Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Swimming Against the Tide

Given all that I have seen and heard since the Rwandan Green Party first tried to register as a political party in May 2009, I am now compelled to begin to document what is going on in Rwanda. The nature of the intimidation and control that the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front uses against its political opponents is more severe in this round of Presidential elections than it was in 2003 when the government harassed and menaced the opposition while allowing it to register its political parties and campaign in a flawed election.

See the 2003 report of the European Union and the 2006 academic analysis of Meierhenrich in the journal Electoral Studies). Readers can also refer to the EU report on the 2008 parliamentary elections in which 56% of the seats went to women. I, along with Erin Baines and Stephen Brown, criticise the elections as feckless in The Guardian

This 2010 round of elections is shaping up differently. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front is more open in its tactics of suppressing dissent and ensuring that it discredits the opposition as groups intent on spreading the seeds of divisionism and spreading genocide ideology (both are undefined, applied arbitrarily to discredit and suppress opposition voices; both are also constitutionally mandated). This is not democratic in even the most narrow definitions of democracy. I think this is because the government has further consolidated its control of the socio-political space since 2003, and is now able to silence dissent with physical violence (as witnessed both again the Green Party and most recently the UDF) without repercussion.

A colleague said to me that the most recent wave of violence against opposition leaders is a test for the international community. Reflecting on what Peter Uvin wrote in his 1998 book "Aiding Violence" about how the international donor community helped create and consolidate the conditions for the 1994 genocide, I think my colleague is on to something important. President Kagame is testing the international community to see how far he can push his allies, notably the UK and the US. It is unfortunate that no donor has come out forcefully to ask Kagame to respect the democratic process that he himself asserts is the basis of Rwanda's present and future peace and security.

Of course, the alleged peace and security the Rwanda currently enjoys is built on the politics of exclusion. The ruling RPF has politicised Tutsi victimhood and is practicing mass justice for mass atrocity against Hutu. The presumption of only Tutsi survivors of the genocide and only Hutu perpetrators recreates in practice the ethnic divisions that Kagame himself claims will move Rwanda from a culture of ethnic hatred to one of ethnic unity. The two broad distinctions are now survivors and perpetrators. This has the effect of erasing the lived experiences of genocide of a significant percentage of the population. It also has the potential effect of crystallising and creating stronger dissent in the future. For those who have studied Rwanda's history, the parallels between this moment in Rwanda history and the twilight of the independence period are striking. See C. Newbury's "The Cohesion of Oppression" (1988).

That the ruling RPF is building a society built on the politics of exclusion is acknowledged only by the academics, and a few forward looking journalists. Unfortunately, most, like Kinzer and Gourevitch, praise Kagame and his RPF as a benevolent leader that cares deeply about his people (see my review of Kinzer's book in the journal African Studies Review). The available evidence certainly does not support this view; Kagame is an authoritarian dictator that cares more about his own political power than he does about ordinary Rwandans -- Tutsi, Hutu or Twa.

If you take only one thing away from the post, it is that swimming against the dominant narrative, carefully crafted by the RPF for international consumption, is dangerous, perhaps even life-threatening for courageous individuals who choose to stand up and speak out against its excesses. Swimming against the tide also means standing up and calling on international actors to take action in Rwanda. The RPF, like the Habyarimana regime before it, has imposed tight control over the activities of opposition politicians, journalists, human rights defenders and any real or perceived critic.


  1. Congratulations, Professor, for staring a blog. And kudos to Ann Garrison/Colored Opinions for suggesting it to you.

    I have a small suggestion of mine for improving the presentation of the links you're referring to above on your posts.

    On Blogger you don't need to give the links as you do, which could be quite jarring.

    For example, for your first link "report of the European Union" you just highlight that (or just the word "report" if you like) and click on the icon for links on the bar of your new message. Then when it pops up, you first erase the "http://" that appears, after which you paste the web address of your own link. It's quite self-explanatory...

    Thanks a lot for your contribution...

  2. thanks for hte helpful hint Alex. I will use that format next time.

  3. Excellent initiative which will surely help the canadian opinion in understanding what is the right face of the Kigali regime. Hope that canadian decision makers will visit this blog!