11 March 2011

The Trouble With Rwanda

“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.


  1. I wish you had clarified more on why you think there is dissonance in the way the development community views Rwanda. Yes, Kagame's crimes are often ignore and minimized. But why do you think this is so?

    I mean, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are all far more developed than Rwanda, yet people can criticize the autocratic regimes in these countries?

  2. Very interesting, thanks Lindsay. It does sometimes seem as if Rwanda's recent history gives Kagame carte blanche to behave as he likes without fearing serious criticism from the international community. A bit like another supposedly democratic state that emerged out of genocide.

    There's surely a degree of connection here – at least the guilt of the world's failure to prevent genocide holding us back from speaking out?

  3. Many thanks for your comments.

    Nkunda: You asked why I think Kagame’s crimes are often ignored. One thing you hear a lot is that, in development, we need a success, and Rwanda is successful, so we’re willing to let this other stuff slide. Maybe that’s true. It’s certainly true that we want our work to succeed. It doesn’t so much of the time, or at least not to the degree that we need it to, but in Rwanda, things tend to work.

    Maybe another reason is a combination of some sort of fuzzy, collective guilt, mixed with general ignorance among our Western populations. I studied the US commitment to Israel in grad school and looked at how it is fundamentally based on this sort of thing: guilt over the holocaust, combined with bad reporting and general ignorance, combined with a fuzzy sense of shared identity: they are pioneers, like us!

    So maybe this is part of it.

    Maybe part of it is personal relationships between Kagame and others in Rwanda and world leaders—I know nothing about this, but personal relationships drive a lot of what we do.

    So does good communication, and Kagame is a good communicator. He knows how to deliver a line, how to get published in the right papers.

    What do you think?

    I don’t think it’s at all the same as the West supporting countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, for which we have huge strategic security and economic interests. Surely it’s just as morally bankrupt, but it’s not the same thing.

    Richard: thanks also for your comment. Yes, it’s strikingly similar to another time and another place. But genocides, or horrible things just shot of genocides happen all the time and we fail to prevent them all the time. So what’s so special about Rwanda? Does Rwanda owe it’s good luck to Don Cheadle or something?

  4. What should Kagame have done about the camps in the then-Zaire?

  5. I think you have to draw a line between people who seek to undermine from outside (the likes of Nkunda, Smith, Reytjens etc have not been in Rwanda for years) and those who go there to see for themselves. Smith's piece - as so many others - takes a number of dubious statements and tries to build a much bigger case out of it.

    "Kanyarengwe, the nominal leader, was a Hutu defector: as head of the Rwandan secret services, he had helped Habyarimana to power in a coup d’état in 1973, but they later fell out and in 1980 he fled Rwanda.......Kanyarengwe accepted in order to spite Habyarimana."

    In the circumstances why should he be taken seriously?

    "I ask myself a simpler question: would her [Agathe Habyarimana's] grown-up children huddle around her if there were grounds for suspicion that she conspired to murder their father?"

    Because they had been brainwashed like so many others? Because it was too bad to contemplate? Because their status in France depended upon her? Because of fear of what she might do to them?

    "‘That’s no solution,’ someone says. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because they’ll kill us.’ ‘But why on earth would they want to kill you? You’ve stuck together, Hutus and Tutsis!’ ‘Precisely for that reason.’ I drive away dispirited and bewildered."

    Yes well many people had that thought in 1994 but what happened? Were those priests killed? Did Smith enquire? After Genocide the response has been reintegration. Gacaca courts mostly presided over by "majority" judges.

    "Bizimungu created his own political party, Ubuyanja (‘Renewal’). It was a more ambitious idea than the RPF could allow:"

    Bizimungu was creating an "ethnic" political party. This was unconstitutional. He knew that. What did he want? A return to 1994?

    "Rusesabagina continues to speak out for the ideals that led him to save more than 1200 lives during the genocide in Kigali. For Kagame, however, he is a ‘fabricated hero’ and a collaborator of the die-hard Hutu génocidaires exiled in Congo."

    Well Rusesabagina has recently admitted - in a talk in Florida - that he is seeking to undermine peace in Rwanda and is funding the FDLR. What "ideals" are these exactly? Divisions? Death? Poverty? The man who only helped save your life if you paid the bill first?

  6. Or maybe (heaven forbid) this is a country committed to development and poverty alleviation. All you have mentioned is rumor and conjecture as spouted by people committed to genocide denial and can't stand that there is something good actually happening here.

    We as Rwandans are always amazed that people debate our future, our choices, our beliefs as if we as people don't exist. While you may think you have all the facts in relation to what you think you know, it would be great if you could travel to Rwanda and actually TALK to the PEOPLE of Rwanda and get their views.

    I think we need to have a discourse that involves Rwandans and not just the intellectuals of the world. While you may have all the answers the context in which Rwanda is developing calls for innovation, clear understanding and prioritizing of real issues and the ability to focus on the People of Rwanda.

    Paul Kagame, has done a lot and i am glad you do mention the fact, but i personally think it really annoys a lot of the west that success can be achieved by a small nation fraught with a troubled history.

    We are determined as a people to succeed and that goes for all Rwandans!!!

  7. What is happening in Rwanda is shaping history!!! For the 1st time a nation in our part of the world has taken ownership of its issues and is setting an excellent example which people like Lindsay are refusing to accept......

    We Rwandans are committed to fight the ideology of genocide and all its manifestations, eradication of ethnic divisions and promotion of national unity.

    I will endeavour to give Lindsay some lessons which may encourage her to consider doing credible writing from a point of knowledge of the subject!!!

    A report published yesterday by Royal Commonwealth Society and Plan UK to mark the Commonwealth’s 2011 theme, ‘Women as Agents of Change’, revealed Rwanda to be the 10th Commonwealth Country considered best to be born a girl. UK and singapore took the 8th position.

    Rwanda was recognized at the 2010 UN MDG Summit – to be one of few countries on track to achieve MDGs including MDG 4 & 5.

    Rwanda offers the first nine years of education free. Children from primary level in public schools are given access to ICT throught the one laptop per child Government initiative...

    The government has invested in ICT to give exposure to Rwandans and yet most people claim that there is no freedom of speech. how contradictory!!!

    I can go on on .....

    You quote Stephen W. Smith, a journalist who was Africa editor of Libération and Le Monde, how can you expect objectivity from some one who was afiliated to Le Monde!!!

    The Rwandan story is a story of results that deniers like yourselves should accept...

  8. Personally, I feel great disappointment in President Kagame. He has done so much well in rebuilding the country after genocide and implementing sound development strategies. However, his integrity is called to question after this last election. He had the opportunity to show that he was an exemplary leader of a democracy by encouraging open elections. Instead, he chose to control everything and everyone and in doing so he set his country back and caused people like me to question his integrity. Are there issues of security as Kinzer points out? Yes. Can the election have been handled differently? Absolutely. Unfortunately I feel disappointment with what should have been and doubt when Kagame speaks now.

    I am not Rwandese, but have spent the last 5 years of my life working in Rwanda. The success of the people means a lot to me.

  9. Justice for AfricaMarch 15, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    Most people look at the results that the nation of Rwanda has delivered and ignore all those driven by French inspired propaganda. Calling Stephen W. Smith piece impeccable is insensate. Read it again and apply it against the history of Rwanda Vis a Vis France/ the genocide etc. Rwanda and many other African countries need partners to help in rebuilding the country instead of neo-colonialists living in 5 star hotels telling them what to do after reading each other’s work.

  10. Dear reader,
    Please be informed that the government of Kagame has started a large team of operatives, to act like independent Rwandans, but are actually on the government payroll. Their job is to derail any healthy debate on what's going on inside Rwanda. That is going on right here on this discussion forum.

    These people talk about development in the country, but actually this phenomenon is only known in Kigali, where the ruling party elites reside. I have not seen any development in my hometown. People are still living on one meal a day (these are the lucky ones), the roads to West, East or North are covered with potholes etc..
    Kagame steals from the government coffers: it is now, no secret to anyone that Kagame owns two luxury jet planes that are being operated by a leasing agency out of Athens, Greece.

    Kagame does not tolerate dissent. In fact Rwandan central prison is full of political prisonners, including Victoire Ingabire, Ntaganda Bernard, two party leaders who wanted to run against Kagame.
    Kagame kills opposition politicians and journalists. After leaving the RPF, Kagame's political party, Mr Andrea Kagwa Rwisereka joined the Green Party of Rwanda. In the few months that followed, he was killed.
    There exist now, a new political party started by former ambassadors, military advisors of Kagame. The party name is RNC: Rwanda National Congress. You would be appalled to hear them describe the true Kagame.

    No praise of Kagame from me. Rwanda would be better served if he would step down.

  11. Much of what Lindsay says echoes what I hear from friends in the Rwandan ex-pat community. These Rwandans, who are free to speak their minds, deplore Kagame and very much believe that the atrocities committed by his regime are real. The evidence, from what little I know as a non-Rwandan is quite considerable. If you believe some of the posted comments suggesting that Rwandans are happy with Kagame, and don't suspect that these might be RPF stooges posting, then you have to ask yourself why Kagame consistently imprisons, or worse, anyone who opposes him politically or personally. Why wasn't there a free and fair election in 2010? If the Rwandan people really had no interest in electing a democratic reformer like Victoire Ingabire, then why did Kagame feel the need to imprison her (where she remains) and even imprison her American law professor lawyer? The point is absolutely correct that Rwandans should decide the fate of their country, not outsiders, but how do we know what Rwandans want when dissent is violently stifled and only ex-pats are free to speak their mind? After all, if we believed Qaddafi, his countrymen all love him and want him to stay. But one hears a different story from those who are free to speak.

  12. "I am not Rwandese, but have spent the last 5 years of my life working in Rwanda. The success of the people means a lot to me."


    Why didn't Kagame just allow the genocidares free reign so that he wouldn't disappoint you?

    Frankly I don't think Kagame is much concerned about whether or not he disappoints you. He's focused on the development of his country and the dignity of his people, and by extension the dignity of not only Africans but the downtrodden of the world in general.

  13. "Why wasn't there a free and fair election in 2010?"

    There were international monitors at the election. What did they say about it?

    "If the Rwandan people really had no interest in electing a democratic reformer like Victoire Ingabire, then why did Kagame feel the need to imprison her (where she remains) and even imprison her American law professor lawyer?"

    Both are alleged to have broken the law. Should Rwanda descent into lawlessness? If you like lawlessness so much, go to Somalia.

    "The point is absolutely correct that Rwandans should decide the fate of their country, not outsiders, but how do we know what Rwandans want when dissent is violently stifled and only ex-pats are free to speak their mind?"

    Ninety-three percent of Rwandans spoke their mind categorically recently. Lawbreakers in Rwanda will be prosecuted. And those guilty of genocide will be pursued and dealt with, regardless of their current efforts to muddy the waters and try and suggest some sort of moral equivalence between them and the Rwandan regime.

    Genocidaires are such soar losers!

  14. we can not spend our talking about Kagame.I live in Rwanda Simply Kagame is a special dictator leader.His pilitic is evoiding everybody opposes his regime.He uses to silent all the population by his killing,intimidation and all sort of human violence.Do you imagine that all persons tried to form the political party opposed to FPF(Kagame's) the false accusations have been made to him and imprison them.The list is very long:
    *The former president Posteur BIZIMUNGU and Charles NTAKIRUTINKA
    *Theoneste NIYITEGEKA the former candidate for the presidential election 2003
    *Deo Mushayidi chair person of PDP Imanzi party
    *Bernard NTAGANDA president of PS Imberakuri
    *Victoire INGABIRE for FDU Inkingi and others that try to criticize Kagame' regime they ere accused the same crimes.In Rwanda when you want to live you have to keep quite