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How one author unlocked the secrets of one of Africa's most oppressive dictatorships

The 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which a tottering government spurred members of the Hutu ethnic group to slaughter as many as 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbours, has been the subject of numerous books, dramatic films, and documentaries aimed at a general audience.

The atrocity’s messy aftermath hasn’t inspired quite the same interest.

Rwanda’s post-genocide government helped touch off multiple region-wide conflicts in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, as Paul Kagame, the commander of the eventually victorious Tutsi forces in 1994, moulded Rwanda into one of the most thoroughgoing dictatorships in Africa.

Rwanda’s post-genocide trajectory, and Kagame’s construction of a seemingly stable, prosperous and internationally lauded authoritarian state, is one of the most fascinating and morally vexing foreign-policy stories of the past two decades. But it’s largely remained inaccessible to nonspecialists — which is why “Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship,” author Anjan Sundaram’s recently published book recounting his time in Rwanda, is so important.

Screen Shot 2016 01 29 at 5.47.47 PMBad News

Sundaram’s first-person account of his experience working as an instructor in a journalism-training program in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is one of the first explorations of the post-genocide Rwandan dictatorship aimed at a general audience.

From 2009 to 2013, Sundaram watched as his students were swept up in Kagame’s crackdown on the independent media — a terrifying decompression of the political and intellectual space that did not trigger any noticeable reduction in western support for Kagame’s government.

Sundaram’s book will be of interest even to readers who know nothing about Rwandan history, or about Kagame’s leading role in the labyrinthine conflicts that have frequently convulsed Africa’s Great Lakes region over the past 20 years. The book’s details and narrative are solely focused on Rwanda, but its major themes have a tragically universal character.

“Bad News” is a jarringly intimate record of how an oppressive government’s distortions of the truth play out on the level of an individual mind. It’s a book about the denial of freedom of conscience — about how a dictatorship’s wholesale reconstruction of reality corrodes and then co-opts the psyche, moulding citizens into timid reflections of their doubts and fears.

As Sundaram told Business Insider, Rwanda under Kagame “was a world in which [people] could trust almost no one, where … they would disown friends, disown family, isolate themselves” based on even the vaguest perception of danger from an omnipresent government. “And the power of the system was that people did these things to themselves.”

Sundaram hopes that his book “will make it more uncomfortable” for foreign governments “to lie about what they know and force them to speak more openly about the cost at which their support to Rwanda’s government comes.”

His book ends with an appendix listing scores of journalists who have been harassed, persecuted, or killed by Kagame’s regime. Above all, he hopes his book will preserve at least some of their stories, which are little known both inside and outside the country.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Screen Shot 2016 01 29 at 5.50.53 PMGoogle MapsLocation of Rwanda.

BUSINESS INSIDER: Early on in the book you argue that Rwanda’s vaunted development statistics [see here] are actually badly distorted, noting that they come from the government or are based on surveys of an intimidated citizenry. Do you think the world’s entire view of the development situation in Rwanda is totally skewed by the problems you identify?

ANJAN SUNDARAM: I think the numbers are skewed. I wouldn’t trust any government in a country in which there’s no free press …

In Rwanda there is no free press, so the government has free reign to say whatever they want and whatever they say becomes the truth. And the problem is that the world has blindly, unquestioningly accepted their word, so that when the Rwandan government says economic growth is at 8% the world believes it and publishes it and without saying “according to the government” …

Almost all of the research projects documenting the economy in Rwanda have proceeded with the explicit approval of the government and have been shaped by the government in important ways. Researchers are talking to government-sanctioned subjects. They’re getting government permission to access the countryside, which is highly controlled.

I also think a lot of the world’s view on Rwanda is shaped on people’s impressions coming in. You arrive in Rwanda and you’ve been told the story of the genocide but you see the roads, the streetlights, the skyscrapers. I think the emotional response is so powerful that people tend to slack off on the actual evidence and the facts.

People want to believe Rwanda’s story, of a successful country rising from the ashes of genocide. And so it’s easy forget that most of the information that we have about the country and most of the survey data comes from one source: the Rwandan government. And it’s a highly repressive government.

BI: One theme of the book is the idea that in such an oppressive country you have to figure out what’s going on based on what you’re not seeing, while figuring out how to interpret what you
are seeing — everything’s a code in a way, pointing to stories the government doesn’t want told. When did you get to the point where you could figure out the significance of what you were observing and experiencing?

AS: When I arrived in Rwanda in 2009 I was largely oblivious to the extent of repression and control. I knew about Kagame’s forces’ war crimes in Congo but I had read much of the same positive news that everyone reads about Rwanda. I read nothing almost that told me about the stories of the many journalists and politicians and academics and military figures who had fled the country or been killed because they had opposed the president. These stories are just suppressed. These people are forgotten.

One of the purposes of writing this book was to put on record some of what these journalists stood up for. They saw the country heading in a direction, and they stood up to what they saw was problematic. And they suffered for it. They’re unspoken of in Rwanda today except in extremely derogatory terms.

I wanted to put on record what they stood for, what they saw. They saw clearly, they saw early and they fought for it — and they suffered.

When I began to teach these classes among the first things the students said to me was tell us how your countries won their freedom. Your countries were not always free. How did you win your freedom?

That began this journey of trying to understand my students’ experiences …

I guess the culmination of that process was when Gibson, one of my students … took me outside the house where I was staying in Kigali and he showed me the road across the hill.

And this road was one of Rwanda’s cleanest, best roads, one of the roads that every foreigner and donor would point to as a sign of progress: It was well-paved, the streetlights were all working, they were spaced closer even than in Dubai, which is a resource-rich country and Rwanda is not resource-rich. It gave an impression of a country that was wealthy, calm, orderly, beautiful, and growing.

Gibson showed me that people didn’t use that road. The road was completely empty. People were walking along a different local road, which was unlit and unpaved, and apparently people viewed the well-paved road and well-lit road with fear: They saw it as a place where the government could keep watch on them, and they avoided it.

That raises a question about development. What we see in Rwanda and how the people there see it can be completely the opposite. We see a memorial for the genocide and think it’s commemorating the genocide and ensuring it doesn’t happen again. But they see it as a place where trauma is spread within the country by the government as a means of control.

We see a well-paved road that people can use. They see it as a method for government surveillance and they avoid the road …

My students took me into a country that is completely divorced from what a foreigner or a visitor would experience. And the more I explored that world the more terrifying it seemed.

It was a world in which they could trust almost no one, where people performed a kind of theatre in order to please the government. They would disown friends, disown family, isolate themselves. And the power of the system was that people did these things to themselves.

BI: Throughout the book you seem to detect a continuation of the genocide-era mindset in the country, and inevitably your book appears to suggest that Rwanda actually isn’t stable, and that a catastrophic historical pattern is reproducing itself in a way. Is Rwanda actually a powder keg, and will its current stability one day appear fictive?

AS: … There’s a very granular level of government control in Rwanda. If someone comes and stays at your house your neighbours will inform the local chief who lives just two streets down, and that chief will have a direct connection to a line of authority that reaches all the way to the center in Kigali.

This structure was the reason why the genocide began so quickly and proceeded so efficiently in 1994 after the government gave the order to kill.

I don’t think that Kagame has transformed the country from what it was during the genocide. In fact the situation today is extremely worrying. There’s only the government’s voice. People who criticise the government are killed, imprisoned, tortured, force to flee the country fearing for their lives …

When no one confirms what you’re saying you can begin to question what you saw and felt. This is the power of dictatorial system. People question themselves. And truth becomes elusive in your own mind, things that you know to be facts and felt in your skin can come to seem like figments of your imagination. And that’s an experience that I wanted to communicate in the book.

Much of the book is not only to criticise the government but also communicate some of what it feels like to live in a dictatorship and how disorienting and jarring and transformative it can be.

BI: With Kagame recently amending the constitution to be able to stay in power until 2034 [see here], where do you see Rwanda going in the next 20-odd years with no free press and the government as entrenched as it is.

AS: It’s looking very unlikely that power will transfer from Kagame without violence. That’s also the academic consensus. There are competent, intelligent, experienced Rwandan politicians. Unfortunately Kagame has alienated all of them or killed them … he’s directly responsible for building a system in which he holds total power …

And historically — Rwandan included — when countries have leaders whose power is absolute, transitions of power are accompanied by violence.

BI: Yours is one of the first books for a general readership about the dictatorship in Rwanda. What ideally would you like the impact of this book to be, given the ground that it breaks for a general audience?

AS: I wrote this book from a place of affection for my students. It would have been very difficult to write this book without that affection. It’s a very hard place, and a hard topic to write about. The propaganda is so powerful that it’s difficult even to think outside it.

I was writing drafts of this book while my journalists were being harassed. I saw students’ photos in the newspapers with their heads shaved and looking really weak and sad. In those moments I would sit down and write, and I would wake up the next morning and often find that what I had written was less interesting because it was reacting to the repression and I was trying to undo or challenge the Rwandan government’s narrative. And that’s not what I want to do in this book.

What I want to do is tell the stories. I arrived in Rwanda in 2009 to teach a new corps of journalists. None of them are practicing today. One of my students was shot dead on the day he criticised the government. Two women were sent to prison, at the time for 17 years, for insulting Kagame. Two others fled to Europe fearing for their lives. Others joined the president’s propaganda team or simply dropped out of journalism. One of them went mad.

My motivation was to tell the stories of these brave Rwandan journalists who saw where their country was heading, tried to challenge it, tried to do their jobs in a peaceful and largely constructive way and were squashed, crushed by Kagame in his drive for power …

BI: Do you suspect that you’re now barred from entering Rwanda?

AS: I expect people I knew in Rwanda to make up things about my private life, about the private lives of people near and dear to me. I expect the government to produce false documents implicating friends or people that I know. I expect them to just go after me; they might try to find out whom I was associating with, or figure out who my sources are, and I’m pretty sure that those people will feel a need to distance themselves from me. Now, with the release of my book, it’s a problem for people inside Rwanda to say they even knew me or were my friend.

BI: Even not being in Rwanda the book handcuffs you in a way — you don’t want there to be consequences for the people you interacted with when you were living there.

AS: Exactly. I think the physical security of people has to come before any other consideration. I cannot even say that this person was my friend. It would be a problem for them …

This is something I was very aware of when I was writing the book. I knew that in writing this book I would be breaking all my ties with Rwanda.

Rwanda is the place in which I have lived for the longest since I was 10 years old. It’s the closest thing to home that I’ve known in my adult life in some ways, as far as an independent home, a home I made myself.

It hasn’t been an easy decision to know that in writing this book I would be forsaking that — that I won’t be able to go back, that the friends I’ve made will have to be forsaken, and that they might forsake me.

Anyone who criticises the government of Rwanda has to confront these very serious personal questions, and many people within Rwanda understandably choose not to confront them because the consequence would be so great.

I’m a foreigner. I have a degree of freedom; I’m not totally tied to Rwanda. So I felt I had lived through some of the worst repression in Rwanda in recent times and that there was an obligation to write about it and come to terms with the fact that I’m going to lose friends and am going to continue to lose friends and friends are going to accuse me of things and smear me.

BI: And the idea is that it will have been worth it to get the story out.

AS: Absolutely. As a journalist I feel our job is to hold power accountable. And the Rwandan government has abused its power and almost no one has held it accountable. They praise Kagame, they praise the economy, but the press, both local and foreign, has not held Kagame accountable for his abuses of power.

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