Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame gets 7 more years after flawed elections. Though Kagame can claim credit for impressive economic growth and development under his leadership, the current system of governance seems unlikely to yield long-term peace and stability in Rwanda.
Paul Kagame is seemingly a popular man in Rwanda having received 93 percent of the votes in Monday’s presidential elections, adding another seven years to his rule. But he is also a man who does not accept criticism or opposition and is determined to stay in power regardless of what Rwandans might think. Nonetheless, Kagame is not an “African dinosaur” who wants power because it is convenient and can make him rich.
Reflecting a general trend in Rwanda’s political system, Monday’s elections were a celebration of Kagame’s leadership rather than a democratic exercise in which open debate and genuine political competition could take place. While three other candidates were running for office, not only did none of these stand a chance of winning, but they did not even seem to have any intentions of winning, being all known supporters of Kagame. [protected]
Those candidates in real opposition to Kagame were not allowed to register, have been arrested or are in exile. The elections therefore took place in an atmosphere characterized by intimidation of any critics of Kagame still free in the country. Newspapers critical of the president have been closed down and had their journalists arrested, and opposition politicians such as Victoire Ingabire have been charged with harboring genocide ideology and put under house arrest. There have also been a number of suspicious attacks that appear linked to the elections, though government involvement has not been proven. In July, André Kagwa Rwisereka, vice president of the opposition Democratic Green Party, was killed in Butare in Southern Rwanda. A month earlier, dissident Rwandan general Kayumba Nyamwasa was attacked in Johannesburg by what South African authorities called “foreign agents”. Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a journalist who had investigated the case and claimed Rwandan authorities were behind it, was subsequently killed outside his house in Rwanda‟s capital, Kigali.
The way in which these elections have been carried out signals an authoritarian drift in Rwanda which has started to worry parts of the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently called for a “thorough investigation into the latest incidents”, emphasizing the need to bring to justice those responsible for the killings of opposition members. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has encouraged the president to show restraint in regards to politicians from opposition parties. However, this international pressure comes late given that Kagame, who for years has received support from the White House, has oppressed his critics ever since he became president in 2000.
Yet the memory of the 1994 genocide has made many argue that different standards for the legitimacy of a government should apply in Rwanda. Authoritarianism and some amount of human rights abuses have widely been accepted as a fair price to pay for stability and the development of a fragile post-genocide society.
And while it is true that Kagame’s regime is clearly authoritarian, some of his achievements during his 10-year rule as president should be lauded.
In 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of Rwanda after defeating the regime responsible for the genocide, the rebels led by Kagame found a devastated country that literally had to be rebuilt from scratch. Not only was the country devastated by civil war, but those responsible for the genocide made sure to destroy as much as they could as they fled to neighboring DRC. Kagame, by most commentators seen as the effective ruler of the country though only serving as vice-president until 2000, seemed determined to show Rwandans and the world that he could do the impossible – turn this war-torn land into a stable and prosperous country. Although there is a long way to go for Rwanda, especially in terms of eradicating poverty, in many ways the reconstruction process has been remarkable, and in some aspects seems to have been premised on limiting political liberalization and restricting human rights.
When the genocide ended most observers thought it would be impossible to deliver justice for these crimes. Following attempts at prosecuting genocide perpetrators in Rwandan national courts, so-called Gacaca Courts were established, creating a highly innovative system that combines community-based reconciliation with punitive efforts. Though these local courts have been criticized for failing to respect the rights of the accused, by for example banning defense counsel from hearings, the curtailing of rights has allowed the system to resolve hundreds of thousands of cases. Many commentators accept that by adopting this framework for genocide justice Rwanda has been able to address problems of ethnic division and political violence. To a certain extent, the Gacaca Courts have provided a forum in which victims and perpetrators may be reconciled. The system has even benefited the country‟s economy by forcing convicted genocide criminals to carry out community work such as rebuilding houses and constructing roads. Clearly a conventional court system, even in countries with a more developed judiciary, would have been unable to handle the enormous burden of prosecuting hundreds of thousands of genocide cases, and it would probably have proven even less efficient at promoting reconciliation at the community level, something essential in cases of mass atrocities. Simply dismissing the Gacaca Courts outright as illegitimate because they fail to safeguard certain human rights standards ignores the context.
In addition, Kagame has the honor of ruling a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the region. The insurgency, which was quite serious in the late 1990s, ended due to Kagame’s use of a combination of brute force and policies aimed at convincing the rebels, many of them genocide criminals, to return to Rwanda. Although these measures have failed to bring stability and peace to the eastern DRC, where these insurgents resided in refugee camps, the tactics proved helpful for avoiding another large-scale civil war. In addition, robberies, car-jacking and other forms of “ordinary violent crime” are rare events in Rwanda, most likely because criminals fear the all-present security apparatus. Kagame has also hit hard at corrupt ministers and civil servants, perhaps explaining why Rwanda is the least corrupt country in East Africa according to bodies such as Transparency International.
Most strikingly perhaps is Kagame’s ability to spark off economic growth and development. In 2001 the foreign direct investment (FDI) in Rwanda amounted to only 18 billion RWF, but has now increased to 600 billion RWF (around one billion USD). A series of business regulation reforms – including legislation making it easier to start up private businesses and register property, as well as good investor protection rules – lead the World Bank to name Rwanda the “top global reformer” of 2010. These reforms, along with a boom in tourism and government support for more efficient farming, have fostered an economic growth rate averaging eight percent over the last half decade. Looking at Rwanda’s capital Kigali, one clearly sees the impact of this – the city is undergoing a radical transformation in these years with new high-rises appearing and shanty towns being replaced by shopping malls and banks.
This economic liberalization, however, stands in stark contrast to the lack of political liberalization. Though the donor community and international media have tended to focus on the progress made, civil and political freedoms have in fact been seriously restricted ever since the RPF took power in 1994.
Initially, given that the genocide was planned by political elites in order to prevent the arrival of a multi-party system, and that the violence was carried out with mass participation, postponing the establishment of a liberal democracy did not seem an entirely unreasonable move. Likewise it was clear that compromises on certain human rights standards were inevitable, in particular given the massive number of genocide detainees and the lack of infrastructure to process them.
Contrary to the assumption made by many Western governments, however, there are no reasons to believe that the denial of basic freedoms in Rwanda has ever been intended merely as a temporary measure on the way to pluralism and democracy. In fact, the manner in which the recent presidential elections have been carried out reflects a single party understanding of politics which has always been central to the RPF.
Kagame‟s RPF was formed in 1987 by exiled Rwandans (primarily Tutsis) in Uganda who’s initial purpose was to fight for a return to Rwanda. It has therefore been highly influenced by the Ugandan context, where the legacy of political violence was said to have been a result of a multi-party system in which each party manipulated ethnicity for its purposes. Consequently, the RPF sees political competition, and in particular the forming of multiple political parties, as a potential trigger of violent divisions between ethnic groups.
This understanding of politics must be understood in context of the RPF’s view on ethnicity. Grievances and conflicts between Rwanda‟s Tutsis and Hutus are treated as a consequence of the “divide-and-rule” policies adopted during the colonial era, which were then been exacerbated by irresponsible and power-hungry politicians (i.e. ex-presidents Kayibanda and Habyarimana) in post-colonial Rwanda. These observations are partly true, but the RPF‟s conception of pre-colonial Rwanda as a paradise where Tutsis and Hutus “lived in harmony” is of course too simplistic. In any case, these conceptions of Rwandan history mean that the RPF views the reconstruction of so-called “national unity” as its most important task.
There is also a highly elitist view within the RPF that due to decades of manipulation ordinary Rwandans are unable to govern themselves, and instead need an informed and decisive force – such as Kagame’s RPF – to decide for them. As Aloysia Inyumba, the former General Secretary of Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and also a prominent RPF leader, explains: “the ordinary citizens are like babies. They will need to be completely educated before we can talk about democracy”.
But why has the RPF not yet been able to provide civic education so Rwandans can regain agency and be allowed to elect their leaders? The fact is that large-scale programs such as the so-called Ingando Camps have been put in place to re-educate (or perhaps indoctrinate?) Rwandans, yet there is a continued rejection of liberal democratic principles.
The fact is like many other dictators, Kagame has begun to see himself as infallible. Adding some amount of dictatorial paranoia to that, political opposition has not only become an obstacle to his making the right decisions for Rwanda, but also a personal threat. As the president himself recently commented, “my job has not been to create an opposition”, but “to create the environment where legitimate things can happen”.
Given RPF’s view on ethnicity, it is interesting that Kagame has used exactly the issue of ethnicity as a tool for fighting those who question his understanding of “legitimate things”. In 2008, for example, the Rwandan genocide was renamed the “Tutsi Genocide”, seemingly with the intention of reminding Rwandans and the outside world that the Hutus as a group were responsible for the genocide and that those in power represent the victims. In reality though the RPF leaders have only little in common with the Rwandan Tutsis who were killed in 1994 as most of the leadership was born and raised in Uganda, and of course not all Hutus were genocide criminals. Legislation passed in recent years which prohibits “divisionism” and “genocide ideology” defines these terms so broadly that it can be used against the mere mentioning of unpunished RPF-crimes during the civil war or any critique of government policies such as land reforms, thus providing an efficient tool for silencing critical voices. The paradox therefore is that Kagame’s Rwanda is seemingly driven by an ambition to construct a national identity between ethnicities, while at the same time emphasizing differences in ethnicity where it is convenient for limiting criticism and political opposition.
For those who hoped that Kagame would eventually turn out to be a liberal democrat the recently held elections must have come as a great disappointment. However, the present limits on political opposition and freedoms in Rwanda should simply be seen as the continuation of an elitist political system established in 1994. Over the years, the president might have become increasingly confident that only he is sufficiently enlightened to lead the country, and now that he has consolidated power oppression seems to take place more in the open.
The fact remains though that Rwanda’s dictatorship is fundamentally different from many of those that have plagued the African continent. Where one-party rule in Moi‟s Kenya, Mobuto’s Zaire or Amin’s Uganda was associated with self-enrichment and corruption, Kagame is clearly not corrupt or in office to get rich. On the contrary, Kagame is principled and extremely disciplined, and it cannot be denied that part of the explanation for Rwanda‟s success in achieving economic growth and development should be found in his commitment to change. Yet he has no intention of letting Rwandans have a say in how the country should be ruled. Given that questions of ethnicity continue to play a role in Rwanda despite the prohibitions of “divisionism” and “genocide ideology”, and that an eventual, probably non-democratic, transition of power must take place, it is likely that this system of governance, dominated by returned Tutsi exiles, will not result in peace and stability in the long run. [/protected]
Writen by Dr. Thomas Obel Hansen