Book Review: God Sleeps in Rwanda by Joseph Sebarenzi

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By Stephen Kinzer
Sunday, November 22, 2009


A Journey of Transformation

By Joseph Sebarenzi with Laura Ann Mullane

Atria. 260 pp. $25

In the mid-1990s, the two most ruined countries in the world were Somalia and Rwanda. Anyone predicting these countries' futures would have seen only horror. Somalia has evolved just as everyone expected. Rwanda, however, rebelled against its fate. It has become not only stable but, according to its many admirers, a model for developing countries.

How did Rwanda come this far? By all accounts, the credit goes to President Paul Kagame, whose rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, deposed the genocidal regime in 1994 and who has been the country's strongman ever since.

Kagame is one of the world's most intriguing leaders. He has declared the goal of making Rwanda the first middle-income country in Africa. Among those who believe he may succeed are Tony Blair, who is one of his advisors, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, whose foundations are intensely active in Rwanda, and George W. Bush, who during a visit last year called him "a man of action who knows how to get things done."

Many development specialists consider Rwanda the most promising poor country on earth. Some others see it quite differently: as a repressive place where one man rules, dissidents are silenced by whatever means necessary, and the regime supports itself by looting the neighboring Congo. This debate makes Rwanda both important and fascinating. Anything we can learn about it is valuable.

In his memoir, "God Sleeps in Rwanda," Joseph Sebarenzi presents a thoughtful critique of Kagame's regime. His tale is a provocative warning to the many outsiders who are ready to canonize Kagame.

Sebarenzi is a member of the Tutsi minority that was victimized by the Hutu-led genocide in 1994. Like nearly every Tutsi who survived, he has a harrowing tale to tell. He escaped to the Congo and returned to his shattered homeland after Kagame's victory.

Soon after his return, Sebarenzi joined an opposition party, was elected to parliament, and, with Kagame's blessing -- nothing happens in Rwanda without it -- became speaker. He set about turning parliament into something it had never been: an independent power, able to challenge the government, limit its power and overrule its decisions.

Kagame, however, wanted parliament -- along with political parties, judges and the press -- to join him, not contradict him. After Sebarenzi pushed a bill to give parliament strong oversight powers, he was forced out of office. Later, a friend told him that Kagame was "saying a lot of bad things about you."

Fearing for his life, Sebarenzi fled the country for a second time. He now lives near Washington, D.C., part of a floating group of former Kagame admirers who have no place in today's Rwanda. Others include an ex-prime minister who lives in Belgium, a former presidential chief of staff who lives in California and Paul Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager whose story was the basis for the film "Hotel Rwanda."

Any one of these might wish to return home and run against Kagame in next year's presidential election. None feels safe enough to do so. Kagame is likely to have only token opposition and may win with something like the 95 percent margin he claimed in 2003.

"I suppose he fears his enemies -- of whom there are many -- and what his fate will be when he is no longer in power," Sebarenzi writes. "He also may well be afraid of the outcome of a classical democracy in a majority-minority divided society, which might well translate into a demographic election in which Hutu would overwhelmingly win. He may consequently fear that Tutsi's security could once again be in jeopardy, a view shared by most Tutsi I speak with, and for good reason."

During his first term, Kagame has amazed the world by raising Rwanda from the dead. In his second term -- under the constitution it must be his last -- one of his biggest challenges will be to manage a transition to broader democracy. To do so he will have to abandon deep-seated habits -- and also his eminently reasonable fear that he and his comrades will be forced to account for past excesses. Whether he can do so may determine the long-term success of Rwanda's audacious experiment.

Stephen Kinzer's most recent book is "A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It."

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