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Rwanda has made remarkable progress to rebuild after the genocide. But the country is in the grip of a ruthless Tutsi oligarchy that has silenced everyone who doesn’t agree with President Kagame. His critics are either dead, in jail or exile. The struggle for a just and free nation should be intensified

I have many memories of Rwanda from my visit in 2010. But three stand out. I was among a small army of journalists from Kenya and Uganda flown into the country by the government of President Paul Kagame to cover festivities marking the 16th Liberation Day, a commemoration of the end of the 1994 genocide and the coming to power of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party. ‘Expression Today’, the respected but also much reviled magazine I worked for, was devoted to the defence of media freedom and promotion of journalistic excellence in East Africa. We regularly featured Rwanda, carrying unflattering reports about the relentless government crackdown on independent media there.

The first thing on my mind from those four days in Rwanda is that we were chaperoned by state officials throughout the visit: only allowed to marvel at the spotlessly clean city of Kigali, talk to gently smiling government officials who did not say much, visit the national memorial of the ‘genocide against the Tutsi’, enjoy beautiful dances and watch throngs of apparently contented Rwandans chanting ‘Mzee wacu!’ (Our elder/leader, in praise of Kagame) at Amahoro Stadium on Liberation Day. My secret contact in Kigali, a reliable source, told me that the persons taking us around were actually intelligence agents.

The reporters could not be left to wander out on their own, lest, I thought, we met with opposition leaders and the few remaining independent local journalists. There is no civil society in Rwanda to write about - to give us another view of the state of affairs in the country. And so the excited scribes, their cheeks glowing from the touch of Rwandan hospitality, flew back on RwandAir to their respective work stations in Nairobi and Kampala to publish colourful stories about the wonders President Kagame was doing.

Second: The day before our arrival in Kigali, the funeral had been held at a Catholic parish for Jean-Leonard Rugambage, Acting Chief Editor of then suspended critical newspaper ‘Umuvugizi’ and a media freedom activist. No eulogies were allowed by state security people. Umuvugizi’s Chief Editor, John Bosco Gasasira, had fled into exile in Uganda shortly after the paper was suspended and upon being tipped by security sources that he was targeted for elimination. Maybe the three or four bullets pumped into Rugambage outside his home in a Kigali suburb were initially meant for his colleague, Gasasira. He was shot dead at close range by unknown gunmen on the day he published two articles critical of the government, one of them linking the Kagame regime to the attempted murder in South Africa of Rwanda’s former intelligence chief Kayumba Nyamwasa.

I wanted to know more about the fallen scribe and possibly meet his family. I deserted our group as they embarked on yet another chaperoned trip and went out to meet a group of journalists at a small hotel my contact considered safe from the eyes of the ubiquitous state intelligence. We huddled over drinks in a corner, the handful of Rwandan journalists quite unable to hide their anxiety about the dire risks their work exposed them to. Under the cover of darkness, Epiphanie, the 28-year-old widow of journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage and mother of their two-year-old son, was sneaked into the hotel. We spoke in low voices about the sudden tragedy that had struck her family, her hopeless situation (she was jobless) and her many fears for herself and her son. Had state intelligence pounced upon us, I am sure we would have all been arrested and charged with something like conspiring to overthrow the Government of Rwanda.

The third incident I clearly recall happened on Liberation Day. Our minders warned us that mobile telephones were not allowed, even when switched off, at Amahoro Stadium where President Kagame was scheduled to lead the nation in celebrations. We were asked to leave our phones in our hotel rooms. But for some strange reason, I ended up with my switched-off phone at the main entrance to Amahoro Stadium where security officers frisked us. They were thoroughly agitated on seeing the gadget. They kept it, promising to hand it over at the end of the ceremony. They never did. One of our minders assured me that he knew who had the phone and would follow up the matter. We proceeded that evening to a banquet at the presidential palace. But it was not until the next day, shortly before our departure, about 24 hours later, that I was given back my phone.

On arrival in Nairobi, startling news awaited me. My wife told me that someone had called her on my phone the previous night from Kigali, asking whether she was my wife. The caller said I had lost my phone and that he had recovered it and was on his way bringing it to me. The agents at Intelligence had hacked my phone.

We shall return to these three incidents in a moment, but first: Rwanda is this year marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide in which up to 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were massacred in about 100 days. By all accounts, the people of Rwanda have made remarkable progress to heal at individual and community levels and to rebuild their devastated nation. Given the events of 1994, it would seem unreasonable to disagree with plenty of the analysis that characterises Rwanda’s recovery as an incredible journey, ‘extraordinary’, or as ‘Africa’s biggest success story’. But is it? What picture does one get on closer scrutiny, beyond the carefully choreographed official narrative parroted by the Kagame regime’s cheerleaders at home and abroad?


The three incidents narrated above – and information gathered subsequently – draw up a reality about Rwanda that far too many people may not know or are unwilling to speak openly about. It is a frightening reality that is sometimes explained away with excuses (such as ‘the benevolent dictator’) by possibly well-meaning people who have lapped up tall tales churned out by Kagame’s massive propaganda machine. Rwanda, truth be told, is a restless nation with an uncertain future. President Kagame has exploited the genocide to gain unimaginable political mileage inside and outside Rwanda. It is impossible not to conclude that the genocide has been for him a godsend. As in the pre-genocide years of elite Hutu rule, Rwanda today is in the grip of a ruthless Kagame-led Tutsi oligarchy that has personalised state power, ‘Tutsified’ public institutions, trashed the rule of law, excluded and silenced the majority Hutu, sharpened ethnic consciousness, criminalised dissent and any meaningful alternative political organising. The list goes on.

In Rwanda everyone, except those in power and their relatives and friends, lives in fear. No one is free. That is not the portrait of a country at peace, even if there are no mass murders going on and the economy is said to be galloping steadily at eight percent per annum – energised by donor dollars and the blood of over 5 million people in eastern DR Congo who have been butchered in the process of looting the area’s vast mineral wealth. What exists in Rwanda today is what John Galtung, ‘the father of peace studies’, famously described as ‘negative peace.’ A peace enforced by brutal repression.

At the 20th anniversary commemorations on 7 April, President Kagame praised Rwandans for rebuilding their nation: ‘Your sacrifices are a gift to the nation. They are the seed from which the new Rwanda grows. Thank you for allowing your humanity and patriotism to prevail over your grief and loss’, he said. But isn’t it ironical that the same Kagame appears to think that the national stability, peace and economic development of ‘the new Rwanda’ are incompatible with the people’s enjoyment of fundamental human rights such as the freedoms of opinion, expression and assembly? How real or sustainable is such stability? Did the RPF ‘liberate’ Rwandans in 1994 only to push them into new bondage?

Perhaps it is a matter of chance that no one from inside Rwanda has contributed to this special issue of Pambazuka News dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the genocide. But it is also certain that any Rwandan who dares to say anything different from the single narrative of the genocide or any other public issue faces terrible consequences from the regime. They would be accused of denying ‘the genocide against the Tutsi’, terrorism or the curious charge of ‘divisionism’.


In a country where discussions about ethnicity are not allowed, it is strange that the horrors of 1994 must always be referred to as ‘the genocide against the Tutsi’ - a phrase that expressly downplays the massacres of many moderate Hutus and covers up the killings by the rebel forces led by Kagame during the genocide but also for four years beginning in 1990 when the Rwanda Patriotic Army invaded the country from Uganda. In fact, there is a large body of opinion convinced that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 was not a ‘genocide’ as such but a ‘civil war’. There were massacres on both sides of the conflict – even though Hutu extremists committed more atrocities.

In the past two decades, Rwanda has tried thousands of perpetrators of the genocide in formal courts at home, at the traditional Gacaca tribunals and at the Tanzania-based International Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which winds up its work this year. Other suspected perpetrators have been tried abroad under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. But in all these trials, very few members of the ruling RPF party have faced justice for the crimes they committed in 1994. ‘For the vast majority of families of victims of RPF killings,’ says a new report by Human Rights Watch, ‘there is therefore little hope of seeing the perpetrators prosecuted. A few have attempted to demand justice for these crimes, but it has been a difficult struggle. There are tight restrictions on free speech in Rwanda and few people dare to broach publicly the sensitive subject of RPF crimes.’

Rwandans have paid a steep price to keep Kagame and his henchmen in power. Genuine opposition parties have been destroyed by Kagame. The unregistered FDU-Inkingi party’s president, Victoire Ingabire, is serving a 15-year jail term on trumped up charges of threatening state security and ‘belittling’ the genocide. PS-Imberakuri's president, Bernard Ntaganda, is in jail as well. Only a faction that RPF engineered can participate in elections as RPF’s ‘coalition partner’. PDP-Imanzi’s president, Deo Mushaidi, is serving a life-sentence on a politically motivated conviction. The Green Party was registered after its vice president, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, was beheaded by state agents in 2010. Its leader went into exile but was later lured back into the country. Amahoro People’s Congress and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) are not registered in Rwanda. Why is the Kagame regime scared of all these political formations? Do the tight restrictions on political space, jailing and assassinations represent the will of the Rwandan people?

Still on politics, Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world. In last year’s elections, women took 64 percent of the seats in the Lower House. But who are the women who win the seats? What are their political platforms? How competent are they? How do they use their positions and numerical strength to articulate the interests of women and Rwandans in general and to conceive alternative visions for a country with such extreme political intolerance? The women simply get into parliament through RPF and co-opted parties.


For how long will the current situation last? Obviously not forever. President Paul Kagame may be all-powerful, but he is not immortal. One of the most important questions for Rwanda has surely to be what happens after Kagame – after 2017 when his constitutional two terms lapse, or whenever he exits the presidency (should the parliament his party controls amend the law to make him president for life). How will the pressure of repression that has built for two decades vent out? It is time for Rwandans to begin to think beyond Kagame.

Already this is happening – but mostly outside the country where many vocal Rwandans have fled to save their lives. The groups outside Rwanda must continue to organise. The challenge remains how to organise for political change from inside Rwanda. It is going to be a long journey of small steps.

Lessons from other nations that have successfully challenged bloody dictatorships show that the people themselves must gather the courage to stand up to their oppressors. They cannot wait for saviours. Rwanda’s journalists, teachers, students, artists, academics, women, young people, the unemployed, must interrogate the political situation in their country and begin to demand the changes that will create a just and progressive society free of fear and stifling restrictions. They must organise, create spaces to express themselves and build alliances. They must break the silence imposed upon them by the Kagame regime. It is not easy. But it can be done.

* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News.



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