On Saturday, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda engaged in an off the cuff debate with British journalist Ian Birrell on Twitter regarding the right of non-Rwandans to judge Rwanda and the ongoing argument over the human rights situation in the country. Yes, you read that correctly: a sitting head of state took to Twitter to argue points he disagreed on with a journalist. Better yet, Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo, joined in later in the debate.
Kagame and Mushikiwabo’s presence on Twitter is part of a government initiative encouraging social media among officials. Some such as the Rwandan blog Kigaliwire question the usefulness of the iniative given the low levels of internet penetration within Rwanda. Nonetheless, there they are. Kagame frequently takes on critics on Twitter but I have yet to see one that appeared so aggressive on both sides.
There is a lot that can be said about this encounter (aside from Kagame’s apparent love for exclamation marks) as the comments over at the blog A View From The Cave demonstrates. I am of the mind that decent points were raised by both sides, but the Twitter and online reaction demonstrates how polarized Rwanda remains between the view inside and outside Rwanda. When I started studying Rwanda I was struck by the lack of nuance in favor of absolutes; ten years later I have yet to see that change with this being the latest example of that dichotomy. It also stands out as an unusual situation where a head of state is willing to discuss such matters directly with the public and not through a staff member handling their Twitter account or through a formal office. The openness is refreshing, but one also inevitably questions its purpose.
I will leave you to your own opinions. Below is a rough approximation of the debate, along with the links that Mr. Birrell cited in the process. Feel free to comment on your thoughts or add to the discussion over at A View From The Cave.
Blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists on the exchange and some follow up reactions on Twitter
Reflections on London Despatch blog by Rwandan journalist Eleneus Akanga