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. 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.