“We are hypnotised by the 1994 genocide, and oblivious to the atrocities of a regime we regard as exemplary. Aid, we say, must be conditional on good governance—but post-genocide government is an exception. … Democracy is a precondition of peace—but not in a post-genocidal state. Justice, truth and reconciliation heal—but not the wounds of exterminatory hatred. The invasion and plunder of eastern Congo are criminal—but not when they’re carried out by genocide survivors.”
This is Stephen W. Smith, a journalist who was Africa editor of Libération and Le Monde who covered Rwanda for nearly two decades, writing in the London Review of Books. His piece is an elegant and unnervingly detailed look at snapshots of events from 1992 to more recent days. It raises many troubling questions about the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP), and Paul Kagame himself.
There have always been questions about who was involved in the downing of former President Habyarimana’s jet in 1994, which sparked the genocide, but what about the various tallies and reports of reprisal killings after the RFP took power, which have been documented but largely ignored. Smith’s investigation estimates that more than 100,000 Hutus were murdered during the RFP’s first year in power, but he also cites the work of Robert Gersony, a UNHCR consultant, who estimated that “between 25,000 and 40,000 persons were killed during the first 100 days of RPF rule. The Gersony report—in fact just briefing notes—was leaked to the press. Under intense pressure from Kigali and its allies, the UNHCR went on the record denying its existence.”
Or how about what happened in 1996, when the Rwandan army dispersed the Hutu camps in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire). Of the 300,000 or so who fled deeper into the DRC, nearly two-thirds died over the next six months, according to a field study by Médecins Sans Frontières. Says Smith: “The UNHCR spoke of ‘crimes against humanity’, but, again, there was hardly any response. Twelve years later, in August 2010, a fresh investigation by the UN put the number killed at ‘probably in the several tens of thousands.’”
Or how about the murder in Nairobi in 1998 of Seth Sendashonga, who joined the RPF in 1991, as the only eminent Hutu-turned-rebel who was not a defector from the Habyarimana regime. Sendashonga became Kagame’s minister of the interior, but when Kagame failed to respond to his 700 letters documenting RFP abuses and reprisals, he resigned and went into exile. He was killed when gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles opened fire on his car during rush hour, soon before he was scheduled to testify before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
There have been other murders. Like that of the vice president of Rwanda’s Democratic Green Party, who lobbied against the country’s admission to the Commonwealth, citing the regime’s gross human rights violations, and was found decapitated near Butare last year.
We could also talk about Kagame’s Soviet style popularity in elections, or the regime’s suppression of the media and civil society.
Why do these stories seldom feature, or when they do, disappear like smoke?
This is not the part of Rwanda that we—people who work in development—spend our time thinking about. When we think about Rwanda, we think of a shining star in Africa, of the extraordinary leadership and stunning progress since 1994.
This is how The Economist describes it:
“The discarded plastic bottles and bags that pollute almost every other country on the continent are nowhere to be seen… The tarred roads are usually in good shape; speed limits are actually enforced, by smart traffic police who fill out paperwork in exchange for a statutory fine rather than shaking you down for a bribe. Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, rates Rwanda as one of the more honest countries in Africa. The World Bank says it is fastest-improving as a place to do business. Hotels in the capital, Kigali, brim with Westerners attending conferences. Paul Kagame, the president who has overseen all this, is a darling of the aid-giving world. Western governments and prominent religious leaders have hailed him as the sort of man in whom to put their faith—and money.”
Money indeed. Rwanda is a heavily aid-dependent country, having received massive increases in official development assistance (ODA) since 2003. In 2009/10 net official ODA stood at nearly US$1 billion. Neighboring Burundi, which is just as poor, has a similar history of violence among the same ethnic groups, received about half that. Almost 40 percent of this aid is provided in the form of budget support, a vote of confidence in the government—indeed, all of Norway’s aid is provided that way, and the majority of the UK’s aid is.
Rwanda is what we wish other countries could be. A donor darling, growing rapidly, determined. There is a kind of wide-eyed lore about the place. Everywhere you go—from Dakar to Abuja, to Addis, to Dar es Salaam and Lusaka, people say: have you heard about Rwanda?
And leaders from the West line up to be friends. I was in Rwanda in 2009 and remember bumping repeatedly into Tony Blair in the lobby of the Serena hotel, where I was staying. I asked the hotel staff about it. They shrugged—he’s here all the time. He and Kagame are great friends.
Smith’s essay is not the first time someone has written about these troubling questions. It is not as if people in power—whether in politics or in the aid business—don’t know a lot of this stuff.
What is stunning, stupefying even, is how all of it is barely a blip on the radar.
The first question is: why?
The next question is: when the development community looks back 15 years from now, what we will think about our collective silence on these issues? Will we say, yes, supporting the regime was the right thing to do during a fragile period of recovery. Or will and see our cravenness to confront these issue as a mere extension of our complicity (through silence and inaction) in violence and injustice in Rwanda before the genocide?
“‘Rwanda…is a one-party authoritarian state, controlled by President Kagame through a small clique of Tutsi military officers and civilian cadres of the RPF from behind the scenes. The majority Hutu community remains excluded from a meaningful share of political power. State institutions are as effective as they are repressive. The government relies on severe repression to maintain its hold on power … Rwanda is less free today than it was prior to the genocide. … Civil society is less free … The media is less free. The Rwanda government is more repressive than the one that it overthrew.’
This is not the preamble to a new Hutu manifesto but an excerpt from the ‘Rwanda Briefing’ published last year by four senior figures in the Kagame regime who’ve now fled abroad [one survived an attempt on his life when a commando opened fire on him last June in Johannesburg, where he now lives in exile].
The authors of the ‘Rwanda Briefing’ may not be trustworthy advocates of freedom and democracy, or paragons of ethnic inclusiveness, but they describe a system they’re familiar with and a leader they know well. To his many Western admirers they have this to say: ‘President Kagame is a very polarising figure. His policies continue to divide Rwandan society along the lines of ethnicity and to fuel conflict. The likelihood of a recurrence of violent conflict, including even the possibility of genocide, is very high.’”
--From Smith’s essay
*The former secretary general of the RPF Theogene Rudasingwa; his brother Gerald Gahima, one-time prosecutor general and vice-president of the Rwandan Supreme Court; the erstwhile chief of external security services Colonel Patrick Karegeya; and General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, the ex-chief of staff of the Rwandan army. Nyamwasa survived an attempt the his life last June; the South African authorities laid the blame with the government in Kigali.