My twitterspat with Paul Kagame
Published in The Guardian (May 17th, 2011)
Returning home from a Saturday afternoon walk with the dog, I did what has become almost a reflex action and checked Twitter. Bizarrely, there was the president of Rwanda having a go at me over disparaging comments I had made about an interview he gave that morning.
This was strange enough – not least since his missives to me were peppered with the sort of text abbreviations used by teenagers (such as “Wrong u r …”). Even stranger, we then traded tweets over human rights and repression in his central African nation, his foreign minister even joining the fray.
All slightly surreal. By the time I went to bed, the foreign minister still tweeting furiously, our twitterspat had gone global with supporters on both sides weighing in. Digital gurus speculated this was another Twitter first: a head of state directly engaging with a journalist.
The exchange raises various questions – not least whether you can really conduct a complex and highly-charged debate in 140 characters at a time. The answer is probably no, although the genius of the medium is how it draws attention to issues and amplifies them.
My electronic encounter with Paul Kagame began when I read an interview in which he said no one in the media, UN or human rights groups had the moral right to criticise him. I fired off a tweet, saying he was “despotic and deluded”, something borne out by such a vainglorious statement.
“Not you either,” he tweeted back. “No moral right! You give yourslf the right to abuse ppl and judge them like you r the one to decide …”
Thus began our beef. I repeatedly asked why no one had the moral right to question him, while raising issues of press freedom in a country where critical journalists are jailed or shot dead. He said I had no basis for my comments and told me I was insulting. His tweets were heavy with exclamation marks.
I linked Kagame to a damning human rights report on Rwanda. He replied that “we hold ourselves and each accountable to a high level and even deal with criticism honestly, openly and fairly …” I queried how there could be accountability when he had shut down papers and stopped rivals standing in elections, adding I knew of people living in fear of their lives for daring to criticise him.
Like many politicians, he ducked issues and answered questions with another question. Eventually, after more than a dozen tweets, he half-answered my central point, saying that while some in the UN, media and human rights groups liked to criticise, they were not without flaws themselves.
At least he made more sense then the juvenile nonsense spewing out from Louise Mushikiwabo, his foreign minister. She began by asking: “Wld u care 2 know what 11,000,000 Rwandans think of Paul Kagame b4 u spread ur formed opinion? 2 big a challenge 4 u?” An arrogant assumption, of course, to imply she spoke for all her people – and exactly the question that is impossible to answer in such a repressive autocracy. Her tweets became increasingly excitable; afterwards, she blocked people from looking at them.
Several observers criticised Kagame’s Twitter tantrum as exhibiting a lack of dignity. I disagree. It is admirable to see a leader engaging so personally with new means of communication – although it is telling there is no one he thinks worth following. And there is something rather splendid about a president so passionate about his country he confronts foreign critics in this manner.
The exchanges underlined the revolutionary nature of what is fast becoming the most important journalistic tool around. On Monday the Sky reporter Mark Stone blogged from Tripoli about his amazing use of Twitter to find a Dutch engineer and prove a bombed Nato target was a military bunker. In this new world, I was able to draw attention to Kagame’s original statement, he was able to respond and we could debate in real-time watched by thousands of people worldwide, scores joining in with links, opinions and comments.
Additionally, while the answers were terse, the immediacy and intimacy of the president’s responses offered a glimpse into his mind that might never have been exposed so starkly in more formal circumstances. His thin skin, his self-delusion, his evasiveness and above all his belief – echoed by his foreign minister – that the supposed saviour of Rwanda is above criticism.
It is just a shame that with just a tiny proportion of Rwandans online so few of his own people were able to see such revelatory self-exposure. For the irony of this exchange is that while Kagame is happy to engage with a foreign critic like me on Twitter, he refuses to permit such dissent from journalists and political rivals in his own country.