Are the Tides Turning in Rwanda?
International donors are starting to think twice about Paul Kagame, their beloved visionary African leader. A recent report from the United Nations (UN) reveals damning evidence, demonstrating how Kagame’s Revolutionary Patriotic Front (RPF) is orchestrating a rebellion with the M23 in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As the M23 takes over Goma, Western donors are waking up to their complicity in touting Kagame and Rwanda as a development success story, but why has it taken so long for the world to awaken?
Rwanda: a model for development?
Western donors have long applauded Paul Kagame and the RPF for uniting Rwanda after its eviscerating genocide. A low-intensity civil war was launched in 1990, when the RPF invaded from Uganda, which culminated in the 1994 genocide. From April to July 1994, Hutu extremist militias—Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi—linked to political parties systematically wiped out Tutsi and Hutu moderates. The UN mission in Rwanda failed to halt the genocide, and Western governments failed to react to the magnitude and haste of occurring mass violence.
Post-genocide, powerful leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have pledged their unequivocal support for Kagame’s quest to unite Rwanda. Blair and Clinton hail Kagame as a visionary for transforming a country pulverized by genocide. From rebel leader to President, Kagame’s eloquent artistry has enabled him to sit eye-to-eye with his Western counterparts to create a strong, Rwanda-driven rather than donor-driven development agenda.
According to macro development indicators, Rwanda has decreased maternal mortality and increased access to primary education since 1994. Rwanda’s annual GDP growth rate of around 7% never ceases to impress. Rwanda also has the highest representation of female parliamentarians in the world. And most importantly, Rwanda is one of the few countries set to achieve some of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Undoubtedly, Rwanda has made tremendous leaps forward considering its bleak past, hence why Blair and Clinton admire the RPF’s strong development agenda.
As the M23 takes over Goma, Rwanda is increasingly scrutinized for its external involvement in Congolese affairs. Kagame’s darker side, however, is nothing new. What is new is the unprecedented scrutiny of Kagame’s external and internal policies by donors.
Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC
The 1994 genocide ‘ended’ when the RPF took over Kigali military, ending the genocide. Violence didn’t immediately end; in fact, it launched two decades of messy internal and cross-border violence. Shortly after the RPF gained power in 1994, there was a mass exodus of Hutus, including civilians and genocidaires to Zaire (now the DRC).
Hutu militias were conducting cross-border raids into Rwanda, and allegedly planning an invasion of Rwanda. These raids sparked Rwandan forces to attacks refugee camps in Zaire, seeking to purge the camps of Hutu genocidaires to ‘protect’ Rwanda’s security and territorial interests. Rwanda’s military involvement in refugee camps exacerbated internal displacement and refugee flows, increasing the gravity of the already precarious humanitarian situation. Zaire’s long-standing dictator, Mobuto Seso Seke, condemned Rwanda’s military jaunts into eastern Zaire.
The RPF was taking care of unfinished business from the genocide as Kagame, then Defense Minister, told journalists in 1995 “he would pursue any criminals who attacked Rwanda by attacking the country where they were found.”
The RPF’s legacy of involvement in Zaire continued through the support of Laurent Kabila’s (Congolese rebel leader) quest to overthrow Mobuto. The antecedents of the Rwandan genocide destabilized the eastern region of Zaire, which provided an opportunity for neighboring government’s to assist in overthrowing Mobuto. Dubbed the ‘First Congo War,’ Rwanda provided military forces and support to install their patron, Laurent Kabila. The First Congo War quickly disintegrated into the Second Congo War, which featured eight African nations from 1998-2003.
Rwandan democracy or authoritarian rule
The RPF’s external military involvement in eastern DRC demonstrates the complexity of post-genocide politics, but internally, international donors are also starting to criticise Kagame’s tight grip on politics.
Two core values govern Rwanda—national unity and consensus. Under national unity, ethnic labels are barred and replaced by a united Rwandan identity. Despite Kagame’s emphasis on ‘Rwanda,’ the RPF and Tutsi elites construct themselves as the ‘good’ cop, and appear to have capitalized on their victimhood to absolve the RPF of any responsibility for human rights abuses and atrocities inside and outside of Rwanda.
Through consensus, Kagame has blocked criticism by accusing political opponents of fostering ethnic divisionism. Most political parties were in exile during Rwanda’s parliamentary elections in 2008. Shortly before the 2010 Presidential elections, opposition groups were banned from participating and high profile leaders were killed, like the Democratic Green Party Vice-President Andre Kagwa Rwisereka.
In October 2012, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire was sentenced under Rwanda’s 2008 Genocide Law to eight years in prison for fostering divisionism, threatening Rwanda’s security and belittling the 1994 genocide. International human rights organizations note that the law is used to closely monitor and ultimately squash political criticism.
Kagame opposes the exportation of a competitive, Western style democracy to Rwanda. He, in part, attributes the onset of Rwanda’s genocide to political opening that engendered ethnic polarization. The president therefore, justifies cracking down on political opposition and limiting civil and politic liberties in the name of state security and stability.
“What does the multi-party system mean in our African societies? That I will use every tactic to distinguish myself from my neighbour with the aim of winning more votes than he wins […] you will never have a united country. We will never have democracy: people will pounce on each other. One party would emerge to defend those who perpetrate the genocide, then another would arise saying that members of the former should be tried […] you would have a great war […] we must analyse the problems that are in store for us and those that we are going to solve,” Kagame noted in 2003.
The RPF and Kagame have created a political polity that works for Rwanda but also limits fundamental civil and political liberties. Donors have long supported Kagame’s push for improving socio-economic indicators, but will they continue to accept his form of democracy which some describe as quasi-authoritarian?
Kagame’s skillful courtship of the Western donors is slowly deteriorating. Rwanda’s ‘donor darling’ status is increasingly challenged as the international community becomes more cognizant of Kagame’s authoritarian tendencies, sparked by his latest excursions into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). UN allegations and evidence of Kagame’s support of an M23 in the DRC has led Rwanda’s main bilateral aid donors—US, EU, and UK—to re-evaluate their support of Kagame. Kagame and the RPF methodically deny any involvement in the DRC or support for the M23.
Perhaps the international community is only beginning to realize that Kagame has masterfully manipulated guilt from the failure to halt the 1994 genocide. It has taken Kagame’s fully-fledged support of a rebel group in the DRC to make donors look twice. His insistence on creating a political polity that works for Rwanda raises important questions. Is multiparty democracy suitable for every country? Does development progress outweigh limited political and civil rights?