President Obama’s recent visit to Africa featured an address to the African Union (AU) in which he chided leaders on the continent for failing to uphold democratic standards. Obama’s speech served to remind undemocratic leaders and human rights abusers that they threaten African development prospects. Foremost in the US president’s mind may have been his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, who has indicated his intentions to amend the nation’s constitution to allow him a third seven-year term.
Three point seven million Rwandans have signed a petition issued by the Government of the Republic of Rwanda (GoR) to reform Article 101 of the constitution to allow the incumbent president to run for a potential third seven-year term. However, widespread backing amongst Rwandans for the GoR’s proposals belies the darker side of Kagame’s leadership, with the petition results denounced by human rights organisations due to evidence of voter intimidation. This latest development is indicative of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Rwandan state. Several human rights organisations have alleged that Rwandans have been coerced into signing the petition, and others who have opposed it have found themselves persecuted as a result.
Rwanda’s economic recovery and restructuring post-genocide has seen the nation frequently referred to as a ‘developmental miracle’, though this progress has not been matched by similar advances in democracy and human rights. Kagame has ruled virtually uncontested in Rwanda since his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces ended the 1994 genocide, serving as de facto leader until 2000, and as president ever since. In both the 2003 and 2010 elections Kagame won with over 90% of the vote.
Kagame’s regime has been particularly effective at stifling opposition by strict control, often violently enforced, of the press and media outlets. Over the last 10 years, numerous critics of the GoR have gone missing or been killed in dubious circumstances. Recently, for example, the editor of Inyenyeri News, a newspaper that had criticised the government, was gunned down in Uganda where he had sought political asylum. The UK’s BBC is currently banned from broadcasting world service programmes in Kinyarwande (Rwanda’s most-spoken language), having provoked the ire of the Kagame regime in 2014 with a documentary investigating the role of the current government in the 1994 genocide.
Kagame profited from the unique circumstances under which he came to power. Having presented himself as Rwanda’s ‘liberator’, Kagame assumed a mandate for rebuilding and reconciliation in order to revive a nation brought to its knees by internal violence. Restorative justice, administered nationwide through traditional gacaca courts, represented Rwanda’s first step towards reconciliation. However, discussion of RPF crimes was off limits, and the total absence of prosecutions against RPF soldiers can be seen as evidence of imbalanced ‘victor’s justice’, as has been noted by many commentators.
Today, Kagame purports to pursue a vision of a race-blind society in order to foster Rwandan national unity. The concept is undermined, however, by the repressive laws policing it, which deem it illegal to self-identify according to ethnicity due to the loosely defined threat of ‘divisionism’. All the while Rwanda’s government and parliament continues to be dominated by ethnic Tutsis despite the majority Hutu population (approximately 85%).
In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, Kagame played on Western sympathy, and guilt for not offering assistance earlier, in order to extract vast sums in aid donations. In 1995, aid accounted for virtually Rwanda’s entire budget; today it still represents as much as 40%. As the nation sought to continue its recovery, Kagame’s policies of reconciliation and fostering of national unity helped attract foreign investment. All the while, Kagame gained a reputation as a capable, modernising, technocratic leader driving the nation’s recovery. It is in this context that Western supporters continually turned a blind eye to Rwanda’s repressive internal politics and contributions to regional instability.
Only in late 2012 when Rwanda’s pernicious meddling in the complex conflict in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) became too blatant to ignore, were the USA and Britain provoked into suspending aid payments. More recently, within a month of Rwanda’s proposed constitutional amendments, came President Obama’s message to African heads of state. Obama’s speech may indicate that the leniency previously afforded to Kagame’s regime is likely to expire unless progress is made towards regional stability and promoting healthy democracy.
A major problem is that the Tutsi leadership remains distrustful of democratic ideas of political competition, legitimate opposition and free speech, lest they provoke a return to spontaneous ethnic violence. The spectre of genocide still resides in the Rwandan consciousness.
In the absence of an obvious succession plan, Kagame is bound to run again in 2017, and win by the customary margin. In contrast to events in neighbouring Burundi, which this year has seen protests and an attempted coup d’état in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he is to seek a third term in office, the third term announcement in Rwanda is unlikely to provoke much immediate disruption, such is the extent of the GoR’s political and social control. In the longer term, political shortcomings may threaten the Western aid and foreign direct investment (FDI) stream that for much of the last two decades has kept the economy afloat.
Previously, should Western inflows have dried up, Kagame may have felt able to rely on the Chinese, whose investment in Rwanda is unconcerned by Western ideals of ‘good governance’, and according to the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) has totalled $170 million since 2010. Chinese inflows have represented a significant portion of overall investment recently; total FDI inflows in 2013 (the last year on which the World Bank has reliable data for Rwanda) came to $257 million.
In recent years, total FDI in Rwanda has remained relatively constant, certainly in the same order of magnitude. However, Rwanda is reportedly aiming to increase FDI fourfold in 2015, seeking investment of $1.2 billion. It is reasonable to expect that a lot of this investment is being sought from China. But the current slowdown of China’s economy threatens such investment, and so Kagame may need to react to ensure he is not left high and dry by burning his bridges with the West.
Equally, the legitimacy the Rwandan regime draws from 1994, and relies on domestically, is finite. The government, already unrepresentative of its population, is likely to face a backlash sooner or later in some respect if it continues to stifle rather than recognise rights and freedoms. A trigger for this could well be worsening living standards caused by a reduction in investment in the country.