It was a ten-minute walk from the restaurant to our home. It was close to midnight. It was a mild, cloudless night in Kigali and the only sound to be heard was that of our own footsteps on the pockmarked asphalt road. This was part of the appeal of Rwanda. A developing central African country where it was safe to walk after dark.
The narrow road, a steep incline downhill, was devoid of footpaths and bordered by scrub grass and bushes. A few meters ahead of us I spotted a mobile phone face down in the grass. I stopped and picked it up. There had been three missed calls from ‘Gloria’. ‘Put it back!’ A stern and admonishing voice emanated from deep in the bushes adjacent to us. ‘Hello?’ I answered and asked. ‘Put it back’, was the reply. Despite the poor light and density of the vegetation I spotted movement and two sets of eyes. My wife was getting nervous. I was getting cheeky. ‘You missed three calls from Gloria!’ ‘Put it back now!’ It was at this point that I noticed the arching aerial of a military radio protruding from behind one of those sets of eyes. I put the phone back where I had found it and we continued briskly on our way.
Just this month, President Paul Kagame secured a third seven year term in office winning an eyebrow raising 99% of votes cast. Prior to this, a constitutional amendment was passed allowing Kagame to run for this third term and potentially more. There’s no doubting that the one time guerrilla leader has pulled the country from the depths of despair and guided it to what could be described as central Africa’s ‘city upon a hill’. And yet one can’t help but wonder how one man can bring together a country and a people that were once so savagely divided in such a relatively short space of time. After three years living in the remarkable country that is Rwanda, it became apparent that the answer lay in a couple of the classic tenets of authoritarianism, freedom and fear.
I moved to Rwanda with my wife in 2008. The country was sold to us as safe, secure and family friendly. The phrase ‘Switzerland of Central Africa’ was thrown at newcomers such as ourselves ad nauseam. Clean and sleepy streets. The locals, pleasant and welcoming. It was the perfect soft landing.
However, once settled in and familiarized with the environs of our new home, its impressive façade began to fade. Kigali’s western ex-pat community quickly offered up the rules of thumb for a quiet life in Rwanda. Avoid openly discussing politics. Avoid openly using the words Hutu or Tutsi. Make yourself covertly aware of the government informant in your workplace. Phone calls and emails are insecure. And never ever openly criticise the president or his ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. At face value it all seemed like the stuff of a le Carré novel until one day while on the phone to a friend of mine, I inadvertently let the word Hutu slip while discussing a writing project we were collaborating on. The line instantly emitted a spasm of digital interference before clearing again. Someone or something was evidently listening.
This, it seemed, was the price of a peaceful Rwanda. The freedom to think, act or speak independently of or against Kagame and the RPF. The consequences in doing so for an ex-pat could lead to a cancelled visa, for a local it could mean imprisonment or worse. It was no wonder that an oddly oppressive atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust hung heavy in the air.
Compounding that toxic air of mistrust was a palpable sense of fear. The fear of what might happen if the man who had the country’s hearts and minds gripped within his hands left them to their own devices. With the horrors of the genocide still fresh in the minds of the majority, Kagame represented not just a president and leader but a guardian and protector.
That was in 2010, when Kagame secured a second term in office with 93% of the vote. With his landslide victory this month, and little or no legitimate opposition party to oppose him, it appears that little has changed in the land of a thousand hills. It will be another seven years before Kagame undoubtedly runs for a fourth term. The genocide will have receded that little bit further into the past. A new generation of young Rwandans, born into a scarred yet stable state will have matured. It remains to be seen whether the stranglehold of authoritarianism is a small price to pay for a quiet life in Rwanda.
Featured image | Rwanda | flickr
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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