As the polls close, what did foreign journalists miss-out, on Rwanda’s elections?

Kezio-Musoke David

Today I brazed the scorching sun and traversed through four polling stations in Kabeza and Kanombe, as Rwandans went to the polls. Voters were calm; the climate was rather peaceful, the calmest election I have ever witnessed. There was also a feeling of excitement, mainly because these kinds of elections usually come after seven years and as such everything about this process has been exciting. Today’s poling stations were really well manicured and very colorful.

For a majority of adult Rwandans, today was democracy well served. They all turned up in large numbers to vote, regardless of the expected outcome. However you can be sure that the average Rwandan wont care much about what you think of the kind of democratic path the leadership has chosen to take. Many on the streets will tell you that they are proud that they don’t have to duplicate other democratic models.

Democracy, they say doesn’t have a universal description and sometimes it depends on a society and the people living in it, as long as their acts are in the interests of the majority.  

I am from Uganda and I remember we once had something we referred to as a ‘one party state’. We justified it by saying, 'the country wasn’t yet ready for multiparty democracy'. And we were right! I am hell-bent to agree with the notion of defining what works for you in terms of democratic principals, instead of copying other models. Countries should have the right to innovate their own political practices that work for them as long as it is in the interest of the majority.

In Uganda (for example) one must have won a constituency to qualify for a cabinet seat. Basically one MUST first be a legislator before being named to cabinet, apart from a paltry five ex-official seats. In Rwanda it’s the contrary and not necessarily the case! An ICT, Health or Infrastructure Minister, et al has no business in politicking. A minister doesn’t have to be a ‘deputy’ and as such they will find themselves effectively concentrating on their technical responsibilities. That’s the path Rwanda has chosen and it’s working wonders for their development.

As we concluded the voting, I scanned through the reporting and analyses that were mostly published and broadcasted by foreign media. I wondered why many times journalists tend to judge and analyze with different perspectives that don’t even fit in the Rwandan context.

Now this is were most media houses got it wrong. Stories that were filed and some broadcasted were quite insincere. I watched a Ugandan private TV station carrying out an analytical, election broadcast that was largely based on a comparison of political trends in Ugandan. The expert hosted, despite having never visited Rwanda ever before in his life time, made quite an effort to bastardize Rwanda’s election process. His reason was mainly because of the ruling party’s popularity. “Where is the election fever, where is the competition? Isn’t this election a sham,” he queried.

Some journalists forgot that the societies they come from are different from that in Rwanda and carry a different political history. American journalist will judge Rwanda with an American mindset, and so will the British and surprisingly, even some African journalists.

With international media, the narrative and effort to understand Rwandan politics all started with the same feel and often ended with the same. “Rwanda has wide boulevards, no litter, the streets are clean, passenger helmets are a must, economic development is on the high, women empowerment is paramount” and then end up with, “… BUT there is a climate of fear, Kagame is a dictatorship … blah blah”.

One would think that the Washington Post and The Economist published from the same script. However being the mighty media platforms they are, with global repute, such media house set the tone for lazy desktop journalists (and some self styled analysts) writing from the comforts of their homes, copying the same boring narrative. Summer comes with a drought for news and everyone jumped on Rwanda to find a story.

An article on the New York Times attributed to Reuters (an agency I once worked for as a Rwandan Correspondent) published the same rhetoric adding that economic progress (in present day Rwanda) has come at the expense of civil liberties and media freedoms.

The United State Institute For Peace wrote on their website “… but to sustain Rwanda’s remarkable progress, particularly its development gains, it will be critical to heed these warning signs early, before tensions build or another deadly wave of violence emerges.”

In the midst of #FakeNews what ‘warning signs’ are these people talking about? Have they been to Rwanda lately? For foreign media and their politically inspired analysts, the good African story has to be followed with a ‘BUT’. The ‘BUT’ is some how the dry, negative part that they want to sell to their foreign audiences. The BBC News recently reported that Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote had joined Forbes prestigious list of the world’s wealthiest and then added “… BUT it comes as a result of the undervalued Nigerian currency.”

What prompts these foreign agencies to adopt this habit of always spoiling Africa’s success story?

While laboring to answer this question a friend chuckled how funny, all of a sudden the West had picked interest in what is currently happening in Rwanda.

“They abandoned Rwanda at its hour of need (the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi),” he said. “But now they all want to preach tenets of western-styled democracy to the genocide survivors.” One is also compelled to think these Western ‘faux-liberal media houses’ as put by one blogger, are deeply racist harboring historically colonialist mindsets.

Years ago I remember meeting an American journalist at a presidential press conference in Kigali that was held at ‘Urugwiro Village’. Urugwiro is the office of the president.  Beaming with lots of excitement the journo asked me, “so this is the ‘stronghold’ where all the orders are taken from the ‘ruler’?” As an African, the words ‘stronghold’ and ‘ruler’ certainly rubbed me the wrong way.

The same feeling was evoked when I read from the Dayo Ntwari blog early this week, where a writer argued that because of the same colonial mentality, Western media personalities (and political analysts) have adopted the same reference to African leaders such as ‘strongman’ and ‘despot’.

They call our governments ‘regimes’ and at worst ‘juntas’. In this blog the writer cited The Economist’s attempt to display President Kagame as a warlord (by an academic), as another example that can be referred to as politically inspired racism. In Rwanda, the blurry article prompted calls to home grown academicians, to intensify their efforts to publish the Rwandan narrative, to fill the gap being manipulated by the West.

What does today’s election mean for Rwandans? A few locals I have talked to, have asserted that the election is not really about winning since they are already comfortable with the anticipated Paul Kagame win. “For us is more to do with promoting unity in post genocidal Rwanda and probably selling an agenda to the naysayers. We are Rwandans and we can define what we want,” a colleague told me.

Kagame is purely loved by his people and in equal terms resented by cynics. He is admired for transforming a poor, desperate country into one with one of the highest human development rate. Foreign journalists love to ignore asking Rwandans why they love the man or whether they are really living in fear.

Now here is my testimony backed by almost a decade of practicing journalism in Rwanda, and also working as a PR practitioner and as publisher. There is no ‘climate of fear’ in Kigali as reported by several foreign media. Its all sunshine and smiles. As a journalist I have written a couple of critiquing articles, I have never been gaged or silenced. Rwanda is addictive. It has a breath of freshness whenever one returns to it and whenever one leaves, you always yearn to come back.

It’s also important to note that this compulsion has nothing to do with clean streets and wide boulevards. I personally attribute it to the fact the many Rwandans I interact with on a daily, have decided to live life their own way and not as dictated or determined by the West.

The writer is a journalist, formerly with Reuters and Nation Media Group. He is also a PR practitioner and publishes Inspire Rwanda Magazine. He can be reached on email 



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