In a matter of days or even hours, Rwandan Professor Leopold Munyakazi will be placed on a plane from a detention facility in Baltimore and sent back to Rwanda, where he will undoubtedly face imprisonment and torture. Munyakazi originally arrived in the United States in 2004 and applied for asylum soon after. With assistance from the Scholar Rescue Fund, he obtained posts as a visiting professor at Montclair State University and Goucher College.
While he closed one chapter of abuse at the hands of the Kagame government when he left Rwanda, he opened a new one here in the United States when he dared to challenge the mainstream narrative about the 1994 genocide during a talk at the University of Delaware in 2006. “I refer to it as civil war, not genocide,” he stated. “it was about political power. Ethnicity is not really understood about Rwanda; in Rwanda there are no tribes, there are social groups, they are one single people.”
Soon after Munyakazi delivered his speech, the Rwandan government issued an indictment charging him with aiding and abetting the genocide. Next, Rwandan authorities worked with NBC’s The Wanted to deploy a media stunt that drew national attention to Munyakazi as a potential war criminal. Perhaps in anticipation of public outcry, US immigration officials quickly initiated proceedings for his deportation.
Munyakazi’s case was drawn out for over six years; experts who testified in his defense included lawyer Peter Erlinder and former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark. Allison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch questioned the validity of the charges, pointing out that he had been jailed in Rwanda for five years and released without trial in 1999. Why wait until 2006 to issue an indictment?
The fact that Munyakazi’s case has played out amidst relative silence from the American academy at large speaks to the effectiveness of Kagame’s public relations machinery in promoting fear and misinformation. In his fifteen years in office as President, Kagame has effectively manipulated guilt and emotions around the genocide to silence his critics with little attention from the international community.
To dare to ask questions, or to offer a more complex analysis of what happened in 1994 is to risk being charged with “genocide denial,” “divisionism” and “terrorism.” The mere whisper that a Rwandan may have been involved in the genocide is sufficient to render them guilty in the eyes of an American public that was quick to consume the sanitized narratives of good and evil that Kagame and his Western public relations firms have spent billions to disseminate.
While it is likely too late to prevent his deportation, the least that we can do is to listen to Munyakazi’s critique. To seek a more complicated narrative of the tragic events of 1994 is not to question their occurrence, but is to insist on the importance of understanding as the first step in our effort to prevent their repetition. In the meantime, Munyakazi’s struggle will continue as he returns to his home country; one can only hope that the very international human rights community that pushed so fervently to create a system to prosecute the crime of genocide is ready to challenge those in power who manipulate it in their favor.
At this, Kagame is a pro.