- A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It
The journalist Stephen Kinzer has written a disappointing book about the man who rules Rwanda, President Paul Kagame. Kinzer presents Kagame as a model for other African leaders to emulate and Western ones to admire. Although not a contribution to Rwanda scholarly literature, A Thousand Hills will be widely read by Western audiences; from this partial portrait many will be willing to accept Kinzer’s unsubstantiated conclusion that Kagame is a leader who cares deeply about his people and their development.
The book appears on the surface to be a balanced account of the man who has brought peace and security to a once-troubled country. In fact, it is a naïve portrait of Kagame as a leader who, the author claims, “could inspire and even transform the wider world” (8). Kinzer’s account of Kagame’s life and the influences on his leadership style starts with the flight of Kagame’s family to neighboring Uganda during a “practice genocide” in 1959 (11). Kagame’s difficult upbringing in the refugee camps of southern [End Page 194] Uganda and his role in the 1980s civil war that brought his former friend Yoweri Museveni to power there are recounted to show the roots of Kagame’s indefatigable work ethic and commitment to self-reliance. Kinzer praises Kagame’s return to Rwanda in 1990 as the head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF—then a rebel group, now Rwanda’s ruling party) in a failed attempt to overthrow militarily the authoritarian regime of President Juvénal Habyarimana. Eventually, Kagame and his RPF successfully stopped the 1994 genocide, saving innumerable Tutsi lives.
Still, much is left out. For example, in detailing Kagame’s family’s exile at the time of Rwanda’s independence, Kinzer describes these events as solely a product of ethnic hatred; but he ignores the history of the kingdom, the politics of ethnicity under colonial rule, and the class-based nature of the violence at that time. In explaining why the RPF returned to Rwanda when it did, Kinzer ignores the fact that the Ugandan government encouraged the departure of the Rwandan refugees, Kagame among them, because they had become a political liability.
In this selective presentation, Kinzer relies almost exclusively on themes identified and elucidated by Kagame in their “more than thirty hours of interviews” (xi). We learn little of the man himself; instead, readers are treated to Kinzer’s uncritical interpretation of Kagame’s reflections on Rwandan history and its legacy of ethnic violence and authoritarian rule. Relying on Kagame’s perspective produces a one-sided account that ignores the careful analysis of the sizeable literature on Rwandan society—despite the inclusion of some important texts in his English-only bibliography, including Danielle de Lame’s A Hill among a Thousand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), René Lemarchand’s Rwanda and Burundi (Pall Mall, 1970), Catharine Newbury’s The Cohesion of Oppression (Columbia University Press, 1988 ), and Jan Vansina’s Antecedents to Modern Rwanda (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Instead, Kinzer encourages readers to accept the image of Kagame as a benevolent and thoughtful leader, quoting comments from foreign diplomats and aid workers—among them Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks. Indeed Kinzer seems star-struck by foreign dignitaries with no experience or expertise in the country, its history, or its social complexities.
Kinzer also offers a ruling-party perspective in speaking with Rwandans. Most of his interlocutors are appointed local government officials, who parrot Kagame’s language of state security and national reconciliation. By ascribing the views of urban political and economic elites to the Rwandan population at large, Kinzer mirrors the mistake of many outsiders when analyzing postgenocide Rwanda (an issue explored in Johan Pottier’s Re-imagining Rwanda [Cambridge University Press, 2002]). Yet any authoritarian élite presents itself as benevolent. In his commentary on Kagame’s authoritarian rule, Kinzer writes guilelessly that ordinary peasant Rwandans “have...