Rwanda under the RPF: post-conference reflection

It has been interesting in the last week or so to see some of the reaction to the conference that Phil Clark and I convened at SOAS on October 4-5, Rwanda under the RPF: Assessing Twenty Years of Post-Conflict Governance.  We were quite pleased with the range of excellent papers that were presented (and very grateful for the support of the Centre of African Studies at SOAS and the Royal African Society in organising the event, as well as the Dept of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, where Phil is based).  Follow the preceding link for the final agenda to see who presented and on what themes.  Phil and I are now eagerly awaiting the full drafts from the authors, so that we can begin refining them with an eye towards the publication of a special issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies in early 2014.

In the meantime, it’s interesting to note that much of the post-conference discussion online has been trapped in the same polarised debate that the conference itself represented an effort to overcome/bypass.  As I noted in my opening remarks:

There is a tendency towards a polarised analytical landscape – in the academic and policy research communities.  At one side, analysis is driven from a “human rights” framework, which in some senses has gotten almost to the point of pre-judging governance and politics.  On the other side, many researchers are driven by “developmental” frameworks, which seek to evaluate the impact of the Rwandan government’s social and economic policies – either to support the policies or debunk them.  There appears to be very little space for discussion between these two trends. There also appears to be little recognition of a range of other approaches that explore the grey areas of Rwandan politics.  Nevertheless, while much of the analytical field is polarised, there is important work that tries to go beyond this to ask new questions and explore different issues.

The papers presented at the conference were drawn from this latter range of work, including from an emerging cohort of scholars bringing fresh perspectives and an approach more tolerant of ‘grey areas’.  In my view, this in itself was an important development — having such a diverse range of papers presented to an audience which itself included a range of academics, activists, practitioners and even a large delegation from the Rwandan government.

However, papers themselves have not generated as much attention as the atmospherics of the event.  I am not surprised by this, since academic papers are not necessarily easily absorbed on first presentation, which is fine — that’s what the special issue will be for.  However, the Q&A sessions tended (particularly on the first day of the event) towards posturing, from the established polarised camps mentioned above, and from pro- and anti-government voices.  Magnus Taylor has attempted to capture this in a post on African Arguments, which itself has emerged as a locus for continued polarised debate in the comments.

I noted today that Andrew Mwenda, a prominent figure in the East African social and print media scene and an adviser to President Kagame, had penned a column in reaction to the event.  (His column has prompted to write this blog post, as it happens.)  He presents an analysis of the factors he believes moved the RPF away from a political/ethnic patronage model towards a ‘results oriented’ meritocracy as a way to secure its legitimacy without relying on ethnic arithmetic that he believes is typical of East African politics (with reference to Kenya).  It’s an argument worth a read.

However, Mwenda (and to a lesser extent Taylor, as well) have missed the point of the conference — both in terms of its substance (the 20 academic papers that were presented) and in terms of import — by focusing on the Q&A, rather than the content.  Mwenda in particular appears to bypass the reality of the conference entirely, instead reporting that:

Critics and fans of President Paul Kagame battled each other over his legacy. Both sides agreed that the country has registered rapid state reconfiguration and economic reconstruction. For critics, however, the reasons that have made this possible were incidentally the reasons for their attacks.

This conference was emphatically NOT about Kagame or his legacy, nor was it a battleground (at least, not the event I attended).  I am looking forward to seeing the papers into publication in JEAS, and only wish academic research and publication did not take so long to do properly, as it will be quite exciting if we can move the discussion and understanding of Rwanda well beyond its current polarised state.


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