By Allie Krause
The day was balmy, 75 degrees and sunny, as we sat sipping coffee in the shade of the über-modern Kigali City Tower. For a city as densely populated as this one, the streets were extraordinarily quiet, clean. Though I knew Rwanda was peaceful, in spite of its violent history, the level of calm left me just a little uneasy. Coming from London, which had most recently played host to thousands-strong pro-Palestine rallies that would march past my window every weekend, the quiet seemed unnatural. I asked my new Rwandan friend whether he had ever seen any anti-government protests or demonstrations in the capital. He responded with a burst of laughter and shook his head. “They’d be shot in broad daylight in the middle of the street.”
This year marked the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. Well-known in popular culture thanks to films like “Hotel Rwanda” and Philip Gourevitch’s book “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families,” there are few who have not at least heard of the Genocide. Nonetheless, for those who are not so familiar with it, a quick history lesson may be necessary.
By the start of the Genocide in April 1994, ethnic tensions in Rwanda had been running high for a long time. Colonial-era racial policies had favored the Tutsi, an ethnic minority, over the Hutu, the cultural majority. When the Hutu wrested control from the ruling Tutsi in the first official elections of 1973, violence ensued. For decades, many Tutsis lived in exile in neighboring Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi. In 1987, a group of these exiles came together to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, which would lead the resistance to the Hutu-led Rwandan government. Back in Rwanda, this government was growing increasingly unstable as advocates of Hutu Power, a movement advocating Hutu supremacy and extremism in Rwanda, grew in strength and number.
After years of clashes between the RPF and the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) that deteriorated into a civil war lasting from 1990 to 1993, President Habyarimana of Rwanda and RPF leaders reached a peace agreement at Arusha, Tanzania in August 1993, intended to establish a transitional government comprised of both Hutus and Tutsis. But everything changed on April 6th, 1994 when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down just outside Kigali. To this day, no one is sure who was the culpable party, whether the RPF or Hutu extremists, but that peace-shattering act, that left both Hutu extremists and RPF without reason to hold back, signaled the start of the bloodiest time in Rwanda’s history and one of the most devastating genocides in world history.
Though the RPF eventually succeeded in pushing out the Hutu Power leaders and militias, victory was not without a heavy cost. During that summer in 1994, 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates died at the hands of the FAR and the Interahamwe, the major extremist Hutu Power militia, before the RPF was able to take Kigali.
Fearing retaliation, millions of the majority Hutu ethnic group—including the ousted government, soldiers, and militia—escaped into neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC), whose President Mobutu had been close with Habyarimana, with others taking flight to Tanzania and Burundi. The refugee camps that formed along the border between Zaire and Rwanda, and their subsequent militarization, paved the way for further conflict and the formation of more militia groups that to this day still run rampant throughout the region.
Rwanda today is a very different place from what it was 20 years ago. Since Paul Kagame’s ascension to the presidency, he has worked tirelessly to revolutionize the country and make it a force to be reckoned with. In the past 10 years, Rwanda has moved from having 80 percent of its population under the poverty line to 40 percent; it is considered the 32nd best nation, and the second best in Africa, to conduct business in; and it has the highest percentage of female participation in governance—currently women hold 64 percent of parliamentary seats and 34 percent of cabinet positions.
This wasn’t achieved by accident. Kagame tolerates neither corruption nor incompetence in his Rwanda. Local leadership is made accountable for the goings on of their districts. As a source close to Kagame, who asked to remain anonymous, explained to me, if money is allocated to fix a road in your district, it better go toward fixing it or you could be ousted before you can say “I promise I’m not corrupt.” Particularly within the Kigali City district, the most populous in the country, this has resulted in incredible infrastructural development. Many in the West have hailed Rwanda as a country worth helping and investing in, from Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who at the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Genocide in 2014 expressed amazement and disbelief at the Rwandan ability to “unite and show that reconciliation is possible even after a monumental tragedy.” Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair has been a particularly vocal advocate of Kagame’s Rwanda, and the country has undertaken a variety of pro-investment policy reforms to ensure Rwanda’s continued competitiveness in attracting foreign investment.
Of course, much of this would not be possible if the tensions that have wracked the country for decades were allowed to bubble up to the surface. Kagame leads Rwanda with an iron fist— an extremely effective one at that—and it seems generally accepted amongst Rwandans that, with few exceptions, what Kagame says goes. Private sector leaders in Rwanda described to me an instance when the government confiscated 30 percent of wealthier landowners’ acreage to redistribute it. What is most shocking is that this was not described with anger, resentment, or even a vague sense of annoyance. As one source explained to me over lunch at a Kigali hotel, “[the government] didn’t use it for themselves, they gave it to those who had nothing. When they say they’ll do something, they do it.”The people can expect Kagame’s government to follow through on their promises, even if the initial cost to the people is high.
Yet there are those who do take issue with how Kagame has led Rwanda, some who go as far as to revile the government, seeing them as nothing more than Kagame’s cronies, remnants of a colonial hierarchy, and Kagame as nothing more than a repressive dictator disguised by the illusion of democracy. Political opposition to Kagame’s party is virtually nonexistent, and it appears likely that Rwanda will get rid of its constitution’s two-term limit, paving the way for Kagame to run again in 2017.
Much in the way that protests and demonstrations are not tolerated within the country, criticizing Kagame can itself be a dangerous endeavor. Many of those who dare to do so have disappeared or been found dead in mysterious circumstances, most famously Kagame’s former chief of intelligence, Patrick Karegeya. Karegeya had become increasingly critical of his former boss when he was found murdered on January 1st, 2014 in his Johannesburg hotel room. Though the precise circumstances of his death remain unclear, Kagame did little to distance himself short of officially taking credit for it. At a prayer meeting within the fortnight, he told those gathered: “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it. Anyone, even those still alive, will reap the consequences. Anyone. It is a matter of time.”
A much deadlier war of dissent rages in eastern Congo. What began with the post-genocide militarization of refugee camps along the Rwandan border has become a battle between scores of militia groups fighting for control. Local villages, regardless of the ethnicity or political alignment of their inhabitants, live in constant fear of ruthless, brutal attack.
In spite of its best efforts, MONUSCO, the UN’s peacekeeping operation in the DRC, has been unable to slow the tide of ceaseless violence raging in the heart of Africa. These militia groups continue to wreak havoc, threatening the security of the region and committing gross human rights abuses in their efforts to attain greater territorial control. The strongest and best armed of these, the ones Kagame fears the most, are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Established by genocidaires who fled Rwanda after the RPF victory, for the most part former members of the Rwandan Armed Forces and the Interahamwe, their ultimate goal is to take back what they believe is rightfully theirs. They despise Kagame and want nothing more than to overthrow him and his “Tutsi regime.” Though unconfirmed by international sources, the Rwandan government has accused the FDLR of conducting a number of attacks on Rwandan soil, including launching bombs and rockets over the border.
On the other side of the arena is armed rebel group M23 (named after the March 23, 2009 peace deals between the Congolese government and the National Congress for the Defense of the People, another militia group). Tutsi-led with close ties to Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda, they began their rebellion against the pro-Hutu Congolese government in April 2012, breaking the 2009 peace deals. International human rights watchdogs have attributed a swathe of human rights abuses to M23, from rape and summary executions to the recruitment of child soldiers. And as M23 grew in strength, whispers of Kagame supporting the rebels grew too.
In recent years, as those whispers became shouts of outrage and more evidence began to surface of Rwanda’s likely financial backing of the rebel group, many of its key Western allies began pulling their foreign aid. The United Kingdom withdrew $34 million of aid in November 2012, citing concerns over “funding a dictator,” and in October 2013 the United States blocked its military aid over Rwanda’s alleged support of the M23 rebels. The issue has posed a major problem for Western donors who in the past have been proud in their support for Kagame, praising him for his success in rebuilding a war-torn, shattered society into what it is today.
The trouble is that in spite of the many ethical problems that have arisen, Kagame has truly succeeded in improving Rwanda in the face of great adversity. His administration has pulled a country out of the rubble and transformed it into what is well on its way to becoming a middle-income country with a top class healthcare system to boot. Rwanda has, for the most part, recovered from the terrible violence it endured for decades, but at what cost? And critically, at what point is the West no longer willing to look past this cost? Is it right to do so?
When the Genocide began, the West, and the U.S. in particular, was reluctant to intervene following the great failure of intervention in Somalia, just one year before. This resulted in “one hundred days of silence,” during which the world watched as ethnic tensions exploded into the mass killing, rape, and torture of Rwandan Tutsis and Hutu moderates. At its end, the West was left with an enormous sense of guilt and a subsequent feeling of duty to aid the RPF-led government. This support carried on in the face of morally problematic events, from a failure to uphold true democracy to the “disappearance” of 300,000 Hutus into the Zairean forest during the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis that began following the Genocide and finished with forced repatriation in 1996. Still, praise flowed in from the international community for Rwanda’s great progress in stability and reconciliation.
The moral complicity evident here is most likely for the sake of political expediency born of American remorse; President Clinton has often talked of the “lifetime responsibility” he feels over standing by as genocide tore Rwanda apart. Yet today Rwanda faces a united West that has decided that it will not tolerate even the suggestion that Kagame backed rebel groups in eastern Congo. It is morally intolerable, they argue. One has to wonder exactly what changed between times when the West was willing to ignore the fact that true democracy had failed in Rwanda, or brush the hundreds of thousands killed during the refugee crisis under the carpet, and now, where it has shunned Rwanda over reports that indicate Kagame might have supported rebel groups. At what point does the West consider the trade-off between security and democracy too great?
Even if Kagame’s denial of this support to M23 is genuine, does Rwanda not have the right to defend itself? It has good reason to be worried—the FDLR and many other militia groups operating in eastern Congo seek the utter destruction of Kagame and his administration. The consequences of such instability for the development of the country would be disastrous. The right to self-defense is an argument that has been used to defend the actions of many Western allies in conflict-ridden regions around the world, but it seems that at least in Rwanda, Western appetite for it has abated.
This leads to another conundrum. The West, and particularly the U.S., is adamant in prescribing the Western value system for post-conflict societies like Rwanda. In trying to establish democracies, the West works to boost up leaders that they believe will support Western interests—Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, to name a few—who quickly become uncontrollable. The problem is usually left to fester until some unforeseeable tipping point where some kind of intervention is attempted. While the West cannot take the full blame for a leader becoming a brutal dictator, a view echoed by several of the academics I spoke to was that the West must learn to understand the limitations of democracy promotion in post-conflict societies.
The situation in Rwanda is nowhere near as extreme as the DRC or Equatorial Guinea, but true democracy, in the Western sense, has failed. A political system in which the opposition is cowed into silence, in which laws meant to support unity further obfuscate tensions while escalating them, is not a democracy. Yet it cannot be denied that Rwanda’s system of a largely benevolent semi-dictator has been effective; it’s just morally uncomfortable.
Allie Krause ’15 is a Global Affairs major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.