Using violence to end violence in Rwanda

“Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame told a rally soon after the country’s former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, was found strangled in a South African hotel room last January. Karegeya had quit the government and become a leading opponent of the regime, which Kagame would certainly see as a betrayal of the country.

“Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame told a rally soon after the country’s former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, was found strangled in a South African hotel room last January. Karegeya had quit the government and become a leading opponent of the regime, which Kagame would certainly see as a betrayal of the country.

It’s not unusual for dictators to see their own interests and those of the country they rule as one and the same thing. It’s not even uncommon for dictators to have people killed. What’s really rare is a dictator who has had quite a lot of people killed, but is congratulated by other countries for his excellent administration and showered with foreign aid.

That is the happy lot of President Paul Kagame.

Fewer than half of Rwanda’s 12 million people have personal memories of the terrible genocide 20 years ago, but the country as a whole is still haunted by it. Kagame has ruled Rwanda for all of that time, and he is convinced that only he can stop it from happening again. It’s only a small step from there to believing that he has the duty to maintain his rule by any means necessary, including even murder.

All the murders are officially denied, but nobody believes it. Last week, four not very competent assassins, one Rwandan and three Tanzanians, were found guilty by a South African court of trying to kill the former Rwandan army chief of staff, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, in Johannesburg in 2010. They shot him in the stomach, but he survived after months in intensive care — and they didn’t get away.

The South African judge, Stanley Mkhair, said diplomatically that the plot to kill Nyamwasa came from “a certain group of people from Rwanda.” The South African authorities even know how much the assassins were paid: 80,000 rand ($7,500). But it was just not worth naming Kagame.

Last March, when South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe warned Rwanda to stop after another attempt on Nyamwasa’s life, the two countries went through a ritual round of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats. Once a year is enough, but at least South Africa complains occasionally. Most other African countries look the other way when Kagame’s hit squads turn up, people like Tony Blair accept lifts in his private jet and the aid agencies don’t even flinch.

These people aren’t fools or knaves (except Tony Blair, of course), so why are they all giving Kagame a free pass? Because they secretly suspect that Kagame is right: that only he can prevent another genocide in Rwanda. And maybe they’re right.

The 1994 genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people, about 10 per cent of the population. There is no reliable estimate of how many of the victims were Tutsis, who were once the dominant caste but by 1994 were a persecuted minority. A fair guess is that more than half of those murdered were Tutsis (the rest were “moderate” Hutus), and that at least half of the total Tutsi population died.

The Tutsi survivors, and more importantly the Tutsi exiles who fought their way home with Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front, still provide the core leadership of the country 20 years later, although Tutsis are now down to around 10 per cent of the population. Kagame insists that “we are Banyarwanda” (all Rwandans), and that there are no separate tribes in Rwanda. Technically he is right. But in practice he is wrong, and he knows it.

The Tutsis and the majority Hutus both speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. Once upon a time, the Tutsis were herders and the Hutus were farmers, and even longer ago they probably were separate ethnic groups. But in the present, they are better seen as castes defined by their (former) occupations. Indeed, even the herdsman/farmer distinction no longer really applies.

Yet the “caste” distinction is just as strong, and potentially just as lethal, as it was in 1994. That’s why Rwanda is a thinly disguised dictatorship, run by a man who kills people — but only individuals who threaten his rule, not whole groups.

Kagame has produced a very impressive rate of economic growth in Rwanda (an average of eight per cent annually in 2001-12), in the hope that prosperity will ultimately defuse the Tutsi/Hutu hostility. But he dares not allow a truly free election, for the Hutus, still strong in their identity, would vote him out of office.

And almost everybody else goes along with his behaviour, because they buy into his belief in his own indispensability.

But all his efforts may ultimately amount to no more than a finger in the dike. Rwanda was already one of the most densely populated countries in Africa in 1994, but its population has increased by half since the genocide. There is little evidence that everybody (or even most people) thinks of themselves as “Banyarwanda.”

Kagame is just playing for time.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.

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