Tag Archives: rwanda

Tanzania’s isolation in the East African Community

8 Oct


In June this year, the presidents of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda met in Kampala and then announced a plan with definite timelines to speed up integration in the East African Community. They have since met again in Mombasa and will be in Kigali soon.

There were two reactions to this development.

The first was that the three were creating a two-lane integration process – one for those who wanted to sprint and another for dawdlers.

The second was a signal that if the other two could not make up their mind about how they wanted the East African Community to move forward, they risked being left behind.

In both cases, depending on where one stood on the issue, the action of the three countries was said to be leading to the possible isolation of Tanzania and Burundi or to pulling them along to join the others.

Tanzania shrugged and scoffed at such suggestions, saying they were inconsequential and that the trio could go ahead with their plans. Some Tanzanians even claimed that not much could be done without their country since it was the regional centre of gravity.

That initial disdainful dismissal of what has come to be known as the tripartite arrangement has given way to realism. Now Tanzania and Burundi are chafing at being left out by the other three partner states. The prospect of isolation, or at any rate being left behind, is looming.

Indication that this change of attitude is happening came from a recent meeting of the East African Council of Ministers in Arusha.

A lot of good may come from the decisions of Presidents Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni and Uhuru Kenyatta to go it alone. They are now likely to pull along the other reluctant partners after all.

In many senses both the actions of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda and the new response by Burundi and Tanzania had to happen at some point. Exasperation among East African Community enthusiasts with Tanzania for its slow pace towards integration was bound to trigger some reaction or other.

It is not a coincidence that the three countries chose to address the very areas where Tanzania has been less cooperative: single customs territory, non-tariff barriers, free movement of people, goods, services and capital, infrastructure and political federation.

For long the excuse of the Tanzanian leadership was that their citizens should not be stampeded into faster integration because there was no urgency and in any case they needed time to grasp the concept.

As it now turns out, that was only a pretext. Ordinary Tanzanians now recognise that the other three partner states are determined to go ahead without them. The prospect of achieving what they have set out to do is very real. The likelihood of isolation, or at the very least being left behind, is also becoming real and is being voiced by ordinary people.

Politicians are now picking it up because it is becoming a serious issue and likely to make them climb down from their arrogant position.

This change of attitude has obviously been forced on the Tanzanian leadership. They now realise they might lose out if the other countries establish a single customs territory and also start using a single-tourist visa. And despite repeated denials, plans to build the oil and transport infrastructure in the northern corridor will significantly affect the volume of cargo along the central corridor.

Already, there are examples of a climb down. Tanzania unilaterally hiked charges on Rwandan-registered trucks ferrying transit goods through its territory. Rwanda retaliated and raised charges on Tanzanian trucks. Tanzania cried foul but in the end backed down and reduced the charges they had set without consultation.

The decision was not, of course, a result of good neighbourly feelings. It was the product of hard-nosed business calculations. Tanzania has more trucks doing business from the port of Dar es Salaam to Kigali and on to northern Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was therefore bound to lose from a protracted tariff war.

The same considerations are probably coming into play with regard to the tripartite arrangements between Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The fear of loss and isolation will make the Tanzanian leadership find their East African feet and recognise that it is in their best interest to travel together with their partners and at the same pace.

They might yet rediscover the integrationist spirit of their predecessors. Historically, ideologically and even in practical terms, Tanzania was the most integrationist of the East African countries. This owed in large measure to Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Pan-Africanism and de-ethnicisation of the country, and the fact that the country was the home of nearly all liberation movements in East, Central and Southern Africa.

About ten years ago, all that began to change. We began to see the development of an inward looking nationalism and dangerous flashes of xenophobia.

That could yet change again and the previous enthusiasm for a united East Africa return. The fear of isolation and loss of business may bring that about.


US gets it wrong on Rwanda

8 Oct


In this region, some things never change regardless of the facts on the ground. For instance, when it comes to issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda inevitably gets drawn into the mess even when it is evident that it has nothing to do with it.

And so predictably, last week the State Department announced that the United States government was suspending military aid to Rwanda. Rwanda’s crime? Aiding and abetting the recruitment and training of child soldiers for the M23 rebels in Eastern DRC.

When this was announced, there was a collective sense of shock and disbelief. What? Child soldiers in Rwanda? Impossible. Not in a million years!

I believe some in the State Department were equally flabbergasted by the utterly wrong and illogical accusation.

But in the Congolese jungle, now also inhabited by the United Nations and the big powers, logic is an alien concept; truth doesn’t matter; shock and puzzlement don’t count. What matters is to advance the plot of a narrative that has been created about Rwanda.

The accusation against Rwanda raises an important question. Who actually shapes the Obama Administration’s policy on the Great Lakes Region? Is it crafted by the State Department as indeed it should be? Or is it fashioned elsewhere and then brought to bear on the State Department?

Apparently, Obama’s Great Lakes policy is made elsewhere, not at State Department. This is why.

The United States embassy in Kigali, the US Army’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the US military in general know and understand the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) very well. They all know its composition and reputation. They are aware it is a highly respected, disciplined, professional and an efficient fighting force. It therefore has no need or place for child soldiers.

The US military has cooperated with the RDF in training and peace-keeping missions. So has the United Nations.

All top AFRICOM Commanders, almost as a rule, call on the Rwandan ministry of defence and RDF at the start and end of their tour of duty, and many times between.

On the basis of all the information gathered by the different agencies, the US Departments of State and Defence have the correct picture of Rwanda and the region.

So where does this obviously misinformed policy come from?

For one, it has the unmistakable imprint of Human Rights Watch, the UN Department of Peace –keeping Operations (DPKO) and their media allies like Reuters, For some inexplicable reason, Human Rights Watch has President Obama’s ear and is able to influence his policy towards the Great Lakes Region.

For long Human Rights Watch has set itself in opposition to Rwanda. It has carried out a hate campaign against this country and attempted to implicate it in the anarchy, numerous rebellions and human rights abuses in the ungoverned Eastern DRC. This crusading rights group has done so through misinformation, lies and fabrication which are then spread as truth by their partners in the media.

None of this has stuck. Which is why they keep on rehashing it or looking for fresh accusations like the new crime called the recruitment of child soldiers. If everything else fails, surely thi will work. Apparently it is a worse crime than extensive massacres, mass rape, pillage, extortion and wanton destruction of property, and even genocide.

How else can one explain the complete lack of condemnation of the FDLR and the Congolese army’s adoption of the genocidal group as their comrades in arms? Or the total absolution of the DRC government from all blame by MONUSCO’s chief of child protection, Ms Dee Brillenburg Wurth with her laughable assertion that DRC has zero tolerance to the use of child soldiers? She has effectively become DRC’s spokesperson. A certain Mr Lambert Mende had better watch out.

There is another sinister motive behind the present accusation against Rwanda. It follows a familiar line peddled by MONUSCO and its parent body, the UN’s DPKO, Human Rights Watch and associated media, and the DRC government. They have always insisted that M23 is not a Congolese rebellion but rather a Rwandan creation.

Denying that the rebellion is a Congolese problem removes the responsibility for its solution from the DRC government and from the huge UN peace-keeping operation in the country. On the other hand, making it appear like external aggression gives the enemies of Rwanda, especially the foreign backers of the FDLR and remnants of the genocidal regime that created it the pretext to continue supporting them so as to destabilise the country.

Equally dangerous, the denial of M23 as a genuine Congolese rebellion with legitimate grievances is also denial of the right of thousands of Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese to Congolese nationality. This is at the root of M23 grievances. It is hardly surprising that the so-called international community refuses to discuss the plight of Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries. 

In seeking to punish Rwanda for crimes it has not committed, the Obama Administration is placing itself into a trap. First, it is ceding American leadership in the region to non-state actors and special interest groups as well as certain countries with a vested interest in the continuation of instability in the region.

Second, it risks becoming complicit in ethnic cleansing and probably genocide.  Neither of which does anything to advance peace and security in the region or globally, not to speak of Obama’s legacy in Africa.

Peace in DRC distant

6 Aug

Is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) anywhere near achieving peace? Hardly, even with the massive deployment of troops, huge expenditure and frantic diplomatic efforts. And this is why.

Firstly, there is growing evidence that the various organs of the United Nations are pulling in different directions in the search for an end to the conflict in DRC.

On the one hand, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appears to favour a peaceful solution to the conflict. He put a lot of effort in formulating the Framework Agreement for peace in the DRC and having it signed by the heads of state of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. He also seems to support regional initiatives. The appointment of Ms Mary Robinson as his special envoy to the Great Lakes Region would also indicate his intentions for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

On the other hand, the UN peace-keeping department under Frenchman Herve Ladsous seems to pull in another direction. It supports military action and ignores, even undermines regional efforts to end the conflict. For instance MONUSCO issued an ultimatum to all armed rebels to disarm just an ICGLR Summit was meeting in Nairobi, Kenya to seek a more workable solution within the Framework Agreement.

MONUSCO was set up precisely to disarm armed rebels in DRC, but there is very little to show in this regard. Instead, it has partnered with some of them.

MONUSCO’s partisanship and the ultimatum it issued a few weeks ago are eerily reminiscent of what happened in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994. The French supported a regime that was clearly planning and later committed genocide. When the regime was facing certain defeat, its leaders, armed forces and armed militia were shepherded to safety in DRC (then Zaire) by the French who continued to arm them.

Apparently Ladsous’s MONUSCO wants to shepherd them back into Rwanda – arms, genocide ideology and all.

Pulling in different directions at the UN obviously complicates matters and leads to the question. Who actually runs the United Nations? It seems the Secretary General does not. A cartel of powerful nations and interests does.

Ban Ki-moon will trot to the different trouble spots across the globe and try to persuade groups facing off against each to come to the negotiating table and talk peace. He will smile to emphasise his peaceful intentions. Occasionally he will threaten and frown to signal the gravity of his mission. But that’s about all he can do because most of the time he will be ignored.

Ladsous will sit in New York and bully his way to achieve what his masters want.

All the powerful nations and groupings such as the United States and the European Union also have special envoys in the DRC to further their own interests which more often than not do not correspond to those of the UN.

Not surprisingly, President Uhuru Kenyatta was prompted to point out at the ICGLR Summit in Nairobi on July 31st that the UN in eastern DRC should “strengthen rather than complicate and overlap” peace efforts already initiated in that country.

Secondly, the money and effort are spent on finding the wrong answer to the problem in the Congo. The military solution that is now the preferred option in dealing with an essentially political and governance issue will not work. Insecurity in the east of the DRC and other parts of that huge, wealthy but ill-governed country is a consequence of bad governance, not inherent criminality. The proliferation of armed groups (as we have argued many times before) is a result of the absence of an effective state in the area.

No amount of money, no number of troops however well-supplied with sophisticated weapons, including drones, will fix the security and political problems in DRC.  The United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) set up in 1999 and its successor, the UN Stabilisation Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) and now the Intervention Brigade only add to the insecurity; they don’t end it.

Until all the money and effort are put to the right cause –  to strengthen the state and address the denationalisation of some Congolese, which is the root cause of the conflict, all attempts at pacifying eastern DRC will remain futile.

Thirdly, the deep involvement of the United Nations is itself a problem. I do not know of any troubled place where the United Nations has actually brought peace. On the contrary, wherever the UN has been involved, it has only succeeded in exacerbating the existing situation, often making a temporary territorial split permanent or helping fragment a country.

Examples abound. Two years ago NATO, with UN backing, attacked Libya to remove Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. The country has since been fragmented.

Congo itself is a classic example of UN failure from the 1960s to the present.

The lowest point of the UN getting it wrong was in Rwanda and the Balkans. In the former, genocide was committed while its peacekeeping force, weakened by the very organisation that had set it up, looked on. The genocide only ended when the Rwandese Patriotic Army resumed its offensive and drove the genocidal regime out of the country. In the latter, ethnic cleansing on a massive scale was systematically carried out as the UN watched. It took action by the United States and NATO to put an end to it.

Today, ethnic cleansing is happening in the DRC as the UN again watches, and if not checked it will turn into genocide. Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese and even Rwanda nationals doing legitimate business in the DRC have recently been arrested, taken to unknown places and tortured. The UN, whose mission is to protect civilians, has said or done nothing about it.

This time it even gets worse because the UN is complicit in the crime. Through MONUSCO, it has knowingly or through inexcusable negligence allowed the genocidal Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) to fight in the Congolese army’s ranks which it backs or as part of its own Intervention Brigade. This is bound to destabilise not only DRC but the whole region, and for this reason, peace remains distant.

Youth task Rwandans on forgiveness

18 Jul

Politicians in most of our countries swear by the might of the youth – at least in public. They say they are a very important section of society, that they are the future of the nation and that its very survival depends on them.

Of course, the youth are a very important, if vague, demographic, not just in numbers but in attitude and outlook to life.

With most young people what you see is what you get. They are full of energy born out of their very youthfulness, idealism and conviction that everything is possible. They are genuinely concerned about making a difference in the world. Most of them do not carry any ugly baggage from the past – no heavy guilt to weigh them down, not many scores to settle or favours to return, certainly no skeletons straining to burst cupboards.

Because of this, they have not yet developed a high degree of cunning, calculation, intrigue and hypocrisy that is usually associated with older people, particularly politicians. And politicians know this. That is why many political parties have youth wings/leagues or individual politicians use interns. They want to use the youthful energy and enthusiasm of young people to further their particular cause and in a sense to sanitise their not-so-pure positions.

But there is always the danger that idealism, once not realised, can quickly turn into disillusionment, enthusiasm into despair and energy get channelled into violence. Anyone watching the revolutions of the Arab streets and squares in North Africa and the Middle East must be aware of this.

Politicians also know the negative and dangerous potential of the youth and will therefore tend to keep them close so as to keep them in check. And so they become a sort of tool in the hands of older, more calculating and cynical politicians.

That is why politicians’ public pronouncements about the youth, or their response to demands by the youth to live up to their expectations, do not necessarily match what they think in private.

There is little sincerity in the many platitudes about the youth. Indeed, sometimes referring to them as the ‘future of the nation’, ‘leaders of tomorrow’ and many other things about a time that has not yet come is a cunning way of denying them responsibility for things happening now. It is a cynical way of using them to further certain ambitions while putting off potential competition. It is a way of saying, ‘yes, you are important, but your time has not yet come. You must wait’. By the time it does, they are no longer youthful and a lot of opportunity has been lost.

In Rwanda, however, the situation is different. The youth as the future of the nation is not an attractive but empty slogan; it is taken seriously in its literal sense. In fact, the role of the youth is taken so seriously that it does not have to wait for the future but is real here and now and an indispensable part of the present. And from their standpoint in the present, they want to leave the past behind and forge a new future where what counts is the contribution of everyone.

And they match words with action. They are entrepreneurs, leaders in government and non-governmental organisations and even politicians. They have taken the initiative on many issues without waiting for directions from government or other leaders. Often, they lead and government follows.

Rwandan youth have been so bold as to broach subjects their elders would consider taboo.  For instance, they have taken the lead in proposing that some Rwandans should seek forgiveness for their role in the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Now, this is a matter about which some people get touchy, yet one that must be confronted.

It is well-known that many Rwandans were compli0cit in the genocide – either directly as planners and killers, or indirectly through inaction or the deliberate refusal to help those in distress. They share a sense of guilt and cannot run away from it.

Difficult as it may seem, many survivors of the genocide have unconditionally forgiven people who killed members of their families. Some killers, too, have asked for forgiveness and been pardoned.

Is it too much to ask those who killed or stood by as the killing was done, or turned away those looking for a place to hide from the murderers to seek forgiveness?

This is all the young people are asking. It does not merit the angry reaction from self-exiled Rwandans, some with good reason to ask for pardon.

More importantly, in doing this, Rwandan youth have shown that they have been liberated from the world still inhabited by their elders and are prepared to march on. As President Paul Kagame has observed, they are way ahead of the older Rwandans.

Significantly they have are not doing this from a political party position or on the instructions of anyone. They have taken a position based on the national interest and the direction they want Rwanda to take. It is in our interest to support them.


Rwandans are not ungrateful

14 May

It is dishonest to selectively use history to launder the tainted record of an individual and by the same effort tarnish the image of a whole people by imputing base motives on them. Equally, it is utterly deceitful to attempt to absolve criminals from culpability by reassigning responsibility for their actions. It is also blatantly insincere to try to delegitimize a genuine national liberation struggle by questioning its justification.

There is a name for this sort of thing: revisionism and it is not a respectable undertaking. Yet this is what Mr Harold Acemah, described as a political scientist, consultant and retired diplomat, does in a number of articles in the Monitor newspaper.

In a story titled, “Some voices and lessons from down the memory lane” (Sunday Monitor, 12th May) he narrates former Ugandan President Apolo Milton Obote’s supposed defence of Rwandan refugees and the latter’s apparent betrayal of him. The gist of the story is that in 1960 Obote, then a member of the colonial legislative council, was a strong advocate of Rwandan refugees to be allowed asylum in Uganda against the wishes of the colonial government. But that the refugees subsequently showed extreme ingratitude when they participated in the liberation struggle that eventually removed Obote from power.

Acemah’s story thus tries to do two things; canonise Obote while demonise Rwandans. Judging from his other writings on Rwanda, the second aim seems to be his major preoccupation.

And in a hurry to do this, he picks two events, one at the beginning and the other at the end of Obote’s political career and then uses them to make a general assessment of Obote’s supposed good intentions and Rwandans’ alleged deplorable character.  What happened in the intervening twenty years that he has conveniently left out during which Obote was at the height of his power?

The facts are different from this simplistic selection of historical detail.

It is true that Milton Obote  showed pan-Africanist tendencies – at least in rhetoric – at some stage in his political career and may indeed have supported the right of Rwandans to seek refuge in Uganda. He may have done it out of conviction or perhaps from a desire to annoy the British colonial authorities and score political points or to raise his profile in pan-African circles. All this is possible.

But along the way, raw power and narrow political interests eroded his pan-African idealism and he allowed narrow nationalism to dictate his conduct. For instance in 1969 he famously threatened to expel all foreigners from Uganda, including his Luo cousins from Kenya who had given him refuge and from whom he acquired political skills (talk of ingratitude). Rwandans – both immigrants and refugees – were not to be spared either.

In 1982 Obote actually carried out the threat and expelled thousands of Rwandan refugees and Kinyarwanda –speaking Ugandans to Rwanda. He did not hesitate to burn and kill in order to force people out of the country. He knew the cruel fate that awaited  them in Rwanda, but that did not stop him. As expected the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda refused to accept them and as a result thousands perished in the no man’s land between the two countries. Even when the government of Rwanda relented under pressure and accepted some of its citizens as refugees, they were settled in uninhabitable areas where many more died.

Was this the action of a man who had reportedly argued that Ugandans and Rwandans were kin and none should suffer injustice when the other was there to help?

This insensitivity, brutality and injustice, more than anything else, drove many people to join the National Resistance Army. It was a matter of survival, not a question of ingratitude or betrayal.

It is a historical fact that the 1980 general election in Uganda was stolen by the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and Obote assumed power illegally. What followed was a genuine liberation struggle. Obote’s response was to unleash more brutality and violence on Ugandans. He showed a great deal of intolerance and incompetence that were slowly leading the country to a failed state status. Was this the action of a saint that Acemah would like to add to the list of holy people? And conversely, was resistance and struggle for survival actions of the devil?

In an earlier story, “Some reflections on the Rwandan genocide” (Sunday Monitor, 14th April 2013) Mr Acemah had sought to put the cause of the genocide to the downing of President Habyarimana’s plane. He then went on to say that he did not “believe that Hutu extremists shot down the plane”. Without presenting any evidence, he wants the world to believe that others, most likely the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), did it.

Again Acemah wants to achieve two things here. First, he is at pains to absolve Hutu extremists from all blame. Second, he is only too eager to transfer responsibility to others.

He should save himself the trouble because various investigations have concluded that the plane was shot down by extremists with the support of their foreign backers.

In any case there are serious flaws in Acemah’s plane crash argument as the origin of the genocide, There was a plan that was well-known and was immediately executed. There had been periodic pogroms before that point to a history of genocide.

Finally, Acemah mixes religion with revisionism perhaps to lend it credibility. He is quick to judge and condemn Rwandan refugees as ungrateful people who will answer to the Lord (presumably Jesus Christ). But I remember the same Jesus Christ cautioning against quick judgement of others because that is his prerogative.

It appears Mr Acemah has appropriated that divine right and the right to revise history. He is wrong \on both counts.

You can’t put Rwandans down-they bounce right back

29 Apr

Try hard as they might, no one will put down this country. And so many have tried, but all their efforts have come to naught. Rwanda continues to push ahead, brushing aside all attempts to distract it from pursuing what is best for the people.

The last few days have been full of evidence of this irrepressible spirit of Rwanda.

The first was the news of the issuance of a $400 million Eurobond on the market and its resounding success. It attracted so many investors and was consequently heavily oversubscribed. Even the usual Rwanda bashers have been gushing in their reporting of the success of this bold move.

For those, like me, who are not very familiar with these sorts of financial transactions, a debt bond (or sovereign bond when issued by a government in foreign currency) is a debt investment where an investor lends the government an amount of money for a given period at a certain interest rate. In other words, it is a form of borrowing from financial investors.

In this case the bond is worth $400 million for a period of ten years and the money raised will be used to finance certain projects that will in turn raise more money.

What is the good news in borrowing that we should all get very excited about?

It is generally agreed that the confidence to go to the market in this manner was significant.  It is evidence of the mature and prudent management of the economy that has been responsible for the consistent growth rates over the last decade. Equally, the overwhelming oversubscription to the bond is seen as a vote of investor confidence in the performance of the Rwandan economy.

The significance can also be appreciated when considered in the context of preceding events. It comes in the wake of attempts to derail the country’s progress by denying it promised support on the untenable evidence of lies and false accusations. And in this sense it shows a determination to diversify sources of finance so that development efforts are not held back by arbitrary, unilateral or capricious decisions of some in the international community.

Furthermore, this action shows that Rwanda is prepared to do whatever it takes to finance its projects and does not have to wait for the generosity of .others. Money from this sort of source is often given as a reward for good behaviour or withheld for allegedly being naughty, even when the definition for such behaviour keeps shifting.

This measure, together with other actions to raise capital, points to one thing: realising double digit growth in the next few years is quite possible.

The second piece of good news happened at about the same time as the bond was getting such a huge reception. It was the humiliation of Steve Hege (he of the infamous UN Group of Experts report on alleged Rwandan support for M23) at the hands of a handful of Rwandans during a public discussion in the United States on the deployment of the intervention brigade in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

As usual, he demonised M23 but conveniently ignored the existence of armed groups like the FDLR which have a more atrocious record. He was in his element when accusing Rwanda of responsibility for all the ills in DRC. His obsession with today’s Rwanda and his support for FDLR have turned him into a one-track mind crusader against this country.

Reports say, however, that this time Hege did not have it all his way. He was challenged about his open bias for a genocidal armed group, his lies about Rwanda and dragging the United Nations into what appears to be an inexplicable personal vendetta against Rwanda’s leadership. The fellow had no answer to any of these and fled in panic and humiliation.

Steve Hege’s public disgrace comes hot on the heels of a similar treatment of Ken Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, who thinks he is some kind of a god. He too was unmasked at a symposium supposedly to honour the late Allison De Forges and revealed for what he really is – a sour-faced, petty-minded individual who is ready to abuse the generosity of benefactors to his organisation in order to finance a personal hate campaign.

In the last few years, memorial lectures have been organised purportedly to pay tribute to Allison De Forge, but in reality to give a platform to Rwanda haters to vent their hatred.

Like in the bond issue, Rwandans have shown that they will do whatever it takes to defend their dignity and the good name of their country against all manner of detractors and other malcontents wherever they may be. They are prepared to expose liars and charlatan, bigots and opportunists.

You may try but you cannot put this country down. It will bounce right back and leap higher and farther.

Any chance Pope Francis I will say sorry to Rwandans?

19 Mar

Habemus papam (we have a pope). Those two Latin words, previously unknown to a majority of the world’s population, became very familiar during the election of the new pope as media commentators sought to explain the papal selection process. Yes, we have a pope, Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

He has already scored many firsts. He is the first pope to take on the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the son of a rich merchant who gave up wealth, pleasure and privilege for a life of extreme poverty. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope. He is the first pope to come from the Southern Hemisphere and the first outside Europe for more than a thousand years.

Is this man, with a record of firsts, the person to breathe new life into an ageing, creaking church? Is he the man to bring reassurance to a church beset with scandals and doubts?

Already, he is charming crowds with his simplicity, warmth and spontaneity. It is good to see a pope who strays from a prepared text and speaks from the heart, so to speak. It is refreshing to see him freely gesture with his hands and connect with the crowds. Pope Francis shows signs of vitality and freedom from a sterile formality that we had come to associate with the papacy.

It will be interesting to see if the new style Pope Francis brings to the Vatican can help him break the mould and come up with other, more significant firsts.

Will he be the first to break the silence about a lot of things the church has kept under wraps for centuries – for instance, its indefensible collusion with tyrants across the world, its unconscionable indifference in the face of injustice and all manner of atrocities, or the proverbial burying the head in the sand to avoid seeing the unsavoury sights?

In the case of Rwanda, it is reasonable to expect that the people’s pope (as he is getting to be known) will acknowledge the church’s complicity in the genocide in the country, apologise and ask for pardon – if not from Rwandans, at least from his master. He has taken up the papacy at an opportune moment to do this.

He should have the courage to defrock and even excommunicate the rapist priests and mass murdering clergy who still ply their trade in various countries.

At the very least, he should shed a tear for the desecration of churches in Rwanda, sometimes at the supervision of priests.

If Pope Francis wants to break from an unpleasant past and set the church on a new moral and spiritual plane, he should be prepared to say a collective mea culpa for all the sins of his predecessors.

Will he do it? May be, but to think that will happen requires one to have a large overdose of optimism. More likely, tradition will be kept and nothing much will change.

Still, Pope Francis has a great opportunity to change – not direction; that would never happen – but emphasis, and more significantly has the chance to rejuvenate an ageing church.

Look everywhere and you see an institution in the later stages of fossilisation. Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, symbolised that process of ageing. The College of Cardinals itself is a club of the elderly and each Cardinal a study in various stages of that process.

I often watch EWTN, a catholic TV network and am not reassured by what I see. The mass is a colourless routine affair. The congregation at mass is made up of elderly people who hardly fill a third of the small church. The sermons are dull and uninspiring.

The rosary, recited by nuns whose habit makes one think of penguins, drones on monotonously. I believe I have caught the plump and elderly mother superior stumble on the beads. You get the impression that the few younger nuns among them would rather be out skipping, swapping romantic fantasies or doing some other girlish mischief.

The church lacks dynamism and vitality and the TV network rather than dispel this view actually entrenches it.

Of course, there will be defenders of the state of affairs where ritual and substance are synonymous and the key elements, and energy an aberration. They will say the church is timeless and ageless. That may be so, but it is also obviously creaking and seems to move along only by the sheer momentum of tradition and history, not by creative energy.

Benedict XVI’s abdication and retreat from the world, whether pushed by the weight of the sins of his priests or overwhelmed by the shadowy and opaque Vatican bureaucracy, gives the church a chance for renewal.

The new pope should not retreat from the world, but must rather engage it and shape its future. He needs to be more forthright and assertive, and not kowtow to palace courtiers who thrive on scheming and intrigues. 

There are some good indications already and perhaps the church has come full circle. The return to simplicity and spontaneity reminds one of the simple and impulsive fisherman who became the rock on which the church is built. .His equally unassuming master, the son of a humble carpenter, gathered for himself a huge following through persuasion and example.

The church may yet be re-energised.  Pope Francis I has the chance to make history. He should seize it.