Saturday, July 31, 2010

Whither International Responsibility in Rwanda?

(This post is written by a colleague, and she asked me to post it here.)

Slightly under two years ago, an expert roundtable was convened by the International Peace Institute, the UN Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and InterAfrica Group to revitalise the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Prevention of Genocide in Africa. R2P is an ambitious set of principles that aims to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. It came about after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda once it was clear the international community failed so tremendously in adhering to the ideal of “never again” that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked: when do we become responsible?

It seems as if we still don’t know the answer.

This past April, as Rwanda commemorated 16 years since approximately 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered in less than 100 days, the Special Adviser with a focus on R2P restated the world’s commitment to preventing mass atrocity. Speaking on behalf of current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, he said: “We can and must do better in the 21st century... Complacency is our enemy, and vigilance our friend”. Yet a cursory look at the lead-in to Rwanda’s upcoming presidential elections indicates that just as in 1994, with tensions climbing and violence on the rise, the international community is choosing to look the other way.

In Rwanda, survivors and perpetrators of genocide comprise the majority of the population. Ethnicity remains deeply politicized and ethnic conflict is a living memory. However, since the last presidential elections in 2003, people have been required to eliminate public forms and expressions of ethnic identification. The RPF government, which controls most state institutions, has prohibited claims for ethnic representation in politics, education, and the economic sector in the name of preventing “divisionism” and “genocide ideology.” Those who criticize or question the government’s policies are arrested, killed or disappeared. President Kagame and the RPF regime justify such actions as necessary for preventing another genocide, but what sort of peace is built on a foundation of repression? If Rwanda’s history indicates anything, it is that long-simmering inequalities do not go away on their own; rather, they burn at slow pace until the cauldron bursts and violence erupts.

Many praise Rwanda for its social and developmental achievements without recognizing that the proceeds of economic gain are largely serving to further the interests of Kagame’s elite, English-speaking Tutsi minority, most of who grew up in neighboring Uganda. Secretary Clinton described Rwanda as “a beacon of hope for other African nations” and Philip Gourevitch, in a recent New Yorker article, wrote that in Rwanda, “The reconciliation defies expectations.” Further, in the last two years, President Kagame has been named one of Financial Times’ 50 greatest leaders of the past decade, a Time Magazine Man of the Year, winner of the Clinton Global Citizens Award for Leadership in Public Service, and winner of the International Medal of Peace. Rwanda was the World Bank’s top reformer of 2009 and was accepted in to the Commonwealth last November.

How is it that diplomats and journalists alike are continuing to ignore the tragic realities of life for the average Rwandan? While Kigali is gleaming, 90 percent of the population is mired in poverty; mostly these are Hutu, but Tutsi not connected to the RPF regime suffer tremendously as well. However, to challenge a system that perpetuates such inequalities means almost-certain imprisonment, if not death. Rwanda, following closely behind the US and Russia, has the third largest incarceration rate in the world. Where is our vigilance? When will we speak out for those who unable to speak for themselves?

It is clear that violence is increasing as we near this summer’s elections: in the last month alone, there was an attempted assassination of Lt General Nyamwasa in South Africa who, along with several other senior military officials, had fled Rwanda after disagreements with President Kagame. Almost immediately afterward, the newspaper editor who called for an investigation in to the General’s death was gunned down in front of his home in Kigali. Another editor in Rwanda was arrested on charges of defaming the president and espousing genocide ideology one week later.

Yet the voices quashed are not just those of the Rwandan media: A Human Rights Watch researcher was recently expelled, American law professor Peter Erlinder was arrested in May while preparing a case for charges of genocide denial against opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, and she herself, in addition to other serious contenders for president and their supporters, was charged with genocide ideology and banned from registering her candidacy. Two weeks ago, Green Party candidate Andre Kagwa Rwisereka was found nearly decapitated in South Rwanda, his body dumped on the side of the road. Still Kagame, with US and UN support, maintains that the story of Rwanda since the genocide is one of success and prosperity.

Whither our responsibility?

Certainly, there is no easy solution; it would be wrong for the US and UN to push open the doors of democracy and force Rwanda to hold free and fair elections. It is also too late to even try; such an act would be dangerous not only for American interests in East Africa (a whole other quagmire) but for average Rwandans who continue to suffer under a regime that manipulates the worst of its history to further oppression in the present. We should not, however, stand idly by, either. Those who care about “never again” should at least begin by advocating for political dialogue in Rwanda, pressing for open economic opportunities, and supporting freedom of speech and conscience in a country where talking politics in a way the government does not approve means that your life is at risk. Indeed, if we are not vigilant about our responsibility to protect, another round of mass political violence in Rwanda will be the shame of us all.

To get involved in this important issue, contact the office of Senator Russ Feingold, chairman of the Subcommittee on African Affairs (

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Collateral Damage: First published in the Mail & Guardian

Rwandans will soon go to the polls to elect a president. The incumbent, Paul Kagame, head of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, continues to exert total control over the country's election process.

Kagame, who came to power as the leader of a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), that ended the 1994 genocide, legitimised his rule in 2003 when he won the presidential elections with 95% of the vote. Anywhere else in Africa, and indeed the world, such a result would indicate that Kagame was hardly elected in free and fair elections. Despite the fact that Amnesty International, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations found serious irregularities and widespread oppression in the elections, Kagame won praise from major donors such as the United States and the United Kingdom for his thoughtful and benevolent leadership of Rwanda's rebirth as a model recipient of international aid.

In advance of the upcoming presidential elections, many within the international community have remained supportive of Rwanda's so-called "democratic transition". They seem to ignore the widespread arrests of journalists and opposition politicians, the closing of independent Rwandan newspapers, ejection of a Human Rights Watch researcher, an assassination attempt against exiled General Kayumba Nyamasa who had a falling out with Kagame, and the killing of journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage who attempted to report on the assassination attempt in the online version of a Rwandan newspaper whose print edition had been closed down by the government.

'No government is perfect'
While diplomats and policymakers from some countries, like Sweden and The Netherlands, have cut their aid, others like the United States and the United Kingdom continue to publicly support Kagame. As an American diplomat currently based in Kigali said, "Of course this government is not perfect. But no government is. The position of many in the diplomatic corps is to gently nudge the RPF towards democracy." In other words, key donors like the US and the UK view the continued harassment and intimidation of political opponents and critical journalists as par for the course in the transition from civil war and genocide to democracy.

While diplomats quietly acknowledge this repression of elites, there is no public acknowledgement of the impact of the elections on average Rwandans.

In Rwanda, politics is the preserve of elite actors, who represent about 10% of the population. Average Rwandans such as rural farmers, teachers, nurses, low level civil servants, traders, or soldiers who make up the remaining 90% of the population have virtually no say in politics. In November 2009 a group of rural farmers resident in southern Rwanda sought to register a new political party to put forward their own presidential candidate. Several of them were arrested without charge, and the presumed organisers remain in prison; the rest fled to neighbouring Burundi. Indeed, average Rwandans are the first to suffer when elites use all available tactics to gain political power. As the Swahili proverb goes, "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers".

Silencing critical voices
A climate of fear and insecurity predominates in the everyday life of average Rwandans. Anyone who questions RPF policies or its treatment of its opposition and critics can be beaten, harrassed or intimidated into submission. Those who are perceived as sympathetic to the political opposition can be arrested, "disappeared", or like Rugambage, murdered. The number of political prisoners as well as those who have disappeared is unknown. Human Rights Watch reports that repression of political freedoms in a strategy of the RPF to "silence critical voices and independent reporting before the elections".

The strategy of repression means that none of the three main opposition parties -- Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, FDU-Inkingi and PS-Imberakuri -- are able to take part in the elections. Distant family members of opposition politicians and critical journalists find themselves under constant surveillance. As a result, the vast majority of the population waits silently and anxiously for the elections, hoping that they are perceived as model citizens so as to avoid attracting unwanted attention from government loyalists.

Rwandans are more than skeptical about the government's commitment to democracy. They recognise the upcoming presidential elections as a form of social control to ensure they vote for the right party (meaning Kagame's RPF). As an aide to the minister of local government said, "In 2010, the people will also vote as we instruct them. This means that those who vote against us understand that they can be left behind. To embrace democracy is to embrace the development ideas of President Kagame".

Average Rwandans interpret democracy as a form of repression. A male university student told me, "Oh, we understand that voting is not something done freely. Since the middle of 2009, students are told to take an oath of loyalty to the RPF. This means that we have to join the RPF -- if we don't we don't have any opportunities to get a job or get married or have any kind of life really. In Rwanda, democracy means to understand that the power of the RPF is absolute." A rural woman who lost her husband in the 1994 genocide told me a similar tale, "Democracy is something the government says we need when they fear losing their power. We heard this before the genocide, and we hear it now. Democracy would be OK if regular people like me could actually participate rather than being told whom to vote for and when."

For average Rwandans, democracy is the domain of the elite, who intimidate and harass the rural population into parroting the so-called democratic ideals of the RPF. This democracy is an alienating and oppressive daily reality -- something which could crystallise into violence in early August 2010 when Rwandans go to the polls again. The words of a Rwandan colleague are emblematic, "Anyone who has the means to do so is getting out of the country. For those of us who can't , we just hope the elections are without violence. When the government can imprison or kill anyone they please, we are all nervous because it means none of us is safe ...".

Susan Thomson is a Five Colleges Professor, funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. She has been researching state-society relations in Rwanda since 1996 and is the author of numerous publications on the country.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Rwanda's Sham Elections: First published in The Mark

As voting time approaches, President Paul Kagame's RPF continues to practise zero-sum politics that could lead to more political violence.

(Co-authored by a Rwandan academic based in the U.S. who survived the 1994 genocide and wishes to remain anonymous. The authors of this piece run the blog The Cry for Freedom in Rwanda.)

For many western observers – Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Bill Gates among them – Rwanda’s economic growth is the foundation of its democratic transition. Yet, as Rwandans head to the polls next month to elect a president, Paul Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has perverted the very democratic ideals it claims to uphold.

Kagame’s RPF emerged victorious from and gained credit for ending the 1994 genocide in which ethnic Hutu killed at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsi. Foreign leaders, feeling guilty for not having done enough to end the genocide or for having a direct role in the massacres, pumped money into Rwanda in the hope of rebuilding a new society – a society free from ethnic division. From ashes, the Rwandan people quickly started showing signs of recovery. Still, the RPF continues to practice zero-sum politics that could return the country to the abyss of 1994.

Over the last 16 years, the RPF has centralized power into a one-man dictatorship. A tiny English-speaking Tutsi elite, most of whom grew up as refugees in neighbouring Uganda, surrounds the dictator, Paul Kagame. The politics of exclusion that marked the pre-genocide years remains intact despite the official policy of ethnic unity. The Hutu community, making up some 85 per cent of the population, is largely excluded from most positions of power. Even more insulting, politics, business, and the civil service are all dominated by military personnel or former members of the RPF.

In advance of the upcoming presidential elections, many “friends” of Rwanda have remained supportive of its so-called “democratic transition.” They ignore the repeated arrests of journalists and opposition politicians, the closing of independent local newspapers, the ejection of a Human Rights Watch researcher, an assassination attempt against exiled general Kayumba Nyamasa, who fell out with President Kagame earlier this year, the murder of journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage, who attempted to report on Nyamasa’s assassination attempt in the online version of a Rwandan newspaper the print edition of which the government closed down, and the murder of Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-president of the opposition Democratic Green party. While diplomats from some countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have cut their aid, the U.S. and the U.K. continue to publicly support Kagame. Canada’s position is vague as it encourages Rwanda to adopt policies that promote a pluralist society.

Under the watch of a sympathetic and supportive international community, Kagame has done everything within his power to ensure that the August elections consolidate his political power.

First, he appointed all the members of the National Electoral Commission, staffing it with former and current members of the RPF. Although members of the political opposition have protested, Kagame shows no sign of accepting reform. Such an arrangement will make it possible for him to manipulate, rig, and control the elections.

Second, the RPF revised the constitution in 2003. Many of its provisions endanger democracy. The most damning is the ill-defined law on genocide ideology. Its official purpose is to identify individuals who wish to kill ethnic Tutsi. In practice, the law is invoked against political opponents or critics of the government who question its reconstruction or reconciliation policies or who suggest that the RPF committed war crimes before, during, and after the genocide. Instead of erasing the ethnic hatred that the RPF believes lives in the hearts and minds of some Rwandans, the genocide ideology law is crystallizing dissent among some sections of the military while weakening the opposition and journalists who criticize the government’s application of the law.

Lastly, Kagame abolished real opposition and manufactured a shadow opposition that serves only to sing the praises of the RPF. This “opposition” is active only during election season and is otherwise unknown to the general public. None of the three actual opposition parties – the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, FDU-Inkingi, and PS-Imberakuri – can take part in the elections because their respective leaders are either in prison or banned from registering their candidates on allegations of harbouring genocide ideology.

While much of the diplomatic community acknowledges these democratic shortcomings, most western donors continue to highlight Rwanda’s economic growth as the necessary stimulant to inch the country towards democracy. What these actors overlook is the fact that the benefits of economic growth accrue largely to urban elites. The post-genocide policies of the RPF neglect the rural peasantry, which comprise 90 per cent of the population.

The international community widely praises Kagame’s liberal economic policies without due regard to the restrictions they have placed on what peasants produce and how they sell it. 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. This means that few families are able to grow enough to subsist, let alone take any excess to market. The United Nations Development Programme reported in 2008 that Rwanda’s Gini coefficient has increased since the RPF came to office, and that the socio-economic disparity had increased from its 1990 levels. As one rural farmer in Northern Province lamented, “If the RPF doesn’t allow us to trade freely, we will join the FDLR rebel group … otherwise, how will we feed our children?”

The suppression of democratic ideals under President Kagame cannot guarantee continued economic growth in Rwanda. The latest attacks on basic human freedoms could be but the tip of the iceberg. Before Rwandans go to the polls next month, western friends of Rwanda – the diplomats, policy-makers and academics that extol the country's democratic virtues – must press for meaningful democratic change by encouraging free speech and political dialogue with a viable opposition. Without meaningful change, the country could be headed for another round of mass political violence.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Antoine: "The regime does not tolerate anyone who honours the Hutu killed by the RPF"

Antoine’s story is emblematic of many Rwandans who have fled the country since the 1994 genocide. An educated and thoughtful man, he studied at the National University of Rwanda in the late 1990s. A Tutsi survivor of the genocide, Antoine embraced the ethnic unity that is the basis of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front’s reconciliation policy. He fell in love with Claire, a Hutu woman that he met during his studies.

Group fear shapes individual choice
Many of Antoine’s Tutsi relatives and friends did support his intended marriage to Claire. Her father was a prominent diplomat during the Habyarimana regime. Antoine’s relatives recognized because of his ranking position in the genocidal regime of Habyrimana that Claire’s father could very well be one of the organizers of the 1994 genocide. Claire’s family also had their doubts that she could marry into a Tutsi family, now that the current government, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), seeks to limit the participation of ethnic Hutu in government and civil society circles. Claire’s father was executed by the Rwandan military in July 1994? And her family did not want her to marry into a band of killers.

Allegations of minimising the genocide
Despite the opposition of family, Antoine and Claire married in Rwanda in 2003. Four years after, Antoine went to start his Master’s degree in North America, leaving Claire behind. In 2008, Claire’s family organized a prayer vigil to honour her father. Agents from the government’s Department of Military Intelligence (DMI) knew of the vigil, and detained Claire for more than six hours at a police station in Kigali. DMI interpreted the vigil as a sign that her Hutu family was minimising the genocide because, lamented Antoine, "the regime does not tolerate anyone who honours the Hutu killed by the RPF". Indeed, the RPF does not recognize have deliberately killed the Hutu. A foreign journalist friend of Claire’s family also attended the vigil. When DMI agents learned of this, they accused Claire of inviting the journalist to spread the false truth about the RPF in foreign papers. She was ordered to stop interacting with the journalist; if she did not, she would be arrested.

Move to exile
Shortly after DMI agents visited Claire, Antoine mobilized to bring his family in North-America where they have applied for asylum.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Am I not a survivor of some kind too?"

“When the genocide started, we all ran for our lives. We [peasants] didn’t know that Tutsis were the ones getting killed until the second night. Because we all feared government militias, I helped my Tutsi family and friends hide before returning to my village. That is one thing this new government doesn’t recognize; that all Hutu did not kill. Some of us even lost our lives trying to save Tutsi…!

Joseph has been in prison since July 2001 when his neighbour accused him of committing acts of genocide against Tutsi in 1994. He proclaims his innocence, saying that he was wrongly accused because of his land holdings. Since the genocide, Joseph has worked hard to rebuild his life and livelihood. His Tutsi wife and three of their six children were killed shortly after the genocide began in April 1994. Since September 1996 when he was able to begin working his almost one acre of land, Joseph has lived with the suspicions of individuals who returned to Rwanda after the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) stopped the genocide in July 1994.

Many newly arrived returnees sought to occupy homes and land that had been abandoned during the genocide. Joseph did not abandon his land, choosing to hide out in Rwanda instead of following most of his countrymen into neighbouring Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Joseph says bluntly, “Any hardworking or honest Hutu runs the risk of being denounced as some one who killed during the genocide? Why? Because we might say that this government is not as peace loving as it says it is. To be Rwandan is to be quiet. To be Hutu is to be invisible. This is the new Rwanda….”

The “New” Rwanda
Since taking office in July 1994, the ruling RPF has instituted a variety of policies to eliminate the ethnic hatred that Hutu have for Tutsi. In creating one Rwanda for all Rwandans, a new Rwandan citizenship will be created. According to the government, an ethnically unified Rwanda is the key to sustaining present and future peace and is the foundation of democracy in the country.

“Not all Hutu killed”
A key RPF mechanism to ensure that Hutu reconcile with Tutsi is the policy of national unity and reconciliation. Hutu are encouraged to tell the truth of what they did during the genocide, and Tutsi to forgive and forget what happened to them during the genocide. For men like Joseph, who shared their lives with Tutsi friends and family, the official policy of truth telling means that the government does not recognize the different types of killing that took place during the genocide. The official and only acceptable version of events is that Hutu killed, and Tutsi died. Joseph says, “It is almost like this government doesn’t want any Hutu to declare themselves Rwandan! If you are in prison, you cannot participate in life. You lose your family and your land. But I did not kill, even though I stand accused of killing Tutsi from my community. When I saw my wife die, I ran with my remaining kids into the hills. We hid until it was safe to come out. Am I not a survivor of some kind, too? But we are not allowed to talk about that. There is no discussing Hutu who saved Tutsi. Not all of us killed. Some did, some didn’t . That is what war is like….”

Hutu need recognition too
Because Joseph is in prison, he feels comfortable speaking out about the lack of official government recognition for Hutu survivors of the genocide. Yet, as he speaks, the heaviness in his heart is palpable. His shoulders are rounded in a posture of defeat. He fears for his sons, who he has not seen since being arrested in 2001. He laments, “How is it justice for a peasant like me to rot in this prison? Okay, I did not survive genocide like the government says because I am not Tutsi. I acknowledge this. But did I not risk my life to save my family. I live with the knowledge that my wife and daughters died before my eyes. Now my sons are living as orphans because I am guilty of what? Not telling my truth? I told the government my truth but it was not recognized as true. I will rot the rest of my days in this prison.”

Monday, July 5, 2010

“Besides being hungry, survivors like me feel empty inside”

In the past week or so, I have been thinking a lot about the stories that are missing from our current knowledge on Rwanda's election process. What is missing are the voices of average, everyday Rwandans, and the impact of the increasingly tense political climate in Rwanda at the moment.

So, I am going to start writing the stories of average Rwandans and how they are weathering the elections process. I am also working on a few opinion pieces to begin to spread the word among western audiences about daily realities in Rwanda at the moment. There is more going on than a few arrests and the odd assassination as the country prepares to go to the polls....

If you have stories you would like to share, please email me and I will try to raise awareness with international organisations and journalists.

“Besides being hungry, survivors like me feel empty inside”

Jeanne is a Tutsi widow of the 1994 Rwandan genocide whose Hutu husband died in 1996 of disease in the refugee camps in neighbouring Zaire. All of her children also died in late 1994, after the genocide officially ended. She works part-time as a seamstress and is able to barter with friends and neighbours for food and shelter. “I am too old to work the fields but have made arrangements that seem to be working out well enough”. Jeanne does not think democracy is possible among Rwandans who lived through the genocide: “This government doesn’t understand how those of us who hid to survive suffer everyday. Besides being hungry, survivors like me feel empty inside. There is little hope for us. We have seen too much to ever recover….”

Jeanne recounts the adversity see faces in her daily life since the genocide. Before 1994, she and her family lived a relatively simple existence. Everyday activities were centred on weekly trips to market to earn enough money to send her children to school. The government did not interfere much in her daily life. She says, “I was free to plant what I needed to take care of my family and raise some extra money. My husband drove a taxi-motorbike. Together, we had a nice life together; we did not get involved in politics. But since the genocide, everything is political. If your hearts and stomachs are empty, then that is politics.”

Jeanne suffers more than the emotional and physical loss of her family, friends and relatives. She suffers the demands of being forced to forgive and forget what she experienced during the genocide. “This government only cares about itself; we survivors are a burden to them. They promise assistance but it never arrives. Survivors are walking dead. On top of this, we are expected to forgive those who killed? Someone needs to wake up this government….”

Not easy to complain
Jeanne considers herself an old woman, and is comfortable speaking to local officials and other government authorities. She says, “it not easy to complain because I sometimes get harassed or put in prison for my views. But I am an old woman and I need to speak against this government’s forgive and forget rule so that the next generation doesn’t suffer like we did. I speak out despite the hardships because who else can?”

Survivors “don’t matter”

Many survivors feel that the government has manipulated their experiences of surviving the genocide for its own political gain. The feeling among rural peasants and educated urbanites alike is that ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front presents itself to international audiences as the saviours and guardians of Tutsi survivors, only to then turn around and implement policy that leaves survivors economically marginal and emotionally traumatized. “This government doesn’t care what happens to survivors. They say they stopped the genocide to save Tutsi lives. Then they say that we can’t talk about our experience of living through the genocide. Many of us were raped; many of us lost our relatives. Many of us have no family to take care of us as we age. We don’t matter to this government.”