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The Pitfalls of "Official" History


“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”

W. H. Auden “September 1, 1939”

For 14 years, there has been no history taught in Rwandan schools. In a sense, the 1994 genocide that wiped out more than 800,000 people also effectively erased the available records (or at least, scrambled the prevailing notions) of a people’s past. The genocide obliterated memory.

Soon that will be corrected. Within the next few weeks or months, new history textbooks will be introduced in Rwanda’s schools. This is a vitally important event for the Central African country. After all, says Deo Byanafashe, the Rwandan professor largely responsible for the reclamation project, “history is where we find our identity.”

This should be cause for celebration. But is it? Will Rwandan schoolchildren be getting an authentic history text that honestly traces the roots of the ethnic violence that tore their society apart? Or will the New History be just another official mythology, a narrative born of political expediency, or political necessity?

The government, controlled by the minority Tutsis (who make up less than 15 per cent of Rwanda’s population), argues that an agreed-upon history is critical to reconciliation. Indeed, the slogan of the new history program is “Education for Reconciliation.” This offers a clue to the question of authenticity: Can history be “used” as a remedy for social disharmony? Aren’t we talking here about “designer history” as a form of therapy?

To its credit, the government brought in outside experts to help. A group of American researchers, working under the auspices of the University of California/Berkeley Human Rights Centre, proposed a secondary-school curriculum that would “invite discussion and debate so students can think critically about competing views of history and ethnicity.”

The New Orthodoxy

It’s a brave and brilliant idea. It recognizes there is no last word in history. Re-analysis, and re-reframing of the past, is a never-ending process, and so it should be. And if it is to function, this process requires absolute freedom of investigation and interpretation. It requires the right to dissent. In Rwanda, however, there is little or no open discussion and debate about things like history and ethnicity. For example, Rwanda’s new orthodoxy, enforced by Tutsi law, is that there are NO separate ethnicities at all. Tutsis, Hutus and Twa—the old groupings that became so critical in determining who would live and who would die in the genocide-- no longer exist. Rwandans have, in a sense, been “de-ethnicized” by government decree. You can go to jail (and people do) for insisting otherwise. Any dissent from this orthodoxy violates the laws against “divisionism” and “genocidal ideology.”

Historian Marian Hodgkin, writing in the Journal of International Affairs, argues that this is wrong. Efforts by the government to impose what she calls an "official" truth are actually "harmful to the building of sustainable peace and a meaningful reconciliation process."

"The creation of a single narrative and interpretation," she continues," will in affect deny or repress the memories of each subgroup within Rwandan society.”

What the Kagame government is trying to do is not new. It’s a political fact of life, as old as Machiavelli, that governments, whether in Russia, Rwanda, or Rhode Island, are in the business of monopolizing “knowledge construction.” He who writes the history is assured of the most favorable storyline for posterity. Those who control the past determine the future. In Rwanda, it obviously serves the interests of President Paul Kagame and his Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front to obscure, and even eliminate ethnic distinctions. This disguises the "problem" of Tutsi minority rule, and the fact that 85 per cent of the country’s inhabitants are poorly represented in government, and in the legal system.

The government would like to retroactively remove ethnic politics from Rwanda’s history. It’s part of the new national mindset (and it will presumably be part of the New History) that Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutus lived in Arcadian harmony until European colonialists arrived at the beginning of the 20th Century. These intruders proceeded to drive a socio-economic wedge between them, elevating the Tutsis into the ruling class, downgrading the majority Hutus, and instituting the notorious identity-card system.

But this version of history is disputed. “Overt ethnic friction may not have existed at the close of the nineteenth century,” writes European anthropologist Johan Pottier, an African specialist, “but the ethnic divisions and . . . (the Hutus’) ‘obvious hatred’ toward the Tutsi overlords, were well entrenched by 1898, the time Germany colonized Rwanda.”

As in many other African countries, ethnic rivalry figured prominently in pre-colonial Rwanda. In spite of a common language and a shared religion, a Tutsi king, and a Tutsi aristocracy, had long ruled over a Hutu majority. There was, admittedly, some mobility between the two groups, but, by and large, the Hutus remained peasants. This rivalry was exacerbated by German (and then Belgian) colonialism, but by no means did the Europeans invent the ethnic division.

Will this subtlety be reflected in Rwanda’s revisionism history? It’s not likely, given the Kagame government’s self-serving narrative of “no more Hutus, no more Tutsis.”

History as Propaganda

The new non-ethnic orthodoxy borders on propaganda, or what one writer calls “normalising the abnormal (and) naturalising the perverse.” How do you tell the Hutus their shared memory is no longer valid, and their group identity was fabricated or falsified by outsiders? “History,” writes Marian Hodgkin, “has been experienced very differently by different groups within society.” In 1959, when the Tutsi aristocracy wanted independence, but refused to extend full democracy to the Hutu majority, the Hutus revolted, overthrew the monarchy, and reversed the power balance in the country. At a stroke, the Tutsis became the underclass.

How will this event be framed in the New History? Will it be portrayed as a people rising up against the yoke of oppression to institute majority rule (the Hutu view) or as an act of violent “political change” that presaged the 1994 genocide (the Tutsi view)? Or will it be painted as a bloody eruption of black-on-black bloodletting inspired by the evil Belgian overlords? Even today, each of these scenarios has its proponents. Reconciling these points of view in one narrative will be a daunting task.

“Change doesn’t necessarily mean revolution,” says Deo Byanafashe, the man putting the new historical text to paper. Given this belief, how “neutral” can the New History possibly be? How will it be received by the post-genocidal Hutu majority?

Hutu Massacres

There are other hard, and more immediate questions. For example, there is considerable evidence that in the months before, and after the 1994 genocide, many thousands of Hutu noncombatants--men, women and children--were killed by the Tutsi rebel army, the so-called Rwandan Patriotic Front. (Some put the figure in the hundreds of thousands.) These revenge massacres, corroborated by eyewitnesses, Western investigators, and assorted human rights organizations, took place both inside Rwanda, and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. In some circles this has been called Rwanda’s “second genocide."

There is a danger that these travesties will slip through the cracks of history, that what New York Times correspondent Howard W. French calls the "wild adventurousness" of Tutsi leader Paul Kagame will never be acknowledged, because it does not fit his accepted profile as a politician whom Washington can work with. In his book A Continent for the Taking; The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, French points an accusing finger at Kagame, charging that with his insurgency from Uganda starting in 1990, Kagame "primed a country that had already long been an ethnic powder keg for a sharp escalation in violence and hatred."

The Rwandan government vehemently denies that the massacres of Hutus ever took place. Foreign journalists who publish such stories (like Peter Verlinden of The Netherlands) are forbidden entry into the country. European judges who seek to bring indictments against Tutsi military officers for their role in these massacres (like the French Judge Jean-Louis Brugiere, and the Spanish Judge Fernando Andreu) are roundly vilified by Kagame’s cronies. And high-profile Rwandan expatriates who demand that ALL of Rwanda’s human rights violations should be investigated and prosecuted (like Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of the film Hotel Rwanda) are called traitors and revisionists.

When, in the spring of 2007, I put the question of RPF massacres of Hutu civilians to Prof Byanafashe (who, it should be said, insists he is completely neutral and objective in his evaluation of Rwandan history), the esteemed academic answered this way: “If you look at the region where the war started (in northern Rwanda, near the Ugandan frontier) it’s a region populated almost 100% by Hutus. But they were not killed systematically. It was those who tried to stop the (Tutsi) rebellion from advancing who were killed, militant supporters of the government were killed, those against whom (the RPF) were fighting. That can be verified.”

This, of course, is the official government line.

The professor went further, giving his version of the familiar Fog of War. “When you fire a bullet, how does it choose? When soldiers fire their weapons, it is always civilians who die. But this is not genocide.”

In other words, uncounted thousands of Hutus perished in an accidental crossfire, collateral damage in a rebellion. There were no acts of deliberate large-scale vengeance. It is a view of recent history that flies directly in the face of credible contrary evidence.

Professor Byanafashe, the Dean of the School of Arts and Letters at the National University, concluded our interview by insisting there was not the slightest taint of political coloration in the New History text. “If the politicians meddle in this, we will not accept it. They can publish a history in their name, but not in our name.”

The Case of South Africa

History as a means to social cohesion is not necessarily a bad thing. It worked, to a degree, in South Africa, largely through the efforts of Nelson Mandela. He understood that if the country’s post-apartheid society was ever going to cohere, the worst excesses of white rule would have to be, if not forgotten, then at least relegated to deep memory where they could not longer be allowed to impose themselves constantly on the present. Michael Chapman, a professor of English in Durban, South Africa, has written that the healing process required citizens “to infuse with new contexts of complexity our ongoing interpretations and reinterpretations of memories.”

Benedict Andersen put it less academically: If a nation is to stay together, it must learn not only what to remember, but also what to forget.

However, this is not quite the same as the truth-shaping that is taking place today in Rwanda. There, the government seems to be deliberately misrepresenting important events in its recent history, in an apparent effort to consolidate power, and to put a new, and unreal, face on Rwandan society. In so doing, it glosses over the terrible emotional complexity and confusion one still finds among survivors of the genocide. It ignores the fact that many Tutsis and Hutus still view one another with dread and suspicion--feelings that will not be expunged with a new, selective history.

As Rene Lemarchand has written, reconciliation in Rwanda will not be possible without a nuanced, shared understanding of history. The key words here are “nuanced” and “shared”—characteristics that can only be achieved through a prolonged national dialogue involving all Rwandans.

To be fair, Rwanda’s new history text has not yet been published. But given the government’s very tight control on information and the media, given Kagame’s determination to somehow force his version of reconciliation and ethnic harmony through the school system, and given his impatience with political opponents and dissenters, it’s hard to imagine the government approving a neutral, balanced account of Rwandan history.

A history in the service of a political goal is propaganda by another name. And if this is what Rwanda’s next generation of schoolchildren can expect from their new history curriculum, they, and the generations after them, will be the losers.

1 comment:

Taylor Williamson said...

Hi Claude,

It is incredibly ironic that you found my post.

I originally wrote this post 8 months ago. I posted it for about an hour, during which time I stumbled upon your blog. I subsequently decided that I had to take my post down, because of what happened to you. Last week I came across the blog again and decided that it was too important of a topic to let the post sit on my hard drive.

To be honest, I am not really sanguine about the Rwandan govt. I am conflicted about how I feel about it. The govt has provided security, but it has come at the cost of a lot of freedom. Is it necessary? Is it moral? If they didn't clamp down on freedom, would the country explode again? I think the answer to all of these questions is no, but I'm really glad I'm not the one who has to strike the balance.

Taylor