Sunday, August 15, 2010

Rwanda & Zimbabwe: is history repeating?

So, Paul Kagame has won a resounding election in Rwanda, with something like over 90% of the vote. Under Kagame’s seven year leadership to date, Rwanda has transformed from a genocidal hell-hole into a peaceful, orderly, progressive country vying to become the “Singapore” of Africa. On the face of it, quite a success story; it’s been interesting to observe how much western support there for this success story. But there have been sporadic reports of violence, strange deaths among the opposition, media clampdowns and hints of other sinister goings-on.

And the worse thing is, this seems to be depressingly familiar. How long before the West will begin to learn from their mistakes?

Don’t get me wrong, I visited Rwanda five years ago. It was a real eye opener. Several things struck me -- how clean it was, how friendly, how peaceful and how rapidly it had progressed since the genocide ten years earlier.

But in my two week trip, some things disturbed me. For a start, there was the overwhelming compliance to the concept of public work days. I was there for work, during which two public work days were held, hence many of meetings were postponed or cancelled and I had to cancel my field trip. I was advised that if I absolutely had to work on those days, it would be best if I literally kept my head down in the hotel to do some work during that day and not to go out or I would be escorted to a public work site by the police and “invited” to join in. That sounded like coercion to me.

And yet, everyone thought this was good for Rwanda and a sign of progress and stability. I’m aware that part of my astonishment with this view is due the culture gap. After all, I’m a “whinging Pom”, who by definition grumbles when asked to comply with rules. We make jokes about the state being incompetent, how corrupt the system is, how misguided key policies are (especially those which don’t favour us of course) and so on. First, we grumble, then – generally - we comply.

Africans have long had the tradition of uncomplaining, faithful support for the Big Man, whether that’s the village chief, King or President. Africans respect strong leaders, and leaders traditionally show their strength through force. It is neither politic nor polite to voice your concerns, disagreements or to be disobedient.

So people comply. Rwanda itself provided us with a clear example of the extremes this can be taken to - through its genocide. People were stirred up by hate language on the radio, which extorted then to eradicate the minority ethnic group. The compliance level to this fanaticism resulted in 800,000 people being killed in three brutal months.

And what is the difference between being told to plant a tree, or dig wells, for the public good, and being told to kill your neighbours? A lot I hope, but, it’s the lack of discussion – and the unquestioning compliance to government edicts - that worries me. Well, that and increasing numbers of human rights violations.

Like Rwanda, It was not that long ago, that Zimbabwe was the darling of the West, a country lauded for its smooth transition into independence, and its thriving economy. The then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was hailed by the West as a benevolent and wise leader who encouraged economic development in the spirit of reconciliation with former colonial powers. The West ignored reports of the Gukurahundi massacres (Zimbabwe’s genocide) which took place during the 1980s and broke the opposition through the deaths of an estimated 20,000 people from a different ethnic group. Since then, thousands of more people have disappeared, been illegally jailed, beaten or murdered.

How long did we wait, how long did things have to deteriorate before the West finally started to – tentatively – speak up? About 25 years, by which time Mugabe had amassed enough power, and amended the constitution enough times, to virtually guarantee that he would remain in charge of the nation for the rest of his life. Since then things have got a lot worse for the average Zimbabwean.

My fear is that the same could happen with Paul Kagame. I fervently hope that history proves me wrong. But in the meantime, Western diplomats, international policy makers and analysts, journalists, aid workers – learn from the mistakes of the past and keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t ignore or gloss over sporadic reports of human rights violations in Rwanda, Zimbabwe or in other countries. Be supportive but don’t foster the development of despotic tyrants. Western democratic models may not be the answer for Africa, but the continent has surely had its fill of oppression, authoritarian regimes and death.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Another new currency for Zimbabwe!

Hats off to the AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) who have launched a campaign to highlight inadequate funding of HIV and AIDS treatment in the region, by printing a range of tantalising bank notes. Here's one of the Old Man himself.

The sad part is, due to the nation's utter bankruptcy thanks to his cunning policies, poor old Bob's bank note is lowest denomination in the print run.

Well, he can hardly be expected to compete with George Dubya Bush and his sidekick, Dick Cheney, who 'wasted' a 12 figure sum on the war in Iraq.

But surely he could be in the running with other top flight African leaders who are applauded for their fiscal prudence. Yoweri Museveni, for instance, who bought a private jet for a mere $48 million. That's how much it would cost to provde HIV treatment for almost 230,000 years. But surely a president deserves to travel in style, and besides, the jet he already had was looking a little lonely...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Staying Grey..

One of the key skills needed to live in Zimbabwe these days, is the ability to stay grey, ie to conduct one’s life in an entirely unremarkable manner, so as to not attract attention by politicians.

Don’t misunderstand me, we are not trying to dodge the law. The law in Zimbabwe – such as it is- is not upheld when it comes to all things political in any case. No. We go to great lengths to pay our taxes (see my post on Taxing Matters). We have car tax discs, licenses for our dogs, TVs, radios, bicycles (!) and comply with all manner of other legal requirements. We even pay our utility bills for things we haven’t actually received for years. Municipal water? Oh yes, I think we did manage to fill a bucket from the mains, back in 2002…

Staying grey here means not being seen to engage in anything political or related to media or communication activities – this is especially sensible given that yours truly holds a passport from a Politically Undesirable Nation. Hence the anonymity of this blog.

The delicious irony is that in many countries it is the other way around, politicians try to live in an unremarkable manner so as not to get caught by the general public, or worse, a tabloid journalist or paparazzi photographer, while engaging in illegal, immoral or generally scandalous activities.

In Zimbabwe politicians can do those as publically as they like, although some of the more lewd activities are discouraged (but not corruption, murder, extortion, looting of course – what’s the point of being a politician if you don’t follow your leaders?).

But a member of Joe Public voicing concern or dismay about anything vaguely political – from implying that people might be adversely affected by a drought for instance, or wondering if the Unity Government might be permitted to actually function, or the like – now that’s asking for a spell in the prison or a mysterious fatal traffic accident. If you are foreign, and lucky, you could just get away with a bit of torture, death threats to you and your family and being thrown out of the country.

All sorts of ingenious strategies for quiet communication and information sharing have been employed in the general effort to stay grey. People regularly look over their shoulder and lower their voice before discussing anything political, even at home.

There are euphemisms for all manner of things. In the old days – and I’m only talking about last year – an innocent SMS invitation to “Please come for hotdogs” would have been a coded message for “I’d like to buy some US dollars”. Similarly there were huge orders placed for paper products (cash), when there was a national shortage of the stuff.

The best covert communication strategy (now no longer practiced as it was discovered) was that people would send each other emails in HTML format about everyday boring topics, adding a secret message in white font. To decipher it, the receiver would merely change the font colour to black, and a seemingly ordinary short email would suddenly have all sorts of useful intel. Simple but effective.