Rwandan election highlights tension between ethnic, economic stability and authoritarianism


It’s hard not to have strong feelings about Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president.rwanda

The one-time rebel leader, who grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp after many Tutsis were pushed out of Rwanda in the 1950s and 1960s, marched into Rwanda’s capital in mid-1994 to take power as the international community dithered, thereby ending the country’s horrific genocide.  He spent the next six years working to pacify the country through various security measures and then set about modernizing Rwanda.  When he became president in 2000, he announced his Vision 2020 plan to develop the country.  Since 2000, his efforts have won the praise of everyone from former president U.S. Bill Clinton to Microsoft icon and philanthropist Bill Gates for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure,  developing Rwandan education and health care and restoring the rule of law.  He can boast an attractive record of foreign investment, and it’s hard not to credit Kagame for an average GDP growth rate of 8.1% in the past 12 years.

But Kagame has served as Rwanda’s de facto or de jure leader since 1994, and he presides over a country where political parties and freedom to assemble are severely restrained and press freedom is very low, a country where critics charge that he rules with an authoritarian style and where dissenters are forced into exile.  His angelic reputation among the international community has been tarnished by his support for the M23 rebels in eastern Congo who are fighting against Congolese president Joseph Kabila.

Suffice it to say that Kagame is a complex figure — Rwanda’s semi-authoritarian savior.  But as a rising power in eastern and central Africa and a touchstone for the failure of the international community to stop genocide two decades ago, the country’s political progress is just as important as its impressive economic progress.  

A three-step process to long-term development

Kagame’s project to pull Rwanda out of underdevelopment by the year 2020 is essentially a tripartite plan.  The first task was soothing the bitter hatreds that led to the 1994 genocide and bringing about reconciliation and security.  A key part of that effort is to try to erase the distinction between ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi,’ and those labels are no longer even seen as appropriate in many parts of Rwandan society today (and given that it’s hard to know whether ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ are more racial/ethnic distinctions than convenient colonial-era labels, that’s probably as it should be).  That’s the reason Kagame initially intervened in Congo in the late 1990s — to repatriate all Rwandans and prevent a Hutu counterattack from inside eastern Congo.  Kagame has largely succeeded in the task, which is not to say that Rwanda hasn’t had small moments of violence in the past 19 years, but it hasn’t seen any large-scale violence conducted on the basis of ethnicity.  Rwanda’s unique gacaca courts, while not perfect, attempt to balance a line of justice somewhere between retribution and reconciliation.

The second task was developing the kind of infrastructure that’s led to the kind of extraordinary economic growth that Rwanda now takes for granted — that’s what Vision 2020 was all about, though Kagame’s plans now also include greater efforts at population control.  Rwanda remains one of the most densely populated countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and overpopulation has been blamed as one cause of Hutu-Tutsi tensions even before 1994.

But Kagame’s third task is perhaps the most important of all — crafting a political system that will guarantee and institutionalize the gains that Rwanda has made in the past two decades under Kagame.  Kagame himself is term-limited to just two seven-terms in office as president, which means that, barring constitutional amendments, he will step down in 2017 — that’s just four years away.  So we’re now entering a crucial time for Rwanda and for Kagame.  And next month’s elections are the sole opportunity for electoral participation between now and 2017.

Rwanda’s ‘elections’

The campaign that kicked off this week for parliamentary elections scheduled for September 16 through 18 takes place in a very peculiar Rwandan context.

Kagame’s rebel army-turned-political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), controls political power in Rwanda, and though the 80-member Chamber of Deputies, the Rwandan parliament’s lower house, has far less power than Kagame himself, the RPF dominates it.  Several existing parties, such as the Christian Democratic Party, Islamic Democratic Party, the Rwandan Socialist Party, and the Democratic Union of the Rwandan People, hold seats in the Chamber of Deputies though they are emasculated RPF allies, not a vibrant array of policy alternatives.

Parties in Rwanda are forbidden from organizing around ethnic identity, including over ‘Tutsi’ or ‘Hutu’ identity, and the current RPF has significant Hutu membership, though Kagame and his inner circle are all Tutsi.  While it’s hard to describe Kagame’s 2003 and 2010 presidential elections as ‘free’ or ‘fair’ in any standard sense of the word, he certainly commands great support among Rwandans, including his own Tutsi base and from the Hutus that comprise 85% of Rwanda’s 11 million people.

Of the 80 members of the Chamber of Deputies, only 53 members are elected directly (through proportional representation), and the RPF and its allies currently hold 42 of those 53 seats.  An addition 24 female deputies are elected through provincial councils, with two youth representatives and one disables representative also appointed separately. The 26 members of the Senate are all appointed by the president or through provincial councils or other institutions in Rwanda, including universities.

Kagame’s allies argue that this is a feature, not a bug, of Rwandan politics, and that Rwanda’s current consensus-based system is the best political system in light of its recent history:

Rwanda’s way of organising politics, whereby parties that lose elections play important roles in government and potential opposition parties support government policies and work to preserve the status quo and its underlying values, has taken much of the heat out of its electoral processes.

And this, in turn, has ensured that ordinary voters have no reason to get too excited about elections that always leave them with a government in which almost all political parties participate.

Victoire Ingabire, who returned to Rwanda in order to contest the 2010 presidential election against Kagame, was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for ‘genocide denial’ after she called for Rwandan memorials to the moderate Hutu individuals who tried to stop the 1994 atrocities.  Even more troubling is that the body of Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, vice chair of Rwanda’s Democratic Green Party and a Kagame critic, was found tossed in a marsh during the campaign.  Jean-Léonard Rugambage, a well-known journalist and deputy editor of Umuvugizi, was gunned down in front of his home.  Many others were arrested or placed under house arrest, including Bernard Ntaganda, leader of the opposition Social Party Imberakuri, who was sentenced to four years in prison on the basis of ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘divisionism.’  None of these troubling examples are compatible with a consensus-based system of government.

Kagame ultimately won the August 2010 vote with 93.08% of the vote.

But at some point, Kagame (or his successors) will have to stop brandishing the blunt weapon of ‘genocide ideology’ laws against all of his political rivals.  It is inevitable that Hutus (or former Hutus) will at some point demand more active participation in governing Rwanda, and in order for Kagame to truly succeed, he must engineer a political system that allows for Hutu participation that doesn’t endanger the rights of Tutsis (or former Tutsis).  Kagame, whose thin-skinned nature famously brooks little dissent, has been an uncharacteristically progressive leader on economic policy and stability.  But what happens if Kagame dies?  Or if Kagame’s Rwandan economic miracle takes a turn for the worse?  It’s all the more reason for Kagame to start building a political infrastructure that can regenerate the kind of forward leadership that Kagame has often provided Rwanda.

How liberal democratic institutions failed Rwanda in the 1990s

To the extent that Kagame has been an authoritarian ruler, there are sound rationales for many of the limitations placed on individual freedoms  — Hutu-Tutsi tensions accelerated in the early 1990s due to the introduction of many of the traditional auspices of liberal democracy, such as political parties and press freedom.

In light of the 1994 experience, it’s easy to understand why Kagame has placed incredible restrictions on freedom of assembly, especially among political groups, which must register five days in advance with the government prior to holding any public meeting.  When Rwanda’s longtime ruler Juvénal Habyarimana, in power since 1975, legalized the existence of political parties in 1991 to curry favor with French and other Western patrons, it actually empowered the formation of the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR), a radical faction that was crucial to organizing the Hutu interahamwe militias responsible for much of the killing in 1994 and which ultimately came to threaten Habyarimana’s power as well (Habyarimana’s death in an airplane crash upon landing in Kigali in April 1994 was the proximate cause of the Rwandan genocide).

Press freedom is restricted because of the oversized role that the media and, in particular, the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) radio station, played in inciting Hutu Rwandans to violence in the 1994 massacre.  Although it only started broadcasting in July 1993, its constant message of anti-Tutsi, racist propaganda is credited with having incited hatred and violence among the Hutu population.  So when groups like Reporters without Borders condemn ongoing press censorship in Rwanda, they do so knowing the role that a free (and hateful) press played in inciting genocide:

Rwanda’s media is still haunted by the mass killing of its Tutsi population in 1994 and the big part played in preparing and carrying it out by media outlets such as Radio télévision libre des milles collines(RTLM) and the newspaper Kangura. National reconstruction has involved a total change in the media, with the appearance of English-language publications and growth of a Kinyarwanda-language media. But the legacy of the genocide has meant that even slight criticism of the government is attacked by the regime as “revisionism” and quickly cracked down on. The authorities use laws against “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism” to punish freedom of expression, which leads to self-censorship.

But can Rwanda sustain all of those restrictions indefinitely?  At what point does the 1994 experience cease to become a germane rationale for authoritarian rule? If not today, what about in five years? In ten? In twenty?

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