Monday, March 23, 2009

The Two Faces of Rwanda

By Edoardo Totolo for ISN Security Watch
Some Rwandans will focus on their country’s development during the 15th anniversary of the genocide, while others will continue to suffer abuses and the denial of basic rights, Edoardo Totolo writes for ISN Security Watch.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame

Some 15 years after the genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, Rwanda has become one of the most controversial African countries, combining outstanding economic progress and technological innovation with human rights violations and the denial of basic freedoms.

While some economists have coined optimistic expressions like “African Tiger” or “Switzerland of Africa” to describe Rwanda, many human rights activists continue to use terms common in Africa-related studies; "human rights violations" and "tribal divide."

The personality at the center of this development in Rwanda is President Paul Kagame, head of the Tutsi party Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), whose rebel group’s seizure of power in 1994 brought an end to the genocide. In 2003, Kagame was elected president of Rwanda with 95 percent of the vote in an election characterized by strong irregularities.

The Rwandan president has been praised widely by the international community and backed by major leaders like former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, as well as former UK prime minister Tony Blair, for his attempts to adopt progressive economic and social reforms and for leading the country out of its genocidal past.

However, Kagame has simultaneously been accused of war crimes by a French judge and human rights violations by numerous nongovernmental organizations. Moreover, recently the UN published a report accusing Kagame of looting natural resources and fuelling the massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The two faces of Rwanda have provoked an unprecedented schism between the development and human rights communities. According to New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer, while the “development community” sees Rwanda as a promising model for economic growth and poverty alleviation in Africa, the human rights community strongly condemns Kagame and warns about the great risks for the country’s future development.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that both positions are supported by very strong arguments.

Outstanding Progress

Even the most radical critics of Kagame admit that the post-genocide recovery and reconstruction has been impressive. Rwanda has managed to build an infrastructure, attract foreign aid and investment, and reach 6 percent GDP growth in 2008. Even though poverty continues to be a problem, Rwanda has made substantial progress in the past decade.

Kagame’s development strategy is outlined in the document Vision 2020, which embodies the aspiration to become a lower-middle income economy (US$900 per capita) and to operate as a knowledge-based service hub for central and eastern Africa. Even though over-ambitious development plans are not rare among African countries, experts agree that Rwanda has a realistic chance of realizing these objectives in only one generation.

The most important plan contained in Vision 2020 is the massive investment in the information and communication technology sector. Kagame’s plan is to make Rwanda a technological hub for the region and to build a fibre optic network throughout the country. Fast internet connection is already available in Kigali and 30 more districts will be connected by the end of 2009.

Major progress has also been made in the coffee and tea sectors. Rwanda does not have ideal characteristics for intensive agriculture (it is in fact called “the land of one thousand hills”), but strategic investments in quality assurance and efficiency have enabled a boost in production and exports in recent years: In 2007, Rwanda earned over US$67 million from this market.

The fastest increasing source of foreign currency has become the tourism industry, which earned over US$42 million in 2007.

The government has also invested in the preservation of natural parks (in particular parks with mountain gorillas) and maintaining tourist attractions. Plastic bags are prohibited in the country in order to minimize environmental pollution, and government authorities have “removed” street kids in Kigali in order to improve the “aesthetic appearance” of the capital – though their relocation to unofficial detention centers has aroused the ire of human rights groups.

Kagame certainly succeeded on this front, as most tourists describe Kigali as one of the safest and cleanest cities in Africa.

Progress has also been made in the field of gender equality. Rwanda has the world’s only female-majority parliament (56 percent of seats); most key members of the Kagame administration are women, including the ministers of foreign affairs, education and infrastructure as well as the president of the parliament.

The Darker Side

This shiny surface, however, hides a gloomy reality, with Kagame accused of war crimes committed before and during the 1994 genocide, denying political and press freedom in Rwanda subtly recomposing the old power-structure in favor of the Tutsi ethnic group.

One of the most notorious accusations against Kagame has come from French judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who investigated the 6 April 1994 plane crash that killed then-Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, then Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira and three French nationals.

Bruguiere’s investigation concluded that the aircraft was shot down on orders from Kagame himself. Not only has Kagame denied all accusations but has even argued that France directly participated in the genocide that followed the assassinations. Since then, diplomatic relations between the two counties have been frozen.

According to many observers, understanding who was behind the incident is a fundamental step for reconciliation in Rwanda, not only because important political figures were killed, but also because the massacre of the Tutsis began only hours after the news of the accident was broadcast on the radio. The plane crash, therefore, played a direct role in provoking the genocide: Whoever ordered the shooting carries an enormous responsibility.

Kagame is also accused of denying political and press freedom in Rwanda. According to the Economist , “He allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe.”

“There is no press freedom in Rwanda,” Timothy Spence, press and communication manager of the International Press Institute (IPI), told ISN Security Watch.

“Over the past few years, journalists have continuously been arrested and harassed because they are accused of fuelling the genocide ideology […]. But these allegations are often used as a strategy to repress all criticism.”

After the genocide, in fact, Kagame outlawed the practice of differentiating between Hutus and Tutsis in order to promote reconciliation and unity among Rwandans.

“There are tremendously good things happening in Rwanda, but much more could happen if these restrictions and subtle intimidations against journalists came to an end,” said Spence.

The subject of ethnicity has become very contradictory in the past years, considering that even though Kagame condemns all talks about Hutu and Tutsi groups, the ruling RFP party has a clear ethnic connotation (Tutsi) and the large majority of government positions were given to members of the Tutsi ethnical group.

The most outspoken critic of Kagame is Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu who became famous for saving over 1,000 Tutsis during the genocide and inspiring the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” He now lives in Belgium.

In his autobiography “An Ordinary Man,” he made serious accusations against Kagame, stating that:

“Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis [...] Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own. They are known locally as Hutus de service or Hutus for hire.”

Kagame’s repression of political opposition came in a very subtle but effective way, by denying rights to launch political campaigns or to organize meetings and political events.

In fact, Kagame's coalition made huge gains in the 2003 presidential election and the 2008 Chamber of Deputies election (95 percent and 79 percent, respectively), but both were characterized by the lack of credible opposition parties.

Uncertain Future

Kagame’s seven-year term will end in September 2010.

At the moment, Kagame’s rule stands on solid ground due to a fast-improving economy, but there are concerns that if he does not tackle Rwanda's political imbalances, the country will fall back into ethnic tension and violence.

There are many examples of strong African leaders who have promoted economic and social reforms in their initial periods while neglecting the freedom of political opposition. Eventually they failed. Mugabe in Zimbabwe is one case in point.

Although Rwanda has proven itself an exception, the question that will surround the next elections is the most classic African dilemma: Is Rwanda ready to combine economic growth with a fully functioning multi-party democracy?

Edoardo Totolo is a freelance writer and academic researcher based in Amsterdam. His fields of expertise are private sector development and the impact of informal economies on human security in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Comments to the original article

International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Related Materials:

Country profile: Rwanda - BBC Africa

Rwanda: A Fake Report on Fake Elections

Rwanda: RPF's Paranoia Over UDF-Inkingi

Rwanda: Exiled Opposition Planning for Presidential Elections

Provoking genocide: a revised history of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

The Rwanda Catastrophe: Its root-cause and remedies to pre-empt a similar situation in Rwanda

Rwanda: Declaration on the shooting down of Habyarimana's aircraft on April 6, 1994

The Real Authors of the Congo Crimes: Nkunda has been arrested but who will arrest Kagame?

Rwandan Government Bars Registration Of New Opposition Party

Rwanda: RPF government plans to block UDF-Inkingi’s participation to the 2010 presidential race

Rwanda: Driven by Poverty Mothers Throw Away Their Infants

Rwanda-Spain: International Arrest Warrants Against 40 RPF Members


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home