Rwanda: The Two Faces of Paul Kagame
By Jon Rosen
World Politics Review
May 27, 2010
KIGALI, Rwanda -- Walking the streets of Rwanda's tidy capital, it's easy to forget that just 16 years have passed since this country's grisly genocide.
In this modern city of approximately 1 million, roads are smooth, sidewalks clean, and the crime, pollution and hassle of most African cities absent. Across Kigali, rising office towers reflect GDP growth that has averaged 8 percent over the last five years. In the countryside, though poverty remains rife, small-scale farmers have seen tangible benefits from the creation of cooperatives, increased use of fertilizers, a revival of the export coffee industry, and a unique system of terracing to prevent erosion of the country's sloping farmland.
Above all, in an ethnically divided nation where genocide survivors often live next door to their families' killers, Rwanda has avoided the return of systematic violence.
As the architect of his nation's rebirth, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has long attracted an international following. Figures from Tony Blair to Rick Warren have lauded him for his low-corruption, forward-thinking government, as well as for his focus on education and information technology, his 70 percent ethnic Hutu cabinet (though he is an ethnic Tutsi), his country's female majority in Parliament, and his pledge to wean Rwanda off of foreign aid, which remains the source of nearly 50 percent of his government's budget.
But the run-up to Rwanda's August election has exposed a radically different Kagame narrative. To advocacy groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Rwanda's successes are merely cosmetic -- the result of cunning P.R. and stability forged through systemic repression. To Kagame's critics, the man some praise for ending the 1994 genocide is an autocrat guilty of his own war crimes in Rwanda and eastern Congo. There, they say, his army's 1996 invasion to track down génocidaires across the Rwandan border was a principle catalyst of the ongoing crisis that has resulted in the estimated deaths of more than 5 million people.
While the demographics of Kagame's cabinet give the appearance of an ethnically inclusive government, his detractors argue that true power is concentrated in the hands of an elite cadre of Anglophone Tutsi. Those with real influence joined Kagame's Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) as exiles in Uganda and steered the group through a four-year civil war against the Hutu regime of Juvénal Habyarimana, eventually seizing power in the wake of the genocide.
In recent months, Kagame's critics have found a new cause célèbre: Victoire Ingabire, a 41-year-old former accountant who returned to the country in January after 16 years in the Netherlands to become Rwanda's most visible opposition politician. With less than three months before the election, authorities have prevented Ingabire from registering her party, the Union of Democratic Forces, and she is currently being held under extended house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of "divisionism," "downplaying genocide," and "association with terrorist groups."
Ingabire and her supporters maintain the charges are politically motivated, designed to rid Kagame of any challengers. Most predict the election will unfold like that of 2003, which Kagame won with 95 percent of the vote in a poll considered a "sham" by outside observers.
Yet under Rwandan legislation, the charges against Ingabire may have merit. Throughout its 16 years in power, the RPF has enacted a series of laws limiting free speech as part of an effort to prevent violence in what remains an ethnically divided society. Denying the genocide of up to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu is grounds for jail time; "divisionism" is defined as "any speech, written statement or action that causes conflict or that causes an uprising that may degenerate into strife among people."
Ingabire, a Hutu, has come under fire for drawing attention to atrocities committed by the RPF during the genocide period. A U.N. report estimates the RPF killed up to 45,000 people between April and September 1994. But despite being well-documented, those events have been erased from the official history. Ingabire has also warned about what she views as the still-restive Hutu masses, speech that can easily be painted as "divisionist."
"If the government does not give political space to the people," she told World Politics Review from her home in Kigali, "there is a chance we will again see violence."
Talk like this has won Ingabire praise from Western pro-democracy activists, much to Kagame's ire. Though the president retains the backing of most Western powers, he has not minced words regarding calls from abroad for greater transparency. In a speech during Rwanda's Genocide Memorial Week in April, he lashed out at those who decry Rwanda's alleged lack of freedoms, yet turned their backs on the country during the genocide.
The RPF further alleges that Ingabire is funded by and routinely in contact with members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Congo-based rebel group formed by remnants of deadly Hutu militias, still bent on destabilizing Rwanda.
Ingabire's plight will likely remain a dominant narrative among election observers in the West. Yet in terms of the real struggle for power, her story is a mere sideshow. Most in Rwanda expect the election to go smoothly, Kagame to win another seven-year term, and business to continue as usual.
Yet if there is a spoiler, it could come from the military. Relations between Kagame and his army's top generals are rumored to be on edge. Last month, the government suspended two senior military officers, both former Kagame loyalists, placing them under house arrest. Two others fled the country in March, accused of masterminding a recent string of grenade attacks, events that remain shrouded in mystery.
Most analysts reject claims by some, including Ingabire, that a coup is possible. Still, the unrest is a sign that Kagame's grip on power should not be taken for granted. His country, once called the "Switzerland of Africa" because of its mountainous landscape, now earns that moniker due to its order and stability. Yet for Rwanda's revitalization to continue, Kagame may begin to realize that his government cannot function as a one-man show forever.
Jon Rosen is a freelance journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda.
Photo: Rwandan President Paul Kagame (U.N. photo).