Twenty-three years after the horrendous one-hundred day period of the Rwandan genocide, the African nation is still connected to unspeakable horror in the minds of many in the world, even as it has been successful in moving forward on a stable foundation. For the entirety of the post-genocide era in Rwanda, Paul Kagame of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Political Front, or RPF, has maintained a grip on power and limited political and journalistic freedom. August’s elections in Rwanda will demonstrate whether democracy has become any further entrenched in the country as well as whether anyone cares if it has.
The 1994 genocide was steeped in African history. The origin between the Hutu and Tutsi population in central Africa is still not precisely known, but little of the distinction is ethnic or genetic in origin, but rather class based. When European colonizers came to the region they exacerbated the split in the population by relying on the economically more fortunate Tutsi’s for administrative roles. Belgium finally left Rwanda in 1959 and the country became an independent state, with a mix of about 85% Hutu and 15% Tutsi comprising the population. Hutus pushed for democracy and Tutsis sought to cling to power following independence. The Hutu emerged victorious from the conflict and began ruling the country, often seeking retribution on Tutsis for their long reign over them and a significant portion of that population, perhaps 500,000, became refugees in neighboring countries. Attacks were periodically staged in Rwanda in an effort to re-assert control.
One of these Tutsi-dominated groups was the RPF, founded in Uganda in 1988 with the goal of returning Rwanda’s exiles to their homes and reforming the government to include power-sharing arrangements between the two groups. The Rwandan government responded by treating Tutsi’s still in the country as parties to the attacks and inflicting reprisals of increasing brutality.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations (UN) mediated an agreement in August 1993 between Rwanda’s government and the RPF that many hoped would put an end to the violence. The agreement called for reconciliation between the parties to be overseen by international peacekeepers, but it was never seriously implemented. Indeed, it seems in retrospect that a significant part of the then Rwandan government never intended to honor the agreement and had been planning genocidal retaliation for a period of time, which included arming large swaths of the population with machetes and tripling the formal army.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the Hutu Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and the Hutu President of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down by multiple surface to air missiles as it prepared to land, returning its passengers from a summit in Tanzania. No one knows for sure who shot the plane down. An official Rwandan report concluded, years later, that Hutu’s killed the President in order to carry out previous plans for genocide. The family of the President, though, continues to insist that the RPF was responsible.
An investigation carried out by Belgian authorities soon after the incident also concluded that Hutu extremists carried out the attack, either to commence the genocide that had been planned or to prevent the then President from following through with the previous peace agreement and welcome Tutsis into his government. The Belgians concluded that the missiles which brought down the plane were likely Russian-made SAM-7s launched from the village of Masaka. The location is critical, as Masaka is only about two miles from Rwanda’s largest military base, making it virtually impossible for the RPF to have been in the village, fire missiles, and flee without being detected.
The conclusion that the missiles were Russian, though, raises more questions than it answers. Rwanda had never purchased Russian missiles – indicating the government was assisted by some foreign entity. The most likely culprits? Probably French troops, although perhaps not in association with or under orders from the French government. France had long been a friend to the Hutu majority in Rwanda.
Regardless of who fired the missiles, the violence that followed happened explosively. Within hours, Hutu leaders told the Rwandan army and the numerous militias it armed that the RPF downed the plane, green-lighting the genocide. One hundred days later, 14% of the population of Rwanda was dead and a further 3% had been raped. Shortly after the killing ended, a further third of the starting population, Hutus, had themselves become refugees in neighboring countries for fear of reprisals. The rape of women was so prolific that HIV was spread throughout the country and infected unborn children on a level not seen before in Rwanda. No exaggeration is needed to demonstrate the barbarous nature of the killing and maiming. Finally, within a matter of months, the RPF had taken control of the government, ending the genocide.
RPF’s leader, Paul Kagame would become President of the new country – a job he still holds. The recovery of Rwanda has been something of a miracle in the years since the genocide, outperforming most economies in both the region and in the world, even if on the whole the country remains poor. Since 1996, economic growth has averaged 8% per year and today, the Rwandan economy continues growing at a 6% rate.
While the typical Rwandan only earns the equivalent of $2,000 per year today, or 13% of the world average; that is up from $300, or 5% in 1994. The much richer South Africa, as an example, has seen its average income decline versus the world average in the same time frame – from 105% to 80%.
Further signs within Rwanda also seem to contradict its history and give hope for the future. More than 95% of Rwandan children attend primary schools today, compared to 89% for the world and 78% for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. A national health system also exists, built from regional health systems funded by tax dollars and insurance premiums. Less than 4% of the country lacks the insurance to take advantage of the system, widely seen as among the best in Africa. Its record in education and healthcare explain, in part, how the country has grown so rapidly even as inequality has fallen.
Given Rwanda’s successes, it is not surprising that President Kagame is popular. Just how popular, though, we do not know. The last Presidential election in 2010 saw 93% of the electorate vote for him. Before that, in 2003, 95% did. Given that 95% of people would not even agree that ice cream tastes good, there is little hope in denying some rigging of the vote. Kagame’s values have little in common with western democracy, for both good and bad.
As the prosperity of the country has increased from sound policies (the World Bank says it is the easiest country in Africa in which to do business), civil and political liberties are mostly absent from life. About a dozen high-ranking officials who have opposed Kagame over the years have been either murdered or vanished. To a certain extent, the repression is understandable. Although in time things return to normalcy, people continue living side by side with people they were victims of or committed crimes against in the relatively recent past. Full-fledged political freedoms come with a risk of once again inflaming violent passions and re-instituting a cycle of revenge.
On a continent of corruption – one of the leading causes of the perpetuation of poverty in Africa – the heavy-handedness of Kagame is not the typical bureaucratic corruption either. Rwanda is one of the least corrupt countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, bested only by Botswana and Cape Verde according to Transparency International.
An additional sign of the relatively limited amount of corruption in Rwanda is the high standards that government officials are held to and massive rural aid programs that the Tutsi leader has overseen in largely Hutu areas.
How much does the economic progress count for when balanced against human rights abuses and the loss of civil liberties? At present, it seems a great deal as Western NGOs and governments continue backing Rwanda’s President. It is understandable why. Many of the countries neighbors lack a commitment to human rights while also engaging in personally enriching corruption that prevents most Western aid from reaching the poor.
The best case scenario for Rwanda is that as Kagame’s, who can serve as President up until 2034, government promotes prosperity the wounds from the violent past heal to the point where Rwanda can function much more like a liberal democracy that combines prosperity and freedom in a single package. But, that assumes that a future transition will be a smooth one and not one that leaves a power vacuum – something not unlikely when a single person rules a country for so long.
Bill Clinton recently said, “I suppose I do make more allowances for a government that produces as much progress as this one.” We all do, whether we want to admit that or not.