Upon initial inspection, he’s unassuming: tall, thin as a rail, with large glasses dominating the frame of his face. His voice is neither powerful nor commanding. He’s quite the opposite of the burly, hardened, Stalin-esque impression many have of a dictator. Perhaps that’s why it’s surprising that he holds an autocratic grip on Rwandan “democracy.”
Paul Kagame is known for having led the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, which took control of Kigali in 1994. Kagame first served as vice president and then was elected to the presidency in 2000. Ever since then, he has been taking steps to bring Rwanda’s economy up to higher standards while simultaneously consolidating power in his own hands.
In contrast with much of Central-East Africa, Rwanda’s government remains relatively stable. Its immediate neighbors, Burundi and the DRC, continue to suffer from civil wars and unrest over upcoming elections, and in both countries, warlords harvesting raw minerals dominate the economy. By comparison, Rwanda is vastly more institutionalized, with no recent violent grabs for power and a functioning government, including a supreme court and parliament. Rwanda’s economy is growing as well: Rwanda sold 400 billion dollars in bonds to foreign investors in 2013 and has experienced an average GDP increase of 8 percent since 2001. The number of Rwandans living in poverty has decreased 6 percent in 10 years.
It may seem perplexing to many, especially in the West, that the otherwise successful country could currently be under a dictator’s thumb. Indeed, despite his campaign of countrywide modernization, Kagame has centralized political power by repressing opposition, limiting free press, and diminishing civil liberties, all the while using the memory of the Rwandan Genocide to legitimize his actions.
Rwandan leadership falls into a continuum of dictatorial relativity. Compared to its immediate, warlord-plagued neighbors, it is a thriving democratic state. But this relatively “democratic” character should not excuse Kagame and his government from criticism. In fact, Rwanda is following a dangerous road to authoritarianism. At the end of 2015, Rwanda’s senate approved a constitutional referendum to allow the president to run for three additional terms, effectively allowing him to remain in office until 2034. Kagame has been president since 2000, and should have completed his last allotted term this year. Nevertheless, he has declared his candidacy for a third term in next year’s election, a decision that has already sparked criticism from the international community.
Kagame, on a visit to Harvard, defended himself in a public address. He argued that part of what makes a democracy is having a constitution, which presents the possibility of occasional amendment. While this may be true, another central part of democracy is peaceful turnover of power. By preventing the transfer of the nation’s highest office to a successor, the constitutional amendment limits Rwanda’s democratic viability.
However, President Kagame continued to justify his decision to run again by explaining that his country has asked him to do so. Rwanda, he explained, simply is not ready for a new leader. However magnanimous his justification, no one is forcing Kagame to run for a third term. If his country is as free as he proclaims it to be, he should easily be able to decline another term with confidence that another capable politician would step into his role. Kagame’s refusal to turn over power not only limits democracy now, but also inhibits the chance of a stable transition in the future. His country may become accustomed to the idea of extended executive rule, and naturally, people will fight for a shot at the throne. Rwanda could follow in the footsteps of the DRC, where after Mobutu’s 32 year reign, oppositions groups spiraled into violence and vied for control of the country.
Additionally, Kagame’s decision to run fundamentally contradicts a previous statement made when he announced his campaign for his third term. He noted, “I don’t think that what we need is an eternal leader.” But the recent amendment and his decision to run provide for exactly that.
Civil Liberties in Rwanda
The central irony in Kagame’s address to the JFK Forum lay in his discussion of his country’s progress. He inspirationally proclaimed that there can be “no progress without empowerment of the individual,” citing the majority-women Rwandan parliament as an example of exactly that. He also mentioned the Africa 2020 plan, set by coalition of 26 developing African nations intent on creating a free trade block by 2020.
However grand this talk may be, it is at odds with the situation emerging on the ground in Rwanda. Fundamentally, individuals cannot be fully empowered if they cannot speak their minds. Kagame’s praise of his country’s freedom is inconsistent with the concerning state of affairs regarding civil liberties in his country.
While the country’s constitution provides that “Freedom of the press and freedom of information are recognized and guaranteed by the State,” those words do not seem worth the paper they are written on. According to Freedom House, Rwanda scores 6 out of 7 (7 being the worst) on an index of civil liberties, the same level as Iran. This rating’s veracity was reflected in legislation passed in 2009 by the RPF (Kagame’s party). The “divisionist law” allows punishment for “the use of any speech, written statement, or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflicts among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people based on discrimination.”
A 2013 media law allows the state to determine the operational rules for media outlets and journalist standards. As a result of these loopholes, out of 50 print publications registered with the government in 2013, only 10 published regularly, and of the country’s 26 radio stations, six are government owned. Self-censorship is frequent, as journalists fear being harassed or maligned. Stanley Gatera, editor of the newspaper Umusingi, was arrested for attempted extortion under the divisionist law on account of an article he wrote about how men who marry Tutsi women just for their beauty may have regrets.
This intensely restrictive law stems from the fact that one of the main sources of genocide ideology in 1994 was print and broadcast media. In Rwanda, the Hutu power movement took to controlling the Radio RTLM and the newspaper Kangura to oppose the Tutsi RPF, telling citizens that the RPF would return the Hutus to the oppressive socioeconomic status they experienced under colonial rule. Naturally, there is fear amongst Tutsis that press freedom would regress into another spell of ethnic conflict. It is this lingering thought—that genocide ideology is intrinsically connected to free media—that propels legislation like the 2013 media law.
In light of Rwanda’s speech-restrictive reality, President Kagame’s comments to the HPR in a post-speech interview were surprising. Although he mentioned in his speech that prosperity could not be achieved without empowering citizens, his government has failed to empower its citizens through free press. President Kagame responded to this incongruence first through denial, then by alleging media bias, stating, “if you also read different surveys carried out by different international organizations … in terms of freedoms and how citizens relate to leaders and institutions, we rank very high.” He then remarked that international polls only talk about the “lack of freedom in our country.” By contract, within his own country, he claimed, “There are reports—if you will—that show freedom prevails.”
Kagame chose to deflect blame onto international organizations and the phrasing of the question instead of providing concrete counterevidence from unbiased sources.
The claim that the bias of international organizations led to the reports on lack of freedom is especially problematic. Part of the reason why there are no domestically produced reports on the lack of freedom in Rwanda is because the RPF’s 2013 media law and the divisionist law prevent such speech from being published. It is likely for this reason that Rwanda’s English-language daily newspaper, the New Times, shows no sign of any recent Kagame criticism.
Moreover, the “reports” that Kagame alludes to that demonstrate Rwanda’s press freedom clash with existing evaluations from Freedom House and the U.S. Department of State describing the lack of free speech in the country. It seems that the evidence Kagame cites to urge re-evaluation of Rwanda’s free speech is shaky at best and contested by several reputable sources.
Leadership and Legacy
Kagame is likely to be elected to his third term with an overwhelming majority, much like his 2010 election, in which he won over 90 percent of the vote. Under Kagame’s continuing rule, Rwanda will be faced not only with repressed civil liberties, but also reduced likelihood that the country will escape the shadow of its 1994 genocide in the foreseeable future.
Because of the genocidal atrocities to which Rwanda’s Tutsis were subjected by the radical Hutu militias, Kagame (a Tutsi) and his government have visceral reactions to any opposition parties that resemble the Hutu Power movement of 1994. This fear is evident in Rwanda’s lack of a proper opposition party. In the aforementioned interview with the HPR, Kagame defended the lack of opposition parties by highlighting his country’s progress, arguing that “the administration we [have today] is not the administration we had ten years ago … it’s not the same we will have ten years from now.”
But while it is true that Rwanda has changed since 1994, its ruling party has not, and the RPF continually invokes the genocide as justification for one-party rule. The country’s primary opposition party would be the Democratic Green Party, registered in 2014. But Kagame’s government often uses memory of the genocide as a tool to undermine dissent, and repeated reports have exposed the intimidation and oppression of potential opposition parties. Victoire Ingabire and Bernard Ntaganda, two opposition party leaders, have been arrested and imprisoned for creating divisionism.
These intimidation tactics extend beyond just opposition parties to people in the administration as well. In a testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on Africa, David Himbara, who was the principal private secretary to Kagame, head of strategy, and chairman of the Rwandan Development Board, reported on the state of Kagame’s rule. He suggested that before 2012, the targets for human rights abuses were political opponents and journalists; but afterwards, these attacks broadened to people such as Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence chief; Assinapol Rwigara, a leading businessman; and Dr. Emmanuel Gasakure, the personal physician to Kagame—in other words, former Kagame allies. Increasingly few people, it seems, are outside the reach of the president’s iron fist.
This intimidation and violence, propelled by genocidal fear, is allowed through the 2008 genocide law, which outlaws all “genocide ideology” terms and any speech that involves:
1. threatening, intimidating, degrading through defamatory speeches, documents or actions which aim at propounding wickedness or inciting hatred; 2. marginalizing, laughing at one’s misfortune, defaming, mocking, boasting, despising, degrading creating confusion aiming at negating the genocide which occurred, stirring up ill feelings, taking revenge, altering testimony or evidence for the genocide which occurred; 3. killing, planning to kill or attempting to kill someone for purposes of furthering genocide ideology.
The broad language of the law leaves the Rwandan government excessive room for punishing citizens. Kagame asserted in 2014, “Anyone who betrays our cause or wishes our people ill will fall victim. What remains to be seen is how you fall victim.” Kagame reinforced the fact that the 2008 genocide law is used for punitive purposes, and is likely related to recent deaths and disappearances of dissenters and journalists.
But to justify censorship and one-party rule on the unlikely renewal of ethnic violence is to doom Rwanda to remain a competitive authoritarian nation—a dictatorship hiding behind a democratic façade.
With the ghosts of the 20th century constantly following Kagame, his motivations—and justifications—for restricting free speech and civil liberties are clear. Even though the genocide is over, Kagame is ruling as if he were still in a war and the people of his country were still in need of martial law.
Image Source: Wikimedia//Copyright World Economic Forum//RwandaSteve