Troubling Signs Mark Kagame’s Path to Unity

Image: Flickr, PROITU-Pictures
Image: Flickr, PROITU-Pictures

In the 10 years that Rwanda's ruling party, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), has been in power, it has done much to portray itself as the party for all the country's people. It is an illusion that no one believes, but that everyone – Rwandans and observing foreigners alike – seems willing to accept.

The RPF’s stated ideology is reconciliation between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi, whose relationship since independence 42 years ago has been punctuated by a series of state-sponsored ethnic massacres culminating in the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and their sympathisers.

Government messages on radio, in schools and at re-education camps promote national unity: Hutu and Tutsi are one people, sharing the same language, culture and destiny. Ethnic classification on national identity cards, once mandatory, is now forbidden. Forgiveness is the keynote.

‘Our nation was never an aggregate of brute savages,’ said Charles Murigande, Rwandan foreign minister, addressing a conference at the South African Institute of International Affairs in late April. ‘Until the colonial adventure in Rwanda, all Rwandans were the same people…. We are trying to rebuild a stable, peaceful, prosperous society.’

A Pivotal Question

But beneath the RPF’s veil of inclusivity and cohesion lies a worrying pattern of political coercion and intolerance, causing observers and human rights organisations to quietly question whether the Tutsi-led ruling party and its charismatic president, Paul Kagame, are leading this fragile society out of its blood-soaked past or deeper into repressive minority rule and, ultimately, more ethnic violence. Critics are labelled ‘divisive’ and jailed. Independent newspapers are harassed. Few risk speaking out against the government.

‘The RPF don’t care one way or the other what the people’s real opinions or wishes on issues are because the party will get what it wants by any means,’ said Florian Ukizemwabo, a human rights activist with the Kigali-based organisation Liprodhor. ‘It is only for political expedience that they make people go through the make-believe that they too are involved in important national processes.’

Granted independence from Belgium in 1962, Rwanda was ruled by two long-serving Hutu regimes prior to 1994. Its first three decades of self-rule were punctuated by episodes of ethnic violence as well as successful and attempted coups d’état. Tutsis lived under constant discrimination and threat of violence. Tens of thousands were driven into exile in neighbouring Uganda.

The RPF came to power at the peak of anti-Tutsi violence, ousting a genocidal ‘Hutu Power’ government after three months of slaughtering unrivalled in efficiency by even the Nazis. The military wing of the party, the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA), was led by Kagame, a Tutsi who had spent most of his life in exile.

Rwanda’s new ruling class faced a mammoth challenge in a very unfriendly neighbourhood. In its first decade in power, the RPF repatriated thousands of Rwandan Hutus who fled across the border into eastern Zaire after the genocide; integrated rival armed forces; released thousands of elderly prisoners as well as those who were too young to appreciate the magnitude of crimes they allegedly committed during the genocide; and banned ethnic discrimination in hiring practices.

The government also established a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission to facilitate a dialogue on the worst aspects of Rwanda’s violent past as well as traditional tribunals to try the genocide suspects crowding the country’s penal system. These courts, the gacacas, place an emphasis on lenience for those who confess to their participation in the massacres and other crimes against humanity and who then beg forgiveness.

Some Tutsis bitterly complain that Hutus are ‘having it much too easy in this government.’

‘It is amazing, given the enormity of what has to be overcome, how much [the RPF] have achieved in instituting the rule of law and how much the country has advanced to democratisation and inclusiveness in government,’ said Lynda Chalker, former British Overseas Development Minister, during a recent visit to Kigali.

Rebuilding a Nation

The RPF maintains that building a different Rwanda hinges on democracy, accountability and good governance. Although the RPF is Rwanda’s first predominantly Tutsi government, Hutus hold several key ministries and other prominent positions. In 1999 the country held its first local elections. A new constitution followed. Last August, at the end of the nine-year transition period, voters overwhelming returned Kagame to power in Rwanda’s first multiparty presidential elections.

Foreign observers have praised the way the RPF is transforming Rwanda, even though the European Union observer team concluded the elections were neither free nor fair. But there is plenty of reason for concern. The Independent Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court are stacked with prominent RPF members or those who are openly loyal to it. Two years ago, the government refused to allow the international tribunal hearing the most serious Rwandan genocide cases in Arusha, Tanzania, to prosecute RPA members the court suspected of war crimes.

In 2002, the Washington-based International Crisis Group urged the RPF to establish an ombudsman’s office made up of ‘wise men’ from across Rwandan society to determine rules of conduct for politicians and define distinctions between ‘legitimate criticism and genocide-denying or hatred-inciting behaviour.’ The government took the advice, but put the RPF’s most influential ideologue in charge of the office.

A Loaded Label

Critics of the RPF – including opposition leaders – are called ‘divisive,’ which in Rwanda today is tantamount to accusing someone of genocide. Faustin Twagiramungu, a prominent Hutu and Kagame’s main opponent in the elections, saw his campaign schedule derailed often and viciously. Many of his campaign staff were locked up – and released only after the election was over – and there were many reported incidents of intimidation and violence.

‘The government has created an impression that there is freedom, but in this country you are only as free as they wish you to be,’ said one Rwandan politician, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The plight of several prominent political figures illustrates the RPF’s intolerance for dissent. In 2000, then Speaker of Parliament Sebarenzi Kabuye, a member of the opposition Liberal Party, resisted an attempt by the RPF to lump all parties together into a single entity. He was quickly impeached, and fled to the US through Uganda to avoid the risk of imprisonment.

There were others. Pierre Celestin Rwigema served in the RPF as prime minister of Rwanda for three years. Rumours of a fallout with Kagame surfaced, and shortly thereafter the state newspaper Imvaho alleged Rwigema was a genocide suspect.

‘That is the way this government works,’ said Charles Kabonero, editor of Umuseso, an independent weekly newspaper. ‘As long as they can use you, then you will be alright. If you outlive your usefulness, or if you develop a tendency to be independent-minded, then every charge will be dredged up to get rid of you or ruin your career.’

Kabonero speaks with experience. He and other Umuseso journalists have had numerous run-ins with the authorities for publishing materials deemed ‘dangerous for state security.’ On one occasion, a whole issue of the paper was seized for publishing a critical story about an RPF general. Another time, he recalled, ‘we happened to be witnessing a disturbance outside a bar late one evening and taking notes, and when the police arrived and discovered that we were from Umuseso they immediately took us to jail.’

Earlier this year, former President Pasteur Bizimungu was found guilty by the Supreme Court on three charges: associating with militia groups, conspiring to cause civil disobedience and embezzling state funds. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His incarceration marks the end of a saga that began four years ago.

In 2000, Bizimungu resigned from the presidency citing personal reasons, but it was widely known within political circles that irreconcilable differences had grown between him and Kagame, then the all-powerful vice president. Bizimungu subsequently resigned from the RPF. When he announced intentions to form an opposition party, he was immediately placed under house arrest.

Fear and Rule

To a large degree, Hutus have chosen not to be openly critical about the direction the RPF is taking the country.

‘It is this fear that the RPF exploits to keep the majority down and oppressed,’ said Celestin Kabanda, another prominent Hutu politician. Kabanda lost his job as State Minister for Finance and Economic Planning in 2002 shortly after declaring his presidential ambitions. ‘Naturally, even the Tutsis won’t speak out against the RPF because their fear of Hutus has also been well-exploited by Kagame’s party.’

Many political observers agree that it is still too early to expect full democratic rule in Rwanda, but many also worry about the potential for more tragedy in a volatile country ruled by an edgy minority government.

But no one has a definitive manual for how to build a stable future in a fragile society still emerging from a horrible past. ‘There is no greater crime than genocide,’ Foreign Minister Murigande said. ‘It is absolute terror. This was not a chapter in our history that can easily be forgotten.’