Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Genocide Anniversary, Rwanda Needs Political Reform

This Thursday, April 7, 2011 marks the seventeenth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where more than 800,000 lives were lost when Hutu-led, state-based militia goaded neighbours to kill neighbouring Tutsis. The anniversary is a time to pause and reflect on the progress the country has made since the genocide, and to ask if mass political violence could again happen in this East African country.

By most accounts, Rwanda is a nation rehabilitated. The institutions of the state have been rebuilt and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and airports have been restored and in some areas, upgraded. Rwanda is a leader on the African continent in terms of service delivery in education and health. The Rwandan government and a coterie of friends that include Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes, western philanthropists, diplomats and donors project this message of rehabilitation and dismiss any critical accounts to the contrary as absurd. The Rwandan government and these “friends of Rwanda” also dismiss the notion that Rwanda’s post-genocide reconstruction and reconciliation policies could be setting the stage for another round of political violence.

Most outsiders fail to recognize the lack of political freedoms and economic inequalities that confront Rwandans who are not members of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The vast majority of Rwandans—Hutu and Tutsi alike—who survived the genocide remain politically marginalized, extremely poor, and in many cases, traumatized by what they have lived through. Daily life for many is characterized by lack of food, clean water, and affordable and proximate health services, while the elite enjoy European coffee houses, wireless internet hotspots, new housing and shopping malls, accessible health care and other services. The gap between urban elites and the rural citizenry – some 90% of Rwandans live in rural areas – has never been larger.

It is this growing socio-economic inequity between the ruling elite and average Rwandans that makes another round of political violence possible. In order to maintain the peace, international actors active in Rwanda, and the broader Great Lakes Region of Africa, must push the RPF towards a real democratic opening. They must press President Paul Kagame to create space for national dialogue, meaning an open and safe space where all Rwandans can meet to discuss the genocide, and to strategize ways to move forward from the hurt of the past. This is particularly important after the recent release of a UN report detailing allegations of systematic killings of Rwandan Hutu by the RPF in eastern Congo before, during and after the 1994 genocide.

There are two things that the “friends of Rwanda” can do to encourage a more open and peaceful political culture until Paul Kagame is expected to step down in 2017.

The first is to question the current government's ability to manage Rwanda's people and natural resources. The US State Department estimates that by 2020, Rwanda will be home to 13 million people—up from the 11 million in 2011—making it the most densely populated country in Africa with 225 people per square mile. Over 90 percent of Rwandans are subsistence farmers and will be the first to suffer when the central government is unable to respond to their daily needs. The government requires rural farmers to grow coffee and tea for export instead of subsistence crops. A new land policy has decreased peasant holdings to less than a half-acre making it difficult for farmers to feed their families. The RPF does not allow peasant farmers to voice concerns about the agricultural policies and the inequitable distribution of land among government loyalists.

An underfed and disaffected local population is hardly a good starting point toward building a sustainable peace and democracy. The friends of Rwanda, led by Rwanda’s international donors, will need to pressure the RPF in order to ensure that agricultural and land policies are aimed to developing long-term peace and security, not quick gains for party loyalists.

Second, Kagame will need encouragement to engage the diverse political views of the Rwandan diaspora. Kagame must be made to acknowledge that criticisms exist alongside the positive involvement of the diaspora in Rwanda's economic development. As incentive, he can take note of the diaspora’s contribution of nearly US$130 million to Rwanda's economy in 2010 (second only to tourist receipts). To date, Western donors have failed to seriously push Kagame to engage dissident opinion within the diaspora. For Kagame, sincere dissidents who criticize RPF policy are lumped with political extremists such as the FDLR (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda) rebel group, making it easy to justify their exclusion from the Rwandan political sphere. A sincere distinction should be made, and Friends of Rwanda and donors can encourage government engagement with all sectors of the diaspora as part of the broader strategy of political openness and dialogue.

Indeed, encouraging openness among Rwandans at home and in the disapora is a necessary ingredient to Kagame’s continued reign. The RPF is now under increased scrutiny from its core constituency—educated, urban Tutsi. Many of these individuals, especially Anglophone Tutsi who had returned after the 1994 genocide, have lost faith in the post-genocide reconstruction and development vision of a government that they now consider corrupt and nepotistic. It was significant, and perhaps most worrying for Kagame, that this group of vocal critics includes several senior military officers—among them former army chief Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa and Théogene Rudasingwa, a former major and ambassador to the US, who have both joined hands and formed the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) in December 2010. Analysts believe that Gen. Nyamwasa commands considerable sympathy among the military rank-and-file, making the threat of a coup a possibility for the first time since 1994. Indeed, Gen. Nyamwasa has intimated in recent press appearances that he is prepared to unseat Kagame by force if necessary.

It is critical on this seventeenth anniversary of the genocide that friends of Rwanda begin to push their governments and other international actors to revisit their support for Kagame in order to avoid future violence.