Catching up on yet another batch of backdated conference blogging, I went to see Scott Straus discuss his edited volume Remaking Rwanda at CSIS last October. It’s a thought-provoking book, as is his previous work, The Order of Genocide, which contains a very insightful analysis of the microdynamics of the genocide. Remaking offers a largely critical look at Rwanda’s post-genocide domestic politics, with only brief acknowledgement of the RPF’s real successes in realms such as primary education and economic growth before proceeding to pillory the government for its repression of political dissent and attempts at social engineering.
Rather than revisiting the book’s conclusions directly, Straus used the conference to engage with the question of why the Western meta-narrative about Rwanda had shifted from a largely positive one in the early post-genocide period to the flurry of critiques that constitute it today. In part, he felt that the shift was warranted. Rwanda’s obvious intervention in the DRC contributed to an early change in public opinion, supported by the increasing number of defections from the RPF and the repressive manner in which the 2010 elections were handled. The 2009 death of Alison des Forges, who was an early critic of the RPF’s slide towards authoritarianism, then spurred the generation of a number of commemorative conferences and works on Rwanda at a time when scholars were abandoning the self-censorship that had previously characterized much writing on the country. Remaking Rwanda was one such work.
That said, Straus also acknowledged the complexity of Rwanda’s contemporary politics. Whilst “it’s not a secret” that the RPF has installed an authoritarian regime, he also noted the challenges of governing a post-conflict country, and suggested that we are in need of better methods to evaluate the effects of authoritarianism in different contexts. In part, he seemed to feel that this pointed to a need for more comparative work on Rwanda, and explicitly called for more comparisons with Burundi. Of course, as another commentator pointed out, there’s an even larger set of potential comparative partners out there, since practically every leader in East Africa today came to power out of conflict.
Having had a few months to think this through, it does seem to me that much research on Rwanda is limited by a lack of comparison. I do think there are good reasons to believe that genocide is a form of violence that’s analytically distinct from other types of civil conflict, but it also seems that some perspective is lost in treating Rwanda as completely unique. Regression to authoritarianism (or illiberal democracy, or some other non-democratic form of rule) was common in the 1990s even among African states that hadn’t suffered conflict. Straus’ more specific concern is that repression and “growing de facto ethnic inequality” will someday re-ignite all the familiar conflicts, which seems a likely outcome to me – one certainly sees the same pattern in both Rwanda and Burundi’s historical periods of ethnic conflict. That said, one might gain a better understanding of the specific conditions that contribute to the re-ignition of conflict, or to its avoidance, in comparative perspective. Uganda and Ethiopia might both be interesting places to start.