By Dr. Noel Twagiramungu
Photo : Noel Twagiramungu
“Let me be honest with you — I just don’t understand this.” Taking a jab at those African leaders who, often unconstitutionally, over stayed their welcome, President Barack Obama on his recent trip to Ethiopia wondered why these men with enough personal funds to cash out would refuse to give up power. President Paul Kagame, who has ruled Rwanda with an iron-fist since 1994, is one such example of this phenomenon of “stayism” in Africa. But like so many others, Kagame’s regime began in hope.
Stayism, which Kagame’s regime aptly represents, is less an intrinsic characteristic of African societies than it is a distinctive feature of a new form of governance fueled by the prevailing international political economy. It is a form best understood as Alex de Waal puts it, “a contemporary system of governance, characterized by pervasive rent-seeking and monetized patronage, which takes the form of exchange of political services or loyalty for payment.”
Autocratic governments like Kagame’s represent instances of “overt governance systems in which political business is actually conducted as in a market, with the price of the commodities of cooperation and allegiance determined by supply and demand, and regulated by violence and threat.” Far from being a statesman in the classic Weberian sense, Kagame and his ilk believe themselves to be – and certainly behave as – the owners and CEOs of the countries that they run as private corporations.
A Brief Historical Background
One of the bitter and well known legacies of colonialism in Rwanda is that the colonial administration concentrated all the privileges of power in the hands of a Tutsi elite, excluding the Hutu. When a Hutu elite, sponsored by new colonial agents – notably within the Catholic Church – revolted in 1959, the ensuing bloodbath forced into exile the Tutsi ruling class along with thousands of sympathizers.
Among those exiled, was one Paul Kagame. Born in 1957 and forced into exile in 1961, Kagame grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda at a time when the Tutsi who remained in Rwanda were considered second-class citizens in what had essentially become a Hutu republic. After helping Museveni seize power in Kampala in 1986, Kagame and other Rwandan refugees formed an armed rebellion, the Rwandan Patriotic Front(RPF). The RPF invaded Rwanda on October 1, 1990. In July 1994, in the wake of the assassination of then President, General Juvenal Habyarimana, whose 21-year long reign had collapsed into genocide, Kagame and the RPF seized power.
From Genocide to Dictatorship
There is no question that at the time the RPF came to power, Rwanda was a devastated country, the rehabilitation of which would require non-conventional political tools. It was on the assumption that Kagame held the promise of wielding these tools that he and the RPF became the country’s best hope for democratic and peaceful change.
On his assent to power, however, Kagame’s RPF has used the basic laws of supply and demand to master, defy, and – quite possibly – to deceive both his domestic allies and his external sponsors. Kagame has scrupulously devoted the last 21 years to boosting his hold on power by eliminating potential rivals, silencing critics and hijacking the international donor-driven programmes of political and economic reform.
And it is this deception that partially explains why international political figures from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, to religious characters such as Pastor Rick Warren have continued to pay support to a man whose army is accused of having committed heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity. The other part of the explanation may, of course, place a greater burden of responsibility on those who allow themselves to be “deceived.”
Such is the nature of Kagame’s rule and the historic circumstance of his 1994 assent that accounts of his rulership have been so polarizing as to border on analytical paralysis. While sympathetic accounts praise Kagame for instituting what they see as a developmental model that has allowed the country to be positioned as “Africa’s Singapore”, critics believe Kagame to be responsible for mass atrocities across Rwanda and the Congo.
Both accounts, however, are based on a static point of view of Kagame’s political machinery. Each side assumes that it was an organization that developed overnight as the outcome of a fully-fledged stratagem, cleverly devised and methodically implemented by omniscient engineers. On the contrary, Kagame’s regime has proceeded through an evolution. As Crane Brinton outlines, revolutionary regimes tend to begin with hope and moderation, and then eventually turn into radical dictatorships that pave their own way for a reign of terror. Kagame’s odyssey is no exception.
Those who would have us view Kagame in stagnant negativity, seem to forget that Kagame was neither the architect of the war that brought him to power, nor was he fated to take up the leadership; quite the contrary. When the RPF invaded Rwanda in October 1990, Kagame was in training at the Army Commander and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, United States. It was only after the RPF commander-in-chief, Gisa Rwigyema, along with his closest lieutenants perished, one by one – and all in mysterious circumstances – during the early stages of the war that Kagame assumed the leadership and led the RPF to victory.
Indeed, when Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated rebel troops captured Kigali in July 1994 and ousted the Hutu-controlled government , they knew little about the country— the vast majority of them having been born and/or raised in exile. To bridge the leadership gap, Kagame contented himself with the post of vice-president and minister of defence in a plural government where key positions including the presidency, the prime-ministership, and the ministries of foreign affairs, interior and justice were held by Hutus. It is this cross-ethnic openness that at least partially explains why the RPF gained the support not only Tutsi survivors, but also of Hutu populations that had resisted exile, and that of the international donor community.
The camaraderie was short-lived. The dual power regime comprising a facade of Hutu-dominated officialdom shadowed by a parallel government led by Kagame’s military machine was soon revealed. It was little surprising that when Kagame’s abuses of power, which include summary executions, disappearances, illegal arrests and other forms of state-sponsored terror, those prominent leaders who were courageous enough to denounce the military’s rule were chased from their positions only to be replaced by co-opted elements locally known as Hutu de service (The Hired Hutu) .
The process of institutionalising Kagame’s one-man-rule system reached its peak in 2000 when then President, Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, was forced to resign in order to clear the way for Kagame’s candidacy in the 2003 elections. As Kagame’s own former comrades – now foes – have put it: “the rebel general-turned-civilian politician [has excelled in] cultivate[ing] a cult-image as the sole hero of the country’s achievements [through] a hard-line, one-party, secretive police state with a façade of democracy [and in which] the government ensures its monopoly of power by means of draconian restrictions on the exercise of the fundamental human rights of citizens.”
It was only after Kagame’s brand of personal rule had been institutionalised by the donor community’s seemingly blind efforts to “support a post-Genocide Rwanda” that – as one prominent analyst has described it – Kagame’s transition from genocide to dictatorship was sealed. Ironically, as Kenneth Roth has argued, “it is the genocide that has provided the government with a cover for repression. Under the guise of preventing another genocide, the government displays a marked intolerance of the most basic forms of dissent.”
In a sad and frightening twist, the rise of Kagame’s dictatorship has grown in tandem with politically motivated repression and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. Mamdani has noted, “not only are the structures of power in Rwanda being Tutsified, civil organization—from the media to nongovernmental organizations—are being cleansed of any but a nominal Hutu presence.” The widening ethnic divide is aggravated by the government’s failure to move beyond a winner-takes-all framework in which justice is pillared on a Hutu collective guilt.
The process of Kagame’s complete state capture now appears to have reached the point of no return; the result of which, as one commentator recently put it, is that a besieged Kagame must now resort to changing the Constitution to achieve life presidency. But just as Kagame’s authoritarianism seemed to have reached its peak, the assassination of those such as Patrick Karegeya, the regime’s former chief of external intelligence, in South Africa in January 2014 suggests that it is entering a new phase in which, as Brinton suggests, “the revolution, like Saturn, devours its children.”
The fact Kagame continues to strive to give what is in fact an extralegal dictatorship the facade of popular support and legality forces the question: Why does he care? I suggest that those whose power has been cemented by foreign aid and international donations must buy and manipulate the outside world but never ignore it.
But while Kagame continues to play the external crowd, it is ordinary Rwandans that continue to suffer under his ever increasing stranglehold. The final irony is that the regime’s oppression in Rwanda has proven so successful that the victims of the prevailing tyranny are the ones who call for its perpetuation. Only time will tell how long till the curtain falls.
Dr. Noel Twagiramungu (Ph.D. Tufts; LLM Utrecht) is a Rwandan national. He is a Research Fellow at World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Relations and African Politics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His extensive academic research is informed by his decade-long firsthand experience as a civil society leader and human rights activist in Rwanda and the Great Lakes. This article is adapted from his chapter in a forthcoming 2015 collective volume : African Frontiers: Insurgency, Governance and Peacebuilding in Post-Colonial States edited by John Idriss Lahai and Tanya Lyons.