Growing inequality threatens to shatter the country’s fragile peace.
Today, Thursday, April 7, marks the 17th anniversary of the start of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It is a day to remember the more than 800,000 lives that were lost when the Hutu-led, state-based militia goaded neighbours to kill neighbours. It is also a good time to pause and reflect on the progress the country has made since the genocide, and to question whether mass political violence could again happen in this central African country.
By most accounts, Rwanda is a nation rehabilitated. Critical accounts to the contrary are dismissed as absurd, as is the notion that post-genocide reconstruction and reconciliation policies could be setting the stage for another round of political violence. Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes, and western philanthropists stand beside diplomats and donors as “friends of Rwanda” in hailing President Paul Kagame’s phenomenal success in rebuilding the once-shattered country.
But most outsiders fail to appreciate the lack of political freedoms and the economic inequalities that confront Rwandans who are not members of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The vast majority of Rwandans – Hutu and Tutsi alike – who survived the genocide remain extremely poor, politically marginal, and, in many cases, traumatized by what they lived through. For many, daily life is characterized by a lack of food, clean water, and affordable and proximate health services, while the elite enjoy European coffee houses, wireless internet hotspots, new housing and shopping malls, accessible health care, and other services. The gap between urban elites and the rural citizenry – some 90 per cent of Rwandans live in rural areas – has never been larger.
It is this growing socio-economic inequity between the ruling elite and average Rwandans that makes another round of mass political violence possible. This is what international observers who praise Kagame’s thoughtful and benevolent leadership fail to appreciate.
Those international actors who are interested in creating sustainable peace in Rwanda – and, more broadly, in the Great Lakes Region of Africa – must actively push the RPF towards a real democratic opening. They must press Kagame to create space for national dialogue – an open and safe space where Rwandans of all ethnicities, and from all walks of life, can meet to discuss what happened to whom during the genocide, and to strategize ways forward from the hurt of the past. This is particularly important as a result of the fact that the United Nations released a Mapping Report detailing allegations of systematic revenge killings of Rwandan Hutu by the Rwandan Patriotic Army in eastern Congo before, during, and after the 1994 genocide.
There are two things that those friends of Rwanda who wish for the country to succeed under Kagame can do to encourage a more open and peaceful political culture until he steps down in 2017.
The first is to question the government’s ability to manage Rwanda’s natural resources (its people and its land). The U.S. State Department estimates that by 2020 Rwanda will be home to some 13 million people. With 225 people per square mile, it will have the highest population density in Africa.
Some 90 per cent of Rwandans eke out their existence as subsistence farmers and are the first to suffer when the central government is unable to respond to their daily needs. The government requires rural farmers to grow coffee and tea instead of the crops needed to feed their families. A new land policy has decreased peasant holdings to less than a half-acre. The RPF does not allow peasant farmers to voice their concerns about its agricultural policy and the inequitable ways in which land is distributed into the hands of government loyalists.
Keeping an underfed and disaffected local population is hardly the way forward to sustainable peace and democracy. Friends of Rwanda, led by Rwanda’s international donors, must start to work more seriously with the RPF to ensure their agricultural and land policies are aimed at developing long-term peace and security, not quick gains for party loyalists.
The second thing to do is to encourage Kagame to engage the diverse political views of the opposition, both in the country and in the Rwandan diaspora. This is not to suggest that he engage the extremist views of those, for instance, who advocate that the RPF organized and implemented the genocide. Instead, he needs to acknowledge that such negative opinion exists alongside the diaspora’s positive involvement in Rwanda’s economic development.
Because the diaspora contributed almost $130 million to Rwanda’s economy in 2010 (second only to tourist receipts), western donors have failed to seriously push Kagame to engage dissident opinion within the diaspora. Fueled by the internet, sincere dissidents who criticize RPF policy exist alongside political extremists such as the FDLR (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda) rebel group, making it easy for Kagame to justify not including them in the Rwandan political sphere. Friends of Rwanda and western donors must encourage Kagame to engage with all sectors of the diaspora, good and bad, as part of the broader strategy of political openness and dialogue.
Indeed, encouraging openness among Rwandans at home and in the diaspora is the necessary ingredient to Kagame’s continued reign. The RPF is now under increased scrutiny from its core constituency – educated, urban Tutsi. Many of these individuals, especially anglophone Tutsi who returned after the 1994 genocide, have lost faith in the government’s post-genocide reconstruction and development vision, and now consider the government to be corrupt and nepotistic.
It was significant, and perhaps most worrying for Kagame, that this group of vocal critics included several senior military officers – among them former army chief Kayumba Nyamwasa and Théogene Rudasingwa, a former major and ambassador to the United States. Nyamwasa and Rudasingwa, among others, banded together to create the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) in December 2010. Analysts believe that Nyamwasa maintains considerable sympathy among the rank and file of the military, making the threat of a coup a possibility for the first time since 1994. Indeed, Nyamwasa has intimated in recent press appearances that he is prepared to unseat Kagame by force if necessary.
It is critical on this 17th anniversary of the genocide that Rwandans from all walks of life continue to push for political openness, and that friends of Rwanda begin to push their governments, and other international actors, to reconsider their support for Kagame. Such actions are necessary to avoid the possibility of future bloodshed.
Excerpts from this piece originally appeared on The Mark in August 2010.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.