'God Sleeps In Rwanda'

Host Michel Martin talks to former speaker of the Rwandan Parliament Joseph Sebarenzi about his new book 'God Sleeps In Rwanda.' Sebarenzi calls Rwanda's current government into question, alleging corruption, human rights violations and efforts to quell political dissent. Sebarenzi, a Tutsi who lost most of his family in the 1994 genocide, says Rwandan President Paul Kagame has attempted to quell political dissent and freedom of the press in the East African nation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, to another very different conversation about ethnicity and difference in Rwanda. It's been more than a decade since the 1994 massacres that shocked the world. Rwanda is now seen as a beacon of hope on the African continent. It ranks among the world leaders in the number of women serving in elected office. It's seen as making serious efforts toward ethnic reconciliation and recently, it's been accepted into the Commonwealth Group of Nations, a network of more than 50 countries with British colonial ties. Although Rwanda has no such ties, the move was seen as a step toward integrating economically with the West and politically with its east African neighbors.

But Rwanda's application to the group is putting its human rights record under the microscope once again, especially the conduct of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He is accused of quashing political opposition to his government and stifling freedom of the press. One of his staunchest critics is Joseph Sebarenzi. Sebarenzi, a Tutsi, lost almost his entire extended family in the 1994 genocide. He and his immediate family were living in exile at the time, but he went back home to be part of the rebuilding effort. He was elected to parliament and then became speaker from 1997 to 2000. He led the way toward transforming the Rwandan Parliament into an independent legislative body. But shortly afterward, he says he was ousted by a smear campaign coordinated by Kagame and fled the country in fear of being assassinated.

Joseph Sebarenzi has articulated these claims in his new book, "God Sleeps In Rwanda." And he joins us now in our studio in Washington, D.C. Welcome, thank you for coming.

Mr. JOSEPH SEBARENZI (Author, "God Sleeps in Rwanda"): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, you tell us that you once admired Kagame, your relationship with him started out well. What did you admire about him?

Mr. SEBARENZI: Because he fought injustice in Rwanda. Like many Rwandans, he grew up in exile and he was prevented from coming home. And he eventually said it so - to drain the - he was one of the founders of the - this rebellion. I mean, he was seen as a progressive leader. His speeches were very good. And so, we had a lot of hope. And initially, he was - though he was not president, he had really power. He was kind of the power behind the throne, and we thought maybe everything that was being done, human rights violations, corruptions, we thought he was not involved. But with time, of course, we discovered that he was, basically.

MARTIN: How did you figure it out? And one of the things that I was struck by was the fact that you started out serving, as so many people do, with so much hope and that one of your missions, if you will, was to try to institute best practices into the parliament, into the legislative practices there putting in what we in this country would call a system of checks and balances.

Mr. SEBARENZI: Yes.

MARTIN: So when did you start to realize that Kagame was not who you thought he was?

Mr. SEBARENZI: It was in 1997, after I became speaker of parliament and when I did my best to have this bill, to have oversight over the executive branch of government, and I tried to meet with Kagame to convince him because I knew he was the most powerful man in the country, and he refused to meet with me.

MARTIN: But it's not unusual in other systems of government for an executive not to wish to have certain powers curtailed. It's not considered wrong. How did it become - literally it became a matter of life and death.

Mr. SEBARENZI: When I met him for the last time in office and he said you need to resign. I said why should I resign? He said if you don't resign, I will take action against you.

You know, Rwanda is a small country. I was at a high level. I had friends, relatives, people I lived with in the Congo, in Burundi, genocide survivors who were in Rwanda, and there are (unintelligible) from abroad, so some of those people sent me messages that I should be careful. And if I could leave the country, it would be better because otherwise, I would die.

MARTIN: How is it that Mr. Kagame is seen so differently in this part of the world? I mean, he is seen in this part of the world as a person who may rule with a firm hand, as it were, but is very interested at least in bridging these historical hatreds that have torn the country apart, as a person who has put a lot of women, for example, in positions of authority, encouraged the appointment of a lot of women in office and has worked to bridge this Hutu-Tutsi divide that we see is at the root of the '94 genocide, in fact in genocides prior to that. So why do you think it is, if it's viewed so differently?

Mr. SEBARENZI: Outsiders cannot see what is under the surface. They cannot talk to ordinary people and be told what is going on in the country. I think Kagame deserves some credit for what he has done, of course, in terms of women in parliament, in terms of everything you have mentioned. He deserves credit for that. But we need to restore the confidence between the Hutu and Tutsi. We need not just do easy things like having women in parliament. That is just a decision the president can make.

MARTIN: For example, changing the national language from French to English, which he decided to do unilaterally last year.

Mr. SEBARENZI: But it's difficult to build institutions like a strong parliament, like an economy, when you're going - in rural area, people are very poor. They live under one dollar a day - and also to be able to find a formula that helps the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority to share power, live in a peaceful way.

MARTIN: What is Paul Kagame, by the way? What his ethnic background?

Mr. SEBARENZI: He's Tutsi.

MARTIN: He's Tutsi. So he shares your ethnic background. So his suppression of individuals is not based on ethnicity.

Mr. SEBARENZI: No.

MARTIN: It's based on perceived threats to his power.

Mr. SEBARENZI: Yeah, if he perceives you as a threat to his power, regardless who you are, you are in danger. And that's why you can see in this country alone, you can find high-ranking officials in the military who are Tutsi and who are refugees here.

MARTIN: Who are refugees in the United States, who are living in exile. Can I ask you, in fact, our conversation has a very - how can I put it - sort of formal tone to it, but your story is quite harrowing.

It is true, as we said at the beginning, that your immediate family, your wife, your children, escaped the genocide in '94 because you were living in Burundi at the time.

Mr. SEBARENZI: Mm-hmm.

MARRTIN: But your extended family did not. In fact, there's a picture in the book of all the people who were at your wedding, most of whom are no longer with us. And I want to ask about the conditions that led to that in '94. Are they still present? Or do you think those kinds of hatreds, tensions, resentments, could result in violence again?

Mr. SEBARENZI: You know, when you read this book, really because I go back, and the first president of the independence, and before the war started in 1990, Rwanda was as it is today in terms of stability, order in the country, good roads, good schools, but the war started because those structural issues like how power is shared between Hutu and Tutsi, how democracy is in a country because at that time, the president was so powerful, the parliament was a rubber stamp, or the judiciary was week, which you have today.

MARTIN: To that point, though, I think - I have not spoken with him - but it's my understanding that Mr. Kagame is of the view that if democracy were really to be implemented that the ethnic tensions that are there would just resurface in a different form that, it's my understanding that his argument is that he needs a firm hand in order to keep a damper on the kinds of tensions that led to the genocide and which have not yet expired. Is that your understanding of what he thinks?

Mr. SEBARENZI: And 15 years after the genocide, I think it's enough time to start allowing some freedoms, to start allowing a system to be strong, discussing how democracy should be framed in Rwanda, how do you build a system? How do you build a political system that accommodates the needs and fears of each of those?

MARTIN: Finally, can I ask you on a personal level: Having lost so many members of your family, how have you come to a place of peace about this?

Mr. SEBARENZI: You know, I think it's two answers. One is I would say it's a blessing. It's a blessing because it's very hard to lose so many people and still be able to have a positive attitude, to reach reconciliation and forgiveness. So it's a blessing.

But in another thing, another reason is, of course, efforts. It's an effort to think and say what has happened has happened. You cannot change it. We have lost so many people. You cannot bring them back, but there is something you can do to work for peace, for reconciliation, so that the children, the grandchildren, can live in peace.

And also, you can see how having the hatred in your hearts, anger, animosity, it's very corrosive to your health. But when you embrace forgiveness, you embrace compassion, you speak good words, you are healing yourself.

MARTIN: Joseph Sebarenzi is the former speaker of the Rwandan parliament. He served from 1997 to 2000. His latest book is "God Sleeps in Rwanda," and he's kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio, and we thank him.

Coming up, the music of Bollywood superstar Kailash Kher. I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us.

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