Rwanda at 50: Overcoming tragedy, but playing a risky game

In five decades of independence, the country faced civil war and genocide, yet has grown into an economic powerhouse.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda poses du
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda denies funding the M23 armed group operating in DR Congo [AFP]

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Rwanda’s independence from Belgium. Over the course of the past five decades, the central African country has experienced outsized conflict and exercises far greater influence in regional affairs than one might expect, given its tiny size and remote location. Rwanda has made a remarkable economic and social recovery from the devastating 1994 genocide, yet as the country grows into a regional economic powerhouse, its leadership’s troubling authoritarian behaviour has attracted less positive attention on the international stage.

The official slogan for this month’s independence celebrations is “Rwanda at 50: A Journey of Resilience”. There is no question that this slogan is apt. Even prior to independence, tensions between the dominant Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups had boiled over into serious violence that killed tens of thousands. Tutsis and Hutus share the same language and cultural traditions, and have lived in the same territory for centuries. Prior to the colonial period, Rwanda functioned as a feudal society in which Hutus were the land-cultivating peasants, while Tutsis comprised the aristocratic class, with wealth signified by cattle ownership.

 Rwanda celebrates 50th anniversary [Al Jazeera]

In this era, it was possible (though, as in most societies, not particularly common) to move between social classes. Intermarriage was common, and all of Rwanda’s clans included members of both groups and of the much smaller Twa ethnic group. After a brief period of limited colonisation by Germany that ended with the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Rwanda came under the control of Belgium, whose colonial bureaucracy crystallised ethnic identity by issuing identity cards and making social mobility among the two groups much more difficult. The Belgians believed the Tutsi to be a “superior race” and as such, favoured them with access to education, employment opportunities, and other markers of importance.

This preferential treatment of Tutsis in the colonial period led to mass resentment among the Hutu, who, like most peasant classes, make up the vast majority of the population. In the years just prior to and after independence, Hutus violently attacked Tutsis, sending tens of thousands across the border into Uganda as refugees, and throughout the country’s first decade of existence, ethnic violence continued. Politics in Rwanda from that point until the mid-1990s were dominated by the Hutu, whose majority was solid enough to ensure that they could stay in power with little in the way of credible political challenges from inside the state, particularly after a 1973 coup in which Juvénal Habyarimana took power.

War and genocide

In the early 1990s, a predominantly Tutsi movement, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, invaded from Uganda, setting off a civil war that lasted until a peace deal in 1993. Habyarimana, who had signed the peace deal, was killed when his plane was shot down upon approach to Kigali’s airport in April 1994, and hardline Hutus who opposed the peace deal began the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus that continued for the next 100 days, during which the RPF took full control of the country and refugees flooded into neighbouring countries.

Rwanda in mid-1994 was a devastated place. Indeed, the difference between the country’s physical infrastructure, levels of development, and general outlook then and now is remarkable and certainly demonstrates a high level of resilience among Rwanda’s people. The country has universal health insurance, a vastly improved educational system and increased access to education, and its economy has sustained rapid growth rates over the past few years. Rwanda is on track to be a modernised state with a diversified economy over the course of the next few decades.

Yet alongside this incredible resilience and rebirth from the ashes of the genocide are several troubling trends. Rwandans have almost no real political freedom; true opposition parties are not allowed to register for elections, and the lead-up to the 2010 elections (which President Paul Kagame won with 93 per cent of the vote) was fraught with extrajudicial attacks on opposition politicians and journalists, including some who were attacked while in exile. An assassination attempt on former RPA chief of staff Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in Johannesburg in June 2010 attracted particular attention after several of those arrested in connection with the attempt were found to be Rwandan nationals. Kayumba Nyamwasa believes the Rwandan government was behind the attack. Fueling the fire of the perception that the assassination attempt was politically motivated was the fact that a Rwandan journalist who had investigated the crime was shot dead at home in Kigali later that month.

Freedom of speech is strictly limited in Rwanda, so much so that the country’s press is largely limited in its ability to criticise government decisions or policies. The country’s anti-genocide ideology law is so broadly written that almost any criticism of President Kagame or his regime can be construed as “pro-genocide” speech. This includes the mention of the terms, “Tutsi” and “Hutu”. Anyone who speaks out against the regime’s abuses from abroad can expect to be harassed online by government officials masquerading under fake Twitter accounts or blog aliases and be personally attacked in the opinion pages of government daily the New Times. A growing number of scholars and journalists whose writing is critical of Rwanda have found themselves banned from re-entry into the country.

Adventures abroad

Then there is Rwanda’s role in its largest neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwandan forces first entered what was then Zaire in 1996, in response to a very legitimate security threat posed by Hutu extremists who, after committing genocide in Rwanda in 1994, escaped to Zairian refugee camps to regroup and began terrorising Rwandans in cross-border raids. However, the new Tutsi-led Rwandan government then engaged in massive human rights violations of its own, slaughtering tens of thousands of Hutu refugees,including women and children, they chased across the country in early 1997.

As well-known events at the time that were later documented in a 2010 United Nations mapping report, these massacres were carried out in conjunction with Rwanda’s support for Laurent Kabila’s invasion and takeover of Zaire, which he rechristened the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kabila and the Rwandans had a falling out, which prompted Rwanda to reinvade in 1998, wherein they backed a proxy movement known as the Rally for Congolese Democracy and began looting the DRC’s rich mineral stores in the country’s east.

While Rwanda’s presence in the DRC officially ended after the Sun City peace agreement of 2002, Rwandan troops reportedly remained in Congo for years after that. Rwanda’s government also reportedly supported what became a rebel group named the CNDP, the French acronym for the National Congress for the Defence of the People. Led by Laurent Nkunda, a renegade Congolese Tutsi general, the CNDP was comprised largely of Congolese Tutsis whose interests aligned (at the time) with those of Kigali: the twin goals of protecting their co-ethnics living in the Kivu provinces and of maintaining access to Congolese minerals.

 Rwanda denies supporting DRC rebels

Tensions between the CNDP and the Congolese government reached all-out war in 2008-09, but thanks to a major round of shuttle diplomacy on the part of UN envoy and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the Congolese and Rwandan presidents reached an agreement that allowed Rwanda to arrest Nkunda and for the limited and invited presence of Rwandan forces on Congolese soil to fight the FDLR, a militia led by those who committed the 1994 genocide.

The agreement also led to the integration of CNDP forces into the Congolese national army, the FARDC. The CNDP forces maintained parallel chains of command within this structure, but from 2009 until April 2012, the system largely worked, at least in the sense that it brought a higher level of peace and stability to the Kivus and reduced tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali.

Today in the DRC

That all changed with the mutiny of several former CNDP military leaders in April, a decision which led to the resumption of full-scale war between those troops – who rechristened themselves M23 – and FARDC forces loyal to Kinshasa. The fighting has led to the displacement of approximately 200,000 civilians, and M23 has gained strength in recent days, taking and then relinquishing control of several strategically located towns in North Kivu. M23 also appears to have nearly doubled its troop strength in the past two to three weeks, and UN officials have noted that the forces are exceptionally well-equipped, including with new uniforms.

What is Rwanda’s role in this? The highly credible United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC interim report for 2012 includes an annex detailing the involvement of high-level Rwandan officials in supporting M23 by supplying weapons, ammunition, and troops to fight. The report names the country’s minister of defence and the army chief of staff (among others) as officials responsible for supporting M23.

Rwanda has furiously denied the claims made in the report’s annex and turned to their usual means of doing so: attacking the report’s methodology as well as its release before Rwandan officials had the chance to respond. Unfortunately for Kigali, the Group of Experts relied on a heightened standard for evidence, requiring five independent, eyewitness accounts for any information included in the report. This testimony, plus photographs of ammunition that could not have come from DRC, is damning for Rwanda, as is the sudden strengthening of M23 and reports from defectors that many M23 fighters speak English. If the report is true – and there is no credible reason for independent observers to believe it is not – it means that Rwanda is in violation of United Nations sanctions against supplying weapons to Congolese armed groups.

Rwanda’s leaders and loyalists do not take well to any criticism of their regime, no matter how well-verified or sourced. They frame legitimate criticisms of damaging policies as signs that outsiders want the country to fail, or that critics are racists, or that outsiders simply cannot understand the country. All of these claims are red herrings designed to distract observers from irrefutable facts. They are also not true. Rwanda’s resilience and economic success after the horrors of the genocide and challenges of earlier periods are remarkable, and most reasonable people are happy to see the country succeed.

But by denying their people free speech rights, having an authoritarian political system, and meddling in Congolese affairs, the country’s leaders are playing a dangerous game. Rwandans who dissent from unpopular policies have few legitimate outlets through which to peacefully disagree and suggest alternatives. Congolese civilians are once again bearing the brunt of Rwandan military adventurism in their country. And it is not at all clear that Rwanda can continue to maintain high levels of international support under such conditions.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, USA.