From Chatham House
Rwanda has seen a dramatic transformation in its fortunes. This month marks the anniversary of the 1994 genocide's end, when at least half a million Rwandans were butchered to death and the country was left crippled. Now, Rwanda aspires to obtain middle income status by 2020. It boasts impressive economic growth, social services, state institutions, infrastructure development, universal primary education, gender equality, low corruption, social development and macro-economic stability. According to the World Bank, Rwanda is today ranked the tenth easiest country worldwide within which to start a business - seven places higher than Britain and just one below the United States (US) - and in terms of ease of doing business is ranked higher than a number of European Union (EU) countries. Notwithstanding a 1997-1998 insurgency, most welcome of all is that Rwanda has not, unlike some of its neighbours, relapsed into inter-ethnic fighting. Rather, the minority Tutsi have become leaders within senior government, private services and public institutions.
Central to these developments is former Major-General Paul Kagame - Rwanda's president since 2000 and the country's de facto leader since July 1994. Kagame, who spent his formative years as a Tutsi refugee in Uganda, receives considerable diplomatic approval in spite of a 2010 United Nations (UN) report finding Rwanda's current armed forces responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity within eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite this, neither Bill Clinton, who in 2009 described Kagame as "one of the greatest leaders of our time", nor Tony Blair, who acts as a special advisor to the Rwandan government, have retracted their praise. Last month, the Overseas Development Institute added their support to Kagame and stated that he was "instrumental to the restoration of security and stability".
The last couple of months have seen important developments for Rwanda. First, Britain - Rwanda's largest bilateral donor after the US - announced a scaling-up of its support to the country. Between now and 2015, the Department for International Development will contribute 330 million pounds in bilateral aid. Likewise, Belgium announced its new bilateral aid programme to Rwanda amounting to 160 million euros between now and 2014 (an increase of 15 million euros over its 2007-2010 programme). Secondly, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) convicted four former military/ paramilitary commanders of multiple counts of crimes against humanity and/or genocide for their part in the events of 1994. A former local Interahamwe leader, a militia responsible for much of the 1994 violence, was also arrested and will be tried at the ICTR. In June, Rwanda announced campaigns to address both HIV transmission and malaria control.
And yet major challenges remain which, if unaddressed, could destabilise progress. Within the economy - Rwanda's strongest attribute with an average 7.5 percent annual growth rate since 2000 - the private sector is nascent and direct foreign investment limited. Notable growth rates conceal the inequitable allocation of the benefits of such growth. Income inequalities are considerable and a substantial concentration of wealth lies within the top urbanised income bracket. The sizeable rural population principally engages in subsistence agriculture with large sections living well below the poverty line.
Other domestic issues must be tackled. Rwanda has long been accused of restricting political rights and freedom of expression, assembly and association - all of which contradict ratified international protocols and conventions. Under a number of legal sanctions including the Penal Code, the nebulous 2008 Genocide Ideology Law and the 2009 Media Law, Rwanda has been able to curtail certain rights. Measures against divisionism and sectarianism, a strictly enforced narrative of national unity rather than ethnic plurality, stringent registration requirements for newspapers, political parties and civil society, and legislation regarding state security continue to be abused and manipulated by the state, resulting in the harassment, denunciation and imprisonment of political opponents, journalists and human rights advocates.
Last month, the UN's Human Rights Council officially adopted recommendations from January's inter-governmental review on Rwanda. Countries urged Rwanda to revise the scope - in both wording and application - of a number of laws in order to limit their misuse by the state. Nevertheless, since January's meeting, the leader of an opposition party has been sentenced to four years imprisonment for promoting divisionism and endangering national security. Two editors and a journalist from two separate newspapers have, between them, been sentenced to over twenty-six years imprisonment for publishing material that supposedly threatened state security. Despite Kigali undertaking a legal evaluation of relevant laws, last month Amnesty International confirmed that "Rwanda's clampdown on critics shows no sign of abating".
With such restrictions, it is little surprise that Kagame won last year's presidential election with 93 percent - a figure short of the 95 percent he achieved in 2003. Human Rights Watch was not alone in describing the 2010 election as marred by "intimidation, exclusion of the opposition and critical voices, and a climate of fear." State-centred control and careful strategic positioning have also resulted in the ascendancy of Kagame's party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), throughout state institutions and the country.
Kagame's political support base is limited. Not only does most power lie with the RPF, dominated by Tutsis, but a subsection exists which wields disproportionate power: those former Tutsi refugees who, like Kagame, grew up in Uganda. Kagame's greatest fear is that any competitive election might result in voting along ethnic lines. As Hutus form the overwhelming majority in the country, such an election would undoubtedly result in a win for a Hutu candidate. Kigali views that such an outcome would inevitably lead to renewed persecution of the Tutsi. Such concerns fail to recognise that an alternative government could be progressive, inclusive and moderate.
Two months ago, President Kagame observed that "we can draw lessons from our history but not be trapped there." Despite evolving contexts, such a remark is apt. The current trajectory of Rwanda is not without precedence. Many compare contemporary Rwanda to that of the country's pre-1962 independence period when the minority Tutsi dominated the economic, political and social arena.
However, perhaps more pertinent are the parallels between the current regime and that of President Juvénal Habyarimana. Superficially, this seems an unlikely comparison. Habyarimana is best known for leading Rwanda towards genocide prior to his April 1994 assassination. Surrounded by hardliners in the immediate build-up to the massacres and fearful of an existential threat, Habyarimana allowed racist ideologues and ideologies to flourish following the October 1990 RPF invasion from neighbouring Uganda. By contrast, President Kagame says he is determined not to allow racist discourses to re-emerge - precisely because of what happened under Habyarimana's watch. Moreover, despite being authoritarian, Rwanda is no longer a textbook example of a totalitarian state as it was previously.
Nevertheless, some of the trajectories and policies of the regimes of Habyarimana and Kagame, especially prior to the RPF invasion, are analogous. Major-General Habyarimana seized power in a military coup in 1973. One of the coup's premises was to foster national unity and end the ethnic division which had become such a source of tension in the years prior to and following independence. Steady economic growth until the late-1980s, infrastructure improvement and international support were all features of his tenure as president. Whilst Habyarimana failed to remove the institutional discrimination instilled by his predecessor, the official ethnic quota system was loosely enforced outside Parliament, the military and local government. Prior to the RPF invasion, there was no inter-ethnic violence and the Tutsi prospered in the private sector.
Habyarimana presided over all aspects of the political and politico-civil system, and his party was inextricably integrated into national, regional and local governance structures. Habyarimana's rule was not just one of monolithic ethnic supremacy but also the dominance of a smaller privileged faction from his home area of northwest Rwanda. The 'democracy' that existed was a one-party mock-up of democracy. In three presidential elections, Habyarimana was 'elected' unopposed with over 99 percent of the vote.
In many respects, the current regime, its economic success and the support the country receives resemble that of Rwanda past - hardly a New Rwanda that many speak of. For some, an elite clique of people in power with a variety of kinship, business and personal ties binding them, unable to be challenged, has simply been replaced by another. The clientelist nature of structural authority remains intact and similar hierarchies of power persist. Despite the 1994 genocide having a complex set of causes, there remain some of the same factors that contributed to making it possible. Acute poverty, demographic pressures, horizontal and vertical inequalities, exclusion, rampant political partiality, institutional favouritism and a large unskilled rural workforce are characteristics of both regimes.
Replicating a model of strong leadership and economic development without independent political, judicial, media and civil society liberalisation may have been understandable in the early post-genocide days but it is unlikely to be sustainable or foster meaningful reconciliation. The strict political restrictions imposed in Rwanda now look more like a means to promulgate the RPF and President Kagame. In practice, the current policies being pursued by Kigali reinforce, rather than eliminate, the notion of Tutsi and Hutu being mutually exclusive groups who are engaged in a struggle for political hegemony. With just under half of Rwanda's government expenditure financed by international aid, neither is Rwanda's economy self-reliant. Most dangerously, Rwanda's current policies are likely to polarise larger segments of society and deepen ethnic divisions. As during the 1959-1962 revolution, opponents may eventually rely on violent, not peaceful, means to effect change.
In July 1990, the seventeenth anniversary of his ascent to power, and at the insistence of his international partners, Habyarimana commenced a process of aggiornamento politique. A group of intellectuals published a manifesto calling for immediate democratisation. Four journalists including the editor of the oldest and most influential newspaper in Rwanda were surprisingly acquitted after having been taken to court for reporting government corruption - a 'crime' which was usually dealt with swiftly and conclusively. The summer concluded with the appointment of a commission to provide recommendations for a new national democratic charter, identifying what democracy meant for the majority of Rwandans and drafting a new Constitution.
This month Kagame also celebrates his seventeenth year of de facto rule in Rwanda. It is a prescient moment in Rwanda's recent history, with the country accepting many of the recommendations made by the Human Rights Council. There should not be a return to the aggressive aid conditionality of the 1980s and 1990s. However, Rwanda's friends should be constructively encouraging it to implement reforms and expedite some of the multifarious challenges the country historically faces. Otherwise, the parallels between Kagame and Habyarimana will only become increasingly uncomfortable, and, far more imperative, future instability and even violence in the beleaguered country will be ever more likely to recur.
Mark Naftalin is a Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).