Monday, 16 May 2011
This past Saturday I witnessed a spat on Twitter between President Paul Kagame and British journalist Ian Birrell. Kagame was featured in the Financial Times series Lunch With ... (insert name of African politician) in which he claimed that because the UN and the international community (i.e the West) had failed to act on the 1994 Rwanda genocide they had no 'moral right' to criticize him. Birrell tweeted that Kagame was 'despotic and deluded' with a link to the FT piece. Kagame, riled by Birrell's tweet and he immediately responded and you can read the whole exchange, thanks to View from the Cave. What's probably most interesting about this conversation is that it's probably the first time a President and journalist have had such a lively exchange on Twitter - praise be to Twitter for providing a platform for spontaneous engagement which would previously have been at a press conference, a chance meeting or something of that sort... Unlike other world leaders (or former) who talk to no one and probably have their PR staff tweeting news links and press releases like Barack Obama (@barackobama), Nick Clegg (@nickclegg), Jacob Zuma (@sapresident) and Ban Ki Moon (@secgen), Kagame, like Hugo Chavez (@chavezcandanga) actually does it himself and interacts with people.
What was different about this particular exchange is that its one of the few times Kagame's engaged with a critic and it comes on the back of a painfully boring but rosy You Tube World Leaders interview in which as 'Africa is a Country' rightly put it 'Kagame spins You Tube'. It was a PR exercise -soft questions with no further probing from an interviewer who although smart, funny and likable on other occasions, was not the best choice for this gig. Kagame's had this social media friendly Prez rep for a while now (also see this) but after seeing Saturday's exchange the cracks are beginning to show because Kagame's not entirely the affable, savvy guy he's appears to be online. Sure he has his pluses but not where the Congo or political opposition are concerned.
Kagame didn't actually answer any of the questions posed by Birrell about his government's silencing of political and media opposition. Instead it was a slinging match in which the foreign minister, Louise Mushikwabo also got involved. In a rather strange move, she protected her tweets the very next day as if it was an act of self-protection from a threat, but its an act of hiding. Doesn't she know protecting your tweets only restricts who can see them, but those already following you, can still interact with you and retweet your tweets for others to see? Restricting dialogue won't stop truth-seekers and critics, nor does it advance the democracy and openness which Kagame claims his government does, in the YouTube interview.
Apart from a self-censoring foreign minister and an angry President slain by a journalist and a global supporting cast of tweeters and bloggers (:0), another interesting thing to emerge out of this online spat was the reactions of Kagame's supporters which ranged from blind praise of Kagame to the 'British' lack of understanding of the Rwanda situation to censure of a Western journalist for disrespecting an African leader. It goes without saying that the staunch Kagame supporters would say this, but when seemingly more open-minded Africans also pick on Birrell's Westernness and re-buff his use of the words 'despot and deluded' because they're not fit for an African leader, there is a big problem. Birrell's identity has nothing to do with the facts - that Kagame shuts down debate in Rwanda and has had Congolese and Rwandan blood on his hands since 1996 - and Kagame's Africanness doesn't make him immune to being called a despot. Why do we get so defensive about these terms? When people call Bush and Blair war mongers, genocidaires and war criminals there's no problem, but African leaders are untouchable because they're African? Screw that. I'm a previous sufferer still in recovery mode from Afro-centric syndrome; a state of mind which mainly afflicts Africans raised in Africa: we always defend our leaders against Others (i.e Westerners) in the name of Africanness, even if we're defending the wrong thing, because the defensiveness that comes from the Them/Us relation borne of colonialism and lived neo-colonial experience is so deeply entrenched in our psyche. Not so say this is wrong - but there are times when its completely justified and necessary to take up this position and there are times when it just isn't. This incident and in some defenses of the crimes of people like Mummar Gaddaffi, Omar Bashir and Robert Mugabe it isn't. Sorry.