Last year I finished a piece of research on women in politics in Rwanda after almost three years spent researching how the tiny African country has managed to top the league tables on women’s representation.
I first embarked upon what became my MSc as a newspaper feature for the Sunday Business Post on gender quotas in politics in Ireland and Rwanda, grant-aided by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. But after spending a short time in Rwanda researching the feature, I knew there was more to this beautiful, clean, apparently peaceful and prosperous country than met the eye.
The famed Rwandan success story of reconciliation and peace is not what it seems.The discourse internationally is of a country that has risen above its brutal past, transitioned to democracy, and now leads the world in gender equality.
The truth, as always, is far more complicated than that. And it’s back in the news now, after Paul Kagame, the country’s leader since the 1994 genocide, changed the condition (contained in the constitution he wrote) that limited presidents to two terms. The conventional wisdom has it that Kagame liberated Rwandans from the rule of Hutu genocidaires and brought stability and democracy. He certainly ended the genocide against the Tutsi.
But evidence has emerged slowly over time that during the “liberation” many thousands of innocent Hutus were also killed, and since Kagame took power his stranglehold over the country’s people has gradually increased to the point that there is now zero opposition and many of his own former generals and staff have fled, been killed or mysteriously disappeared.
The words Tutsi and Hutu have disappeared from the vocabulary of Rwandans, but the divide has not; it’s being propagated by RPF preferentialism towards the minority Tutsis, many of whom returned to the country of their parents after the genocide and benefit hugely from connections to the ruling party.
There is a small academic community focusing on Rwandan politics and many of those who have worked in this area are no longer allowed back to Rwanda. Filip Reyntjens, Susan Thomson and others have contradicted the official party line of Paul Kagame’s RPF and, as well as being denied access to the country, they are regularly subjected to torrents of abuse and criticism online by RPF shills. Other critics abroad have been threatened.
As the Observer piece linked above (and here) indicates, Kagame is one in a long line of African leaders who have clung to power past their sell by date. Neighbouring Burundi is on the cusp of civil war because of a similar desire of its president to stay in power.
It’s possible Kagame never intended to get into a position where he was ‘eternal leader’. But when you have obliterated both your opposition and your most capable supporters, the biggest problem in maintaining any kind of stability (albeit stability in a surveillance state) is one of succession. Who, now, could follow one of Africa’s most clever and strategic leaders?