Kigali: Media, Justice, Elections on Agenda
Within weeks Kigali will wind up more than 1,000 traditional tribunals set up to settle 1.5 million cases arising from the genocide of 1994 and with that, writes MANOAH ESIPISU, Rwanda will embark on yet another bold chapter in its powerful resurgence
We touched down on the tarmac of Kigali International Airport with great hope for the days ahead. It was a bright sunny day with clear skies, a far cry from the dull grey London we’d flown from. Amid the lush green hills and hilltop coffee and tea farmlands surrounding Kigali, we found a city bursting with goodwill, enthusiasm and vigour. Stepping from the plane, we remarked upon the unmistakeable flag of Rwanda, an elegant tricolour of blue, yellow and green, flapping proudly in front of us.
This, the maiden official visit of a Commonwealth delegation to the East African country since the November 2009 decision to accept Rwanda as the 54th member, was an historic moment for our high-powered delegation and my first in more than a decade. As a young reporter for the international news agency Reuters, I was despatched to cover the genocide as it unfolded. Back then, the local media had played a catastrophic role in stoking the violence. Radio stations, as a proxy of the then government, had broadcast crude propaganda against the Tutsi population, inciting for their swift “extermination”.
No sooner had we entered the airport reception, than a scrum of reporters met us bristling with notepads, video cameras and questions. In a country still reeling from a genocide which extinguished nearly a million Rwandans, it was perhaps unsurprising that the first questions honed in on efforts to bring absent perpetrators to justice. “What will the Commonwealth do to apprehend the genocidaires living in Commonwealth countries?” an expectant radio reporter asked.
Despite the passage of more than 15 years, the bloodletting of 1994 still occupies a central place in the social and political agenda of Rwanda. Traditional community tribunals, known as gacaca courts, have settled some 1.5 million cases stemming from the genocide. Within just a matter of weeks however, they are due to be wound up. Another chapter in Rwanda’s history is about to begin.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma made clear to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, the Commonwealth intends to play the fullest part in helping its newest member toward a safer and prosperous future. The Secretariat has long provided its members with technical and logistical support and Sharma was able to recount to President Kagame, as well as Rwanda’s foreign and justice ministers, that our staff – experts at the highest level in fields ranging from governance to economic affairs and from communications to justice – are now at Rwanda’s disposal.
During the good humoured rendezvous between Sharma and the President, the two men, both over 6 feet tall, unfurled the Commonwealth’s own flag to the glare of flashing photographers. There the Commonwealth’s offer to observe presidential elections was also warmly accepted.
The two also chatted about Rwanda’s relations with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Earlier ministers told us the relations had significantly improved. Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo had paid an official visit to Kinshasa in January while military officers from both sides have also met. It was work in progress.
A visit to Kigali’s genocide memorial, the last resting place of more than a quarter of a million dead, proved to be a more sobering encounter. A museum exhibition solemnly displays unnamed skulls dating from those dark days between April and July 1994. Writings recount how colonial rulers divided the country into previously non-existent tribes. Sharma, in paying his respects, was visibly moved by the scale of the tragedy presented before him.
It was the national media’s performance during the genocide that Rwanda and the world remember in dismay. Today the media focuses on pursuing injustices wherever they may find them. Yet they are still learning how to balance freedom with responsibility. According to the country’s regulatory Media High Council, just 27 per cent of practising journalists have any kind of journalism qualifications, making them vulnerable to errors, gaffes or worse.
During the Rwanda visit, Sharma handed copies of “Eyes of Democracy: Media in Elections”, which I co-authored, as well as copies of “Covering Globalisation” co-authored by my friend Anya Schifrin from Colombia University New York to the Journalism School of the National University of Rwanda. These were received by Ms Margaret Juuko, the school’s deputy director, on the university’s behalf. Hopefully my book will be a useful guide for media as they prepare for presidential elections.
The media’s main plea was for capacity building – both knowledge and skills and I look to the Commonwealth to deliver support in this area as well as upholding Press freedom, one of the organisation’s fundamental values and principles. What struck me most about our visit was just how utterly transformed Kigali is from the nineties. A bustling metropolis, the city is today punctured by shiny new skyscrapers – a telling sign of the country’s thriving new economy.
The eponymous Hotel des Mille Collines, famously given the Hollywood treatment in the film Hotel Rwanda, still stands tall as it did back then. For me it will always symbolise the city’s spirit of survival and humanity. Yet the building is increasingly dwarfed by bolder, bigger shinier structures.
Rwanda is shaking off its inglorious past. Its innovative business sector, injected with entrepreneurialism, has embraced new forms of technology and ways of working. No longer are its coffee beans exported for use in nondescript blended coffee – its coffee brands are now the envy of many of the country’s neighbours<
• Manoah Esipisu is Spokesperson at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.
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