Sunday, August 24, 2003

Ominous Developments in Rwanda

According to this NYT article, campaigning is in full swing for the Rwandan presidency, but the independence of the campaigning is less than might be desired:

KIGALI, Rwanda, Aug. 23 — President Paul Kagame raised his fist at a rally the other day, and the thousands of people gathered around him, ethnic Hutu and Tutsi alike, did the same. "Oye!" the president yelled. "Oye!" the people responded.

With days to go before the first presidential election since the mass killings in Rwanda in 1994, Mr. Kagame clearly has the crowds on his side. They wear his T-shirts and caps and wave tiny flags that his campaign puts into their hands. When he cheers, they cheer along with him.

But many question whether the campaigning leading up to the election on Monday has been truly democratic. In recent months, a leading opposition party, the Democratic Republican Movement, has been banned and critics of the government have been thrown in jail. Journalists deemed too critical have been detained.

"This presidential election is a done deal," said François Grignon, an Africa specialist with the International Crisis Group, a research organization based in Brussels. Mr. Grignon is monitoring the election from Nairobi, Kenya, because he was banned from Rwanda after he produced a report critical of Mr. Kagame's Rwanda Patriotic Front, known by the initials R.P.F.

"The R.P.F. wields almost exclusive military, political and economic control and tolerates no criticism or challenge to its authority," the report said.

It would be bad enough if this were simply a run-of-the-mill case of African electoral intimidation, but there is more to the story than this, and that is what makes it particularly worrying.

Mr. Kagame's main opponent, the former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, is struggling to reach the voters. With his party banned, he is running as an independent. Many of his supporters have been harassed by the police. His rallies have frequently been canceled because the government must endorse his campaign appearances and the approvals often come too late.

On government radio and television, the race sounds like a one-man show. Mr. Kagame's campaign receives prominent mention. When Mr. Twagiramungu's name (pronounced Twa-gira-MUN-gu) does come up, he is usually being criticized for being divisive, a serious accusation in a country where more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slain by Hutu in the wave of killing in 1994


But even as Mr. Kagame insists that Hutu and Tutsi ought to regard themselves as Rwandans above all else, ethnicity remains a subtext to the presidential contest. Mr. Kagame is a Tutsi and his three opponents are Hutu. The two lesser-known challengers are Nepomuscene Nayinzira and Alivera Mukabaramba.

Mr. Kagame became vice president in 1994 as part of an agreement ending the Rwandan civil strife. Mr. Twagiramungu was the prime minister in that coalition government, which included both Hutu, who make up about 85 percent of the population, and Tutsi, about 14 percent. The remaining 1 percent are the Twas.

But Mr. Kagame's Tutsi-dominated party has been in control all along. Mr. Twagiramungu was pushed out in 1995 and went into exile. Dozens of other critics of Mr. Kagame's government have likewise left the country. When Pasteur Bizimungu, another Hutu politician, resigned as president in 2000 and set up a rival party, the government immediately banned it. Mr. Kagame took over the Rwandan presidency in a secret ballot election by government ministers and legislators. His government jailed Mr. Bizimungu last year, charging him with illegal political activity and threats to state security.

Mr. Twagiramungu, who returned from exile in Belgium several months ago to start his campaign, has been similarly accused of reopening ethnic wounds.

At a recent campaign rally, Mr. Kagame railed at his opponent for speaking openly of ethnic differences. "There are some people who come from outside telling us we are Hutu or Tutsi," he said. "How can you teach us what we are? We are Rwandans. We know that we are Rwandans. Those who want to teach us otherwise, they should go home."

And where might "home" be for these alleged offenders? However much the notion of cross-ethnic unity may appeal to the Western mind, one familiar with the Rwandan context, in which the Tutsi minority has long lorded it over the Hutu majority, can't help but see ethnic self-interest at work in Kagame's extraordinary emphasis on the downplaying of ethnicity, as paradoxical as it may seem.

A critic of the Hutu government in place when the 1994 killings began, he led a movement for multiparty democracy. Resigned to lose in Monday's polling, he argues that his campaign has still served some purpose. "I have come here not to be a president but to make sure there is a basis for democracy," he said.

The National Electoral Commission called him in this week and accused him of running a hate campaign. The executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission has said the same.

"Twagiramungu and his campaign agents are spreading negative and divisive ideologies geared at planting seeds of ethnic hatred amongst Rwandans," said Fatuma Ndagiza, executive secretary of the reconciliation group.

But Mr. Twagiramungu says that anybody who opposes Mr. Kagame is branded a hatemonger.

"I am being demonized as a divisionist," he said in an interview in his apartment, which doubles as his campaign headquarters. "I want people to forget ethnicity. But we need to educate them over time. We can't order them."

Which just goes to show that political correctness isn't only a Western phenomenon. There is hardly a more convenient means of silencing opposition, short of outright violence, than to accuse one's opponent of preaching "hate", and this being Rwanda, Kagame must know that the Western aid donors will be certain to go along, to "atone" for their inaction when real hatred was playing itself out in 1994.

While Paul Kagame will be sure to get away with his electoral stitch-up, I fear that his political shenanigans are only storing up trouble for the future. The long-standing dominance of the Tutsi minority over the Hutus bred the resentment that led to the mass killings in 1994, and an attempt to perpetuate this minority rule under the cover of Rwandan unity will only breed more ill-will going into the future.

One would have thought that a sensible Tutsi elite would recognize the importance of gradually ceding influence to the Hutus, rather than holding on to total power until yet another bloodbath comes along. The historical parallel that comes to mind here is that between the English and the Russian aristocracies - the former ceded its' influence gradually over the passage of time, while the latter held on to its' feudal privileges with all the stubbornness of a mule, but which of the two is still in existence today? We no longer live in the bronze age, when the mass of the population could be conned into submitting to the will of a privileged caste under the guise of religion, and the weight of numbers must eventually tell.