As we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an ungoverned preacher, Paul Kagame moves to govern Rwanda’s churches

A regulated church modulated by a political military autocrat — or even a majoritarian elective republic — would not have allowed a prophetic, challenging voice like that of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to be heard.

It was hard enough in the relative free-for-all of American Protestantism of the 1950s and ’60s. This is addressed in King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which has had renewed attention in light of the anniversary of his assassination and a new spirit of contention and race-baiting in post-2008 American politics.

I rediscovered the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as an adult in the early years of this century, before Obama or Trump or my connection to Kenya, and was inspired to use it as the basis for a Sunday School lesson in my defacto nearly all white Mississippi church knowing that it would still challenge all of us as it still will today.

Today’s AP story: “Rwanda closes thousands of churches in bid for more control” (h/t @Smith_JeffreyT). Read and make up your own mind as to Kagame’s objectives.

Aside from his own record as an RPF military leader in the early 1990s and what I see as the ruthlessness expansiveness of his continued consolidation of power over Rwandans, I am concerned that Kagame represents a dangerous force more broadly in East Africa and beyond because of the notion of outsiders with extraneous interests aligning with him to use his rule as a model — or excuse — for things that are flatly against our values. Like a surrender of religious liberty to the State, as one example.

[See yesterday’s CBC story about Canadian journalist Judi Rever’s new book In Praise of Blood which is being seen by many as offering revelatory revision on Kagame’s record during the genocide. I am adding it to my reading list recognizing that I have no independent background or insight on events then in Rwanda but perhaps some in how East African history is shaped and used in the West. Helen C. Epstein’s Another Fine Mess; America, Uganda and the War on Terrorwhich I intend to review– offers insight into Kagame’s background and role as a Ugandan soldier/insurgent under Museveni.]

Update April 7: Statement from Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan – “Commemoration of the 24th Anniversary of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda“:

We stand today with the people of Rwanda in commemorating the 1994 genocide during which more than 800,000 men, women, and children were brutally murdered. On this solemn occasion, we remember those who lost their lives and honor the courage of those who risked their lives to save others.

The United States values its strong partnership with Rwanda, and we are inspired by the remarkable progress that Rwanda has made in rebuilding since 1994. We are proud to support Rwanda as it continues to fight impunity for atrocities, lift millions of its people out of poverty, and build a peaceful and prosperous future for its citizens.

We also honor the contributions of Rwandans such as Godelieve Mukasarasi, recipient of the Department’s 2018 International Woman of Courage Award, who have dedicated their lives to fighting for a culture of peace and non-violence in Rwanda. We are inspired by their bravery and dedication to justice and reconciliation.

Must Kenyans bear a “model” cross?

In his sermon, Archbishop Welby said reconciliation was the only way that the country could retain its status as a model nation for Africa, and that disagreements can only be sorted out through understanding.

“Kenya has been a good model of peace and reconciliation across Africa,” he said. “Reconciliation is a supreme gift of Jesus, and is so costly it caused Jesus to die on the cross.”

(From the Sunday Nation, Talks in the air as Uhuru, Raila meet” featuring the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Nairobi.)

As a Christian, I embrace the message of the Archbishop on the value and centrality of reconciliation for Kenyans, as for the rest of us. I am just not sure that the purpose or motivation needs to involve further taking up the burden of being a “model nation” as that term has been used. Kenyans need reconciliation among themselves, for themselves–really to become a nation in a more meaningful sense than they are now.

The history and immediate circumstances of Kenya are rather specific. The spiritual and temporal challenges of reconciliation in Kenya certainly have a fair bit in common with those faced by Americans. I am sure others elsewhere, in places that I have not lived, including in various other nations on the African continent have substantial commonality in their experiences, needs and circumstances.

It is natural–almost reflexive and inevitable perhaps–for leaders from the UK to call on Kenya’s leaders to bear the burdens of being exemplars for the region. And are Kenya’s elitemost not to able to be motivated by the extra status of ruling the country that is recognized as a sort of head boy for the whole neighborhood? To me this sort of thinking has been a fixture of Anglo American establishment orthodoxy toward Kenya and effectively served the interests of Anglo American foreign policy as the current relationships were worked out during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. While it has arguably worked out better in some important respects for quite a few Kenyans than many possible alternatives might have, it is decidely shopworn and insufficient now for the future.

The cross of being a “model nation” has always been in another sense the burden borne by most Kenyans in carrying on their backs in parade profoundly corrupt and frankly greedy “prefects”. Kenyans have more valid dreams than this. In reality the Kenya of Kenyatta/Moi/Kibaki/Kenyatta (and the rest of the usual immune suspects) is not something that could (or should) be replicated anywhere else, and it is not even a viable model for Kenya on into the 21st Century. There are too many more people without jobs or enough to eat, with many many more coming.

And let us be clear that a specific cost of being used as a “model” by outsiders: truth.  One of the main reasons Kenyan elections are so bad but so uniquely expensive is that we pretend that they are better than they are, to serve the idee fixe of the model.  We still cannot come to grips with talking openly among ourselves even about our role in the disaster of 2007, to go along with our role in mitigating the crisis in 2008-10.

See my post from August 2012: Didn’t we learn from the disaster in 2007? Kenya does not need to be anyone’s “model” anything; it does need truth in it’s election.

The Cold War is long over and the Anglo American orientation to Kenya as it evolved up into the 1970s might well be due for a serious refresh, especially with more aggressive Chinese and French mercantilism offering competing opportunities for Kenya’s rentier class and Western technology, along with global oil proceeds routed through the Gulf Monarchies greatly expanding the reach and toxicity of militarized jihadist ideology since the early days of al Qaeda activity in East Africa more than twenty years ago now.

Regardless, the United States and the United Kingdom are not going to be leading the reconciliation of Kenyans, much less any of the other outside influencers.  We can provide moral support or detract from opportunities by supporting an inadequate status quo.

In the case of the United States we all know enough now about Donald Trump to know that America will not have anything along the lines of foreign policy in any traditional sense during his presidency.  This means overall inertia within the military in an expanding role and within the bureaucracy in other areas in a receding role.  It also means a greater latitude for non-state actors such as the aggressively “libertarian” billionaires who helped make Trump president, such as the eccentric quant fund mogul Robert Mercer who will be of note to Kenyans through his role as an investor in Cambridge Analytica of Kenyatta’s 2013 and 2017 campaigns.

Trump has explained that it is not necessary to fill many of the policy and other positions in the State Department because he himself “is the one that matters” for policy.  Presumably in the case of a crisis in Kenya cataclysmic enough to require decisions on his part regarding U.S. policy, Trump would be inclined to rely on the Pentagon.  Otherwise perhaps he would also reach out to friends who have business interests as he referred to in his lunch with African leaders alongside the UN General Assembly.

Trump and his cronies aside, if Kenyans are able to find ways to reconcile and seek specific support from the United States, they will find many Americans including even within Congress who will wish to be of assistance for the reasons that we otherwise wish to help with the needs of Kenyans for food and medicine, for instance.

In first instance , however, Kenyans are in the same boat as everyone else and have to decide how they value reconciliation and love frankly, versus greed, power, hate, heirarchy and other alternative priorities.