Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I am in Kigali right now for a few meetings.

The Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, is a love-him-or-hate-him sort of guy. His proponents point to his ending the Rwandan genocide, rebuilding a shattered country and catapulting its economy ahead. His detractors often accuse him of running a police state, rigging elections and silently crushing political opposition. There is at least a grain of truth to those accusations*.

When I arrived late last night, I was trying to find the address for this morning's meeting. I asked my contact where to go. "Minijust," she said in English, using the semi-official nickname for the Ministry of Justice building.

Same thing happened for this afternoon's meeting at the Ministry of Commerce (Minicom). It's located in the joint Minicom-Minafet building (Minafet being the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). The joint Minicom-Minafet building is also home to Mineac (the Ministry of East African Community Affairs). These contracted ministry names sounded familiar but I couldn't put my finger on where I'd heard them before.

In French, it is more common to have "syllable" acronyms (e.g., Societe de Transport Rwandaise becomes Sotrara) than in English, which uses "first letter" acryonyms (e.g., Rwanda Development Board becomes RDB). Even though this is a French-speaking country, I knew that something about the ministries names was odd.

It only just occurred to me where I heard this type of labeling before: George Orwell's 1984. The totalitarian Oceanian government in that novel did exactly the same thing with its evil ministries. Minipax was responsible for war; Miniluv for torturing people and running the secret police; Miniplenty for economic planning; and Minitrue for nationalist propaganda.

I don't know if Kagame realized this when he took over, but naming your ministries Oceania-style isn't a good idea for a regime accused of being a police state.

* For great professional coverage of this debate, read my roommate's recent article in the Financial Times:

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