Patrick Karuretwa is the Defense and Security Advisor to the President of Rwanda and a Fletcher alumnus.

As I read Professor Alex de Waal’s perceptive piece on “Reclaiming Activism,” I thought I should not miss this opportunity to, for once, disagree with one of the few “experts on Africa” I have always had genuine esteem and admiration for.

As always, Alex de Waal makes very compelling comments on a real and significant problem: the activism many of us in Africa have come to know –“simplified, simplistic and pernicious”.

De Waal appropriately urges activists to be honest to the facts, and open to inquiry into the facts. But, in this well-written piece, he sometimes fails to do just that.

First–putting on my Rwandan civil servant hat for a moment–de Waal refers to the state of Rwanda as “too militaristic.” Yet, to be “honest to the facts,” he should mention that Rwandan government is the only one in Africa to spend five times less on Defense (slightly more than 3% of the national budget) than Health (15%  – and highest in Africa), and six times less than Education (20%).

Unless Rwanda’s “militarism” would consist in its deliberate efforts to maintain a relatively small but well trained and notably efficient professional army in a neighborhood where more than 30 armed groups operate, including the Front Democratic pour la Liberation du Rwanda led by the same extremists that came close in 1994 to achieving their target in Rwanda: the annihilation of all Tutsi and their Hutu sympathizers. But if, in this context, Rwandans failed to equip themselves with the means to address the very real and immediate challenges they face as a nation, wouldn’t they be “surrender[ing] their own leadership to their supposed foreign friends” to use de Waal’s own words?

Alex de Waal is among the prominent thinkers who participated to the second Tana High Level Forum on Security in Africa in April 2013. There, he heard several speakers express their appreciation for Rwanda leaders’ ability to do precisely what he wishes activists did more: challenge power and the way it is exercised in this unequal world we live in. He heard  ‘African experts’ and ‘Experts on Africa’ praise Rwandans for being honest, not dishonest, in insisting that they should define their problems for themselves and claim the driver’s seat in addressing them, even as they welcome external support.

The policy activists’ narrative on Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region is, I believe, one of the perfect examples of what de Waal describes as “uncomfortable truths that policy activists sacrifice for the sake of simple messages that foreign audiences can understand and to which they can relate easily.” And their lobbying tactics in Washington, New York and London have had far reaching consequences. In the D.R. Congo, Kenya or Sudan they have effectively diverted the world’s attention away from sensible analyses of the problems on the ground, and they have stood in a way of workable solutions.

But beyond the not-so-judicious Rwanda example, de Waal’s larger points are unquestionably valid. His eloquent criticism of contemporary activism is much welcome. So are his calls for real activists that “seek and speaks the truth” and accepts to partner with–and be led by–the affected populations.

This is an accurate but incomplete picture.

The biggest problem with activists like the Enough Project and Human Rights Watch may not be that they are essentially Washington lobbyists, or that they are more focused on their generous funders’ agendas than the problems they claim to help fix. Or it is only part of it.

The other, and more pernicious part of the problem, might be the way public opinion perceives and treats them. Not as what they often are: self-interested actors with hidden biases and prejudices, strategic allies and enemies, as well as opportunistic tactics to achieve their goals. The uncomfortable reality is that many of them care much less about peace or “truth” anywhere in Africa than their institutional agendas. Some are genuine and well meaning, but they rarely acknowledge that their actions sometimes have significant counter-productive impacts. Yet, their neutrality, objectivity and expertise are typically taken for granted.  Any criticism on Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group is typically dismissed as defensive tactics from the bad guys. The “designers activists” know this well, and they invest significant resources to maintain this situation.

De Waal has argued elsewhere that “humanitarian international” can have a destructive impact; they weaken recipient governments, erode their accountability and undermine their legitimacy.

But his description of the “honorable vocation and practice of activism” in its ideal form, appears disturbingly similar to the humanitarian claim of political neutrality he, very eloquently, questioned in the past.

Both are delusional. Just like humanitarian aid, much of today’s activism is deeply politicized; it has far-reaching political consequences and harmful side effects. Whether in favor or against Washington, the politicization of international activism is not an accident; it is part of the very nature of the enterprise. This reality should be acknowledged and confronted, not glossed over.

Just like the political powers they criticize, activists need to be subjected to clear-headed skepticism and scrutiny. To be truly “honorable”, they should be ready to challenge power. But they should also be prepared to challenge themselves and accept to be challenged by others. They should welcome critical analysis and accept accountability.

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10 Responses to Reclaiming Activism and Keeping It Honest – A comment on Alex de Waal’s “Reclaiming Activism”

  1. Cyuma says:

    Yet, to be “honest to the facts,” he should mention that Rwandan government is the only one in Africa to spend five times less on Defense (slightly more than 3% of the national budget)

    As far as I know, the Rwandan defense budget is not revealed to the public. Then, how would he know that it is the lowest in Africa? If we try to be “honest to the facts” we only can agree with what Alex said. The fact is that wherever you go from 2pm you find military patrol, dead giveaway…

  2. It is very interesting reflection Patrick.

  3. […] Karuretwa, Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s top advisor on security matters, has penned a response to Reclaiming Activism, a contentious blog post published last week by Alex de Waal, executive […]

  4. Alex DeWaal says:

    Dear Patrick,

    I appreciate you finding the time to respond. I would like to pick up on several points.

    First: militarism. I don’t believe that the militarism of a country should be defined solely, or even principally, by the size of its defense budget. Militarism includes such elements as martial values in political culture, a prominent role for the military in national life, and readiness to use the army in response to political problems. In the last 20 years I have had many discussions with former comrades in liberation movements who have taken power, who at first insisted that there could be no such thing as “left-wing militarism.” Rather, they argued that militarism was an exclusively right-wing and imperial phenomenon. I fear that the proclivity of the governments of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda to use their armies, often across borders, means that their argument cannot be sustained.

    I will write more on this question later. The point I was making in my piece was that many of the Washington lobbyists who call themselves activists don’t question the actions of the Rwandese Government.

    A second point is that you conflate three different organizations, which are rather different types, namely Human Rights Watch, Crisis Group and Enough. It is correct that they all share some basic values, and many of the same individuals have been involved in all three. They may also share some funders. But there are important differences. HRW has a mandate which it carefully observes, and a level of rigor in its investigations, that strive towards impartiality. It may have certain assumptions about method, priority and ideology embedded in its DNA, but it has some very significant scruples. Enough is blatantly partisan and is a campaigning organization in a very different style. Crisis Group is different again.

    But my main point is that I don’t think you have mistaken my point about activism and international human rights organizations. I was not holding out any of these organizations as models of activism. Rather, I was seeking to locate an authentic activism in the mobilization of citizens of the affected countries, and international activities in solidarity and support of that. Enough claims to be an activist group, and in my view that’s an erroneous claim, or at least a morally misleading one. HRW and Crisis Group are advocacy organizations, but they are professional advocates rather than activists, and are indeed similar in certain respects to the professional, institutionalized humanitarian organizations I critiqued in the past, for example in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda.

    The kinds of authentic activism I had in mind were the likes of the Anti-Apartheid movement and its numerous African and international solidarity groups, the civil rights movement in the U.S., and the movement against the war in Vietnam. These instances of “primary activism” are distinct from the professionalized advocacy organizations that have grown up since the late 1970s, and from the “designer activists” of the last decade.

    Best regards,


  5. Patrick says:

    Dear Alex,
    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I look forward to reading your analyses on liberation movements.

    I would argue that how much a country spends on its army -relative to other sectors- is a useful indicator of how central the military is to its national priorities. The statistics I provided suggest that, from an analytical perspective, Rwanda stands out more by her focus on a healthy and well-educated population than martial values.

    Having say this,it is certainly accurate to say that the Rwanda Defense Forces have an important role in Rwanda’s national life. This is due both to historical reasons -which I know you are familiar with- and contextual factors, some of which I indicated in my comment to your article. The latter also responds to your point on the use of military forces abroad.

    Beyond Rwanda’s interventions in neighboring DRC to stop or prevent murderous cross border raids by the FDLR, the Rwandan military presence abroad is most prominent in peacekeeping (6th peacekeeping contributor worldwide).

    But the FDLR’s continued presence with dozens of its allies across Rwanda’s western border will continue to necessitate a strong and vigilant army, just like it would for example, for the French army if some hostile armed terrorist groups were harbored on the other side of France’s border with Italy (much more so than thousands of miles away in North Africa). Hence my point on the heavily distorted and misleading international narrative on the Great Lakes Region.

    Thank you for your useful distinction between activism and professional advocacy. I certainly get your central point, and I agree with it. But we will have to agree to -strongly- disagree on HRW’s rigor, impartiality and scruples. I am sure HRW’s record is not the same in every part of the world; but viewed from Rwanda, many of us are forced to observe that this and similar INGOs continue to do more harm than good. And we are not the only ones to see it that way… See for example what a retired foreign diplomat recently had to say about this matter: “The Travesti of Human Rights Watch on Rwanda”

    Best regards


  6. Theo says:

    Wow, wow, wow… Great debate right here! Powerful arguments on each side. Great scenario too: the world class Professor vs the brilliant Rwandan strategist. I wish this was a panel debate. Patrick, thanks for the link to this illuminating piece from Richard Johnson “The Travesty of Human Rights Watch on Rwanda”. I hadn’t read it. Shame on me!

  7. Thank you Patrick for responding on Alex de Waal’s “Reclaiming Activism”
    I attached a piece I wrote about exposing Kenneth Roth the Executive Director of HRW.

    Stand your ground, Patrick.

  8. The appeal to rhetorical pathos, in a complete absence of evident facts, always leads to self-exposition through attempts to fake evidence.

    It is a very lack of professionalism to see Karuretwa trying to lend color to his claims by borrowing a hand from a fictitious report. That report called “The Travesty of Human Rights Watch on Rwanda”was first published by pro-RPF media in March 2013. In my research, I later found out that the author of the document, Richard Johnson died in 2011.

    Second, FDLR should be perceived mainly as survivors of the genocide against Hutus in Congo perpetrated by RPF troops between 1996 and 2001. It could be true that among ranks of FDLR, you may find individuals who committed crimes. However, FDLR is not led by criminals. Contrarily to RPF whose leaders committed genocide crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It’s that criminal cartel that is using the oppressiveness of the army to stifle the evolution of Rwandan towards democratic rule. RPF is aware that democracy comes after justice and unity. Hence, justice and unity are preceded by truth and freedom. As a criminal organization, RPF has suspense about the reign of truth, freedom, justice and democracy, which would hold them countable of crimes they committed and are still perpetrating.

    Furthermore, it is futile to expect economic development in the absence of truth, transparency, justice, freedom and democracy. The quintet is the forerunner and cornerstone to the sustainability, durability, proration and positivity of economic development.

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