The New York Times is strangely approving of how Paul Kagame rules with an ironclad fist. Rwanda’s authoritarian president is consistently and confidently painted as a visionary leader, as last week’s article on the country’s plastic bag ban confirms. For the Times, public shaming, fines and jail time for plastic bag use are all acceptable trade-offs if Rwanda is going to become an environmental leader. Rwandans, as the article notes, accept the government’s heavy-handed enforcement of the ban in exchange for national security. Missing is any consideration of the fact that Rwandans must follow the many demands of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), whose many rules and regulations bear the full weight and force of law. The reality now, as the Times article fails to adequately demonstrate, is that Rwandans who use plastic bags are cast as dissenters, whose inability to follow basic rules are framed as threats to social harmony. The broader message is clear: Kagame’s authoritarianism should be tolerated, perhaps even praised, as it is his RPF that has moved Rwanda from the horrors of the 1994 genocide to peace and stability the country enjoys today. The violent nature of RPF rule is little known, Rwanda’s president has long practiced a zero-sum political game in which he and his cronies are the primary winners. Everyone better follow the rules as proscribed. Or else.
Kagame affirmed his pole position as Rwanda’s president for life in August 2017, taking some 99 percent of the vote. Loyal supporters of the ruling RPF consider Kagame’s victory to be an “accurate barometer of his enormous popularity,” not a product of a sustained campaign of repression that includes violations of basic democratic rights: freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Political opponents and regime critics consider Kagame’s domination of the electoral realm a product of an oppressive political environment that crushes dissent in the name of national ethnic unity. Even long-time allies, such as the United States, raised concerns about voting irregularities and a lack of transparency in the registration of prospective challengers to the presidential seat. Kagame’s electoral landslide presents a paradox: why crush dissent if the president is truly as popular as his backers claim?
This contradiction is easily explained. At the heart of the RPF’s style of democracy is politics without opposition. Officials of the RPF use the specter of a return to genocide to justify the curtailment of civil and political rights. The phrase “never again” propels government policy, setting the boundaries of acceptable public speech and action, while limiting space for political discussion, let alone critiquing or questioning RPF rule. Those who dare stand in opposition to President Kagame are quickly denounced as traitors to the RPF’s vision for Rwanda’s genocide-free future. Kagame has ruled since the genocide ended, first as vice president, defense minister, and de facto ruler until 2000, and since then as president with more than 90 percent of the vote in three successive presidential elections (2003, 2010 and 2017).
For far too long, donors have forgiven or explained away the RPF’s heavy hand in dealing with opponents. The rebels-turned-government did indeed inherit a mess. In just 100 days, Hutu militias led the murder of at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsi. The genocide was a deliberate policy of a power-hungry Hutu elite who feared, after nearly four years of civil war, that power-sharing with the then RPF rebels would diminish their ability to enrich themselves at the expense of the general civilian population.
Since ending the 1994 genocide, the RPF contends that it is governing a potentially restive majority Hutu population, who could, if not carefully managed, collectively rise up to continue the work of the 1994 genocide. While there is little evidence to suggest that the ethnic hatred (of Hutu for Tutsi) is a root cause of the genocide, the RPF leadership fears sharing political power with Hutu. As such, its policies and programs, designed to craft a unified ethnic identity is at the heart of the RPF’s approach to governance.
Loyalists are rewarded with plum posts, are insiders to government tenders, and benefit from other perks that come from glorifying or praising RPF rule and Kagame’s vision for Rwanda. Real or perceived critics are demoted from government or ejected from the public sphere. The methods are familiar: Hutu opponents are generally accused of being “ethnic divisionist,” or of holding “genocide ideology” in their hearts. Party loyalists, Tutsi or Hutu, are accused of corruption or poor job performance to justify their expulsion from public life. Few observers appreciate that RPF rule is designed to eschew political opposition. For RPF leaders like Kagame, the trade-off is straight-forward: jobs, healthcare and peace in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Consensus is key. And it means total agreement with the RPF.
The RPF has systematically limited space for an independent political opposition to emerge since it took power in July 1994. By January 1995, reports of the Intelligence and Security Departments had already identified numerous “subversives,” a practice which continues today. These lists included opposition politicians, journalists, civil servants, as well as certain foreign diplomats and international NGO personnel based in Kigali. By the end of 1999, any pretense that the RPF would share political power with those who questioned its vision for a genocide-free Rwanda had all but evaporated. Even prominent Tutsi survivors of the genocide who had joined the RPF to promote respect for human rights for all Rwandans and to build accountable political institutions were not spared.
Those who fled could (and still do), often under cover of night, as in the mid-2000 case of the former speaker of the house Joseph Sebarenzi, a Tutsi survivor of the genocide. Rwanda’s first post-1994 president, the figurehead Pasteur Bizimungu, suffered a different fate. In March 2000, Bizimungu denounced senior members of Kagame’s trusted inner circle, highlighting that he—a Hutu born to a Tutsi mother—had joined the RPF to overthrow the oppressive rule of former president Habyarimana (1972-1994). He had no interest in working with a new parliament that engaged in more of the same. Kagame soon had Bizimungu removed from his post, and jailed (later pardoned in 2007), offering a stern reminder to other political elites who might dare question the president. Bizimungu was one of the lucky ones. Other prominent Hutu politicians died in mysterious circumstances, among them former foreign minister Seth Sendashonga (in Nairobi in 1995) and former justice minister Alphonse-Marie Nkubito (in 1998).
Few international observers understand that alternatives to the RPF remain forbidden, as those who dare challenge Kagame know all too well. The most recent example is 2017 presidential hopeful Diane Shima Rwigara of the People Salvation Movement. The daughter of one of the RPF’s early financial backers, Assinapol Rwigara, the younger Rwigara has been systematically persecuted by the RPF for her political aspirations. Along with her mother and siblings, Rwigara claims that RPF operatives murdered her father to appropriate the family’s sizeable wealth, which included hotels and office buildings in the capital, Kigali.
Following an unsatisfactory investigation into her father’s suspicious death in February 2015, Diane Rwigara declared her intention to stand in Rwanda’s presidential elections in May 2017. Government-controlled news outlets promptly released doctored images of a nude Ms. Rwigara, claiming that she lacked the moral propriety to be president. Determined to run against Kagame, the younger Rwigara persisted, submitting more than the constitutionally required signatures need to run in the August elections. The RPF-controlled National Election Commission accused her of forging the names. Soon after, the Rwanda Revenue Authority demanded almost US$ 7 million in back taxes from the family’s empire for taxes, penalties, fees and interest. In early October, Rwanda prosecutors charged Diane Rwigara with inciting insurrection and forgery.
Diana Rwigara’s case is but the most recent in a long list of individuals who have been harassed, jailed or killed for their political activity. Other prominent examples include the Hutu 2010 presidential hopeful, Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire, who was jailed in 2012 for her political activity, in a kangaroo trial that ended in a guilty verdict on charges of terrorism, genocide denial and having genocide ideology. Notable examples include the murders of once-ranking RPF members or party loyalists who fell out with Kagame between 2005 and 2009. These include former head of military intelligence, Patrick Karegeya (allegedly killed in 2014 by an RPF operative by strangulation), and the popular gospel singer and Tutsi survivor of the 1994 genocide, Kizito Mihigo, imprisoned in 2015 on charges of treasons for threatening to overthrow the government. His crime? Releasing a song entitled The Meaning of Death, which asked Rwandans to honor all lives lost during the1994 genocide, a position that the RPF considers a form of genocide denial.
Led by Kagame, the RPF has made it clear that internal struggles for political power will not be tolerated. Under the RPF, violence is not derived from a policy of mass extermination such as genocide, but fanned from the embers of exclusion and resentment. This is not a form of democracy that international donors and other so-called friends of Rwanda should endorse.