As some of you may know, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was recently invited to speak at Yale. As expected, a lot of people expressed their outrage, citing Kagame’s deplorable human rights record. One of those present at the talk was Daniel Magaziner, an Associate Professor of History at Yale.
….. I’m only interested in relating what I heard when Mr. Kagame came to Yale. But as a historian, I do have to note that Mr. Kagame’s message sounded awfully familiar. Were Mr. Netanyahu to come to campus, I imagine that he would said something quite similar. We have suffered, we have been wronged. #MindYourOwnBusiness. And here’s the thing: that’s the same message Mr. Verwoerd would have brought to Yale, had we invited him. We have suffered, you have not, you have no standing, #MindYourOwnBusiness. I note this not to say that these men are one and the same. That would be ridiculous. But Verwoerd drew from the well of past suffering to foreshorten history to shut down critiques of reprehensible policies. Benjamin Netanyahu has made an art form of doing the same. And today I heard Paul Kagame charmingly remind an audience of privileged Ivy Leaguers and Americans that their ivory towers are glass houses, and thus that we cannot know the truth, and that we should mind our own business.
Paul Kagame came to my campus today. I did not condemn my university for inviting him and I did not boycott him. Instead I shook his hand and I smiled at him and I thanked him for sharing his thoughts with us. Because I needed to hear him to confirm what, as a historian, I have long suspected – we’ve seen his kind before. And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that – because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994. People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake. And bodies and human suffering are the cursed currency of history, as Paul Kagame’s Rwanda has taught and regrettably continues to teach.
Each April the world gets treated to think pieces weighing the prospects of Rwanda’s impressive recovery since the 1994 genocide. On balance, the ratings have generally tended to be positive.
However, ever since Kagame made it clear that he would hang on to power beyond 2017, the balance has tilted towards a more pessimistic view. This is because most Rwanda watchers know that without an enduring and stable political settlement, all the achievements of the last two decades can come tumbling down in a flash.
What most observers fail to fully appreciate (including yours truly) is that a leadership transition in Rwanda, especially if marked by a sharp discontinuity in the top brass, would be severely destabilizing.
The next question then is when is the optimal time to risk it all? Should Rwanda change its leadership now when the losses arising from instability would be relatively smaller; or should it wait for Kagame’s natural life to run its course when the losses may be bigger?
Should we be comforted by the fact that perhaps by then the logic of “too much to lose” may kick in, forcing elites to arrive at a stable political settlement without costly losses of life and property?
Will Kagame turn into Seretse Khama, Leopold Senghor, or Julius Nyerere? Or will he become a Museveni? Or even a Mugabe?
I honestly do not know the answers to these questions.
What I do know, though, is that the contemporary autocratic regimes in Rwanda and Ethiopia are qualitatively different from the incorrigibly ineffectual tin pot dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.
Of course I am open to the possibility that my views are motivated by a need for model non-democratic governments in a region that is increasingly hostile to open electoral democracy. As the leader of the opposition in Ethiopia once told me, sometimes it is hard to argue against electricity and roads.