If you didn’t have good leadership, you wouldn’t have a country - Nigerian journalist tells Rwandans

By Wycliffe Nyamasege
On 26 May 2024 at 03:07

Nigerian award-winning journalist Dele Olojede has become a prominent figure in Rwanda over the past two decades due to his impactful reporting on the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The 63-year-old was the first African-born journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. He won American journalism’s highest honour for a series of articles that he wrote for Newsday in 2004 about the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

He was feted for offering a fresh yet haunting perspective on Rwanda, a decade after a series of crimes, including rape and slaughter, were perpetrated against the Tutsi by members of the Interahamwe group.

Olojede’s works featured not only the survivors but also the perpetrators of the Genocide against the Tutsi, whom he had an opportunity to interview in prison.

He highlighted how the genocide in Rwanda was fueled by decades of hate speech targeting the Tutsi by the then-Hutu-led regime. The articles published in Newsday delved into the efforts of the Rwandan population to rebuild the broken bonds that once held the communities together and to restore trust between neighbours in a long journey to recovery.

The scribe has returned to Rwanda several times since. He was among the delegates who attended the 30th commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi held in Kigali on April 7, 2024.

IGIHE’s Jean Claude Mugenzi caught up with him and had an interview with him where he narrated his love for Rwanda, his experience covering the aftermath of the Genocide against the Tutsi, Gacaca Court system, Rwanda’s journey to recovery and the conflict in the Eastern DRC, among other interesting topics.

Here is a transcribe of the interview:

Introduce yourself very briefly there’s probably one side of you that most people don’t know.

I don’t know that there is much there to learn, other than that my life has been mostly defined by my work as a journalist, writer, publisher, and editor. But of the professional path, I guess you could call me an aspiring golfer who never managed to actually become excellent at it but keeps working at it. I guess nobody is perfect, right? So I spent some of my time in Stush, the lovely African town in South Africa, and I love coming to Rwanda for obvious reasons, but most importantly just to remind myself of the capacity of human beings to dig themselves out of, a really deep hole and try to make a new future.

How did you come to fall in love with Rwanda? You’re an international journalist, you’ve covered the whole world. How did this love story begin even when most major news organizations didn’t care about Rwanda which was in the deepest of its darkest days?

Well, so I think it’s the darkness that created the relationship, if we could call it that, at least my fascination with Rwanda. Because we should all be so lucky that we go through our entire lives, as most human beings do, and never see face-to-face the level of horror that the people here faced in 1994. I became fascinated with the idea of trying to understand first, how a thing like that happens, but most importantly, what does it take for people to try to put that behind them and forge a path to a different, brighter future from the carnage and the ruins from which they emerged in 1994.

When you wrote the legacy of hate as part of your investigative journalism reporting, what did you learn back then as you were canvasing the country talking to the people and you’ve listened to many testimonies about this hate what struck you the most?

The stories you’re talking about were from 20 years ago, 10 years after the genocide. I thought it was useful to come back at that time because it was a useful hook from which to try and gain perspective about what happened here 10 years earlier. Because in the middle of it happening, you’re just going day to day, you know, reporting what you see and so on, but you don’t have perspective. It’s only time that can give you perspective, and I figured that 10 years after the genocide was about a good time to start gaining a deeper understanding of what happened and where this might all lead.

So one of the things I tried to do then was to kind of stay on ground level, really to use stories of individuals to understand the larger story of the society. For example, I went to some of the prisons; a lot of these genociders were still in prison, about 90,000 of them at the time before they freed them and sent them home to the Gacaca courts and resettled them in their villages.

So I went into a lot of these prisons. I wanted to understand what makes somebody kill their spouse or kill their neighbour down the street, or a teacher gives up their pupil, or a priest give up their parishioner, what leads people to do that?

So I didn’t want to write simply from the point of view of the victim only because we need to understand what leads people to do these things. I was fascinated by that subject, and there was a person I met in prison who was there because he had been accused of killing his wife who was Tutsi. I sat with him for most of the afternoon in the prison courtyard. He was wearing this, you know, hot pink, flamingo pink prison uniform, and I sat with him there; we talked for hours, and I kept asking him what makes a man kill his wife.

He was silent for a bit, and he thought about it. He’s shockingly thoughtful person despite the constrained circumstances in which we were, and he says to me that he’d had a lot of time to think about it himself and that what he realized was that the Interahamwe, they came every day, morning to night, telling people to join them, kill the neighbours, kill the spouses, kill the children. He said he resisted for two weeks, and they kept threatening him that they were going to cut his Achilles and so on, basically that he was betraying the Hutu power cause. And then he said finally he lost his courage, and he killed his wife.

I let that sink in a bit, and then I asked him, I said, so what happened subsequently once you’ve killed your wife? He said he became free to kill many people; and that once you take the first step, the subsequent steps are very easy. It is your resistance to kill that lasts only as long as your first victim. Once you’ve killed one person, you no longer care, and you have no more restraint about killing others. So he said he then went into a frenzy of killing after that.

So you can see the journey of this guy, and I had no reason to believe that he was telling a lie because he was indicting himself, right? You could see the journey where a man’s moral foundations are a little shaky but held for the first day, second day, and 14th day until it crumbles, and the moment he kills his own wife, all morality is gone. So killing other people was now like nothing; it was like, you know, shooting, killing goats or something like that. It became so that I began to see how people behave in extremist situations, right? And we should all be very humble because we don’t know how we will behave in certain extreme circumstances. There but for the grace of God goes I, right? I don’t think people should pay for their sins, but I can’t help but ask myself the question if I am put in that position, will I be a good man or will I commit these horrific acts? The truth is I don’t know because I’ve never been tested in that way.

What are your thoughts about the Gacaca Court system as a non-Rwandan who has been in the West and knows how other processes work?

So it’s a very admirable direction to take for the country, but I will argue that Rwanda had no choice because you were facing the aftermath of a perfect crime in which a majority of the population participated either directly or as accessories, giving people up, telling where they were hiding, and so on. And Rwanda has capital punishment for murder. Are you going to murder, you know, the majority of your population? Clearly, that was not a practical or even a moral option. Therefore, you have to devise something else that allowed you to get a measure of justice, even though justice is really impossible when the crime is of that scale; there is no way you can have justice.

But you can have some kind of symbolic, justice, some attempt to get people to acknowledge what they did but then to try and forge together a way to move into the future because people have to live, kids have to be educated and fed, right? Security has to be guaranteed. Farmers have to be able to till their land, right? To be able to do all of those things, you just say to yourself, since justice is not possible, we can get some sort of symbolic justice, which I thought the Gacaca idea was ingenious because you went into something your culture and people recognize that because it came from their culture.

So instead of going the Western judicial tradition way of saying you have killed a man, therefore, you are sentenced to die, he said, why don’t we get the old village together, out in the open, and let the perpetrator and the survivor state their case? And that’s sort of overall recognition in public amongst one’s neighbours of what one had done, plus some recompense, helping somebody rebuild their home or something, allowed the possibility of building a future together without more blood bath.

So I would argue that it was the wisest way to proceed, and if you were being wise as a leader, you have no choice but to go in that direction because the other option is too terrifying to contemplate and too bloody. And as Archbishop Tutu used to say, "an eye for an eye makes everybody blind," right? So you have to figure out a moral compromise. It’s unsatisfying, but it’s the only option available to you that makes sense.

What do you make of what’s happening in the eastern DRC with hate speech? Are we likely to see another genocide of that magnitude in the Eastern Congo?

No, I don’t know that I can predict that we will see a genocide in eastern Congo, but one can reasonably assume from human history that there will be another genocide somewhere in the world. It may not be here, hopefully, it’s not here, but human beings being what they are, go around in circles. We have stretches of time where the better angels of our nature are in ascendancy, but they never stay there it seems, from our history, from the history of the species, and we revert to barbarism and all sorts of other things. Now, if you look at around 1990, we all, in the euphoria of the moment, thought the world had changed for good. Fukuyama [Francis Fukuyama] was writing about the end of History, the Berlin Wall had fallen, apartheid was collapsing, Mandela walked out of prison in that extraordinary, dynamic, unforgettable moment where if you were an adult at that time, you knew where you were when he walked out of prison because it was such a dawn of something special in the history of the species. Communism had collapsed, freedom was on the rise, apartheid is over, and then of course, history does not end.

The past is not even past, as somebody said, and so the "never again" of the Holocaust was not so "never again," and the Holocaust was preceded by the genocide against the Armenians, which is still being denied from being fully recognized in parts of the world today. Sadly, Turkey is very resistant to any admission that there had been a genocide against the Armenians, which there was. So, history does not always repeat itself, and you know, to pile my cliche upon cliche this morning, but it does rhyme, so I am not confident that we will never have another genocide, but I can’t say that it will happen next door in the Congo. I certainly hope not, and I hope it doesn’t happen to any people at all because it’s one of the worst crimes that can be perpetuated. But men being as they are, I would not be entirely shocked if there is another major genocide in our lifetime. I hope not.

There have been genocides in other parts of the world as well. I don’t know of any other place where a country recovered in just one generation. What surprises you the most or how do you explain how Rwanda came to where it is today just a mere 30 years after the genocide against the Tutsi?

First, let me just say that I disagree with you that Rwanda recovered in the generation. Rwanda has not recovered; Rwanda may not recover for another three generations. What Rwanda has done is that it has moved fast, faster than most, to rise out of this horrific bloodbath that basically destroyed the country and try to build something at a rapid pace and try to build a new kind of citizen. Because that’s where rebuilding starts. It’s not that you’ve built some fancy convention center or that your roads are clean; it is the human being, the citizen of Rwanda, that is being rebuilt in my view over the last 30 years. And one of the most obvious ways that you are doing that, that may be more successful than most, is the rapid entrusting of young people to enormous responsibilities in this new Rwanda.

I mean, young people are doing the most extraordinary things here, have serious responsibilities and seem to me to be very, very bright, very committed. Everywhere I go in this country, I see all of the young people here almost uniformly, like the level of commitment is through the roof. You meet a young 19, 20-year-old police officer at his post in the street, and the way he conducts himself or herself, the way he treats you, it’s like, while enforcing the rules, but highly disciplined, very cautious, professional. And if it’s somebody in the bureaucracy, somebody you meet at the airport, somebody you meet in a restaurant, just the extraordinary transformation of young lives in Rwanda, to me, is the biggest achievement of your leadership.

The second pointer about rebuilding the citizen, to me, is to try and throw away all the old assumptions about men always being in something or the other and just go like the other way, and now you have a country number one on earth for female participation in all strata of society, from the leadership on down. No other society has been able to manage this ever. Not even the Communists were able to do it, right? Russia was like, or the Soviet Union was the pinnacle of communist rights, and look at all their leadership, it’s all these old men, so even Communists cannot equalize the genders, but Rwanda is showing extraordinary capacity to throw away all the old assumptions about the role of men and women in society and turn it on its head. And it’s not just symbolic, say you have the speaker as a woman or whatever, it’s like every level of society. I think that’s an extraordinary transformation because it seems that Rwanda is a country that is trying to use all its assets in order to build a new future.

This is going to have long-lasting impact on this country, on the quality of its leadership, and on the quality of its citizen. So you may see that, you know, you have reliable power and it’s a secure country. Kigali is probably Africa’s safest city and cleanest without question, but those are all the results of changing the way the individual citizen sees herself or sees himself. And I think that’s a big achievement.

How much does the country owe to its visionary leadership in all these transformation?

This is true for everything else, right? Whether it’s a small organization, a big corporation, a society, or a multilateral institution. Leadership, enlightened capable leadership, is essential to the success of any venture, and sometimes it’s just a matter of dumb luck that you get the good leader. Where we know from experience that elections do not necessarily produce good leaders, in fact, often produce the opposite. We know that authoritarianism is even worse. In fact, it’s a worse option than elections leading to poor leadership.

At least you have a chance to try again. But in the case of Rwanda, you just got lucky with your leadership. So, the question is, how do you ensure that you continue to get lucky? Because without the leadership you have now, I doubt that you would have had any country at all. This country had been left for dead, and to do a kind of a Lazarus option over the last 30 years is extraordinary. So in that way, you got lucky. You deserve the luck, but it was luck nonetheless. He could have been another leader.

The original leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) was shot within the first day of crossing the border. Now the current president was not even on the continent; he was in America, in an army base, going through officer training, right? So if Fred [Fred Rwigyema ] had not been shot 24 hours after crossing the border, just a freak bullet that happened to hit him, then there’s no Paul Kagame, the leader. Who knows what the outcome of that would have been?

So you must be very humble about how things happen. Sometimes it’s not up to us; sometimes it’s a series of events that conspire to lead to a good outcome. Of course, we must still put in our effort, but if Fred hadn’t been shot within the first 24 hours, you wouldn’t have Paul Kagame as a leader. If Kagame had been sick and they had not been able to reach him to bring him back, then somebody else in the field would have taken over. And depending on their character and ambition and luck, they may have taken the country in a completely different direction of vengeance and mass killings, and so on. And then you wouldn’t have the Rwanda that you have today.

You wrote another piece that you called a deadly divide. You know it also has to do with these arbitrary borders in Africa well there are different people that were torn apart across the continent with these borders that were drawn in Berlin but only in the Great Lakes region and in our neighborhood do those consequences reach catastrophic proportions like a genocide here like what’s happening in the Congo. Why does it tend to be so pronounced in this region?

I don’t have an answer for you, to be honest. I think there were probably other extenuating circumstances that led to what seems to you to be a heightened state of perhaps violent disorder that had erupted over time. It’s just an accident of history, not because the people are particularly prone to behaving that way. If the Belgians had not introduced the ethnic ID card in 1925, maybe you wouldn’t have this, right? So, a series of things happened in history that then led to unintended consequences. I mean, I have no praise for the Belgians, and they’re not particularly nice colonial authorities compared to other colonial powers, but nevertheless, I don’t think they designed something to say, "Let’s create this Hutus versus Tutsi in the ID card so that they can have a genocide in the future."

This was an unintended consequence of a thoughtless action by foreigners who did not understand the culture and its capacity for social integration and the ability for people to go from one to the other. They didn’t understand; they acted out of ignorance, and then they sealed people’s so-called ethnic identities in place for good. Whereas it’s not even technically an ethnic identity; it was almost like a class identity than ethnic because in the old days, people used to fall into one or drop out of the other. So, same language, same rituals, same names, same everything—that’s happenstance, and people don’t understand that a lot of what happens in our lives is not in our control at all. Somebody makes a decision like that, and 50 years later, there are dire consequences for what they’ve done, right? So, I don’t think the people here are specifically different from all other Africans or from all other human beings; it’s just that the accidents of history sometimes conspire against people.

Now, America gave us the modern experiment of participatory democracy, right? But imagine if George Washington, there was nobody to stop him, someone wanted him to go on, right? And he resisted and he said he’s leaving. That then created a culture later solidified of time limits in America. So then, that had consequences and repercussions down the road. So, a lot of these things happen that conspire to lead to unintended consequences, and I think that will be the best explanation I can give for what has happened here.