by Ann Garrison
Rwanda Day-San Francisco, 09.27.2016, was a bad day for identity politics. Rwandan President Paul Kagame stepped to the podium and said that he was happy to be in San Francisco because it’s so diverse, seeming not to understand that his guest speaker, Rev. Rick Warren, champion of the 2008 Prop 8 ballot measure banning same sex marriage, wouldn’t appeal to San Francisco’s diverse population. The city and surrounding Bay Area communities include the nation’s highest concentration of men and women who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Then Rev. Rick Warren got up and told the audience that he might look like an American, but he’s really a Rwandan, and that he may have white skin, but he’s black on the inside.
Neither the Black president nor the black-on-the-inside reverend took note of how rapidly gentrification is disappearing San Francisco’s Black neighborhoods.
Though President Kagame forever plays the race card, claiming that his critics are racists who have contempt for Africans, his dependence on the political, diplomatic and military support of the U.S. and NATO make it arguable that he’s Black on the outside and white on the inside. His Rwanda Days in the West are unique; no other nation holds anything like these annual promotions rotating from one Western metropolis to another.
The first Rwanda Day was staged in Chicago in 2011, while Rwandans and Congolese protested outside. Other Rwanda Days – in Toronto, London, Amsterdam, Boston and Atlanta – inspired similar protests outside and/or along the president’s travel route. Hotel security at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis told me they’d prepared for a protest but none materialized.
Fellow San Francisco Bay View journalist Jeremy Miller and I registered to attend Rwanda Day, but we had to watch President Kagame and Rev. Warren’s remarks on video because we were both ejected, with the help of three San Francisco Police officers and the head of Marriott Marquis hotel security. No surprise there because I’ve been denounced in Rwandan newspapers a number of times. For example, “Look at who the Rwanda haters have recruited now” and “Genocide deniers on a rampage.”
A genocide denier is anyone who characterizes the Rwandan war and massacres of 1990 to 1994 in any way that varies from the Rwandan government’s constitutionally codified, legally enforced description – “genocide against the Tutsi.” I’ve done that and I’ve interviewed scholars and International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda defense attorneys who’ve done so as well.
Most of my essays and interviews have been published in the San Francisco Bay View, so someone on the president’s security team must have recognized me or the San Francisco Bay View logo on Jeremy’s t-shirt. I was a little surprised to see him waltz in wearing it, but he always walks tall.
Jeremy and I had taken some distance from one another while waiting in line, thinking that might make it more likely that one of us would get in if the other didn’t. We thought we were home free once we’d both made our way through the metal detectors, viewed the cultural exhibits, bought some Rwandan coffee and taken seats inside the Marriot Marquis Yerba Buena Ballroom.
However, just before the program was about to begin, a gentlemen came down the aisle and asked us to get up and follow him, so we did – out of the ballroom, back up the escalators and back through the metal detectors, at which point more Rwandan security demanded the badges we’d been given at entry. Seemed they wanted to make sure we didn’t sneak back in.
I didn’t protest because it was their private party in their rented ballroom, so they had every right to give us the boot, but another white woman who’d been sitting next to me was ejected with us, no doubt because security thought we were all together, and she started kicking up a fuss. She had registered! she insisted. They had no right to single her out from the rest of the audience! She wasn’t surrendering her badge or anything else!
Jeremy demanded an explanation, then took out his mini-voice recorder and cell phone camera, at which point someone summoned three SFPD officers and the head of hotel security. They escorted Jeremy and me to the hotel lobby, after I tried to explain that the woman who’d been sitting next to me was an innocent, not one of us genocide deniers. We were gone before we could see if she got back in.
Why so much anxiety about our attendance?
My fractious relationship with the Rwandan government began in 2010, when Victoire Ingabire attempted to run for president against Paul Kagame, and I started calling her in Rwanda for Pacifica’s KPFA Weekend News, WBAI AfrobeatRadio, and Women’s International News Gathering Service. Victoire was never actually allowed to register her party and run for president, but she did talk to us, despite a gag order, and it became clear that she was mounting a challenge to the story we’ve all been told by the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” the Wikipedia, the mainstream media, the State Department, and Bill Clinton, who often says that failing to send in troops to save Rwandan Tutsis was the greatest mistake of his presidency.
Victoire said that there were extremists and victims on both sides of the Rwandan conflict, before during and after the genocide. She said that all the victims, Hutu and Tutsi, must be remembered for the Rwandans to heal and reconcile. Saying even that much is an imprisonable offense in Rwanda, and she’s now serving the sixth year of a 15-year sentence.
The Rwandan conflict of the 1990s was in fact Uganda’s invasion and four-year war in Rwanda backed by the U.S. and U.K. It ended in the assassination of two Hutu presidents and the overthrow of the Rwandan government after the final fratricidal bloodletting and breakdown of social order that came to be known as the Rwandan Genocide.
In Rwanda, you have to call it the “genocide against the Tutsi” and treat that description like a sacrament or you’re locked up and labeled a “genocide denier” or “genocide ideologist.”
Victoire Ingabire didn’t say all that in those words, but she went to prison for telling a more complex story and for allegedly conspiring with terrorists and encouraging the Rwandan people to rise up against the government.
It’s true that she attempted to give Rwandans a chance to elect her instead of Paul Kagame, but the terrorism charges were ludicrous; Victoire Ingabire is as opposed to violence as anyone I’ve ever known. She so firmly believes in dialogue, debate and democracy that talking to her was almost enough to renew my own faith in these tarnished ideals.
The last time we spoke was several days before her October 2010 arrest, and shortly after release of the UN Mapping Report on Human Rights Abuse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC], which concluded that the Rwandan army’s massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees in the DRC would likely be judged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide if adjudicated in a court of law. Officials who could and should be charged with these crimes aren’t typically inclined to dialogue, debate or democracy.
Nor are the Western powers who support them. Bill Clinton, when questioned about his effusive praise of President Kagame, said that the crimes Kagame’s accused of “haven’t been adjudicated.” He and his top policy officials made sure of that when they stage-managed the victor’s court known as the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda.
I reported on Victoire’s ill-fated attempt to run for president and on the assassinations of President Kagame’s opponents inside Rwanda, in every nation bordering Rwanda, and even in South Africa throughout that 2010 so-called election year. None of the three viable candidates, Victoire Ingabire, Frank Habineza and Bernard Ntaganda, were allowed to register and run.
Roughly a year later, in 2011, after the “Third International Genocide Conference” at Sacramento State University, I filed an assault complaint against President Kagame’s contingent, who had surrounded me, shouting, and even laid hands on me before someone from the university said, “Hey, hey, hey, you can’t do that here.”
In 2012, I sent the assault complaint to the U.K. Parliament Development Committee, which published it and several other submissions after they decided to cut aid to Rwanda during the M23 militia’s scourge and atrocities in eastern Congo. The heroic 2012 U.N. Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had written:
“The government of Rwanda continues to violate the arms embargo [in DRC] by providing direct military support to the M23 rebels, facilitating recruitment, encouraging and facilitating desertions from the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and providing arms, ammunition, intelligence and political advice. The de facto chain of command of M23 includes Gen. Bosco Ntaganda and culminates with the Minister of Defense of Rwanda, Gen. James Kabarebe. Following the publication of the addendum to its interim report (S/2012/348/Add.1), the Group met the Government of Rwanda and took into consideration its written response. The Group has, however, found no substantive element of its previous findings that it wishes to alter.”
I didn’t attend Rwanda Day-San Francisco to protest, nor did I do so at Sacramento State University in 2011. There I simply sat and listened in an auditorium till the end of the day, when I finally asked, in a smaller, classroom-sized session, “What about the Gersony Report, the Garreton Report, the U.N. Group of Experts Reports on the Illegal Exploitation of Resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 2001, 2002, 2003, the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Final Report 2008, and the UN Mapping Report on Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1993 – 2003?” (Those were all the reports that U.N. investigators had published on Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1994 and 2011.)
President Kagame and his supporters don’t want to hear about these reports. Just naming them is enough to make them scream, shout and even assault a mild-mannered journalist like myself. U.S. presidents and their State Departments largely ignore the reports, although 2012’s was finally so damning that a show of chasing Rwanda out of DRC had to be staged.
No matter how high and horrific the atrocity count, Rwanda remains a key U.S. ally and military partner, as it has since Kagame seized power with U.S. blessing in 1994, the second year of Bill Clinton’s first term.
Oakland writer Ann Garrison writes for the San Francisco Bay View, Black Agenda Report, Black Star News, Counterpunch and her own website, Ann Garrison, and produces for AfrobeatRadio on WBAI-NYC, KPFA Evening News, KPFA Flashpoints and for her own YouTube Channel, AnnieGetYourGang. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In March 2014 she was awarded the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for promoting peace in the Great Lakes Region of Africa through her reporting.