Feb 262010

Read Part I.

I saw on BoingBoing recently a harrowing blurb:

Phone texts in Nigeria urged mass murder
“War, war, war. Stand up and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you.” — One of many mass-text-messages sent last week in Nigeria, inciting people to murder. And they did: some 350 were killed in Christian/Muslim violence.

What was so particularly disturbing about this news was watching history repeat itself (albeit this time in Nigeria). In the 1994 Rwanda genocide cell phones weren’t widely available, but there was the radio, and xenophobic Hutus used this media to convince ordinary Hutus to do their murderous bidding.

So what is the antidote for this sort of thing? To clamp down on free speech so no one may ever seek to inflame violent ethnic tensions? Hardly.

The story of Rwanda often stops abruptly. The genocide ended, and then apparently they all started living happily ever after. Would that it were, but history is never so simple. There were reprisal killings. The Gacaca courts, despite even the best of intentions of instituting grass-roots, community-based justice, often raised serious due process problems for the accused and were not-infrequently abused by the victims (and vice versa).

And then there is now-President Paul Kagame, who runs the country. In a way it seems like Kagame is essentially playing a sort of Sim City with Rwanda’s development. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. In many ways he’s doing an excellent job. He takes aid for infrastructure when he can get it, while at the same time he tries to encourage private investment so the country’s economy will not forever be dependent on the West’s tithes. He understands where Rwanda fits in to the global economy now, and where he wants it soon to be.

In particular, he has aspirations for Rwanda to be a high-tech hub. Sitting at the crossroads of mid-continent Africa, he wants it to be a knowledge economy full of information workers. The Singapore of Africa, he has proposed. While today the investments he makes in Internet connectivity may seem daft in the face of massive poverty and subsistence farming, he knows there’s a generation of Rwandans about to grow up and need jobs, and he wants those jobs to be there.

But while Kagame’s government may be doing good things for this country, it’s still just Kagame’s government. Kagame does legitimately have a lot of popular support, but his government’s policies make it difficult for opposition parties to form, effectively campaign, or share in the governing.

Kagame’s Rwanda presents a paradox. As an illustration, on my plane flight back from Rwanda I sat next to some Koreans who were working on a fiber backbone along the country’s western border, and the news is full of updates on the project to connect Rwanda’s internal networks to the undersea cables running to East Africa’s shores. And yet, on my plane flight into Rwanda I met a lawyer who had flown in to take up the case of a journalist being prosecuted for criminal defamation. By free speech standards it was a laughable charge. But in Rwanda, where free speech is a much more tentative concept, it was very real.

Last year Kagame had an op-ed in the Washington Post imploring Obama to institute policies that would encourage more private investment in Rwanda. If the US didn’t, he warned, China would. China may not care about whether civil liberties exist in Rwanda, but the US should. Not only so we don’t inadvertently donate our resources to equip a government to dominate its people, but also because these freedoms are ultimately necessary to help stabilize Rwandan society — and thus enable an eventual return on this investment. It is simply not possible to achieve its economic goals and be at the center of African innovation if the nation must be under a single leader’s thumb. Remember that even if he is a benevolent autocrat, whose unilateral exercise of power is generally positive, at some point he won’t be in power. Rwanda needs to be able to transition power from one leader to another — and without a violent coup.

Rwanda’s history does present some unique complications, however. For one, some of the opposition is comprised of divisive extremists, including those who are unhappy that the genocidal project to destroy all Tutsis was not completed. But Rwanda’s future depends on it being unified, and should anyone succeed in dividing it again it will fail and fall back into violent chaos. Furthermore, while the physical wounds from the genocide and its aftermath have largely healed, the psychic ones remain. Every Rwandan knows at least one person who was killed and one who did kill. They may even see the latter still living and working in their communities. Free speech is not necessarily what they are clamoring for; in order to function, Rwandans often adapt to the horrors of their past by just not talking about them.

But while the situation makes Kagame’s reflex to control understandable, what Rwanda needs is the exact opposite. Rwanda needs law that creates a sphere of intellectual liberty necessary to stoke the unshackled creativity of its 10 million souls. Law that presents a healthy outlet for dissent and disapprobation. Rwanda needs law that will be looked upon by society at large as a legitimate force — indeed, as a legitimate alternative to force.

Here Rwanda faces another unique challenge. Despite a population of 10 million, it has only a few hundred lawyers. And of those, around half are trainees, many of whom want to practice with international commercial transactions, to help broker all these new Rwandan deals because, reasonably, that’s where the money is. But that money won’t be there if Rwanda is too unstable to justify the investment.

Of course, it’s not that more lawyers are called for per se but the role of law itself within Rwandan society. Rwanda needs law that fills the vacuum where violence and hatreds otherwise have reigned. Which doesn’t mean just any law: Rwanda needs law that doesn’t ban, but rather enables. Law that facilitates freedom, not law that controls. Law that is available to all, equally — not law that itself continues to inflict the oppression of the past.

More specifically, Rwanda needs greater due process guarantees (e.g., attorney-client privilege should be ensured). It needs greater checks on government power (e.g., the judiciary should be independent of the executive). And it needs law that doesn’t stand in the way of Rwanda having the culture of vibrant, free discourse it needs if it is ever to become the vibrant, bustling knowledge economy Kagame intends it to be.

 Posted by at 8:06 pm

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>