Photo: Professeur René Lemarchand
Twenty years ago in Rwanda an estimated 650,000 Tutsi, along with an untold number of moderate Hutu, were slaughtered in one of the biggest bloodbaths of the last century. Every year on April 7, when the killings began, millions of Rwandans commune in remembrance of their loved ones, Hutu and Tutsi. The mourning ceremonies are a highly ritualized affair. By summoning his people to come together in a common prayer of “never again”, President Kagame makes clear his intention publicly to exorcise the demons of the past.
The 1994 genocide is the founding trauma of the new Rwanda. How to make political sense of this senseless carnage is where troubling questions arise. Some may indeed wonder whether, on this solemn occasion, paying homage to the memory of the dead is not better seen as an attempt to legitimize reprisals against the living. Conspicuously omitted on this day of remembrance are the hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians who, in the wake of the genocide, lost their lives in the course of revenge killings in Rwanda and eastern Zaire. To which must be added the scores of political opponents, Hutu and Tutsi, who simply disappeared or were victims of political assassinations.
Coming to terms with the past is nowhere more fraught than where memory operates selectively, ushering radically different stories about what happened, and why. The country’s tragic history, as told by the media, is a tale of ruin and renewal, of oblivion and reinvention, of hope and redemption. Nonetheless, for a growing number of Rwandans on both sides of the ethnic fault line the contradictions and ambiguities inscribed in this narrative are painfully clear. The gap between public discourse and political reality, between official ideology and individual memory are among some of the anomalies brought to light by recent events.
Kagame has few rivals when it comes to the art of double-speak. Nowhere has his aptitude to say one thing and do the opposite been revealed more consistently than in the course of his military interventions in eastern Congo. Although it took months before he finally admitted his direct involvement in the first Congo war (1996-1997) -- in a celebrated interview with John Promfret of the Washington Post, on July 6, 1997 -- to this day Kagame has yet to acknowledge the considerable military assistance he gave to his now defeated client faction in eastern Congo, the so-called M23 (after the date of a failed peace accord between the Rwanda-backed rebels and the Congolese government in 2009), responsible for the deaths of thousands and the displacement of half a million. Most observers would agree that the routing of the rebel movement through the combined forces of the UN and the Congolese troops was a game changer in the country’s long simmering civil war. What is not always realized is that the defeat of M23 owed a great deal to the growing pressure from the State Department to persuade Kagame to withdraw assistance from his Congolese ally -- assistance he vehemently denied.
What some may dismiss as lies others will see as proof of intelligence. Seen through the lens of Rwandan culture, concealing the truth is nothing to be ashamed of; it is indeed a virtue when artfully practiced. What is involved here is a character trait widely known among Rwandans as ubwenge. Someone who has ubwenge knows how to circumvent the truth, how to allay suspicion through calculated ambiguities, in short how to get away with murder – sometimes literally.
On that score Kagame deserves the highest marks. His latest salvo in this respect was his warning that those who betray the fatherland must expect to face the consequences, which was as close as he ever came to admitting his responsibility in the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, in a Johannesburg hotel, on December 31, 2013. A Tutsi and former head of Rwanda’s external intelligence, Karegeya was only the latest in a long list of regime opponents to fall at the hands of a hired assassin. Another leading Tutsi dissident who miraculously survived an attempt against his life in June 2010 is Kayumba Nyamwasa, former chief of staff of the army in the 1990s and later head of military intelligence. Others were not as lucky. Seth Sendashonga, a leading figure of the Hutu opposition and former minister of interior in the first government after the genocide, was gunned down in Nairobi in May, 1998, two years after another leading Hutu personality, Théoneste Lizinde, met a similar fate also in Nairobi. Lieutenant-Colonel Augustin Cyiza, a highly respected demobilized officer who served as vice-president of the Supreme Court, disappeared in April 2003, at the same time as Léonard Hitimana, a member of parliament for the opposition Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR). The official silence of the Rwanda authorities as to the circumstances of their deaths leaves few doubts as to who issued the warrants. Whether seen as yet another example of ubwenge, or as an extreme case of realpolitik, the implications for the future of democracy are all-too-clear.
That two of the recently targeted victims happen to be Tutsi dissidents (in addition to their ranking among the closest aides to Kagame) is particularly noteworthy, as it demonstrates the rise of a significant Tutsi opposition where none was previously discernible. Regime sensitivities about ethnic labels, however, make it unlikely that anyone would risk being accused of divisionism – a serious ideological transgression punishable by law -- by drawing attention to the threat posed by Tutsi elements to a regime itself built on minority rule, ethnically and politically. As if to give a fresh impetus to the reigning ideology a new slogan has emerged in Kagame’s discourse, intended to cast renewed discredit on the use of Hutu and Tutsi as identity markers: “I am Rwandan” – “Ndi Umunyarwanda” in Kinyarwanda. And yet in a seeming denial of this principle and to the consternation of not a few in the audience, in a speech of November 9, 2013 before a group of youthful supporters, Kagame flatly stated that since the genocide had been committed by Hutu, the least one can expect is for the Hutu collectively to ask forgiveness. The new mantra eventually mutated into a “conférence-débat” held in Brussels on November 30 2013, intended to legitimize the primacy of national identities. It is no little surprise that one of the key speakers, Francis Kaboneka, a Rwandan deputy attending he conference, blandly asserted, against every shred of evidence to the contrary, that ethnic identities were created out of whole cloth by the Belgian colonizer, for they did not exist prior to the 1930s.
None of this is intended to ignore the achievements for which Kagame is justly credited. Rwanda’s spectacular rate of economic growth (about 7 per cent) is virtually unmatched elsewhere in the continent. So is the quality of its infrastructures, including schools, dispensaries and hospitals. Its public health benefits are available to all, at minimal cost. Again, Rwanda is the only country in the Great Lakes region where something resembling a state has come into existence, an oppressive state, to be sure, ruthlessly intolerant of dissenting opinions, but a state nonetheless. The question is whether such state, stable as it appears to be on surface, can effectively deal with the long-term threats arising from a growing opposition, within and outside the country. The answer is nowhere to be found in Kagame’s homilies.
Underlying Kagame’s discourse is the deeply flawed assumption that by turning the clock back to the golden days of the pre-genocide, pre-colonial era, where Hutu and Tutsi did not exist, a new Rwanda can emerge from the ashes of the genocide. This view of history is of course pure fantasy. Whether colonial or pre-colonial, the past will never be recovered. The challenge for Rwanda is not about the recuperation of a mythical epoch but the construction of a new social fabric. To legislate ethnic ties out of existence is hardly the solution. Nor is it by summoning the Hutu to a retrospective admission of their collective crimes against the Tutsi that such a solution will be found. To recognize that Hutu and Tutsi have blood on their hands, albeit in different proportions, and that murderers on both sides stand as perpetrators of heinous crimes, is but the first step towards restoring the dignity of the victims, Hutu and Tutsi. This is the message that is conspicuously missing in this year’s commemoration ceremonies, as it has been over the past 20 years.
University of Florida