Must democracy be seen through the eyes of Europeans? Democracy translates from the Greek word “Demokratos”, which means “a rule” (Kratos), “by the people” (Demos). Democracy proclaims the desires and well-being of a people as the defining factors of a democratic country’s political decisions. However, this idea of democracy seems inconsistent with many recent political moves by the West, which undermine African democratic leaderships. When Rwanda’s judicial system pursues justice for the victims of Paul Rusesabagina’s self-admitted crimes, the West deems the initiative an assault on democracy. Yet when 3 Rwandan rebels were arrested in 2003 for their involvement in the 1999 killing of two American tourists in the Bwindi Forest of Uganda, a warning message had to be sent to terrorists across the world, according to Michael Chertoff, the then head of the American Justice Department’s criminal division. “Those who commit acts of terror against Americans, whenever and wherever, will be hunted, captured and brought to justice,” said Chertoff, asserting that geographical location was irrelevant in America’s jurisdiction to imprison and punish terrorists targeting Americans. The three Rwandans were indicted by an American jury, captured and flown to Puerto Rico, and tried in Washington DC. The European Union is yet to comment negatively on the initiative, almost 20 years after the criminals were captured.
International Dictatorship Through Double-Standards
When President Paul Kagame disclosed the use of a non-violent stratagem to nudge an accused killer of Rwandans into returning to Rwanda, the approach, which pales in comparison to the crude yet justified words of Michael Chertoff, is deemed undemocratic by the community who arrogate to themselves charge of establishing global moral standards. [Editor’s comment: As the Belgians lured a Somali pirate in an undercover sting https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2013/10/14/somali-pirate-big-mouth-arrested-in-belgium / https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/world/europe/a-proposed-movie-deal-for-a-piracy-suspect-has-a-surprise-ending-his-arrest.html].
Consistency, for the West, is superfluous! The court of Western public opinion claims sole, authoritarian power in establishing whose application of judicial power is democratic and whose poses a threat to “human” rights.
But democracy, in essence, is not some wildly complex matter that can only be established and defined by Western politicians and journalists in academic and inaccessible jargon. Democracy is the execution of the needs of the people. It is the achievement of peace, harmony, and co-operation through freedom, equity, and equality. Therefore, the West’s protection of someone who threatens a people’s peace is antithetical to democracy. Erecting the comfort of one terrorist above the lives of several Rwandans can only be an ode to the age-long dictatorial imperialist power. The West conceptualises its “tolerance” for violent opposition to elected African leaders as proof of its open-mindedness and regard for differing views. Northern powers want to treat us as mere pawns in their self-serving quests for righteousness; the (African) lives lost in the process have never mattered.
But Paul Rusesabagina knows it himself, which might be the reason he proclaimed his Belgian nationality as a shield against the tide of a justice system his protectors have taught him to see as inferior to the weapon he yields. His unabashed statement “I am not Rwandan” is a culmination of anti-patriotic messages he has time and time again been associated with. His anti-Rwandan, anti-people ideologies have in the past manifested in a variety of ways, namely a) his treatment of the genocide survivors who sought refuge at the Milles Collines, b) his calls to violence against the current peaceful administration, and c) his obstinate refusal to face justice on the terms of his native country, which he now holds in contempt. Mr Rusesabagina has actively threatened this country’s harmony, peace, and co-operation, so how could he be the hero of “global democracy”?
Ethics on Rwanda’s side
Rwanda’s democracy has been under the western magnifying glass for a while, but the accusatory critiques are often self-contradictory. On the 9th of February 2021, the European Union filed a motion requesting “a debate on cases of breaches of human rights, democracy and the rule of law” in regards to the case of Paul Rusesabagina. The European Union deems this motion to have “regard to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights”, among other conventions drawn to protect the African people from oppression, murder, and torture at the hands of community leaders. However, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights re-affirms a pledge to “eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa” and “take into consideration the values of African civilization” right in the preamble. While the Charter’s articles forbid the violation of human beings and demand their equal protection under the law, the European Union has seemingly only chosen to apply these doctrines to the ”powerful” fugitive they have protected, and not to the dozens of his alleged victims, or to the populations terrorised by the “rebel” group he leads. The West routinely ignores the word “equal” when elevating the freedoms of African terrorists above those of their surviving victims or the fractured families the dead have left behind.
But despite foreign pressure to dismiss the charges against Paul Rusesibagana, allow him to be charged and tried abroad, and agree to the transcendence of western “conceptions” of democracy, the Rwandan High Court Specialised Chamber for International and Cross Border Crimes has been found to have the competence to conduct this trial. This is democracy in action, depicting the “right to self-rule” that the one-time American President Thomas Jefferson highlighted in his famous declaration on democracy: “We cannot deny that every nation has a right to govern itself internally,” Jefferson stated, “And to change these forms at its own will.” Perhaps the European Union disagrees with this approach to democracy as far as Rwanda is concerned, but they have embraced a similar stance when considering Asian politics.
The silence from the EU when one of their top trading partners, the Singaporean government, is accused of human rights violations is deafening. When a Singaporean teenage video blogger was imprisoned a few weeks after expressing criticism for the then president Lee Kuan Yew, the EU seemed too busy drafting trade deals with Singapore to express outrage. It appears that with everyone else but Africans and Middle-Easterners (i.e. black people sitting atop a variety of valuable natural resources and Arab people sitting atop plenty of oil), the West chooses not to intervene in internal governance matters. In fact, the sweeter the West’s share of the trade pie is, the more its disinterest in the country’s application of human rights evokes the behaviour of an ostrich.
The sheer number of think pieces, rumours, and “documentaries” from the West that have flirted with Rwandan Genocide denial cannot be unrelated to the relentless attacks on Rwanda’s democracy. The aim is to invalidate, undermine and slander the current order by suggesting it was established illegitimately and that the acquired power has since been used to control and hurt the Rwandan people. But it is the West’s poorly disguised and ill-intentioned meddling in our judicial business that is hurting the Rwandan people. The diversion of conversation away from Rusesabagina’s alleged involvement in terrorism to focus on the means through which the terror suspect was apprehended is laughable if not frightening. This Western initiative has given fertile ground for fake news to fester, travelling the world at the speed of good marketing for the reboot of a deceptive movie plagiarising Schindler’s List. The fact that Hotel Rwanda is being used as a reliable insight into Mr Rusesabagina’s character, intentions, and political affiliations is the very reason democracy cannot be seen as one-approach-fits-it-all, unchanging system of government that is static. Its interpretations and applications must evolve with time to vanquish the new threats it faces.
In the era of fake news that have been found to travel 6 times faster than real news, a country must design its democracy with an awareness of its vulnerability to the spread of hate and the social instability it may cause. Rwanda has a unique history that exacerbates this vulnerability, and this history must be taken into account when one considers the current leadership’s efforts to discourage the sharing of false information and calls to violence. It only took a few cameras, computers, and Hollywood actors for Rusesibagana to lie to the world for decades; and these days, it only requires a smartphone and a Youtube or Twitter account to do the same. Rwanda’s current stability and democracy must be protected in the full consciousness of the true risks of deceitful speech, for Rwandans do not have the luxury of playing ostrich.
“Absolute” freedom of speech can and does kill
Modern African Democracy should adapt to new socio-cultural landscapes, leaving its essence intact: democracy must reflect the uncompromised desires of the people – to be safe, to be well, to have a life that matters. Democracy anchored on obsolete Western terms is threatened by unfounded associations, rapid polarisation, and the explosion of tribalism it provokes. The catastrophic early impact of the Covid-19 virus on many Western nations highlights this fact; the idea that one’s perceived freedom should cost the life of another is absurd, grotesque and sinister. There are real-life casualties to lies and conspiracies being granted the same protection as the truth, and true freedom cannot exist when one’s “free will” is compromised by deceit.
The case of Rwanda is not one of withholding the rights of Rwandans; it is of protecting the vulnerable ones from the might of those rebelling against the re-construction of a nation once fractured by tribalist hatred. If the Belgian “hero” were to have his way, he would be tried by people who, like him, question the validity of the leadership established through the people’s will. But Rwandan democracy demands that Rwandan lives matter; therefore, the man who has been calling for the killing of Rwandans while seeking to earn himself political power over Rwandans must be prosecuted in Rwanda, to the full extent of the Rwandan law. It is the moral, just, and dignified course of action to take, and perhaps the West would agree if indeed it is after morality, justice, and dignity for the Rwandan people, even if remotely.