Foreign Policy Blogs

Rwanda: Unity or Repression?

Repression, certainly. The news coming out of Rwanda doesn’t look good. As the country prepares for elections in August (which current president Kagame is almost certain to win) dissident voices and opposition party leaders are feeling the heat.

Last week editor-journalist Jean-Léonard Rugambage was shot dead outside his house. He worked for Umuvugizi, a banned local newspaper critical of the government. The morning of the assault the paper ran a piece accusing the ruling party in the shooting of Lieutenant-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Kagame-ally turned exile, in South Africa this month. The general survived, and the South African authorities have detained several foreign suspects, though they are slow to release information about their identities and affiliations.

Opposition leader Victoire Ingabire has been fighting charges of harboring “genocide ideology”, including “divisionism” and “revisionism”. Critics say such charges translate to disagreement with Kagame’s leadership. Paul Erlinder, an American lawyer, had represented Ingabire before himself being briefly jailed and released to address his deteriorating health. He attributes his release to the international uproar surrounding his imprisonment, and the protection that comes with a foreign identity.

Opposition protestors were arrested last week as they demonstrated while President Kagame officially turned in his re-election papers. And refugees in Uganda are afraid to return to what they see as an increasingly unstable and repressive country, despite facing difficulties abroad.

It appears that the World Bank’s “golden child” is losing its luster. Rwanda was recognized as the “top global reformer” by the international institution last year. Vice President of the World Bank’s Africa Regional Office, Obiageli Ezekwesili heralded Rwanda as a leader in growth and an inspiration for African countries at the African Economic Forum at Columbia University this spring. And a doctoral student I know who wrote their thesis on Rwanda spoke of the benefits of a “benevolent strongman” to unify the country and keep ethnic tensions at bay.

Kagame does have a formidable history of improving his country. The Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the genocide while the international community wrung its hands and debated how to define the violence in 1994. The implementation of Gacaca courts and the promotion of a better business environment to push economic growth were meant to address past and move to the future.

Yet some Rwandans worry that the Gacaca courts are affirming ethnic divisions. There have been some reported murders of survivors before they can stand against accused perpetrators. The RPF’s incessant referral to the genocide has been described as fear mongering to maintain Kagame’s iron grip on power.

Unfortunately, this is not new to Rwanda. Kagame won the 2003 election in a landslide victory. He emphasized national unity, economic growth, improved governance and justice. It is clear that he has made improvements on several of these fronts, but national “unity” is being superficially maintained through repression and censorship. Human rights organizations warned of repression ahead of the 2003 elections, often through accusations that opposition leaders had genocidal politics. It worked in 2003, and Kagame is using the same tactics—with an alarming death toll—this year.

Ingabire launched her opposition campaign from exile in the Netherlands. Opposition groups have struggled to gain prominence inside the country, likely due to the constraints of state controlled media—the primary source of information for most Rwandans—and independent papers facing censorship.

Kagame’s actions are taking the “benevolent” out of his strongman title. While it is essential that violence be mitigated to avoid a repeat of the ’94 genocide (Raoul Peck’s film Sometimes in April provides a heartbreaking and historically sound background for those who need a refresher) the question remains of how national unity can be accomplished within an open, democratic and peaceful regime.



Allyn Gaestel

Allyn Gaestel is a journalist focused on international affairs and human rights. She is currently in the United States finishing documentaries from India and the Caribbean. Previously she was based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and earlier worked as a United Nations correspondent in New York. Her background is in political science, public health, women's issues, and development. She has worked in Haiti, India, Senegal, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania and the Bahamas. You can follow Allyn on twitter @AllynGaestel