Letter from Rwanda

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Letter from Rwanda

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The country has made a miraculous recovery since the genocide 16 years ago. But is there a darker side to the success story?

A nation rebuilding itself: children living in the foothills of Volcanoes National Park, where visitors flock to see wild gorillas. Tourism is now Rwanda’s leading foreign exchange earner


Half an hour’s drive south of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, there is a church that houses the remains of 45,000 people, all of whom died in the 1994 genocide. The roof, walls and windows are dappled with bullet holes and bloodstains. On the floor lie heaps of dusty, torn garments; clothes worn by the 10,000 men, women and children who sought refuge here. Their bones—along with those of another 35,000 butchered in the surrounding Bugesera district—are piled in a vault underneath the church, in mass graves surrounding it, and in tarpaulin bags stacked up next to the chapel walls. When the Hutu militiamen finally broke into the church after a sustained barrage of bullets and grenades, they spared only one person, a pregnant woman. She was allowed to live because she was a Hutu; the Tutsi “cockroach” child she was carrying was cut out of her stomach and killed in front of her.

Between April and July of that year, massacres like this one left an estimated 800,000 people dead, the bloody culmination of a four-year civil war between the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and forces loyal to the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana. Thanks to (belated) international news coverage of the carnage, and later the award-winning Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda, the genocide has been etched into popular memory as one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities.

Today, the country is dotted with memorials like the church in Nyamata. Yet the government is also determined to sever links with the past, and promote a new image; one found in Fortune magazine (“Why CEOs love Rwanda”), or in Time, where President Paul Kagame was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009. According to the American evangelist, Rick Warren, the tall, thin, ascetic Kagame—the military leader of the RPF whose victory ended the genocide—is “the face of emerging African leadership”; a man who is “transforming a failed state into one with a bright future.”

Rwanda has indeed made dramatic progress in the past 16 years. Before the global downturn, it posted double-digit GDP growth; this year the forecast is 7 per cent. It is frequently rated the best country in the region to do business with, the least corrupt. The streets of Kigali are clean (plastic bags are banned and there’s a monthly “national cleanup day”), crime is low, and Hutu and Tutsi—somehow—live alongside each other again. Both groups are represented in the new political system, and citizens’ ID cards no longer define their ethnicity. “This has been our home for centuries,” visitors to Kigali’s genocide museum are told. “We are one people. We speak one language. We have one history.”

Yet 16 years is a remarkably short time for such deep wounds to heal. How much of the recovery is genuine, and will it last?

I was first invited to the country in mid May for a conference on the “Role of Leadership in Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.” Rwandan officials are very proud of their record on this: under the new constitution, one third of MPs must be female. Women now make up 56 per cent of parliament, a larger share than anywhere else in the world; evidence, I was told, of Rwanda’s desire to change the way it does everything: business, politics, social relations.

“If you’d asked me ten years ago whether Rwanda could have made the progress it has done, I’d have said no way,” said Praveen Moman, who was the first foreign entrepreneur to build a luxury eco-lodge here, in 2000. Rwanda has lush rainforests and is home to about 350 of the 700 surviving mountain gorillas in the wild (which tourists will pay $500 to see). Foreign donors want to help preserve the ecosystem. Realising the economic potential, the government has pledged 10 per cent of its land (a precious resource) to conservation, and tourism is now the country’s leading foreign exchange earner.

But that industry alone cannot support some 10m people, and Rwanda’s other major exports—tea, coffee and minerals—are vulnerable to world price fluctuations. So the government has drawn up an ambitious development plan that encompasses farming, IT, infrastructure and civic institutions. Some analysts are sceptical, but Gabi Hesselbein, an economist at LSE, is impressed. Other countries in the region have development plans “collecting dust in drawers,” she says, but Rwanda’s approach is “a real, workable plan which they are determined to deliver.” (One senior government adviser told me he had to be at work at 7am every morning; if you’re late, you get locked out—even if you are the chief of staff.) “This is a regime that really understands its responsibility to change things,” says Hesselbein. There are few examples of success in Africa, she concedes, “but Rwanda may become one of them.”

The economic data is impressive, but 90 per cent of Rwandans still live on less than $2 a day, and because the country lost so much of its professional class to the genocide, it urgently needs skilled workers. More broadly, as one businessman told me, the country is short of people who “think outside the box.” Education and training take time—and money. Rwanda is landlocked, overcrowded, and still heavily reliant on foreign aid (which makes up roughly half of the government budget). It also faces serious resource challenges: the UN alleges that many of the minerals it exports are actually smuggled across the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; there’s the ongoing battle for access to the Nile and its tributaries; and oil has to be transported by road from Kenya and Tanzania. For now, the country’s stability and prosperity are often at the mercy of factors outside its control.

Then there’s politics. Presidential elections are held on 9th August; Kagame is expected to win a second term comfortably. The political system is designed so that one party cannot control the legislature and law-making is a plural, “consultative” process. Yet the contest has exposed fault lines that still run deep. Earlier this year, two newspapers were suspended for “inciting insubordination in the army and police” and publishing “information that endangers public order.” Police have arrested several would-be presidential candidates and their party members. Some have complained of being beaten and tortured in prison. In June, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa (a general once close to Kagame who fled Rwanda earlier this year), survived an assassination attempt in South Africa; five days later, Jean Leonard Rugambage, acting editor at one of the suspended newspapers, was shot dead in Kigali. The government strongly denies links with either incident.

Insiders say Rwanda is serious about democratisation but, given its past, the process has to be carefully managed. In 2003, Kagame stood for the presidency unchallenged, and won 95 per cent of the vote. This time, four parties are fielding candidates—evidence, say local commentators, of a country “midwifing democracy.”

Others disagree. Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu who recently returned to Rwanda after 16 years abroad, is one of several would-be candidates who has been arrested and denied permission to run. I visited her in the quiet, affluent Kigali suburb where she has spent most of the past few months under house arrest. She is accused of “genocide ideology,” “revisionism” and having links with the FDLR, an armed rebel group in eastern DRC. Under the constitution, it is a crime to deny or trivialise the genocide, but she claims the regime uses the laws to silence any opposition. She lost a brother, an aunt and an uncle in 1994, and says her only “crime” is to question why the killing of Tutsis is commemorated, rather than both Hutus and Tutsis. “Everybody knows there are problems still there between Hutus and Tutsis—and we have to talk about this. That is the only way that we can make sure that it never happens again.”

Officials warn her arguments are really a thinly veiled appeal to the “Hutu solidarity” that poisoned the country before the genocide. “You may not understand this in translation, but in kinyarwandan people hear very well what she’s really saying,” the Liberal party’s candidate, Prosper Higiro, told me. According to Kagame, those who call her a legitimate opposition leader “think Africans deserve to be ruled by hooligans. To that, we say no. And if anybody wants a fight, we’ll give them a fight.”

The genocide remains an emotive and politically charged subject. But what seemed more problematic about Ingabire was her lack of detailed knowledge about the country she proposes to run. She claimed the reforms have only improved things in Kigali—an analysis not borne out by travelling around the country, where the roads are better, the people better nourished and the crime levels lower than any other country in the region.

Of course, Ingabire is not the regime’s only critic. The Green party’s Frank Habineza, for example, is a Tutsi who used to work for the government, and grew up in the RPF-supporting Tutsi community in exile. He greeted me warmly when I visited his office in Kigali, but insisted on recording our conversation. He told me the RPF have sent “troublemakers” to disrupt his party meetings in order to disqualify him from registering as an election candidate. He also claimed he’s been trailed by “unknown people,” and warned he’s an assassination target. (A few weeks later, his deputy was murdered. Police are investigating.)

“There is no opposition in this country, the elections are a sham,” he told me. He believes Kagame could easily win “75 or 80 per cent of the vote” without using bullying tactics; tactics that damage not only his own reputation, but Rwanda’s as a whole—and set a dangerous precedent. “I personally don’t mind if Kagame rules for a second term. But I will mind if he doesn’t create enough political space. He cannot rule the country alone. We have a saying in Africa, you cannot beat a drum to your own dance.”

Rwanda may be falling short of western democratic ideals but, argues Kagame’s impressive foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, its society is still vulnerable. “It is hard to imagine a country of 7m, where nearly 1m are dead and another 2 to 3m were involved [in the genocide] in some way, and being able to stabilise the country,” she told me. Rwanda has created a situation where “people are not in love, but they live together and work together,” which she attributes in large part to Kagame. “We needed a leader who’s got vision, but who’s also tough; who stays with a policy and sees it through.”

Unsurprisingly, Mushikiwabo offers different explanations for recent events. A Human Rights Watch researcher recently reported to have been “expelled” was actually asked to leave because of “work visa irregularities.” Yes, two newspapers were suspended, but there are still a number of independent radio stations. The newspapers had been “problematic” for years, she said; the final straw was when they started “predicting war”—not calling for it, per se, but “creating a psyche of fear and instability… We don’t want to be held hostage by the hate media of 1994. We’re a lot more fragile than you think.”

This may be so, yet it’s also a convenient excuse for any regime keen to hold onto power. How valuable, though, is a debate about the health of Rwandan democracy at the exclusion of all else? Francis Fukuyama has argued that an “authoritarian transition” can sometimes be the best option for a country emerging from conflict. “Democracy is good music but you need somebody with ears to listen to that music,” Kagame told the Guardian recently.

A man I met on my first day in Kigali underlined this point. He was originally from Kenya but had decided to relocate his family to Rwanda, fed up with the criminality and corruption that has become a feature of everyday life in Nairobi. In Kigali he’s never been asked for a bribe and for this, he credits Kagame. “Here is a guy who won’t hesitate to slap you in the face if you mess up,” he said. “That’s why this country works now.”

173_correspondent_rwanda
Kagame: a “tough” leader

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Mary Fitzgerald

Mary Fitzgerald
Mary Fitzgerald is a writer and activist 


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