Paul Kagame. Image via Veni Markovski Flickr
Paul Kagame. Image via Veni Markovski Flickr

I shook Paul Kagame’s hand yesterday. A colleague and I were discussing the difference between historical and anthropological approaches to politics, there was a bit of hush, and there he was – a person of world historical importance, hand outstretched.

I am historian of 20th century Africa; I teach and work at Yale University and I’m enormously privileged to do so. Yale, and in particular Yale’s Africa Initiative, has made Africa a priority on campus, which has resulted in rich events like Yale’s spring Africa Salon and in the increasing number of fiercely intelligent and tremendously talented African students in my classes. The latter have made our campus an immeasurably richer place and me a better teacher, and I have the Africa Initiative to thank. It was the African Initiative that invited Paul Kagame to campus, as part of Yale’s Coca Cola World Fund lecture series. So it was that I got to shake the hand of a man many observers and human rights activists the world over consider a dictator at best and a war criminal at worst.

The Internet has had a field day with Kagame’s visit to Yale, especially since it came under Coca Cola’s corporate brand. Rwandan dissidents, their allies and others have heaped scorn on our administration for laying out a carpet that might as well be soaked red with the blood of the millions of Congolese whose deaths the Rwandan government has at least abetted, if not instigated. The circumstances of his visit were extraordinary: the lecture was announced only six days before Kagame came to campus, seats had to be reserved by registered attendees in advance, no bags were allowed in and the only media in attendance were photographers and videographers working for the Rwandan government. Given these headwinds, I was impressed to learn that Yale human rights activists were organizing a teach-in to protest Kagame’s arrival on campus.

I do not want to rehearse Kagame’s human rights record, nor his crimes, nor rehash the debate about whether he should have been invited to campus.  Nor should we be surprised that he was invited or that he received a standing ovation upon entering the hall. I learned today what I had always suspected – Paul Kagame is an enormously talented politician. He’s confident, charming and disarming, and he is the perfect spokesman for the story his government wants to tell – about a country that has suffered and has, under his leadership, overcome the darkness of its past to become an economically vibrant, gender and environmentally conscious, technocratically proficient model of what an African state can be. I also know and must acknowledge what an absolute thrill it must have been for many of my African students – and especially the Rwandans – to see their president, an African head of state, feted on our campus – on their campus. Over the past year Yale’s struggles to be a home for its black students have been widely publicized; our struggles to be a home for African students in particular is too frequently overlooked. The Yale Africa Initiative is designed in part to combat this neglect and we should take the pride that many students felt seriously.

So I’m not going to rehearse the critiques. I’m only going to report what I heard. Kagame spoke for a bit more than thirty minutes and took questions for a little less than that. His message was simple, and summed up in a hashtag I found in a tweet defending Kagame’s visit: #MindYourOwnBusiness.

Kagame noted that he had come to have a frank exchange, so he addressed the critiques he knew were coming. The weight of evidence suggests that he has crushed political dissent and dramatically curtailed the media. No matter, Rwanda’s results – measured in ending poverty and delivering services – matter more than what he called “processes.” Where we are going is more important than how we get there, in other words. Rwanda’s critics condemn human rights abuses in the name of development and state consolidation; no matter, they are racists, unable to see clearly when an African success story is right in front of them. Rwanda has fomented war in neighboring countries – no matter, the international community sat on its hands when we died and suffered so they have no standing to critique us now – and on this point, actually, yes it matters.

In Kagame’s narrative, the only history that matters is the history that began 22 years ago this past April. The suffering of the genocide and the RPF’s role in ending it is where Kagame’s government draws its legitimacy to condemn foreign hypocrisy (which exists in spades, to be sure) and to shut down its critics. We suffered and you did nothing – so how dare you say something now. Kagame delivered this message in confident, uncompromising tones before the first person had a chance to ask him a question. The questioners asked the right ones – about democracy, about human rights, about his pending decision to ‘run’ for yet another term, about Congo. But they needn’t have bothered. He had preempted their questions. #MindYourOwnBusiness.

Like I said, I’m not interested in disproving these points. I’m only interested in relating what I heard when Mr. Kagame came to Yale. But as a historian, I do have to note that Mr. Kagame’s message sounded awfully familiar. Were Mr. Netanyahu to come to campus, I imagine that he would said something quite similar. We have suffered, we have been wronged. #MindYourOwnBusiness. And here’s the thing: that’s the same message Mr. Verwoerd would have brought to Yale, had we invited him. We have suffered, you have not, you have no standing, #MindYourOwnBusiness. I note this not to say that these men are one and the same. That would be ridiculous. But Verwoerd drew from the well of past suffering to foreshorten history to shut down critiques of reprehensible policies. Benjamin Netanyahu has made an art form of doing the same. And today I heard Paul Kagame charmingly remind an audience of privileged Ivy Leaguers and Americans that their ivory towers are glass houses, and thus that we cannot know the truth, and that we should mind our own business.

Paul Kagame came to my campus today. I did not condemn my university for inviting him and I did not boycott him. Instead I shook his hand and I smiled at him and I thanked him for sharing his thoughts with us. Because I needed to hear him to confirm what, as a historian, I have long suspected – we’ve seen his kind before. And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that – because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994. People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake. And bodies and human suffering are the cursed currency of history, as Paul Kagame’s Rwanda has taught and regrettably continues to teach.

Dan Magaziner

Dan Magaziner is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country and an intellectual historian specializing in 20th century South Africa.

  1. Man, that last paragraph is …truly incredible. It perfectly summarizes everything that came before…it is wise and comprehensive and diagnoses perfectly what ails our various societies, the social, political, historical, moral and educational (insitutions)!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your impressions & viewpoint of Mr. Kagame’s visit to Yale yesterday. It was helpful in understanding what’s going on in Rwanda (and elsewhere) right now.

  3. Dear Dan Magaziner,

    i find your article flawless ! I must admit that I also like your style. It is a recognisable style, one I have seen used by many people. But coming from an historian and intellectual from Yale it gives it yet another dimension.

    I am not an intellectual and even less so an historian. So even though I really liked your article it was sometimes a bit difficult for me to understand it fully. Hope you don’t mind if I ask here a few questions and share some elements that were not too clear for me. I’ll even go as far as drawing my own conclusion.

    When you write “the millions of Congolese whose deaths the Rwandan government has at least abetted, if not instigated.” are you considering this as historical facts? It is not quite clear from your article. I am asking this because some people, the ones like me, not intellectuals, could be led to draw false conclusions right? I mean when you juxtapose: “I am an historian and an intellectual (…) (…) death of millions of Congolese (…) ” Some people may think, no need to go any further right? People could draw their own conclusion, don’t you think? I mean, I m not saying that it is exactly what you tried to achieve in your article, leading people to wrong conclusion without having the guts to do it openly, that would be ridiculous. But I am just wondering why an intellectual historian would not be clearer?

    I was also wondering the following: on one hand, in your second and third paragraphs you “subtly” (and I m sure in a totally impartial way) repeat the accusations of “many observers and human rights activists” and then you start your fourth paragraph with “I do not want to rehearse Kagame’s human rights record, nor his crimes, nor rehash the debate about whether he should have been invited to campus.” don’t you feel that you have actually “rehearsed” and “rehashed” in your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs? I feel that if you were not an intellectual from Yale, people would either consider this as an oversight or as intentional. Don’t you think? Well, I m not saying you did either one of those things, it would be ridiculous, but I am just wondering.

    Because I have only limited understanding of things, at this point in time in your article, I started to feel a bit puzzled.
    But luckily, you then stated clearly your objective: ” I’m only interested in relating what I heard when Mr. Kagame came to Yale.”
    Well that at least makes it clear and all your reader can now be reassured. Your intentions are pure, relating historical facts or in this case words. The tension I was feeling from reading what seemed to me like contradictory statements/paragraphs suddenly disappeared. I could now continue my reading, relaxed, absorbing all the historical words that you wanted to relate without having to try to make a critical analysis.

    At first, when I read the sentenced that follows, I didn’t notice anything : “But as a historian, I do have to note that Mr. Kagame’s message sounded awfully familiar. Were Mr. Netanyahu to come to campus, I imagine that he would said something quite similar.”
    But while continuing with my innocent reading, I came across this “And here’s the thing: that’s the same message Mr. Verwoerd would have brought to Yale, had we invited him.” I had like a flash and had to read once again all that paragraph jumping from words to words, “relating what I heard when Mr. Kagame came (…) Were Mr Netanyahu to come (…) I imagine (…) Mr. Verwoerd would have (…) had we invited him”.

    Now, I was totally lost ! My brain could no longer follow… how to reconcile “relating what I heard when Mr. Kagame came” with what so and so would have said if we had invited him and if I had been there possibly potentially to hear what they would certainly have said but have not said because they didn’t come but that I, as an historian intellectual, can without doubt imagine they would have said.

    Well, I must admit this challenged my understanding, arguably limited, of what “relating what I heard” means and what historians are about. And again, that strange feeling that things were being said without being openly said, that people could be tricked into make comparison and associations between Mr Kagame, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Verwoerd. I mean, I am not saying that you, an intellectual, would be such a coward and lack intellectual honesty to do such things intentionally. That would be ridiculous right?

    And then, suddenly, it all became clear ! I had seen this kind before, we have seen this kind before. That style, that type of article, it has been used before. By all the likes of you who, when they cannot attack someone, a country, a situation on facts, attack cowardly in disguise with dubious statements and allegations. But of course, “they only relate what they have heard”…

    For those interested in what was actually said, they could refer to the link below. Apparently, the Rwandan Government, the only authorised to film, was generous enough to share the full video with Yale that posted it on the Yale Youtube channel…go figure ! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMaicYmTyVE

    1. Jp, Lol I am also creating an account to just ‘upvote’ you. Hihihi I love your response. I am sick of these hypo-critiques who think they are authorities on what is wrong with Africa. They think we are all ignorant of what is happening in their own countries.

      Jesus said take the log out of your eyes before you can see the speck in mine.

      Leave so called ‘Africa’ alone!!! President Kagame has turned that country around and the rest of us who are not Rwandans are very impressed. Yes some are not pleased but some of the problems we have faced as African nations is to have lackluster leaders pandering to the white man, which President Kagame has firmly dealt with.
      America helped Libya to remove Quadafi forcibly from office and have him murdered, can anyone tell me that now Libya is better off without Quadafi? How about Irag, Afghanistan, Egypt-American intervention success stories?
      Whites need to stop weeping more than the bereaved. You also have problems in your countries, deal with them and give humanitarian aide, and care about your human rights in your countries and leave us alone. mbu Historian sijui intellectual!!! I salute you President Kagame!!!

    2. Dear Jp I should tell you how I love your stance, in depth observations and above all how you employed the same ‘quite recognizable style in this ‘subtle’ attack at yale’s intellectual historian’s position. Trust and believe that the sense and points came through and the essence of getting the reader to understand the current international, political prejudices and realities of the day aren’t defeated. So that the readers like myself can at least know that many of the realities created by west as seen through such post and positions may not be totally true and so we can educate our own judgements.
      I must equally add that the countries of Africa cannot be continually sold dreams and expectations through interferences and dictations by the west, and I guess these countries have begun to ask for a refund…

  4. Excellent essay. However the idea that the U.S. failed and should have intervened unilaterally in Rwanda is very dangerous. I’m not sure the author meant to imply that we should have intervened unilaterally, but that “failure” to do so has been used to justify unilateral invasions and catastrophic aerial bombing campaigns since, as in Libya and Syria.

    In fact, the U.S. did intervene; the Clinton Administration backed Kagame’s war to seize power and that is why they kept the Security Council – which was then compliant – from organizing an intervention. The U.S. “failed” only insofar as it stopped the UNSC from intervening because the U.S. wanted to make sure their guy headed the country after the carnage.

    Kagame not only sounds like Netanyahu; he has a longstanding partnership with Netanyahu based on reinforcing the victim’s license that they both claim. When, in 2013, Kagame joined Sheldon Adelson, Michael Steinhardt, Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in NYC to promote war on Syria “to stop genocide,” I tried to explain this in “The Israel/Rwanda Pact,” http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/09/20/the-israelrwanda-pact/.

  5. A dictator at Best, a war criminal at worst? President Kagame’s best moment is being a dictator? That’s how you teach Africa’s history? At Yale? Did you miss a major chapter in the ‘history of the 20th Century in Africa’ – your area of ‘expertise’, when President Kagame put an end to a genocide? If I called you an impostor at best and at worst a liar, intoxicating Yale students for the last 20 years, would that do you justice? Did President Kagame seek you out, come towards you and stretch his hand to greet you? When you wrote this article, were you high on heroin? Does lying come so naturally to you? I do not want to rehearse the toxic nature of self-appointed African experts like you, nor do I want to rehearse whether they should be allowed to teach about Africa or not, I am only going to report to you that in his speech, when he talked about too much space in Rwanda being occupied by foreigners he meant frauds like you. But I am not interested in calling you a fraud, as a blogger in Rwanda I usually take time to write proper rejoinders, but this is simply pathetic…

  6. Do American or don’t American leaders keep bodies in their wake on a daily basis? We are talking internal and external politics. I do not want to talk about the native Americans, the blacks, the browns, the muslims, etc…. Its interesting that you would be sarcastic about Kagame’s thoughts. I do not even see how Kagame and Netanyahu can be compared or placed in the same sentence! What is it that makes you believe that you have the right to judge? I know, it is a ‘western’ thing to be entitled. To confer on yourselves the “moral judge” title. But has it ever occurred to you that your leaders might need your attention more than ours do? Is it possible for you to pause for a second, check out the speck in your eye, and maybe let us deal with the log in ours? What Kagame is saying is mind your business and let us mind ours. You meddling in ours means you think we can not deal with ourselves; but we did dealt with ourselves when you were not looking; and we continue to handle our matters by ourselves. Matters which in most cases you are never concerned about unless it is something you want in your own society. So truth be told, mind your own damn business and let us be.

  7. “So I’m not going to rehearse the critiques. I’m only going to report what I heard.”… As a Teacher at Yale, you should know the difference between an politically loaded opinion piece and “reporting”. I usually have great respect for the content on AIAC, but this kind of conflating is pretty low.

  8. What kind of Lecturer is this man? Does he know the difference between being a Politician, a reporter and a teacher means? Why can’t you number the bodies in your land? why don’t you open your mouth about your longtime rotten leadership that makes lives sink in different parts of the World? come on, some people need to grown. What are you teaching to those poor children if this is what you think?