It is a fresh afternoon in Karongi. The scenery is quintessentially Rwandan – soft white mist curling gently over green undulated hills. But with Presidential elections taking place in a matter of days, the incumbent’s campaign machine has made a pit stop at this district in the country’s Western Province.
As a result, it is no ordinary day in Karongi. Everywhere you look, the hill slopes are heaving with young people sporting white caps and T-shirts with the face of the man they have come to see, their President Kagame.
Some are waving the Rwandan flag, others are brandishing cardboard signs with Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) slogans painted on. All are looking towards the stage where the President is speaking. Kagame, a tall and wiry individual, is dressed in a baggy red polo shirt, his rally outfit.
He addresses the audience in a slow, breathy voice, his words frequently interrupted with deliberate caesuras that last several seconds. The mood is upbeat but restrained. The calmness of the atmosphere is slightly unnerving, if not unexpected.
Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, has effectively ruled the country since he first marched on Kigali as the leader of the RPF following the 1994 genocide, in which tens of thousands of majority Hutus massacred 800,000 mostly Tutsi minority Rwandans.
That he will emerge the victor of the elections that will take place on 9th August is a foregone conclusion. Whether his victory will be won fairly has, however, been subject to intense debate.
Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specializes in Rwanda, claims that there has been foul play in the run up to elections. “In the months leading up to the August elections we really have seen a further crackdown on any form of opposition, dissent or criticism,” she said.
Indeed, opposition parties have been intimidated and harassed and United Democratic Forces (UDF-Inkingi), the most credible opposition to Kagame, have been obstructed from registering. The party’s leader, Victoire Ingabire has been under house arrest since April.
Other parties have sunk into similar quagmires: the Social Party’s leader, Bernard Ntaganda, is in jail, and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda has been barred from running. Moreover, those opposition parties that have been allowed to run operate with tiny budgets: the Social Democratic Party must take out a loan and the Liberal Party and Party of Progress are working on a shoestring.
The full repercussions of the opposition’s paltry economic resources are even more stark when contrasted with Kagame’s campaign, which is estimated to be worth approximately 1.5 million Euros.
In addition, two newspapers have been shut down, the BBC’s Rwanda service has been suspended, and a handful of the regime critics have been found dead.
“These are not elections,” insists Joseph Sebarenzi, Rwanda’s former President of Parliament, who fled the country in 2000. “Elections pose competition but in Rwanda today you don’t have that competition. These are not elections, but just deception to make sure the international community believe they are.”
According to Kagame’s challengers, such political violence is not a new development born out of the unique pressures of the election period, but easily falls within the general trajectory of political domination that Kagame has relied on to retain power.
The RPF has dominated the government, legislature, and military since 1994. The leader stands accused of having ordered the violent breakup of several Hutu refugee camps and the forced their return to Rwanda in 1995. His regime’s police force and military groups in the arbitrary arrest, disappearance, and believed assassination of thousands of Rwandans from the late 1990s to the present day.
Kagame’s response to such charges against his military arm has an air of helplessness: “You can imagine trying to stand between people who are so seriously aggrieved, and having the desire to settle it because there was no justice infrastructure at that time.”
Furthermore, the election of Kagame in 2003 was seriously marred, according to outside observers. Opposition candidates were threatened or imprisoned. The most credible opposition party, led by ex prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, a Hutu, was outlawed.
“The people trying to bring new ideas were purged and most of them are in exile and others who are in Rwanda have no choice other than to keep quiet,” says Joseph Sebarenzi.
Kagame’s antagonists assert that integral to the leader’s terror tactics has been the manipulation of memory of the genocide to hold his people hostage to history. Indeed, it does seem that the main discourse that underlies Kagame’s accusations against his political opponents is the often erroneous contention that they are supporters of “genocide ideology.”’
Victims are aplenty. They include the leader of the opposition, Imbagire. She was arrested under charges of genocide ideology, divisionism and terrorism. Other high-profile examples include the PS-Imberakuri’s leader, Bernanrd Ntaganda.
However, Kagame’s supporters insist that Rwanda, which has not yet managed to fully cauterize the wounds of genocide, is not ready for democracy. Alvera Mukabaramba, one of Kagame’s opponents, who has been accused of being a supporter of Kagame and running as Kagame’s opponent in collusion with the leader so that he may claim victory in a carefully choreographed election, promotes such a view: “People who criticize us should understand where we come from. Our democracy is very young. In recent years we have been busy creating a new society,” she defended. “The time will come for us to speak more openly about issues of the past. Now, we have to build our future.”
Moreover, many insist that what Kagame lacks in respect for democracy is made up for in his ability to strengthen the country’s economy. They highlight that Rwanda’s economy has burgeoned at an impressive rate of 6.4% per year since 2001. The streets are clean and the skies are bristling with cranes as high-risers take center stage in Kigali’s center. The economy will probably expand by around 7 percent this year as the government increases subsidies for farmers and the construction industry burgeons. Rwanda was named the world’s most improved country of 2009 by the World Bank. Rwanda is also attracting more foreign investment, which reached $230 million last year. In addition, there has been much discussion of the installation of wireless internet throughout the country, which some have commented will transform the country into the ICT hub of Africa by 2020. There have also been moves to invigorate Rwanda’s banking sector.
Economic development has been the key to Kagame’s strategy of ensuring reconciliation and sustainable peace in Rwanda. In a recent interview Kagame stated, “It will be a long, difficult process – we are under no illusions – and development is really the key. We must create economic opportunity, build a culture of entrepreneurship, get people to take responsibility for improving their lives, rather than putting them in a position where they sit back in their poverty and blame others for it.”
A voracious reader of economic and development literature, the statesman has looked towards the Asian tigers for development models. He has been particularly inspired by Singapore, a politically stifled but commercially thriving bastion of banking and commerce.
As a result of these extremely encouraging economic indicators, Kagame acquired an impressive international reputation as the ideal, progressive 21st century African leader who is willing to learn from more successful states in other parts of the world. He has been able to attract crucial support from the international community and, as a consequence, to secure, large amounts of aid. Britain donated £70 million last year alone. High profile and influential fans of Kagame include UN Secretary General Ban Kee Moon, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair.
However critics rebut that such achievements are shallow and successes could be easily undone if Kagame does not step up political reform. “What really makes economic recovery sustainable is a political environment that is safe. Without a safe political environment, without strong political institutions, all that has been achieved economically can disappear,” claims Sebarenzi.
Gwynne Dyer also believes that it has Kagame’s economic strategy of ensuring political stability by replicating Singapore’s development model is misguided: “If Rwanda could become the Singapore of Central Africa, then maybe its citizens would eventually come to believe that their stake in the country’s new stability and prosperity was more important than the history. But Singapore did not have so far to travel, and its history was not drowned in blood.”
Others correctly point out that economic recovery has so far failed to alter life in a meaningful way for the vast majority. Most Rwandans have been left groaning under the weight of poverty. The fleeing of Hutu elites after the genocide has ensured that a new Tutsi elite has virtually complete control over the country’s few economic resources, including revenues from the export of tea and coffee and sizeable aid packages from the international community.
The peasant majority are confronted with is becoming increasingly impoverished. As the population, which is 85% Hutu, increases every year, the accelerating rate of soil erosion is ensuring that the amount of cultivable land is narrowing. Need in the countryside is perhaps greater in Rwanda than it has ever been before. The majority of Rwandans still live below the poverty line of about $0.43 a day and 10% of the population are living with HIV AIDs. Life expectancy is only 49 years and nearly one in six children die before they turn five years old.
There is worrying evidence that impoverishment and desperation for ordinary Rwandans is causing the ethnic hostility, which led to the genocide, to resurface at the grassroots. Gwynne Dyer believes that Kagame is sitting on a tinder box of simmering tensions between Hutu and Tutsi. “The very words ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ have now been banned in Rwanda, but a ministerial investigation in 2008 found anti-Tutsi graffiti and harassment of Tutsi students in most of the schools that were visited,” she said. “The army is exclusively Tutsi and the government almost entirely so, because Kagame does not really believe that this generation of Hutus can be trusted.”
That the central government is monopolized by Tutsis has not been lost on the Hutu dominated population.
Nor is Kagame’s style of dictatorship only isolating the Hutu majority. Tutsi elites living outside the country have angrily branded Kagame “’irresponsible” for putting inland Tutsis “’at risk”. A number of younger politicians have refused to return to their homeland until Kagame initiates genuine democratic reform.
Perhaps, then, it is not unfair to contend that Rwanda’s leader, although he has clearly set himself apart from other self-serving, ideologically myopic African dictators with his progressive and forward-thinking attitude, cannot magic away Rwandan history. The single greatest lesson of the genocide is that until ordinary people see greater evidence of social and political justice, old-established tensions and divisions will thrive.
Unfortunately, for Kagame, who is intent on an blunting memory of the past by seeking economic solution to deep-rooted political problems, history, lessons and teaching are dirty words. Addressing a football stadium of Rwandans on Liberation Day this year, Kagame exclaimed: “When people expend time and energy inventing… that there is no political space, press freedom, who are they giving lessons to? Who are they? Are these Rwandans complaining? Democracy: we don’t need any lessons in this.”
Yet, history is everywhere in Rwanda, and Kagame cannot overrule the strong predilection Rwandans, who are living with the emotional and physical scars of the events of 1994, have from extrapolating lessons from their past.
By refusing to allow Rwandans space to have reasonable debates about how the country can move forward, Kagame is contributing to the rematerializing of one troublingly familiar political mantra; that the Tutsis cannot be trusted in government.
It was the historical discourse which partly fueled the genocide as Hutu struck down Tutsis, out of revenge for Tutsis’ cruelty towards Hutu as their overlords during the colonial period and fear that the Tutsis would rise to power again. Kagame’s intolerant style of governance is in danger of adding newer, more modern threads to that discourse.
“History teaches everything including the future,” a famous French pro-democratic activist, Alphonse de Lamartine, once warned in the aftermath of the French revolution. With Rwanda having recently been shaken asunder by its own episode of brutal violence, Kagame would do well to give the Lamartines of Rwanda room to break the cycles of History. If not, the indications are that the glimmering, prosperous Rwanda of the future Kagame has launched into the construction of will amount to no more than castles built on quicksand.