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.