What’s the right analogy for Rwanda?

As the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide approaches on April 7, people who don’t usually pay much attention to African politics will be seeing two main types of commemorative stories about the country.  The first will focus on the incredible progress that Rwanda has made in areas like fighting corruption, promoting economic growth, and rolling out universal health insurance.  The second will acknowledge these domestic policy achievements, but note that Kagame’s government has also been repressing political expression, physically attacking its opponents, and fostering rebellions in the neighboring DR Congo.   Underlying some of these concerns about domestic repression is the fear that ethnic grievances from the genocide era have only been partially addressed, and that these could spill over into renewed conflict in the future.

These two sets of stories present such diametrically opposed visions of the country that I think many people will feel that they can’t both be equally true.   One must trump the other in the final analysis, right?  Either the big development goals are being met, at the short term cost of lesser goals like freedom of speech, or these gains are secondary to the threat posed by the RPF’s willingness to use violence to achieve its ends.  I too find myself struggling with this tendency to weigh the two narratives against each other.  I am generally concerned about the patterns of repression that can be seen today, but I’m also aware that this leads me to discount some amazing development achievements that I’m sure I would be endlessly commending if they had took place in, say, Ghana.  It feels uncharitable at best and dishonest at worse to look past these accomplishments.

Since it’s hard to weigh the situation in Rwanda on its own merits, it’s common to try to explain it through analogy.  Kagame himself is fond of saying that he’d like Rwanda to be the Singapore of Africa – a tiny country that punches far above its economic weight.  Singapore, of course, has achieved its own growth through a similar combination of good governance and repression of dissent.  However, when most foreigners think of Singapore today, I suspect they’re contemplating its role as an international financial hub, its insanely expensive rents, and its great culinary diversity rather than its freedom of the press.  The obvious conclusion here, if you believe that Rwanda really is on a path to emulate Singapore, is that in 50 years no one will care about a spot of repression today, because it won’t have any negative long term effects.

On the other hand, there are analogies which express more concern over the RPF’s authoritarianism.  Laura Seay tweeted last month that “Rwanda today is terrifyingly like Rwanda circa 1992.  Power held by a tiny minority, no real freedom.  Development is better, but fragile.”  The point here is not that Kagame’s government is using its power to start planning a genocide, as the Habyarimana government was doing in 1992 – whatever its faults, the RPF is definitely not out to kill every citizen it perceives as a threat to its power.  Rather, the point is that extreme concentration of power can be politically destabilizing, and potentially lead to renewed conflict.  In 1992, Rwanda was in the middle of a civil war between the Hutu-led Habyarimana government and Kagame’s RPF, at that point a rebel group based in Uganda.  Kagame and many of his companions were the children of Tutsis who had been driven out of Rwanda when a Hutu government came to power at independence in 1962. Lacking any impartial or democratic means to redress these ethnic grievances, they formed an armed group instead, and invaded in 1990 after a series of economic crises had weakened Habyarimana’s authoritarian control.

There are several implications of this analogy.  Most obviously, it suggests that there’s a problem with the RPF’s ban on discussions of ethnic identity, which means that ethnicized grievances among both Hutu and Tutsi can’t be openly resolved.  At this point both sides have complaints about everything from the RPF’s behavior during and after the genocide to contemporary land policy.  It’s by no means guaranteed that these issues will spill over into violent rebellion, of course – they might simply simmer at a local level, or even fade away as shared economic growth and the passage of time reduce some of the sting of current grievances. However, the other lesson of this analogy is that conflict doesn’t always happen immediately.  After 1962, exiled Tutsis made a handful of attempts to invade Rwanda, but it was nearly 30 years before the RPF succeeded.  Authoritarian stability today doesn’t necessarily predict stability in the future.

So which is the “right” analogy?  I still don’t really know.  For a number of reasons, I think it’s harder to finance a violent rebellion in most African countries today than it was in the mid-1990s.  The RPF’s control of the countryside is strong, as is the Rwandan military.  It’s hard to imagine how they could become sufficiently disorganized that other armed groups could form within the country, or even pose a real threat across its borders.  Of course, if a severe schism formed within the party (as happened with the SPLM in South Sudan recently), this could change the balance of power.  Ultimately, the analogy you prefer may come down to your tolerance for risk.  Mitigating the chance of a worse-case outcome under the “Rwanda in 1992” analogy may seem like a better policy choice for some people than trying to maximize the chance of high economic growth under the Singapore scenario.

69 thoughts on “What’s the right analogy for Rwanda?

  1. No non-Rwandan person has the moral right to write about Rwanda’s present, past or future. We all failed this country and we ought to just shut up and let them be.

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    1. Hi Oshuunn,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t agree that no non-Rwandans have the right to write about the country (because what are the criteria for having the right to discuss something?), but I absolutely think that Rwandan voices should be front and center in any discussion of it.

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  2. Really interesting article, great to get more details on the whole Rwanda saga, great to get some info beyond the usual.
    We have started our own podcast and readers of this kind of article will hopefully enjoy it. In our latest episode, dodgy practices, we briefly explore genocide, also in episode 2. People can listen from the website or download the mp3. We are trying to grow so if you like podcasts check it out.
    http://www.moshpod.wordpress.com
    tx and keep up the interesting blog

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      1. Hello Rachel:

        You asked about the potential for mass violence in Rwanda. If my comment seemed alarmist or unrealistic, here is more support for my case. 

        The Rwanda Enigma

        The Rwanda Enigma For analysts and advocates trying to assess risks of future mass atrocities in hopes of preventing them, Rwanda presents an unusual puzzle. Most of the time, specia… View on dartthrowingchimp…. Preview by Yahoo  

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  3. Good piece. My own unease with all the recent commemoration of the genocide of the 90’s stems from two things. Firstly, the role that western countries, specifically the U.S. and Great Britain, played in ensuring that nothing would be done on a significantly humanitarian basis. This was (and is) imperialism, pure and simple. Africa in the present day is no different that Africa in the past…very rich in resources. The western powers always have regarded Africa as a material prize and have sought to keep it firmly in their sphere of influence. Secondly, the issue of language, culture and racism played a huge part in this story. As you know, Rwanda is a french speaking country. There were many french journalists who put out very good reporting about what was going on, including the then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He was demonized and made ineffective by who else? Not many officials like to discuss what happened in Rwanda during the lead up to the genocide or its aftermath, but Boutros Boutros-Ghali has remained open and available to journalists who wish to talk to him. The fact’s of the continued political violence there today speaks to how well this has turned out for the west.

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    1. Hi there,

      I’m not quite following your comment. You’re saying that the US and UK were opposed to intervention, even as francophone sources were calling for it?

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  4. Even if the indignation between hutus and tutsis doesn’t resolve in genocide it doesn’t mean it’s not still important. It’s still racism.

    I only just became aware of the economic growth of Rwanda. It’s very interesting and counter-intuitive considering how they didn’t get any aid during the 90’s because people pretty much “gave up” on Rwanda.
    But how do people stretch across such hatred? It’s terrifying!

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      1. I don’t remember how I found the article but it was about the economical growth of the country in the past twenty years and whether it should be imitated.
        The article said they hadn’t received much help after 1995 because the western countries sort of gave up on it.

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  5. I am amazed at the lack of knowledge I have on the situation. I read your blog and realize that I am in a bubble of isolationalism when it comes to the misery and complex situation of foreign countries.

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    1. It’s taken me a long time to learn what I know as well! If you’re interested in following more African news, I’ve got a lot of links on the sidebar of the blog’s home page.

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  6. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought provoking post. I lived and worked in Rwanda for three years as a volunteer, and count some of the friendships that resulted as amongst my closest. My thoughts are very much with them at this time – April is always a very difficult month in Rwanda, everyone re-living and reflecting upon what happened in 1994, you can feel the palpable energy of mourning, and it’s actually consciously invoked through programs on the TV and on the radio. I find it hard to look at the situation objectively because I feel deeply personally invested in those people I know and love, and value their experiences, insights and wishes above political commentary. That said, I also appreciate the invitation to step back a little from my emotional engagement and consider some of the wider questions. Thank you. Blessings, Harula xxx
    http://beathaandherboys.wordpress.com/

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    1. Hi Harula – thanks for reading along! I think that’s the challenge, isn’t it? To be both personally invested, and thoughtful about broader trends – hopefully both are possible.

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  7. A very enjoyable and interesting read. A further analogy with Singapore is that both have very high population density

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  8. Genocide can and will happen again unfortunately. Maybe not in Rwanda, but somewhere else. It’s a sad truth and continuation of civilization.
    dailyquizquestion.wordpress.com

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    1. It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s highly likely. (Genocide along the highly organized lines of Rwanda or the Holocaust, I mean, not just ethnic conflict, which unfortunately takes a lot less planning and is paradoxically harder to stop.)

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  9. Thanks for this post that confronts the deeper challenges beyond preventing genocide–creating a healthy state with an appropriately developing economy. Congratulations on the Freshly Pressed!

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  10. Interesting analogy (or lack thereof) but I think you are missing the wood for the trees. Singapore does not have an overly active military, nor does it have the rampant corruption that is rife in Africa as a whole. Nor has it, on the other hand, been subject to genocide. Freedom of the press is an oxymoron in the developing world, as are many freedoms for that matter. The whole issue in Rwanda is being disguised by the wool being pulled over the world’s and their own eyes by not dealing with the history of the past two or more decades.

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  11. Just in case you haven’t picked up this Sunday’s NYTimes, the magazine section has a powerful article about reconciliation in Rwanda, including dramatic photos of specific Hutu genocide perpetrators and their Tutsi survivors in their forgiven relationships today. Awesome and uplifting! Love, Your proud Granny

    On Fri, Apr 4, 2014 at 11:17 AM, Rachel Strohm

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  12. Great article, thanks for posting this! In terms of your comparison to SPLA factionalism I think there could be something similar going on within the RDF. Although Kagame was one of them for a very long time, there are others in the military who were in it from the very beginning and who enjoy greater respect among the ranks. This is definitely another destabilising factor the regime tries to hide. You are right that there have been so many positive developments, but as a friend of mine once called it there is a ‘negative peace’, one held by fear rather than by consensus. If you’re at all interested, I tried to capture that idea in writing after my last trip to Rwanda in May last year. Given your knowledge of the subject I’d be grateful if you could let me know if I succeeded! http://notnailortwine.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/theres-something-about-rwanda/

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  13. I read an article about Rwanda a few months back in one of India’s local magazine “Taranga” (Kannada Language). I was surprised to see the progress Rwanda had made. All I knew about Rwanda earlier were the Genocide, Hutus and Tutsis. I heard corruption has reduced drastically and the cities are made beautiful to attract tourism.

    Kindly let me know if the country is indeed safe for a tourist.

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    1. Hi Rohit,

      Rwanda is definitely safe for tourists. I really enjoyed the time I lived there, about five years ago at this point – Kigali is very quiet and orderly compared to most African capitals, and things aren’t too expensive. Some positive aspects of all of the RPF’s work!

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  14. I am impressed not only by your analysis of Rwanda’s current situation, but by your take on how the media will cover it. Having written grant proposals for the United States Institute for Peace on media coverage of Africa on behalf of PRI’s The World, I know something about the context of this issue – obviously not as much as you do, but enough to appreciate the nuances of your post. Glad to have been introduced to your blog through Freshly Pressed, and look forward to reading more.

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  15. When we visited Rwanda in 2012, I tried hard to understand and recognise the two sides of the complex coin. In the end I was very conscious that the amount of progress and change since ’92 was in high contrast to other countries which have faced lesser nightmares. Then I also recognised that the circumstances in east Africa must make such progress even more challenging. Eventually I just hope they will sustain their position.

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  16. “The RPF’s control of the countryside is strong, as is the Rwandan military. It’s hard to imagine how they could become sufficiently disorganized that other armed groups could form within the country, or even pose a real threat across its borders. ”

    What we know for sure is that the regime is an effective police state. However, this is no different from Iran under the Shah or Libya under Gadaffi. What we know is that grievances can reach a breaking point and that this can happen in the most unexpected ways. The fact that Rwanda has poor relations with neighbors makes Libya an even more predictable scenario. Behind every rebellion is usually a supportive neighbor either overtly or otherwise.

    While comparisons between Habyarimana and Kagame’s regime are not particularly helpful, I think you are on to something. However, I think you are giving Kagame too much of a benefit of doubt. We know that Kagame has no qualms with using violence (and I mean mass killings) to orient his political ideals. This we have seen in Rwanda but also in the DRC. I don’t think the issue is that unclear. One may also add that factors that permit mass violence are always contextual. At the moment, there is no reason why Kagame would engage in mass violence. However, nothing (other than major reforms in the present regime) can rule out such a possibility in the future.

    In the meantime, academics can continue hoping for the best while the rest of us continue to organize.

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    1. If I can ask, what kind of path do you see Kagame going down that mass killing within Rwanda would look like a feasible policy option for him? I take your point, but that seems like a very serious piece of speculation to put forth without accompanying evidence.

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      1. The speculation is purely based on (1) Kagame’s conduct in the past, which is clearly murderous ( I assume you are aware of the well documented killings before, during and after the genocide), (2) the fact that Rwanda is an effective police state. I am not saying that Kagame is currently planning massive violence, but I am convinced he would pursue that path in the event of a mass uprising, which seems inevitable.

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