The Rwandan Surveillance State

I just came across a paper by Dr. Andrea Purdekova called  Even if I am not here, there are so many eyes’: surveillance and state reach in Rwanda.’ You can read the paper here. In it she describes the information gathering apparatus of the Rwandan state, for example:

Informers are indeed believed to be everywhere, and many people can simply be used for that purpose when and as necessary. To trace teachers harbouring divisionist ideologies, ‘well, there are the students, they know and say what the teachers are teaching, [for example] with regards to history, what kind of examples they are using’. ‘Problematic’ individuals can be traced in bars and restaurants because ‘even waiters, they can be intelligence’.The way in which surveillance happens is described in detail by Begley (2009:4), who, during her field research on the contribution of Rwandan Muslims to the reconciliation process, found out from one of her informants that ‘not just one, but five different men have been following our movements’. This included ‘the waiter from the restaurant [who] hired a couple of street kids to follow us [and who in turn] reported to another man on the street who then contacted the Chairman of the RPF’.

It is difficult to know exactly who represents the ‘ears and eyes’ of higher authorities, and who is merely curious, a gossip or generally suspecting, or whether those who observe from a distance actually understand anything being said and whether they pass it on. The perception nonetheless remains that surveillance and locally traced intelligence are ubiquitous, and the effects of this on behaviour are very real. Every researcher in Rwanda either experiences or hears stories of surveillance and notices the resulting self-editing behaviour. It is certainly true that neither email nor phone or even certain occasions at home are considered safe for discussing political or otherwise ‘sensitive’ issues. One informant told me that ‘no one really talks on the phone anymore, just the basics and that is it. You only start commenting on something and people stop you.’

The Begley paper referred to is The other side of fieldwork: experiences and challenges of conducting research in the border area of Rwanda/eastern Congo, which is found here. Begley recalls:

I was on the sofa typing up my notes, when Joseph, my translator called. He told me that a lot of bad things happened. One of my key participants, David had contacted Joseph. David told Joseph that some government officials had interrogated a few of my participants. They told these officials what was discussed during our interviews. I was too terrified to ask Joseph for any particular details. Joseph simply told me to “leave the country as soon as you can and do not come back to this town”. I hung up the phone and I learned what it means to be truly fearful. I paced up and down the house trying to figure out what I should do. I considered going to Goma to email my supervisors. However, with the rising tension and being on the brink of all-out war, I couldn’t risk the Rwandan border officials asking me questions about why I keep going to Goma. I feel helpless. I tried to write a coded email to my supervisors. We have been using weather terms, such as it’s getting really hot here, for things are not going well and there have been some problems. But how do I convey Rwanda’s getting ready to invade Congo, Congo is on the brink of all-out war, and the Rwandan government knows everything I learned and is interrogating my participants, using weather terms? There’s no weather term that can adequately communicate that people could be killed for what they told me and I have no way to protect them. In the end I stated that there was a huge storm and another one coming from across the lake. It was so hot here that no one could have predicted how hot it was really going to be. I sent the email and then I broke down. Six months of stress, panic, and fear had finally caused me to have a complete breakdown. This is too much. I can’t take it anymore and there’s no sense for me to stay here. I feel completely alone and isolated. I’m completely terrified that people are going to be thrown in jail for genocide ideology or even killed for what they told me. And there’s no one I can talk to. There’s no one to tell me what I should do, because the government is watching my emails and after this incident I have no doubt that they are. I have to leave. It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep. I can’t sit still nor can I focus. I just need to get out of here.

Begley describes the fear she experienced in Rwanda:

Among many Tutsi, pro-Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and Congolese there is the common belief that Rwanda is stable and secure. However, my own experiences suggest that this is not the entire picture and that there is a fine line between “security” and “government control”. Experiences such as those I had with the Imam and Robert (see below) as well as the intimidation of my participants provided me with a deeper insight into the everyday realities of fear that Rwandans must cope with. Furthermore, as long as I was in Rwanda, I had no way to seek immediate help from my supervisors or from anyone. The constant mistrust, the feeling of always being watched, having no friends and no one who understood the situation to offer advice or support, and living in constant fear, all made my fieldwork isolating and nerve-racking.

To help ease the situation, I adopted strategies that Rwandans employ to avoid suspicion. For example, many Rwandans have joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in order to avoid suspicion and to prevent problems with soldiers. The RPF was the Rwandan Tutsi rebel army living in exile in Uganda. In 1990, they invaded Rwanda and began a civil war with Habyarimana’s regime. The RPF took control of the country after the genocide and is still the dominant political party. When I discovered that the government had spies following me, I began to wear a hat with the logo of the RPF on it. I also sought to interview prominent RPF officials and businessmen, asking relatively harmless questions.

Begley recounts another experience of surveillance that she had in Rwanda:

I was having breakfast at a restaurant that I usually went to. I met my translator and we left to go meet an Imam. Nothing seems out of place or wrong, just a normal day. There are plenty of street kids around, nothing unusual. We arrive and begin the interview. The Imam destroys every stereotypical imagine of what an Imam is portrayed to look like. He’s wearing sunglasses, despite the complete lack of light in the house. He has a plain blue t-shirt on and baggy cloth pants. He looks straight out of a 1980s R&B music group. His demeanour is laidback and relaxed. The Imam is discussing how Muslims have contributed to the reconciliation process in post-genocide Rwanda. The purple and green lights from his phone begin to flash and I get distracted. He answers it and at first remains sitting on the sofa, than leaves out the front door. He returns after a few minutes and the interview continues. As soon as we are away from the Imam, Joseph informs me: “We are being watched.” My heart falls into my stomach and I ask how he knows. “I overheard the Imam’s conversation on the phone. The person on the phone was the District Chairman of the RPF. He says that there is a white person at your house. What does she want? What is she doing there?” “What did the Imam say?” I asked almost desperately. “He said that you were here doing research on Islam and that you were on ‘our side’.” Somehow those words do not ease the wave of panic that has come over me.

The next day I am told exactly what happened and was no longer allowed to eat breakfast at my usual place. One of my informants told Joseph that he watched the waiter from the restaurant hire a couple of street kids to follow us. The street kids reported to another man on the street who than contacted the Chairman of the RPF. Furthermore, it was not just one, but five different men who have been following our movements. I was terrified because of what could happen to my participants and translators. They have no embassy to run to if something were to happen.

These episodes sound like something straight out of 1984. Again:

There was one incident in which I received an email from a person whom I had never met before stating he was sending me documents on behalf of a Rwandan official. The email contained documents about the atrocities committed by the RPF during the civil war, genocide and afterwards. This made me extremely nervous in case the government did decide to check my emails. I emailed this person after my return to the UK, to see if he could tell me why and who told him to send me that information. He replied: “We learnt from Kigali officials that a young and naive young woman was making research on Rwanda tragedy. We were asked to provide you with ‘good’ information. That means, we were asked to repeat Kagame and his fellows’ speech on what happened and what is happening in Rwanda and in the Great Lakes area. We consider Kagame and his sponsors (USA, UK, some West companies) as the main actors of Central Africa tragedy” (received 5 November 2008).

At the end of another chilling story, she mentions what a Rwandan told her:

“You go and tell them what life is really like here. Tell them that the government is lying. Rwanda is not democratic and there is no reconciliation. Thank you for listening to our side.”

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