Autocracy or brave solution? Rwanda country profile

Ben Shepherd compares two starkly contrasting visions of Rwanda 20 years after the genocide.

Women are putting beans out to dry at a coffee-bean washing station.

Photos by Sven Torfinn/Panos

Kigali is an extraordinary city, sprawled across tree-spattered low hills. Compared to the chaos and bustle of Nairobi or Kampala, it is calm, safe and remarkably clean, almost eerily so. There are few street children and no informal traders, the traffic lights work and motorbike taxi-drivers wear helmets. Neat new dormitory suburbs climb distant hillsides in orderly ranks, behind soaring new office blocks, malls and Ministry buildings. The government extols the fundamental unity of Rwandans, and the people live in peace. The transformation from the dark days of 1994 is nothing short of astonishing.

But it also feels slightly unreal. No country divides observers like Rwanda. To some, it is an unparalleled success story, a phoenix rising from the ashes of genocide. To others, an authoritarian regime, guilty of fierce repression at home and bloody military adventures abroad.

Rwanda’s progress has been driven by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group with its origins in communities of Rwandan exiles that fled anti-Tutsi violence around independence in the late 1950s. The RPF invaded from neighbouring Uganda in 1990, ultimately defeating the former regime four years later, amid the horrors of the genocide. They drove out the remnants of the genocidal forces, and took power.

Though Rwanda transitioned to multiparty democracy in 2003, there has been no real challenge to RPF control; President Kagame won the last two Presidential elections with more than 90 per cent of the vote, and the RPF controls three-quarters of the seats in the National Assembly. Opposition parties offer no more than a nominal challenge. More vocal opponents are arrested or driven into exile. Some, it is alleged, have even been killed, most recently former RPF insider Patrick Karageya, assassinated in South Africa in January 2014.

Control extends beyond formal politics. There is almost no independent media or civil society, and very little space for discussion of history or politics, particularly the contested genesis of the quasi-ethnic identities that once ordered Rwandan life. Instead of Hutu and Tutsi, seen as racist fictions imposed on the country by the colonial authorities, everyone is now simply Rwandan. This narrative is driven home, including at re-education camps known as Ingando, attended by many Rwandans, from schoolchildren to demobilized soldiers. All citizens are expected to join community work days, farming has been progressively collectivized and new villages created from once widely spaced rural populations.

The benefit of this discipline is manifest in Rwanda’s development successes. Rural poverty has been significantly improved, including access to education, healthcare and services. Rwanda’s economy has grown at an impressive rate. And Kigali, as noted, is a gleaming testament to the RPF vision of a modern, outward-looking economy.

But it’s hard to judge if the majority of Rwandans have actively consented to this vision. The voices of the rural majority are not often heard. Tight control of political space by an effective, often brutal security apparatus suggests, at least in the view of the government, that Rwanda remains a tinderbox of ethnic violence. Maybe – it is very difficult for outsiders to know. Either way, the resulting repression does not sit easily with the RPF narrative of a unified country moving forward together.

It is this tension that gives rise to the two starkly contrasting versions of Rwanda in the global imagination. Those with faith in President Kagame see his steely reordering of Rwandan identity and society as a brave solution to the impossible legacy of genocide. Those without, see it as contradictory at best, and cover for autocracy at worst. As with all questions of faith, middle ground is hard to find.