The President’s New Clothes

or….“7 Ways to Annoy Your Dictator”

Gitarama Election Rally for Paul Kagame, Late July, 2010

THE BRIGHT SIDE of being an addict was that it forced me to develop the tenacity of a pit-bull.

I’m talking about the kind of dogged persistence that can wear down teams of combatants. Once I latched onto something, I wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t let go. It’s like I was born without the normal human “surrender” circuits in my brain.

But trying to be a reporter in Rwanda was beginning to put even my addict’s resolve to the test. I had become disillusioned with the Focus Newspaper and with Shyaka Kanuma, the paper’s editor. The media scene in Kigali seemed more and more like a cruel joke.

It was almost like someone in a government office across town knew about the call I’d just gotten from London — but that couldn’t be right….Right?

With the election fast approaching, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

When I asked about the possibility of interviewing the President on my own or at least asking him a question, Shyaka smirked and said it would never happen. He added that the Presidential press briefings were already covered by the paper’s Editor in Chief –namely himself.

Paul Kagame

“How can I ask Kagame a question?” I asked.

“You could send him a tweet and hope he responds” Shyaka quipped referring to the popular microblogging service, Twitter, which Rwandan government officials had taken to with a certain amount of gusto. “Otherwise you’d have to be with the foreign press.”

Shyaka went on to explain how the big international news outlets used freelance reporters on the ground called stringers.

“You become a stringer for a foreign publication. Then you have to get invited to the press briefings where you can ask your question.”

He said the word question with a lilt, as though he were talking to a child about an improbable fantasy. It was clear Shyaka didn’t think I could get work with a real international news outlet and I wasn’t sure I disagreed. While CNN had asked me for help once, that was a far cry from entrusting me — a crack-head out of Hartford — with understanding and then explaining events on the ground in Africa.

The accreditation requirements for international reporters listed on the Rwanda Media High Council website managed to be both vague and cumbersome. They wanted a letter on company letterhead from the media outlet’s editor or publisher. They also wanted a company press badge with the name of a publication along with the name and photo of the journalist seeking accreditation. These two items alone would thwart some independent journalists. But the site said nothing about what did or did not qualify as a publication.

Rwandan bureaucracy was no match for the tenacity of an addict, the audacity of dope, as it were.

I had been following several blogs about the country and the region. I thought to myself: If I started a blog, wouldn’t that be a publication? And then couldn’t I be a reporter for that publication?

I went to a free public blogging site and started my own rag. I called it the “USA-Rwanda Media Project”. I named my primary benefactor, my Uncle Bob, as the Publisher. I put my mom as the Editor and myself as a Senior Correspondent. I had a headshot taken at a Kigali portrait shop and with the help of a friend with a printer and laminator, I soon had an official looking credential from the USA-Rwanda Media Project.

The blog would serve as a clearinghouse for all of my writing on Rwanda as well as a place for me to vent. It would also serve to legitimize me as a Foreign Correspondent.

Homemade Press Card circa 2010

I presented my “credentials” to the Media High Council and paid the fifty-dollar license fee. A few days later I had an official foreign press card from the Government of Rwanda. I was an accredited member of the foreign press. The Rwandan bureaucracy was no match for the tenacity of a crackhead, the audacity of dope as it were.

The press badge would allow me into some official functions but it wouldn’t get me invited to tea with the Kagames. For that, I would need more. I went to the Office of the President, a place I had only visited once before, on that first night in the country. (After an unfortunate encounter with a sex-worker and her chicken described in Chapter 3, I was nearly caught while trying to relieve myself in the bushes — the ones that, unbeknownst to me at the time, happened to surround the compound of the President’s office.)

I hand-delivered a letter to one of Kagame’s clerks introducing our “project”. (In what is now an obvious act of fudging, I used plural pronouns whenever feasible.) A couple of days later I delivered another letter asking to cover the election.

I imagined the CNN switchboards lighting up with calls from angry viewers complaining in various accents…That’s not a journalist reporting out of Rwanda…that’s a drug addict out of Hartford!

More than a week went by with no reply. I began to think my plan wouldn’t work. Then my phone rang. It was a number from London. CNN was calling again. This time they wanted to book me to do a live broadcast from Kigali on Election Day still about three weeks away.

It was like someone in a government office across town knew CNN had just called me from London…but that couldn’t be right. Right?

“Steve, we hope you haven’t already committed to someone else,” The International anchor said. “We would just need about a half hour of your time.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Really? CNN wants me to do a live report for the worldwide audience and they’re concerned my dance card might already be full?

I pushed down a wave of fear and doubt rising from my gut. I began to imagine the CNN switchboards lighting up with calls from viewers complaining in their various accents: That’s no journalist reporting out of Rwanda…that’s a drug addict out of Hartford! And then it would only be a matter of time before the guys in matching khakis with the bulges under their jackets would be pounding on my gate and shouting: We know about your fake press badge Terrill! We know you’re fake!

“Um, yeah, uh, sure…” I mumbled over the phone. “I think I’m free that day.”

“Brilliant! That’s great news Steve. Our producer will be in touch in the days before to set up the technical stuff. Cheers mate.”

“Uh, sure man, cheers.”

I hung up the phone and tried to figure out what had just happened. I was still in a daze an hour later when my laptop chimed. I had a new email. It was from the President’s Office. I had been cordially invited to attend a campaign speech the President would give. I wondered why they decided to respond on the same morning that CNN called me. It was almost like they had heard my phone call from London and knew what I knew. But how could that be?

Once I latched onto something,
I wouldn’t,
or couldn’t,
let it go.

Under hot July sun, clouds of dust spiraled after the packed mini-bus speeding up, down and around the mountainside. The van creaked as it swayed from side to side. My young assistant and translator, Kayitesi, and I rocked back and forth into each other as the driver twisted and turned the van around the endless slopes. The election was less than two weeks away and I was finally going to see Kagame up close. We kept spotting the small town that was our destination and then rounding another curve and it would disappear.

It’s said that in Rwanda, The Land of a Thousand Hills, you’ll see your destination several times before you get there. This is due to the hilly terrain that forces the route to almost everywhere to be circular. Some Rwandans joke that this circuitous topography is what leads Rwandans to be so indirect in almost everything else they do.

I was starting to feel a little queasy from the turns when at last we reached the center of a small town.

Gitarama had gone almost unchanged since 1994. Having seen scores of genocide era photographs from the place, it was easy to overlay those photos and imagine the carnage that occurred here 16 years earlier. I swore if I listened close enough, I could still hear the cries of terror. The place was made all the more creepy by the fact that, aside from a few kids, it was empty, like a ghost town. I half expected to see a tumbleweed roll down the dirt covered road.

I asked Kayitesi where we could get some water. She motioned to an old woman who stood half hiding near the corner of a row of shops. The shops were all closed and the woman was just standing, sort of taking in the scene. Kayitesi called to her, exchanging some words in Kinyarwanda before the lady motioned us to follow her around to the back of the shops.

Once out of site, the old woman produced two warm but fresh bottles of drinking water. As I paid for the water, Kayitesi made a vigilant glance around us. I got the feeling we were doing something wrong.

“What — ” I said. “Is something wrong?”

“It is illegal for her to sell us this water,” Kayitesi said. “All of the shops are supposed to be closed.”

“Illegal?” I laughed. “What could be wrong with selling some drinking water?”

“The President is coming,” Kayitesi replied. “When the President comes, you’re not supposed to do anything but go and show support. Otherwise, you are an enemy.”

At the time, it struck me as inconvenient, but nothing more, that the shops were closed. And I figured lots of things in the developing world are inconvenient. Later I would come to realize the obvious: forcing shops and other businesses to close and restricting movement during a visit from a campaigning president compelled people to attend his rallies. With the streets and fields empty, it was easy to spot anyone who dared to resist attending. Everyone was expected to be at the rally. This had a stifling effect on any would-be opposition or even a sober discussion about alternatives to Kagame and his party.

The town center was empty. The only people we could find were the ones moving in lines along the main road towards the regional stadium. Some were in colorful traditional clothes and a few in casual business attire. Most wore the garb of abject poverty: dirt covered shorts and threadbare t-shirts, the secondhand kind promoting forgotten US advertising slogans and sent to Africa by the ton. Many wore rubber sandals and many had no shoes at all. But they all walked, or drifted rather, in the same direction.

When the President comes, you’re not supposed to do anything but go and show support…otherwise you are an enemy.

Kayitesi and I followed the people up the main road and to the sprawling regional stadium. The closer we got the louder roar became and the more people we saw. The sound was deafening. When we reached the stadium it was awash with people. The mood was like that of a packed European soccer match. Feet stomped and hands clapped as competing groups erupted into song and chants.

The President’s Press Secretary, Yolande Makolo, met me at the gate. When I tried to greet her in Kinyarwanda, she looked confused and replied in English with a Ugandan-British accent.

“Hmm? Oh that, you probably know more of the local language than I do,” she said smiling as she looked down at her BlackBerry.

Yolande motioned to a plainclothes security agent and then directed me to the press area. I noticed the security guys were not unlike the plainclothes men that tackled me at the police headquarters when I asked about Ingabire. They wore the same crisp khakis and windbreakers concealing the telltale bulges of semi-automatic side arms.

A trio of Rwandan hip-hop stars sang popular songs and danced, getting the crowd warmed up. I singer I’d come to like, Kitoko, performed his big tri-lingual hit, “You”, and even I was surprised when I began to sing along.

I caught a few stares being one of only two or three white guys in a crowd of about 50,000 souls. But jaws dropped wider when the mix of English, French and Kinyarwanda flowed from my lips.

Je t’aime you…
Uri mwiza you…
Ntawe usa nawe you, uuu.
I love you (yeyeye)
Je t’aime you (je t’aime you) Uri mwiza yoooo…

The stadium was full. A special section with chairs and a roof protected VIPs from the harsh sun and intermittent downpours. What had been a soccer field was now a dirt patch packed with people. On the hill around the stadium stood throngs of people. Every available spot was filled with peasants standing shoulder to shoulder. All of these people had walked from the surrounding villages.

It was announced over loudspeakers that the President would arrive soon and the entire stadium, already surrounded by soldiers and police, was locked down. By this, I mean that, once the President was on approach, no one was allowed to leave. I couldn’t even go to try to find more water. All 50,000 of us would just have to wait until he arrived and then left, literally a captive audience.

The President showed up in a gleaming Mercedes 500 SL and surrounded by an entourage of security. When the shiny black car came to a stop I was surprised to see Kagame himself emerge from the driver’s seat. But the common-man routine of forgoing a driver was overshadowed by the car itself. I estimated that this vehicle costing nearly $200,000 US dollars in Rwanda and while it was driven by a man famous for his austerity, the car could have been exchanged for enough mosquito nets to cover every kid in the province.

Kagame walked into the stadium greeted by cheers. He spoke and then danced to music on stage with some locals and party leaders. Many of the crowd danced and cheered along with Kagame. And many just stared.

The vehicle costing nearly $200,000 US dollars in Rwanda — one of the poorest places in the world— was driven by a man somehow renowned for his austerity. That one car, I reckoned, could have been exchanged for enough mosquito nets to cover every kid in the province.

Kayitesi wasn’t allowed into the press area proper but, being Kayitesi, she managed to find her way through the horde of bodies to the rope that marked the restricted area and was able to enjoy the show.

The jovial mood of the rally was in stark contrast to the general mood of the country. Sporadic but unrelenting grenade blasts had plagued both the countryside and the city centers.

Opposition parties and politicians, as well as journalists, were under constant pressure. Yet it was hard not to feel jubilant with the catchy beat of the Kinyarwanda hip-hop and the cheers of the crowds that seemed to affirm in unison each of Kagame’s rehearsed pronouncements.

If one or two Rwandan mountain gorillas had been injured by authorities, the incident would have been a major story, but this was just Rwandan people so no one was interested.

A few days before the election, I visited another rally in Kigali at the Amahoro (Peace) National Stadium. The captive nature of the audience was even more apparent there. The President had arrived about an hour after he was scheduled to speak. After his speech and some dancing, he disappeared into a back room to meet with visitors and supporters. This went on for another hour. After more than three hours penned in, the crowds became restless. I watched and filmed as hundreds of attendees were beaten back by police as they tried to leave the stadium before Kagame.

As I filmed the mayhem, two plainclothes police officers approached me. They said I could not film and asked for my camera. I laughed and walked away, trying to get lost in the crowd. They didn’t follow.

I thought I had bombshell footage of Rwandan police abusing citizens but in the end, no news outlet was interested. I would learn later that if it had been even one or two Rwandan mountain gorillas injured by Rwandan authorities, the video would have been picked up in an instant. But because it was just Rwandan people, no one seemed to care.