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Is Rwanda’s authoritarian state sustainable?

- June 3, 2016
From left: Tony Blair, former British prime minister, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Howard G. Buffett, chairman and chief executive of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, at the World Economic Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 12, 2016. (Cyril Ndegeya/AFP via Getty Images)

Rwanda is the great success story of a post-conflict state in Africa. The country’s preferred narrative — one of redemption and renewal after the experience of unspeakable atrocities during the 1994 genocide — is an irresistibly inspiring one that has won Kagame and his leadership team friends in high places around the globe. Whether it is a response to an experienced journalist pointing out the Rwandan military forces’ role in perpetrating mass killings in Zaire/DRC after the genocide or Kagame’s backing of the Congolese M23 rebel movement, Kagame can count on support from his powerful friends to defend his behavior and his interests, regardless of how undemocratic and human rights-violating his behavior might be.

Kagame’s defenders tend to focus on the substantial economic and development gains Rwanda has made under his leadership over the last 15 years. The country’s official development statistics are impressive. Its poverty rate dropped from 56.7 percent in 2005 to 44.9 percent in 2010. Primary school enrollment has skyrocketed, and life expectancy is steadily growing. Modeling the country on Singapore and using the same authoritarian techniques that allow virtually no public dissent, Rwanda’s leaders have re-created Kigali as a model African city. Most visitors, upon arriving for the first time, are delighted by the city’s clean and well-paved streets, its Western-style coffee shops and restaurants, and smooth access to incredible tourist adventures such as communing with the country’s mountain gorillas during a high-end safari.

All this perfection comes at a cost. Kigali itself is now largely devoid of “unsightly” poor people, thanks to forced removals from the city and locking away “undesirables” in a harsh detention center. The highly touted improvements in development outcomes are unevenly distributed, with those in urban areas having far more access to improved services and opportunities while those opportunities are often much harder to access or absent in in rural spaces.

Two new books address the context in which both Rwanda’s genocide and its post-genocide, authoritarian development state developed with considerable nuance. Both should be read by everyone who deals with conflict, development and the most challenging questions at the intersection of the two issues.

In “Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship,” journalist and author Anjan Sundaram tells the story of his ill-fated attempt to bolster journalists and their trade in Rwanda’s increasingly authoritarian environment. His memoir is a page-turner that reads like a suspense novel, with a growing sense of dread through a narrative that confirms the reader’s worst fears time and time again.

In the book, Sundaram details the ways in which Rwanda’s regime uses a combination of propaganda, repression and drummed-up fear to force every person in the country to comply with its goals. He compares Rwanda to a theater in which everyone knows the script and must perform their part, because the punishment for “forgetting” one’s lines is harsh.

One excuse Kagame’s supporters often give for continuing to back his rule is that in the post-genocide context, a strong hand is necessary to guide the country out of conflict and into prosperity. Sundaram shows that the regime’s rule has long gone past the point of restoring order into outright abuse of the citizenry. Whether it is destroying a farmer’s mature crop because he grew the yams he wanted rather than the beans the authorities ordered or requiring every workplace to keep flowers inside, Rwanda’s leaders have a seemingly incessant ability to dominate even the least significant aspects of citizens’ lives:

Small, arbitrary and superficial rules were given such prominence. Facts were turned into beliefs in support of the government, and the government’s beliefs had become facts.

These petty policies exist only to reinforce the government’s power and ability to control the narrative, serving as a sign to citizens that they have no escape from even the most ridiculous of requirements. Other, more serious penalties encourage family members to turn one another in to authorities if they were disloyal. Even the bond between mother and son is not safe from this psychological domination; Sundaram describes meeting with one mother whose son was executed after she turned him in but who nonetheless said her lines as a performer in a play: “He deserved it.”

This psychological domination has consequences. An astute observer of the realities that lie just beneath the facade of Rwanda’s all-too-perfect, Potemkin villages, Sundaram details numerous examples of a phenomenon by which, Rwandans, forced into submission and knowing that the penalties for dissent are high, will take actions against their own better judgment and all reason. He details one trip to a village in southern Rwanda where officials suddenly ordered all residents to remove the grass roofs from their huts as part of a housing modernization scheme, then left without providing new roofs or any kind of alternative housing. Afraid to defy orders, the villagers complied within hours and had been living exposed to the elements ever since, with elderly, young and other vulnerable people quickly becoming ill and dying in those conditions. Yet the villagers stick to the script with Sundaram. One elderly woman lying ill with malaria on a soaking-wet bed relayed that “the president was a visionary for destroying these roofs, and that this was a sign of progress coming to Rwanda.”

Sundaram has harsh words for the diplomats and aid workers who so readily enable the Rwandan regime by funding projects despite having full knowledge of the repressive tactics in which Kagame and his allies engage. He details all manner of absurd ways in which Rwanda violates human rights and democratic norms — in one instance, a journalist correctly predicts the outcome of the 2011 presidential election down to the percentage points because these percentages were predetermined by the state — yet Rwanda never faces serious consequences from its donors, such as significant cuts to the budget support they provide.

Rwanda’s defenders — and those who see it as a complicated place — often argue that cutting budget support to Rwanda would directly harm ordinary citizens who benefit from health, education and economic development activities. Development experts and researchers love Rwanda; the government is fully committed to technocratic solutions to poverty and will gladly order its citizens to sleep under bed nets, deliver babies in clinics and get vaccinated – and they will let researchers closely measure and evaluate results. Some of those actions are no doubt for the greater good – avoiding malaria, surviving childbirth and saving lives are unequivocal goods. But forcing a woman, to, say, begin taking contraceptives when she has no real choice is another matter. As Sundaram notes in a discussion of a controversial mothers’ health program he had with a Rwandan journalist:

Women across the country were being directed to government hospitals. And despite their fears of how medical staff would manipulate their bodies, of what they were injected with and what medication they were asked to take, the participation rate was climbing. The women were posing in photos showing they were happy at the hospitals. Gibson told me, “If we refuse, or even ask questions, they say we are against the will of the state.”

Perhaps most harrowing is the appendix tucked in the back of the book, where Sundaram documents the arrests, murders and “disappearances” of more than 60 Rwandan journalists.

How did the Rwanda described by Sundaram come to exist? Many clues can be found in André Guichaoua’s “From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda 1990-1994.” This seminal 2010 work is newly available in English for the first time. Guichaoua, a sociologist who served as an expert witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and in other trials relating to crimes of the genocide, details the complex environment in which the 1994 genocide emerged. It is a meticulously detailed account that challenges both the Tutsi-controlled Rwandan government’s official narrative about the causes, events and consequences of the genocide as well as elements of the international community’s consensus narrative and the denialist accounts of Hutu extremists who still seek to enact their hateful ideology from abroad.

Indeed, what is most striking about “From War to Genocide” is how it dispels myth after myth about the Rwandan genocide and Rwandan history. Guichaoua quickly dispenses with the false “ancient hatreds between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups” narrative that was peddled by most media organizations in 1994. He also rejects the idea that is still common knowledge now: that the genocide was meticulously pre-planned and executed according to a master design. Instead, Guichaoua shows how the extremists’ decision to pursue genocide evolved over time, especially during the first week after April 6, when the president’s plane was shot down. He shows that Hutu elites were embroiled in a struggle over what to do and how far to extend the killing until about April 12, when the decision to pursue genocide moved forward. This does not mean that planning for such horrors had not already been done by some, but Guichaoua skillfully shows how genocide was one option among many considered, and how the most extreme Hutu leaders forced the decision in their preferred direction through negotiation, intimidation and force.

Central to Guichaoua’s argument is the fact that the Rwandan genocide didn’t just happen spontaneously: It was the culmination of never-resolved struggles for power and control of economic resources (especially land) that have plagued the country from the late colonial period until today. His discussion of the 1990-94 civil war between the then-Hutu-controlled Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/RPA), which is now the political party controlling the country, is particularly compelling. As Guichaoua shows, the war erupted amid difficult-to-resolve issues that had been left to fester, including those about ethnic identity and power, clientelism, international pressure for democratic consolidation as the Cold War was ending, and the status of Rwanda’s refugees, some of whom had been outside the country for nearly three decades by 1990.

Neither side could win the war, but the power-sharing arrangement they reached at Arusha, Tanzania, was supposed to resolve these issues. When the plane carrying Rwanda and Burundi’s presidents was shot down on its landing approach to Kigali airport on April 6, 1994, however, hopes for that peaceful resolution ended, with the war devolving into genocide, the RPF/A advancing on Kigali and taking control within three months, and, eventually, the spillover of Rwanda’s war into Zaire/Congo, where its vestiges still continue today.

Taken together, Guichaoua’s historical analysis and Sundaram’s contemporary analysis raise significant questions about Rwanda today, and whether the facade erected by the RPF in the post-genocide period is sustainable. The parallels between what Guichaoua describes and the current situation are alarming: A small minority of one ethnic group controls almost all of political, economic and social life; there are virtually no avenues for meaningful, peaceful dissent about the country’s direction or its leaders; and, as Sundaram shows, information flows are controlled and manipulated by elites.

Rwanda’s future, RPF officials are fond of claiming, should be left up to Rwandans. The problem is that given the country’s political climate, it is almost impossible to ascertain who Rwandans actually want to lead their country. In consultations over the now-approved decision to allow Kagame a third term in office, lawmakers claimed to have spoken with millions of Rwandans and only found 10 who thought extending his rule was a bad idea. Ten dissents in a population of 12 million is a remarkable finding indeed, so remarkable that it is almost certainly false.

We simply don’t know the truth about what Rwandans want from their political leaders. What we do know is that authoritarianism — and its lack of meaningful choices for ordinary people — rarely works indefinitely. Whether — and for how long — Rwandans and Kagame’s international friends continue to accept the trade-off of no political freedom for uneven development and unresolved power struggles is still an open question.