Monday, August 9, 2010

Rwanda's real challenge

As predicted by friends and foes alike, Paul Kagame has been re-elected by a landslide. This is no surprise as the opposition was silenced. Some critics assume that because Kagame and his RPF did not allow the opposition to register as formal political parties that the major crisis facing Rwanda is its weak political opposition. I have never thought this was a major consideration as there is very little chance of political power to pass democratically. The opposition is divided, has no meaningful or even distinct platform, and likely has little support among elites and peasant folks alike (we don't actually know because no one has asked Rwandans themselves what they think).

The real issue now that the elections are over is the undeniable emergence of a power struggle within the ruling RPF. This has not been reported upon in any meaningful way. Partly, I'm sure, because critical academics and journalists have yet to interview the main actors. We are working with newspaper interviews, and Kagame's reaction to these public offerings in campaign speeches and during his monthly meeting with journalists based in Kigali.

What we do know is that since the RPF took power in 1994, it has continued to consolidate power in its own hands. We don't know the political intentions or power base of those that have fallen out with Kagame.

Most significant is Kagame's sidelining of much of the RPFs military elite. These include several senior officers who were in the bush with Kagame, and who arguably had a role in forming the then-rebel RPF. These include, among others, General Sam Kaka and General Frank Rusagara. In 2001, General Kayumba Nyamwasa also fell out with Kagame, as well, and in 2005 the head of external intelligence Colonel Patrick Karegeya was arrested on allegations of insubordination.

This much is widely known. The divisions with the RPF came to a head when General Kayumba fled into exile in South Africa. In addition, two other generals (Karake and Muhire) were arrested, accused of masterminding the grenade attacks that happened in the spring. In sum, most of the senior RPF military brass from 1994 have fled into exile or have been arrested (a few have retired and have been relieved of their duties).

There are two possible explanations -- one from the government camp, and the other from the dissidents themselves. First, senior government officials are on the record saying that senior military officers have been pushed to the sidelines because they do not share Kagame's development vision. Senior bureaucrats, in keeping with the party line, explain the divisions as the result of the moral weakness of these generals. They are not interested in a peaceful, stable and secure Rwanda like Kagame; instead they are interested in only their own wealth and political power. This explanation is hardly rocket science to analysts as each of these generals have been marginalized on accusations of corruption, embezzlement or insubordination (to Kagame himself, I suppose).

The explanation from the dissidents is that their grievances are political. Kagame has consolidated power in his hands to such an extent that even a whisper of disagreement is considered treason. Both Nyamwasa and Karegeya say that Kagame is incapable of listening to their opinions.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. One thing is more certain: the power struggle among the RPFs inner circle could signal the end of Kagame's reign. It would also like happen at the end of a gun rather than through the ballot box.

For those of that care about peace and security in Rwanda, the question now becomes does Kagame command the respect of his peers within the RPF? If he doesn't, under what conditions will Kagame begin to loosen his presumed grip on political power?

In addition, can those senior military officials that have fled the country mount a real threat to Kagame's power?

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