The final speaker at the African Society of Georgetown’s 2 day conference this weekend was Mathilde Mukantabana, who I understand was recently named Rwanda’s Ambassador to the United States. I found Mukantabana to be a particularly appropriate speaker as she has spent much of her life in the Diaspora, serving as a professor of history in California until her appointment. Her wide ranging comments certainly alluded to that background. She referenced pan-African giants from this hemisphere like WEB DuBois and Marcus Garvey, from Africa, such as Kwame Nkrumah and spoke of African philosophies that she saw as being relevant across Africa, such as Ubuntu.
Mukantabana set the tone for her remarks by noting that Africa is the birthplace of humanity, but that it has not been seen as a place of civilization because the definition of civilized has long been determined by non-Africans. Her comments were not completely aspirational and optimistic however. I was pleased to here her note that ‘unification starts at home…we can’t talk about Pan-Africanism without unity in your country.’ In light of the internal regional challenges facing man African countries, particularly in west Africa, I highly agree that proponents of African integration need to temper their short-term ambitions.
Mukantabana noted that next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide, ‘a destruction of the ethos of the people.’ However, ’19 years later, Rwanda is a model’, ‘a reconciled state.’ She added that nearly 2/3 of Rwandan parliamentarians are female and urged future Georgetown sociologists to study their contributions. Ironically, a fellow Rwandan, Jackson M’vunganyi had noted this statistic earlier in the day, stating that representation alone was meaningless, rather the ability of these parliamentarians to enact meaningful change is what should be measured.
The Ambassador indirectly articulated her agreement with that position. She quoted Kwame Nkrumah’s oft cited remark that Ghana’s independence is meaningless unless it is linked to the liberation of the entire continent to suggest that Rwanda’s economic success was meaningless unless its neighbors experienced similar gains (unfortunately, relations with the Congo never came up).
She urged those in the audience to take a role in reshaping the narrative of Africa from a continent riddled by war and poverty, to one that is more positive. In her view, ‘if we look at the future of Africa, I see good stuff happening.’ She spoke of the meaningful rise of sub-regional groups like SADC and the East African Community (hooray!!!) and regional institutions like the African Development Bank.
She noted recent improvements in Rwanda in education, health, and sanitation and she described President Kagame as a ‘visionary leader.’ I was pleased to see an Ambassador willing to engage in a Q&A following prepared remarks and Kagame again came up in that forum, in regards to what would happen when his term of office ended.
Mukantabana walked a diplomatic tight rope in her response, but was also fairly forthright. She noted that ‘because of the incredible work he’s done’, ‘the rest of the world thinks he’s authoritarian’, however, the Ambassador added that his real achievement was to build strong institutions that will continue when he is no longer the head of state. However, close Rwanda watchers will be interested to note her sentiments that ‘we want to keep him as long as we can.’
As previously mentioned, kudos to the ASG for putting on a great event and facilitating such close access to an ambassador.