Someone visiting Kigali these days would have great difficulty imagining that exactly 20 years ago, streets, ditches and latrines were filling up with decomposing corpses of the enemies of the Hutu Power regime. This violence also spread to the countryside and other urban centres where over 800 000 Rwandans – mostly Tutsi, but also some of their Hutu relatives and those who opposed the genocide – were hunted down and killed.
As Rwanda and the international community commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide, evaluating Rwanda’s progress brings important challenges. On the one hand, the country is lauded for its incredible stories of reconciliation, the resilience of its people and its recent economic success. However, on the other, with President Paul Kagame effectively in power since 1994, Rwanda remains a country that has failed to rid itself of its authoritarianism, legacy of human rights violations, and restricted political space, all of which characterised the previous government.
Post-genocide Rwanda has undeniably succeeded where many post-conflict sub-Saharan countries have failed. At the end of the genocide, years of economic decline, fiscal mismanagement and civil war left the new Rwandan government financially crippled. Not only was the country’s physical infrastructure in ruins, but the human capital of all branches of government had also been devastated, as many qualified government employees had either been killed or fled the country.
Post-genocide Rwanda succeeded where many post-conflict sub-Saharan countries have failed
Today, the World Bank lauds Rwanda’s efficient use of foreign aid, the decrease in poverty, development of the private sector and average annual growth of eight per cent. According to Global Corruption Barometer, Rwanda is the least corrupt country in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, the country’s access to information technology has improved in leaps and bounds.
This astounding transformation is greatly due to the clear vision of the leadership (called ‘Vision 2020’), international financial assistance and the propensity of Rwandans to follow their leader. Hence, as the country commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide, many Rwandans look back with pride on what the country has accomplished. Nonetheless, while many of Rwanda’s accomplishments can be traced to Kagame’s vision, his unforgiving leadership style has put the country at risk of future instability, as dissent is slowly emerging.
For a long time, Western countries’ guilt over their unwillingness and inability to respond to the genocide has given the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) the political capital to ignore humanitarian and human rights laws with little to no repercussion. Similarly, in the name of fighting against genocide, the Rwandan government was even given a certain degree of latitude with its destabilising interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Additionally, Rwanda’s contribution of peacekeeping troops to missions in Somalia and other parts of the continent also silenced, albeit only for a while, international partners’ disapproval.
But 20 years later, some regional and Western partners have begun to voice their criticism of Rwanda’s domestic and foreign policies. Additionally, the RPF now faces increasing defections within its ranks, leaving the regime to fight for its legitimacy on multiple fronts.
The transitional justice process brought a level of truth and justice to some, but failed others
The Rwandan government has been censured for its destabilising role in the eastern DRC through its support of armed groups such as the defunct National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and M23. While the regime vehemently denies sponsoring such groups, despite strong evidence provided by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, the RPF has continued to use the genocide threat of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) to justify its actions abroad.
Kagame used the same rhetoric when alluding to, but not admitting, his alleged collusion in the assassination of Colonel Patrick Karegeya earlier this year in South Africa. Along with an attack on the home of fellow dissident General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, this contributed to a diplomatic row between South Africa and Rwanda.
Similarly, when President Kikwete of Tanzania suggested that the RPF sit at the negotiating table with the FDLR leadership (part of which participated in the genocide), some in Rwanda accused the Tanzanian government of being insensitive to the real threat posed by the rebel group. Kikwete had suggested that Kigali negotiate with the FDLR because military approaches had failed to completely dislodge them from eastern DRC. Kikwete had offered the same recommendation to Presidents Museveni and Kabila with regards to their respective armed opposition groups.
The goodwill of the international community has worn thin given the continued insecurity in the eastern DRC, the alleged role of Rwanda in attacks of dissidents in South Africa and Kagame’s continued belligerent attitude towards its Western partners.
Domestically, Rwanda’s progress is also being scrutinised as macro-economic indicators are increasingly examined side by side with micro-level data. Some experts have questioned the extent to which the country’s extraordinary growth and ambitious agricultural policy is actually trickling down to ordinary Rwandans. In her 2009 article on the re-engineering of rural society, An Ansoms says that the government’s top-down agricultural policy reforms do not necessarily result in pro-poor policies, and fail to take into consideration farmers’ concerns and needs.
Equally important is the ever-narrowing political space in Rwanda. In the early years of the post-genocide era, opposition often came from exiled members of the previous regime. There is now increased dissatisfaction with leadership among Rwandans from all walks of life, and even from within the RPF. This palpable discontent has even led some to openly challenge the Kagame regime, such as United Democratic Forces’ (UDF’s) Victoire Ingabire who attempted to run for office during the last presidential election. She was, however, arrested, tried and convicted by the state based on strict laws regulating speech and dubious accusations of conspiracy. Also under the guise of genocide-prevention ideology and the protection the national unity, this clearly illustrates the regime’s use of the judiciary to control the political space.
Finally, what are the strides made towards justice, truth and reconciliation in Rwanda? The New York Times’s powerful photo exposé of Rwandans who have managed to reconcile and coexist sheds light on the potential for sustainable peace. While their experiences are important to acknowledge and to celebrate, they should also be seen within the context of the multiple realities of Rwandans from all walks of life.
While some Rwandans have managed to find peace in reconciliation, others resent their inability to find justice for their loved ones who died at the hand of the RPA during the 1990s. For them and many observers, the transitional justice process was a complex case of victor justice, which may have brought a level of truth and justice to some, but certainly failed others. A recent Human Rights Watch report explains that for the families of victims of RPA crimes, the pain of unfulfilled justice is compounded by the criminalisation of expressing and verbalising their grief.
Twenty years after the genocide, the commemorative events remind us of the horror of the genocide, but also of the hope for a bright future in Rwanda. However, there is still little acknowledgement of the RPF’s role in the suffering of many Rwandans throughout the 1990s. Despite Kagame’s vision for the ‘new Rwanda’, the litmus test of the country’s ability to sustain peace and reconciliation will be whether it can transition beyond its current leader.
Yolande Bouka, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Nairobi