Rwanda’s Bright Future Tainted by Tragic Past

President Paul Kagame's impressive achievements marred by repression.

Rwanda 2011

By Andrew Meldrum

January 03, 2012

Also published at GlobalPost

Musicians and dancers perform traditional numbers for Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla naming ceremony. Mountain gorillas are at the center of the Rwandan tourism industry.Photo: Steve Terrill/GlobalPost

Construction cranes bristle across this city's hills, showing where high-rise towers are being built at a pace to match Rwanda's rapid economic growth.

Cars, buses and motorcycle-taxis speed on smooth, divided highways while vendors sell bags of carrots, cabbages and beans. Kigali looks every inch an increasingly prosperous African capital city.

Then a young man walks by with a wedge-shaped gape in his skull. A woman's warm smile cannot hide the searing scar across her face.

This is Rwanda today. Bustling progress, haunted by the country's 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis were butchered. About 10 percent of the country's people were killed during the 100 days of massacres. Most were killed by being hacked with machetes and most were of the Tutsi minority.

Rwanda's sparkling advances in economic growth, health and education are impressive. Women have gained in economic and political power, with one of the world's highest rates of representation in legislature, at more than 50 percent. Yet Rwanda's impressive achievements also tainted by its legacy of horror.

President Paul Kagame personifies Rwanda's duality.

Intelligent, diligent and committed, Kagame has led Rwanda from chaos to order and set the country on a path toward security and affluence. Yet Kagame is also autocratic, intolerant of criticism and his government is combative toward the press. A number of government critics have been assassinated, some ot them in exile. Others have been jailed in Rwanda, such as opposition leader Victoire Ingabire who is on trial for allegedly being a genocide revisionist.

Kagame's government denies any involvement in the killings of its critics. And of those jailed, the government says the law is merely following its course.

Kagame's government discourages open discussion of the genocide and of Rwanda's abiding ethnic tensions between the Tutsis, who make up about 15 percent of the population, and the Hutus, who account for 85 percent.

Kagame's government is dominated by Tutsis, a situation that seems to guarantee continued resentment by Hutus. Open discussion of this and any differences between Hutus and Tutsis is discouraged; those who speak about it publicly risk arrest for genocide revisionism.

"When you try to discuss relations between Tutsis and Hutus, 17 years after the genocide, you hear the same answer over and over again: "˜We are all Rwandans now,'" said a longtime Kigali resident. "It's the only answer people feel safe with. It's amazing how many people stick to the Kagame line. It creates this eerie feeling that we're in a "˜Stepford Rwanda' where people only say what is approved "” but you know there is plenty lurking beneath."

"Rwanda is a country of dueling narratives. It is a glittering hope or a repressive country run by a dictator," said a diplomat in Kigali. "These opposing views are more stark than in most African countries. "¦ The Kagame government sees economic growth as the key way of protecting its security. But now we are starting to see some political developments. There are nine opposition parties, but will they go anywhere? The big question is whether Kagame will run for a third term in 2017. Or will he retire and let someone else take the helm?"

Kagame was re-elected in August 2010 by a barely believable 93 percent. Many human-rights and democratic groups charged that the election was marred by violence and repression. Two opposition figures were killed and one attacked under suspicious circumstances. Several opposition candidates were refused permission to take part. Kagame firmly denies any election manipulation or violence.

Now attention is already focusing on the next election in 2017.

The crucial importance of whether Kagame runs for a third term can be understood when looking at neighboring Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni has extended his rule to more than 25 years, and has increased repression there. Further south in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has kept himself in power for 31 years, ruining his country's economy in the process, and at the cost of widespread violence, killings and other human-rights abuses. A third term is a bad sign for a country's democracy.

Kagame states publicly that he has no plans to change Rwanda's constitution so that he will be able to run for another term.

"I will not be around as President come 2017," said Kagame in an interview with the International Reporting Project. But he added a qualification that suggested there might be a loophole. "Let's make judgment about 2017 when we come to 2017."

But more telling may be the statements from officials of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party calling for Kagame to stay in power. The party's faithful do not say things that Kagame does not want to hear, so many in Rwanda fear that, with Kagame's blessing, the party is starting a campaign to keep Kagame in power.

Kagame has a reputation as an adroit politician and he may well choose the option of hand-picking a successor who will allow Kagame to continue calling the shots, something like the arrangement worked out between Russia's Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

Rwanda has made considerable headway, especially in improving its health, education and economy. But despite efforts to put up a façade of ethnic unity, it is clear that Rwanda has daunting obstacles to strengthening its democracy.

Rwanda's challenge is to build a future that transcends its tragic past.

Andrew Meldrum, the deputy managing editor and Africa editor for GlobalPost, traveled to Rwanda on a Gatekeeper Editors trip with the International Reporting Project (IRP). Meldrum wrote about the country in the series Rwanda Now.