I posted videos on social media, and good samaritans raised money to send me home.”
When Feith arrived in Kenya, it was to an empty home, only to discover the money she had remitted had been spent by her husband, who had taken another wife.
When you run away, take nothing with you. Even if you are going to the police, take nothing. Nothing at all. If not they will accuse you of stealing.
Policing the victims – the weak arm of the law
Like Feith, many of the other women also attempt to seek help from the police. Time and time again, they are sent back to abusive households. Peris,45, who decided to go abroad to make ends meet and put her kids through school after her husband lost his job. She connected with an agent, packed her bags and bid farewell to her family. “I had to do my paperwork and training so I borrowed money from well-wishers and went to Nairobi from Mombasa. I cleared the medical and soon after was put on a flight to Dubai.”
Peris was promised a salary of AED600 (US$165) and that she would work for a small family. She even had a call with her would-be employer. “She said she had two small kids and was pregnant so needed help. I was scared as you hear such bad stories. Speaking to her, I was reassured.”
As soon as she landed in Dubai, the employer took her passport. “You say goodbye to your passport then, you won’t see it again. You have to be prepared for that.”
The surprise didn’t end there. “When I went to the house it was a big family, a big house. I don’t think it was the house of the same lady I spoke to. You don’t work for one family… I was made to work in three houses, all relatives. Taking care of old people too. I worked late into the night.”
She snorts when asked about work hours. “No working hours. No off. You work until the work is done. And the work is never done. You wash utensils for hours and you can barely stand. They just give Panadol if you feel sick. And all you get are leftovers – you eat what remains after they’ve eaten.”
Peris slept on the floor in the same room as the old parents. “They would tap me to wake me up and I had to take the old lady to the toilet. I was on call even through the night. If you complain they say, ‘Africans don’t get tired, Africans are strong’.” [listen]
Unlike her compatriots, Peris didn’t know to hide a spare phone, so she was dependent on the employer to communicate with her family. “Once in two months, they allowed me to call. They would stand right next to me, insist I speak only in English and keep saying ‘Not in your language’.”
Stuck in the homes of her employers, and working in multiple households, she asked to return home after a few months. “They refused to let me return saying they had paid a lot of money to get me. I worked for 8-9 months. Finally one day I ran away. I had nothing on me. I wanted to go to the police. I didn’t even know the name of the family.”
The police checked her records and found out the details of her employer. After a week the family came, spoke in Arabic with the police, and took her back. The police asked her to finish the contract before returning.
“They kept shouting at me, but thank god they didn’t beat me. They said I can’t go anywhere. At the police station, I said I will not work three houses even if they kill me. They just said ‘yalla, yalla’ and sent me back home.”
Once she went back to the employer’s home, Peris stood her ground and refused to work in other homes.
At the police station, she was told if she ran away she would disappear because the family had paid a lot of money for her. “When I asked to be taken to my embassy, they said it wasn’t the rule of their country. When you actually gather courage and manage to run, they still return you to the family? So I fight in my own way. I screamed, rolled (on the floor), and refused to do work. These were my ways of coping.”
Peris continued to work for almost two years until she fell so ill the family sent her back home. “I know what I saw and went through. I don’t wish that for my worst enemy. Tea and bread are all I got to eat. I would just eat what I can while cleaning. I read of people being raped or killed and I thank god nothing like that happened to me. Still, I went through a lot, because you will do anything as a mother to help your children go to school.”
Francina, 37, went to Dammam in 2019. Her workday, like most other domestic workers, stretched from before dawn to after midnight, and it was a huge house with six members. “The treatment during the first three months was not so bad”, she says. “But they would refer to me as khadama and shagala (servant).”
The children she was taking care of started beating her up. “I complained to the mother, she just said kids are mentally ill, so adjust. They were 18, 16, 13 and 4 years old. I tried withstanding all this. There was support from other Kenyan domestic workers on WhatsApp groups.”
She worked for a year and nine months, and her health kept deteriorating. “I tried using the hotline, but the police just called the boss…they have no power over them.” As a last resort, she stopped working and insisted on being taken to the agency. She stayed for another two months there. “So many youngsters in the office there. Domestic workers who run away, with even worse stories. We were made to sleep on the floor. We had to pay for our own food. And all the while the agency made them go work in multiple homes.” Finally, with the help of a Kenyan NGO, she returned home.
Lydia, who worked in Sakaka, Saudi, says “If there is rape, you can’t complain. No one can share. No action is taken. If your boss impregnates you they try to send you back quickly. Once you have a child in the detention centre you are stuck. Can’t go back. No one is imprisoned for rape. Even when there is evidence of children. If you are beaten, no action against the abuser. When you are not paid, no action against the employer. End of the day, you have no rights. Be it at home, immigration, labour office, police station, office or embassy. They are all in collaboration to force people to work and not help them.”
Dehumanised and a diet of black tea with kubooz
From the get-go, Eva’s Saudi experience was fraught with disrespect and disregard. “When my boss picked me up at the airport, the first thing he said was either remove my braid or cut my hair.” (She had braided her hair fresh just before she left Kenya.) She stayed in the store room and worked in a huge house where 12 people lived. “I had to steal food and eat hiding. They gave black tea and kubooz,” she says, with a distaste echoed by many of the other women who were on a diet of tea and bread. She was trapped inside the house and would sneak off to the verandah for her only glimpse of the world outside.
Eva had to work at the employer’s home, his mother’s place, and also the farmhouse they had in the village. After about seven months, she fell very ill and was taken to the hospital. “The nurse asked mamma if they gave me food and rest. They lied and said yes. The nurse said I won’t survive like this, but mamma threw the medicines they gave me in the dustbin.”
Unable to continue working, she pleaded with her boss and was allowed to return to Kenya. She paid for her own way back, and did not receive all the dues she’s owed for her work.
Lydia, 34, says while the agency in Arar gave her passport and contract, it was taken away when she reached the sponsor’s home. She lasted just a month there.
“I was allowed to sleep only for 2-3 hours in the morning. No rest at all. You are recruited to work in one house, then they send you to their parents’ and other relatives’ homes to work there too. I had to strike and refuse to work. They really do not respect you at all. The minute you sit down for a rare meal, usually tea and kubooz, they will call you. Make you work more.”
When she complained, the agency sent a driver to take her to the office where she stayed for two months. “They won’t send you back home. They will find another sponsor. My first sponsor found another sponsor and they got a refund. I was treated well in the second house though a very big family. Then madam got pregnant and things got worse. I had to work from 9 am to midnight.” After 11 months she wanted to leave but was ‘sold’ to a broker.
“A woman called Fauzia. When they didn’t send me back to the office, I alerted my family. Fauzia used me for piece work. One week here, two days there…I told her I don’t think this is legal and that she was a stranger. She realised I was intelligent. She sold me to another house. I worked there for 10 months. Five members, but they made me work in other houses.”
Having spent close to two years in Saudi, Lydia was looking for an out. Her health had deteriorated, and the employers were reluctant to take her to the hospital. Neither the agency nor the embassy responded to her call for help.
“I opted to run to the police. When you run, run with nothing, so you are not accused of theft. The police demanded I show my iqama. I only had a copy. The second sponsor’s ID and details were different. I had moved so many homes…they said my fingerprints were missing in the system. The police called the office. They took me to Sakaka. They couldn’t ascertain my ID.”
She stayed in the office for seven months, three without work. The office refused to release her to the embassy.
At the end of her tether, Lydia took to social media.
“I went to the labour office too. I was fed up. The office, Al Faisal for Recruitment, was treating all of us so badly. Beating us when we refuse to go work elsewhere. I exposed them on Facebook. There were 30 of us from different countries. Even those who finished their contract were being forced to continue.”
Meanwhile, she tried making sense of the bureaucracy.
“They kept telling me my papers were in the labour office but when I went there it wasn’t there. One day I went and met a captain who was sympathetic. They helped me get my ticket and leave. I had my documents on my phone. I wasn’t a runaway. I knew my rights. Not everyone does. But after I exposed the office other women got help too. There was so much mental torture, but I was willing to fight. I expected the embassy to come to my aid, but they did not. The Saudi office was angry I was posting online. The Kenya office is still mad at me.”
She knew her activism came at a cost. “If you are outspoken, you become a danger to these people. I was punished for being outspoken. Others in the office were allowed to leave, but mine was delayed. Before that, I was in the Sakaka detention centre for one month before going to the office. You are at the mercy of the police and the labour officials.”
You can die working or you can die trying to escape. Choose the latter.
Families grapple with uncertainty
Zubeida sits by a dilapidated building near an old railway station in Mirtini, a suburb of Mombasa. She is frantic as her daughter Mona, 24, is stuck in Dubai and her employer is refusing to let her return.
Mona went to Dubai two years ago and was promised a salary of KES300,000. She hasn’t been paid in five months. Though the employer’s family is not big, there is a constant stream of visitors. Her visa was renewed without her consent, and now the employer is demanding compensation to let her go.
“She ran away to the police, but they returned her to the boss. Boss said he had paid for her visa, so not letting her go. She went back to the police after 4-5 months. They are so angry with her that she went to the police. So now they don’t give her salary, and sometimes no food even.”
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the family is asking her to wait and not run again, fearing she may disappear or land in more trouble.
“I want my child to come back,” pleads Zubeida.
There’s a similar plea from Abbas Omar, wanting his wife back home.
In early May, at the Mombasa office of Haki Africa, an NGO, Omar has been waiting for hours, since 8 am. He has been holding vigil here for several days, hoping the agent who sent his wife Fatima, 38, to Saudi will come to speak to him. Fatima had gone to Jeddah in January this year. She worked for two months but could not continue. Playing her WhatsApp voice notes, Omar says she was being overworked and verbally abused. “The house has three floors and she has to do all the work. And she worked till 3 am and had to be up at 6 am again. And they shout at her all the time. They give her food but keep saying she eats but does no work. It’s mental torture.”
She was returned to the agent after two months, but she is not able to come back to Kenya. “Yousuf (the agent) committed to send her and help her if she is in trouble. Now he does not answer my calls.”
This brings Omar to the NGO Haki Africa, which has been active in advocating for detained and stranded Kenyans and helping with their return. A case officer there says the agent claims the delay in return is due to Ramadan.
Omar plays his wife’s voice notes on repeat. “Now in the agency they give food only once a day and nothing at all the first few days. Just water. Listen, she is crying in these messages that she will die.” He is willing to raise money for her ticket but is lost as to why there has been such a delay.
The case officer says that the embassy staff at the destination do not cooperate. “Unfortunately, they see us as the enemy. Kenyans are kept in detention for long. Embassy not proactive at all. In most cases victims claim neglect. Sometimes they spend even a year in detention centres. With other nationalities, resolution seems quick. On average, it takes 4-5 months to return a Kenyan worker.”
“There’s no passport confiscation in Saudi” – Agent
Later in the afternoon, Yousuf the agent makes an appearance. “I didn’t answer his call because he didn’t know how to talk,” he snaps, refusing to make eye contact with Omar.
“They (workers and their family) don’t understand it’s not easy to just leave there and come back. There are so many processes. A lot of money has been invested. We pay for everything: training, birth certificate, passports.”
He insists things have changed for real in Saudi. “There’s no passport confiscation now. Musaned has changed everything. It keeps track of all parties. Workers and employers and agents are all registered in the system before they leave home. Should be there in other Gulf countries too because we have problems there.” He adds that Qatar and UAE give ‘too much freedom’ to women and the Kenyan workers misuse it.
He is unrelenting in blaming the workers for refusing to adjust. “Before they go we tell them it is not a holiday. They are going there to work. Just do that and come back. They want to leave for small things.”
Pointing to Omar he says, “I tried convincing her to work. How can we spend so much and they just come back? For small issues. We asked her to change jobs, but she has pressure from her husband who doesn’t want to take care of kids.”
The two men exchange angry looks as the case officer steps in to resolve the issue and talk about Fatima’s return.
Yousuf is not done. “It is such a long process to be trafficked…I mean to migrate, how can they just return? Women think they are going for a ride there and want to come back immediately. We need punitive methods for them.”
Footnote: The report was made possible with the help of several organisations in Kenya which work closely with migrant workers in distress. Their contact details are available on our resources page: https://www.migrant-rights.org/resources/
Laws in principle vs in practice and all the pitfalls in between
At 2.15 million square kilometres, Saudi is the largest country in western Asia and the 13th largest in the world. Close to 40% of its 34 million population are migrants. Of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers worldwide, of whom 27.4 % are in the Arab states. Saudi accounts for the single largest population of migrant domestic workers at 3.7 million.
Yet, this group is excluded from the Kingdom’s labour law protections and the few recent reforms.. The main regulations that apply to domestic workers are:
- Ministerial Decision No. 310 of 1434 on domestic work (known commonly as the domestic work regulations); and
- Ministerial Decision No. 605 of 1438 permitting domestic workers to transfer between employers in certain circumstances.
As per these regulations, the employer is obliged to provide proper food and medical care, and the employer is prohibited from employing a domestic worker outside the employer’s household. The worker is entitled to a paid day off, and a minimum of 9 hours of rest a day. Under the anti-trafficking law of 2009, the employer must not “threaten, defraud, deceive or abduct a worker” or take advantage of a worker’s vulnerability to coerce to consent for the purpose of sexual assault, forced labour, or servitude.
Passport confiscation, wage theft, and forcing a worker to do uncontracted jobs are all indicators of human trafficking, according to Mohammed Al Masri, the secretary general of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, an affiliate of the Saudi Human Rights Commission. The penalties include up to 15 years in prison or a maximum fine of SAR1 million, or both. Yet, these practices are rampant and go unchecked, with little evidence that employers have been booked under the anti-trafficking law.
Workers’ testimonies indicate large-scale violations of these laws and insufficient mechanisms to address these issues.
Access to justice continues to be a major concern, as highlighted in our previous report. The Musaned system, introduced in 2014, was supposed to address some of the issues faced by migrant domestic workers. However, MR’s analysis found that “Musaned is a Saudi initiative concerned with the last legs of the recruitment relay – it does not, and practically cannot, reach as far back as the middlemen, brokers, and other stakeholders that migrant workers and employers encounter before they reach registered agencies in their own countries.”
Even though governments of countries of origin and recruitment agents have access to the system, it only enables access to records and does not directly enhance accountability. “The platform lacks a complaints mechanism for workers, relegating disputes to the existing – and weak – Ministry of Labour and Social Development’s (MLSD) resolution system. Making these records reliably actionable remains a difficult endeavour and one that workers cannot realistically pursue on their own.”
Technically, the system is supposed to make it easier to locate domestic workers, however, with workers being sold internally and put to work in multiple households outside of the main sponsor’s home, traceability also remains an issue.
*Some names have been changed, and only first names have been used in other instances
This article was first published by Migrant Rights.
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.
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%|
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
|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.
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 primaries—one 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”!
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.
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.
“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 death—which 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 Rwandans—and 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 path—even 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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