Kagame Goes to Harvard

Never underestimate the global myopia and indifference that lurks beneath the surface of the United States’ supposedly Leftist higher educational system. Between August of 2005 and May of 2006, I worked as a visiting professor of American History at a Midwestern public university. The U.S. was into the third year of one the most monumental, mass-murderous, and openly imperial crimes in history: the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Where, I asked students and faculty, was the on-campus antiwar movement? Where were the protests and teach-ins on and against Washington’s egregious and blood-soaked assault on Mesopotamia, sold on thoroughly false pretexts and already estimated to have the caused the premature death of many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis?

The answer to my queries came mainly without words, in the form of blank stares and disinterest. Even at the opening moments of invasion, in March of 2003, when I had joined tens of thousands of others to march against the war on Iraq in the streets of Chicago, the university, like hundreds of other academic institutions across the country, had barely registered a protest. As the Princeton philosopher Sheldon Wolin noted in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008):

“During the months leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, university and college campuses, which had been such notorious centers of opposition to the Vietnam War that politicians and publicists spoke openly of the need to ‘pacify the campuses,’ hardly stirred. The Academy had become self-pacifying (p.68)…Public universities, such as those at Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison played a leading role in the organization of antiwar activities [during the 1960s]. That none of those institutions were ruffled by antiwar agitation at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 testifies to the effective integration of universities into the corporate state” (pp. 165-166).

Academic liberals – the older ones including veterans of the Sixties antiwar movement – didn’t   like Bush or his invasion, of course. Still, they certainly weren’t about to turn their classrooms into schoolhouses of antiwar resistance or anything else silly and radical like that. They weren’t about to open themselves up to the charge of polluting academia with “politics.” So what if everything that academics do is richly political and ideological beneath carefully constructed yet preposterous claims of detached, Mandarin-like “objectivity” and “neutrality”? And so what if a large number of transparently political operatives from the United States’ military, imperial, and corporate establishment regularly hold down prestigious and highly paid positions in U.S. colleges and universities? (Those imperial academicians don’t get lectures from leading higher-education scold Stanley Fish on how they need to Save the World on Your Own Time and not on the university’s dime.)

A recent event at the pinnacle of “liberal” academia offers a depressing epitome of the cold moral obliviousness and imperial complicity that marks U.S. higher education when it comes to foreign affairs and to the experience of desperate people on the wrong side of the U.S.-run planetary order. A February 26, 2016 event at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and Kennedy School of Government was titled “President Kagame Speaks on Democracy.”

Paul Kagame is the iron-fisted de facto President for Life of Rwanda, a small nation west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and south of Uganda. His Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has ruled the country with an iron fist since the horrific Rwandan genocide of 1994 – a mass slaughter that the Bill Clinton administration refused to halt because of the Clintons’ desire to see the U.S. – trained military leader Kagame take power. What has emerged since in Rwanda is a totalitarian dictatorship and police state where the populace lives in a climate of fear and where even mild dissent can lead to torture, imprisonment, and assassination. During the last Rwandan presidential election in 2010, Kagame won a second seven-year term as president with an outlandish 93% of the vote and an equally preposterous 95% turnout. Rwandans who refused to vote or to vote for Kagame did so at peril to their personal security.

Rwandan masses are herded to gigantic rallies where the President is hailed for saving the nation from genocide and for bringing “progress,” “modernity,” and “growth.” When the independent journalist Anjan Sundaram attended one of those rallies in 2010, a policeman spotted him taking notes and instructed him to stop. “You can’t look and write,” the gendarme told him. “In Rwanda,” Sundaram notes, “the testimony of the individual – the evidence of one’s own experience – is crushed by the pensee unique: the single way of thinking and speaking, demanded by those in power…One could not look and write…one had to see the world as the dictatorship described it. To look and think for yourself was to dissent” – and to dissent is a crime.

On an authority-defying trip into the Rwandan countryside, Sundaram discovered droves of villagers living exposed to the elements – some of them sick and dying as a result – because Kagame had ordered the destruction of excessively “primitive” grass-roofed huts. The villagers tore down their own dwellings on the orders of the Leader, preferring exposure to rain and cold over identification as enemies of the state. By Sundaram’s account:

“We passed to another destroyed hut…and spotted a house made of cement. A family was inside and…received us. In a small room, we saw beds against the walls, and people in the dark stuffed in with two goats and a pig. The family had given shelter to two households that no longer had huts…They stared at us vacantly. We heard a child heave. Lying on a straw bed among the animals, the child was sweating, and over his face had broken out blisters, jagged little lumps…the boy had caught malaria from sleeping in the open. It was the rainy season. Other children had caught a cold, something like pneumonia.”

In the meantime, Kagame’s RPF has joined with the Ugandan military in killing ethnic Hutus in the millions in the DRC. The death count goes as high as 5 million, if not higher. The Western   Europe- and U.S.-backed Kagame regime and Uganda have used the pretext of clearing “guilty” Hutu refugees from eastern Congo to loot precious natural resources for European and U.S. corporations. The pillaged materials include gold, cobalt, timber, diamonds, uranium, and (essential to cell phone and computer manufacture) coltan.

Sundaram’s latest book is Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship (New York: Doubleday, 2014). It details, among other terrible things, the systematic government elimination of the last remnants of a free press in Kagame’s Rwanda. He depicts Rwanda as a living dystopia more than a little reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. Along the way, Sundaram notes, the West holds up Rwanda as “a beacon for progress and modernity,” showering Kagame’s government with billions of dollars of aid (the lion’s share of the government’s revenue).

All of which is chilling background for Kagame’s speech at liberal Harvard and the warm response it received there. In a short and manifestly non-eloquent speech, the Rwandan butcher informed his top-of-the-Ivy League listeners that Rwanda defies the “chicken-and-egg argument about development versus democracy.” In his nation, he claimed,

“Prosperity is not achieved without empowering citizens and unleashing their creativity… public affairs are conducted with the expectation that the views of citizens will be heard and their complaints acted upon…Accordingly, leaders are better off serving with humility, through consultation and consensus. Things are done in the open, and indeed the best data on shortcomings in our country are regularly produced and published by our own public institutions.”

“Good results are impossible to explain without factoring in the trust that exists between citizens and leaders as a result of our governance choices. As democratic space becomes more inclusive, the preferences and viewpoints of elites and experts have to accommodate other perspectives. This challenge can be quite unsettling even in the most advanced democracies, as we continue to see, judging by current events.”

“Yet this is what we have chosen to do in our country. People must have, in the formulation of Amartya Sen, the ‘freedom to lead the kind of lives that they have reason to value.’”

“Rwandans expect important national matters to be handled with care and determination. They would certainly question the legitimacy of outcomes decided by others without their participation.”

“Our constitutional order is both distinctively Rwandan and squarely within the mainstream of democratic practice. It works for us, and there is ample evidence for that. But it will also endure, because the means of renewal and adaptation are provided for. The recent referendum is a useful example.”

The referendum to which Kagame referred was staged by the dictatorship in December of 2015. It overwhelmingly approved changing the nation’s Constitution to allow the nation’s blood-soaked Dear Leader to extend his terms in office until 2034.

The only thing more disturbing than Kagame’s Harvard speech were the obsequious questions and comments offered up to him by the Harvard audience. The first tribute came from Swanee Hunt, a senior white woman who serves as the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Ms. Hunt is the daughter of the Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt and is a former U.S. Ambassador to Australia under the Clinton administration. She is a member of the nation’s top imperialist and ruling class organization The Council on Foreign Relations and chair of the wonderfully named and Washington-based Institute for Inclusive Security (IIS). The IIS works with U.S. policymakers within and beyond the U.S. State Department to make the U.S. Global War “on” (of) Terror seem more open to “women’s voices.” It links “women’s empowerment funding” to U.S. foreign (imperial) policy.

Professor Hunt is an elite academic agent in the merging of U.S. fake-humanitarian, pseudo-liberal imperialism with contemporary Western gender identity politics very much in the mode of Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Madeline Albright, and Hillary Clinton. She’s a top “feministwasher of imperialist wars” (Hadia Akhtar’s excellent phrase) and, of course, a friend of the Clintons.

Swanee Hunt arose to a microphone after Kagame’s speech to praise the newly certified President for Life for having “broken every barrier” to women’s inclusion in government offices. She said nothing about the millions of women and girls who join their male fellow Rwandans in experiencing rampant poverty and terror under the U.S.-sponsored Kagame regime.

A young woman who described herself as an “energy infrastructure developer” from Ghana addressed Kagame as “Your Excellency” and thanked him for letting her and her colleagues work without visas in Rwanda. She added that “as much as the story of Rwanda is about you being a leader, it is as much about you empowering and inspiring people under you to have success for Rwandans by Rwandans.” I was reminded of a scene in Sundaram’s book, from one of the big government-organized rallies he attended:

“Everything had been done to ensure the president was unchallenged [in the 2010 show election]…But still he organized these massive rallies – a dozen of them in every corner of the country. And more and more the people urged the others to show devotion.”

“The president was now benevolent. He had left the killing to his courtiers…Once the public displays of allegiance were over he told the people that all this was their achievement.”

“He came up to the standing microphone and said Rwanda was a democracy. This democracy had been instituted by the people, he said, not by him. It has been instituted not because foreigners had demanded it, but because the people of Rwanda wanted to construct their own future. So those who criticized the government were in fact insulting the Rwandan people and what they had built” (emphasis added).

Before the rally, Sundaram beheld the spectacle of the Intore – “groups of 20 to 30 men and women in t-shirts bearing the face of the president.” They “ran in circles and sang devotional songs to the president, urging everyone to sing with them.”

A white female Kennedy School student rose to praise Kagame for joining the authoritarian leader of Singapore in achieving growth and in valuing “legacy” above “personal enrichment.” She also repeated back Kagame’s own propaganda to the dictator. The RPF’s “Vision 2020” plan is to “make Rwanda a ‘middle income country’ in the next decade. The idea has been borrowed from China and Singapore,” Sundaram notes: “Money would render the repression acceptable; the people had given their allegiance in exchange for the dream of wealth.” This even as Kagame claimed to be advancing participatory democracy.

The Kennedy School student apparently did not do any homework on the numerous ways in which Kagame used his position to personally enrich himself at public expense. A dissident blog whose semi-anonymous author must write from the relative safety of Europe reports that:

“During a recent meeting in Kigali that brought together President Kagame and RPF members, Kagame surprised those around when he attacked public officials who amass wealth at public expense, [for] he leads at stealing public wealth…his business dealings … impoverish many Rwandans [and] plunder…public wealth to the extent of controlling the whole economy. President Kagame… own[s] a number of businesses like Inyange Industries (processing and packing of milk, water and Juice), Horizon constructions (dealing in roads works), Banque de Kigali, Contraco (dealing in Real estates), Intersec Security (dealing in in security), Imprimerie Nouvelle (printing business), Mutara Enterprise (dealers in furniture), Bourbon Coffee (coffee shop in Kigali). Sources confirm that President Kagame has shares in Sina Gerard Nyirangarama enterprises that processes pepper, juices and bakery… [He] Kagame is also among the owners of Hotel Akagera…, the only hotel in the Akagera National park located in Eastern Province.”

“He is also named among pyrethrum business…he frustrated residents in the Northern Province former Ruhengeri when he grabbed their land were pyrethrum is grown. President Kagame managed to successfully intimidate these locals and grabbed all their business at cheaper price[s] using his military officers led [by] Major Haguma. Now the pyrethrum business is controlled by cooperatives disguised as the army but working for Kagame’s profits. Kagame controls the pyrethrum business in the country together with other hotel business like Serena Hotel, and Kivu Sun.”

“President Kagame has grabbed state resources from both [foreign] donations and tax payers money to acquire two luxurious jets costing $ 160 million. He has since relocated those jets from South Africa to Greece and to Turkey…Kagame has hired his personal jets to the government as presidential jets at an overwhelming price. For only one trip from Rwanda to the USA President Kagame…charge[d] the government of Rwanda over $ 800,000. “

“…Kagame has forced successful businessmen to sell some shares in their enterprises to him. He owns majority shares in tea estates, where he has been the seller and buyer using people like his in-law Richard Murefu and business tycoon Gatera Egide. He is also listed among coffee traders as an exporter using Crystal Ventures, his own company registered under RPF….”

“This continued plundering of state resources by president Kagame leaves one wondering where the wealth he promised Rwandans could come…he has looted the country and hidden part of it in other countries.”

“Johnson, Europe.”

All quite extraordinary atop a nation where 96 percent of the population lives without electricity.

A gentleman from Zimbabwe arose in the Harvard auditorium where Kagame spoke last February to say that “I’m really proud of what Rwanda has achieved over the last fifteen years under your guidance. Nobody doubts that you are a good leader,” the Zimbabwean added before politely questioning the wisdom of the recent referendum and noting that such constitutional changes had not worked out well in other African nations. He said nothing about the Rwandan children guided into malaria by the order against grass huts, the journalists who have been guided into death and silence (as ably and chillingly documented in Sundaram’s book) by Kagame’s security forces, or the millions of Congolese slaughtered by Kagame’s forces and war lord allies in the DRC.

In his response to questions at Harvard last February, the dictator offered a long and half-mumbled defense of his recent anointment as President for Life. He seriously claimed to be “a victim” – a victim of his own supposed great success in bringing modernity and “democracy” to Rwanda. “The people say ‘we want more of you…We have all of this because of you…We don’t want to gamble…We want to continue with the one who has done this for us’”

“What do you want to me say?” Kagame asked his Harvard listeners. “What do you want me to do?” Kagame smiled while his audience chuckled. He invited those who questioned the referendum to “take the case to Rwandans…I want you to come to Rwanda and address Rwandans and even go to their homes in rural villages …come and help me convince the people they don’t need me….so I can go home and relax…Do I tell them, ‘you want me to stay but no thank you’ because of bad examples in other [African] countries?”

It was a blood-curdling statement. In reality, anyone who went to Rwanda to tell villagers that they don’t need Kagame would be hounded and arrested by RFP secret service agents. They would not last long in Rwanda.

The “simple difference” with other African presidents for life. Kagame told the Zimbabwean with a straight face, “is that I have not sought to stay in power…I have to agree with the people, with what they want me to do.”

The Harvard audience responded to the dictator’s disingenuous nonsense with respectful, good natured laughter. It seemed at once impressed and amused by the benevolent willingness of the kindly Kagame to honor the wishes of the people by agreeing to serve and “guide” them for eighteen more years. It wasn’t the hysterical kind of support that the Intore works to invoke at mass Kagame rallies in Rwanda. That wouldn’t suit Harvard. But it was all the dictator and his U.S. imperial sponsors, including the next U.S. President Hillary Clinton, could have hoped for and it all came with a distinct flavor of sober, bourgeois academic neutrality and pained, power-serving propriety. Sheldon Wolin would have been impressed.

Meanwhile, with the politically engaged U.S. populace kept focused on the interminable, corporate-managed U.S. presidential electoral extravaganza [1] – itself subject to (and part of) their “democratic” nation’s own “unelected dictatorship of money” – the killing in the DRC continues. So does the outward stream of wealth from that resource-rich/-cursed land continue, as does the flow of U.S. and Western dollars to the Orwellian Kagame regime.

I doubt many Boston area progressives within or beyond the academy were paying much attention to the ugly Kagame visit last late February. By that time all the left energy in the region and state would have been sucked up by the coming Democratic presidential primary, set for March 1st. Much goes under the radar screen when the quadrennial spectacle takes over.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).