CHICAGO – Feb. 15, 2021 – Around the world, politicians, civic leaders, athletes, and celebrities have increasingly embraced the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” a positive and long-overdue development following the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more innocent Black people during 2020. Many of us have marched together, braving the trying times of COVID-19 to try to finally make a statement that Black lives in our societies are not disposable. Amidst centuries of unconscionable oppression and brutality, this has sparked some hope that we have perhaps reached a turning point in our collective societal consciousness. However, regardless of the shift in tone, we are stubbornly refusing to take meaningful action to transform the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into reality.
The deafening silence and complete lack of repercussions from global citizens around the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina and our continued consumer-driven incineration of Black Lives in the Great Lakes Region of Africa make it clear that our need to acquire material possessions supersedes any belief in the value of Black lives. In the process, we have built up and empowered leaders known for great cruelty, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, de facto United Arab Emirates (UAE) ruler Mohammed bin Zayed, and Dubai crown-prince Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, each of whom brutally profit off our apathy and inaction.
In 1994, the world observed with staggering indifference as Rwanda plunged into an unspeakable genocide that saw the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people in a mere 100 days. The bodies of men, women, and children lined the streets – victims of a global society who did not care about them in the least. France saw an opportunity to supply arms to genocidaires, the United States (US) called for the UN mission in Rwanda to be withdrawn (despite its eagerness to send 20,000 troops to Haiti in the same year to “restore democracy”), and the British government could not be bothered to act to prevent the slaughter. However, at the onset of violence in early April 1994, western powers did have time to evacuate Americans and Europeans from Rwanda. Late in the genocide, France set up a marginal and much criticized purported safe zone, perhaps a testament to how little the French government actually cared about black Rwandans. Conveniently, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank were also deeply involved in Rwanda, with the IMF’s disastrous structural adjustment programme for Rwanda in 1990 leading to acute hunger in southern Rwanda and fueling the swell of violence seen in 1994, as documented in Gerard Prunier’s “The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide.” Unfortunately, western media coverage since that time has failed to properly educate the public about what happened in Rwanda and what has since transpired in the broader Great Lakes region of Africa.
It was in the midst of this insanity and bloodshed that a young hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina chose to act. Through any and all means at his disposal, he ensured that 1,268 people in his Belgian-owned hotel did not meet the same fate as their fellow men and women on the streets of Rwanda. But his background is not what we mean to discuss today – rather, what is more important is what the circumstances surrounding his recent arrest and ongoing detention tell us about how our world functions today.
On August 31st of 2020, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) announced the news of the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina. The circumstances around his arrest are exceptionally suspicious and troubling. Per multiple media reports, Rusesabagina, a lawful US permanent resident and European Union (EU) citizen of Belgium, traveled from his home in San Antonio to Chicago and subsequently Dubai. On August 27, 2020, he reached Dubai via a commercial Emirates Airlines flight and promptly notified his family of his arrival. What happened next remains a mystery. With Rwandan officials looming over his shoulder in a jailhouse interview, Rusesabagina told The New York Times that he departed Dubai by private jet to speak to church groups. Instead, when the plane landed on August 29, 2020, he told the Times that he disembarked and found himself in Rwanda, surrounded by Rwandan soldiers. Human Rights Watch has labeled the event a “forced disappearance,” and other Rwandan dissidents have speculated that the RIB may have had Rusesabagina under surveillance using spyware, possibly using readily available technology from the Israeli company NSO Group.
In no uncertain terms, the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina was an extrajudicial kidnapping. Even though it has not really been pressed for an explanation, the Rwandan government initially claimed that his arrest “was done with international cooperation subject to an international arrest warrant.” However, as confirmed by the UAE government, there is no extradition treaty between the UAE and Rwanda. Rwandan President Paul Kagame offered a different non-explanation, saying that Rusesabagina had been lured to Rwanda in a “flawless” operation. Someone paid for the GainJet plane. Perhaps inspired by the gross overuse of the invocation of the term by the United States in the past, the Rwandan government is currently holding Rusesabagina on charges of “terrorism” despite the lack of any actual evidence.
As we will discuss in Part II of this series, the violence in Rwanda in 1994 has since spread like wildfire throughout the Great Lakes region of Africa, most prominently into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Geographically the rough size of western Europe, the DRC’s untapped mineral reserves stand at a staggering $24 trillion dollars in estimated value and are considered to be of significant global interest. The United Nations (UN) has publicly criticized Rwanda (under the leadership of Paul Kagame) for selling minerals from the DRC and for funding armed groups to make sure that the trade continues. Conflict minerals from the DRC include gold, tin, tantalum, tungsten, and cobalt. Though some progress has been made since the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 (Section 1502 required disclosure of conflict mineral use), the certification processes used by companies are far from air-tight. Millions of Congolese people still rely on dangerous and environmentally devastating mining practices to scratch out a living. And we have ample reason to be skeptical of any corporate commitment to human rights in the DRC. In a confidential mining primer from 2006, US diplomats acknowledged the widespread transnational mineral smuggling and clearly implicated the companies, the Rwandan government, and the governments of major world powers, saying: “Coltan (columbo-tantalite), niobium and cassiterite are found in North and South Kivu provinces in the eastern DRC in remote areas with security issues. The 2000-2001 coltan shortage caused prices to skyrocket, and many international companies sourced DRC coltan through Uganda and Rwanda.” Western companies have also sought lucrative projects in other sectors of the DRC’s economy. They are able to do all of this because we allow them to convince us that the deaths of Black people are necessary for us to have modern amenities and luxurious goods.
Paul Rusesabagina is a man who has relentlessly dedicated his life to the idea that Black Lives matter. When the world around him crumbled, he stood up and showed us that there are still heroes left among us. He recognized that the world was being fed a false narrative that the roots of violence in the Great Lakes region of Africa were simply in the long-standing hatred between rival ethnic groups – rather, an ample amount of blame lays with us, global citizens who have chosen to enjoy the material goods that those minerals have made possible for us even as Black men, women, and children are slaughtered to secure them. Because he has fought for the truth and for meaningful reconciliation, he has been the target of a relentless smear campaign from the current Rwandan government. Even major western news outlets have fallen for these lies from the Rwandan government. Despite all of the smoke and mirrors, the truth is perfectly clear: we can’t simply say “Black Lives Matter” until ALL Black Lives actually do matter. This quest for humanity is not just about Black Lives in the United States or Europe. The world has been ignoring Black Lives at least since the rise of Europe, and this is especially and painfully true in Rwanda. 800,000 Black Lives were lost in the genocide, and the world didn’t really care. Ongoing human rights abuses occur in Rwanda and many other countries in Africa, and the world doesn’t do anything. Over 6 million dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for conflict minerals since 1998, and the world doesn’t even realize it is happening. The kidnapping and illegal detention of Paul Rusesabagina is another test – will we ignore the plight of a man who fought for Black Lives because his trial is happening in a country with only Black Lives? Or will we act now and take a meaningful step forward to show that Black Lives are noticed and that they really do matter?
If the answer is to be the latter, we must understand the true context for this illegal arrest and detention. To do that, we must understand the pasts of Paul Kagame (Part II), Mohammed bin Zayed (Part III), and Mohammed bin Rashid (Part III) and how we have all built them to operate in the most cruel way possible.