Movie hero mired in politics

“This good man saved (people) by holding off the enemy with his commanding presence, his shrewd manner of negotiating and incredible calm amid crisis and chaos,” President Bush said last November on presenting Rusesabagina with the nation’s highest civilian decoration, rarely bestowed on foreigners.

Inside Rwanda, however, the high-profile former hotel manager is seen as something else entirely: a political threat.

Over the past year, ousted leaders of Rwanda’s former genocide-era Hutu government have gradually persuaded Rusesabagina, the international face of Hutu tolerance, to lead their campaign to return to power. In public speeches around the world, the Rwandan celebrity has sounded increasingly like a candidate for president, criticizing the Tutsi-led government of President Paul Kagame as repressive and undemocratic.

Rusesabagina has lived in Brussels, Belgium, since the genocide and is reluctant to talk to journalists. But in a new autobiography, “An Ordinary Man,” he charges that “Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.”

Last October, he told students at the University of Michigan that “as long as people in Rwanda are intimidated, we can never talk about safety, or avoiding another genocide.”

Such talk exasperates Rwanda’s government, which accuses Rusesabagina of undermining efforts at national reconciliation for his own political gain.

“Cinema or film stars have no place on the list of national heroes,” Kagame said in a speech earlier this year, in which he dismissed “manufactured heroes.”

The film portrayal of Rusesabagina exaggerates his role in saving as many as a thousand people holed up at the Hotel des Milles Collines during the genocide, Kagame has said any suggestion the celebrity is a hero is “totally false.”

In Rwanda, still struggling to knit itself back together after an infamous 100-day ethnic murder spree that killed nearly 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, the political dispute gets to the heart of the toughest question facing the nation: How much political freedom can Rwanda safely allow?

“The balance between reconciliation and freedom of politics is a complicated one,” said Jean Paul Mugiraneza, principal researcher for the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace, a Kigali think tank focused on rebuilding Rwanda. “More and more, it’s becoming a problem,” he said.

Rwanda’s president, who ended the 1994 genocide by leading a Tutsi rebel army from Uganda, is widely acknowledged in the country as a virtual dictator, as well as a brilliant leader who has peacefully held together a nation once on the brink of collapse.

Just 12 years after the genocide, economic growth in Rwanda is holding steady at nearly 7 percent a year, streets are safe and clean, and children are in school. Kagame has won fans across ethnic lines with one of Africa’s most effective campaigns against corruption, an effort that has led him to fire several close friends and top government officials, including Sam Nkusi, the minister of infrastructure who was booted after allegedly asking for a kickback on an energy deal.

In the last presidential elections in 2003, Kagame won re-election with more than 90 percent of the vote, in balloting widely criticized as something less than free and fair.

Political opponents “can run but they can’t win. That wouldn’t be allowed,” charged Shyaka Kanuma, the editor of Focus, an independent weekly newspaper in Kigali. “This is a dictatorship for sure. But that’s good for the moment. You can’t have a Western-style democracy in a country where 80 percent of people vote on ethnic lines,” he said.

The problem, he added, “is the long-term implications. What happens when someone is used to power and we need real change?”

Rusesabagina and some Western governments believe that time has come. Kagame’s government has come under increasing pressure to allow more democratic freedoms, including more open campaigning by political opponents, who charge that the president’s tight rein on the country is provoking discontent that will eventually explode into more ethnic violence.

The government, in turn, also fearful of more killing and eager to hold onto power, has resisted any significant democratic opening, dismissing political opponents as divisionists bent on reopening ethnic wounds.

“Both sides are using the genocide as a tool of politics,” Mugiraneza said.

In Kigali, even those who survived the genocide in the Hotel des Milles Collines are split over whether Rusesabagina is a hero.

Sen. Odette Nyiramirimo says Rusesabagina, a longtime personal friend, sent soldiers to escort her and her family from their Kigali home to the hotel, and for that she will always thank him.

“He saved me,” she said. “He’s a good person.”

But the film exaggerates his role in protecting the hideaways at the hotel, she said, and she believes the flood of international awards “have gone to his head. He thinks, ‘I deserve all this,’ even if things didn’t happen as they were portrayed. He’s become a politician,” she said.

Rwanda has no shortage of genocide heroes. Jean-Marie Vianney Gisagara, the Hutu head of the town of Nyabisindu, refused to cooperate with the killer militias in 1994 and sent local police to stop them. For his trouble he was murdered with 11 members of his family, according to a display at the Kigali Genocide Museum.

Kagame himself led the army that ended the genocide when the international community dragged its feet.<BR>
Whether Rusesabagina deserves to be counted among them is now largely a matter of politics in Rwanda.

“Heroism comes in sacrificing, sometimes risking limb and life, for others,” wrote the New Times, a government-allied newspaper, in an editorial shortly after Rusesabagina received his award from President Bush. “Heroes are legion in Rwanda, and may not necessarily include one Paul Rusesabagina.” ‘ Tribune.

July 2006
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