By Jennifer G. Cooke
Center for Strategic & International Studies
Rwanda’s history points to the potential for devastating levels of violence. A repeat of the circumstances of 1994, however, is unlikely. The genocide was meticulously planned, with arms, training, and a hierarchy of command established over several years. Today, the strength and pervasiveness of the RPF intelligence apparatus, as well as domestic and international vigilance, would almost certainly detect and preempt that level of organization. The international community is far more attuned today to Rwanda and to the consequences of inaction, and thus would, one hopes, intervene far more promptly for either crisis prevention or response. And though economic growth cannot prevent political conflict, it does give political elites―both those in power and those vying for it―a greater stake in peace.
In the coming decade, the RPF may well be able to maintain its pervasive and uncompromising grip on political discourse and competition within Rwanda. To do so, however, it will need to resort increasingly to coercive measures that in turn will fuel resentment and reinforce its own fragility. The hypothetical scenarios given here suggest potential trajectories that could drive a more open, and possibly violent, confrontation between the government and its opponents. The brittleness of the government will mean that once that confrontation takes place, it will be difficult to predict how it unfolds―a single confrontation might be easily tamped down, but might also become the opportunity for a venting of grievances and perceived injustices that so far have been suppressed. The scenarios are as follows:
■ A stalling of the government’s development program could provoke a more sustained opposition push for political opening. A profound economic shock could undermine the model of growth and social transformation on which the Rwandan government has staked its reputation and political legitimacy. Shocks might include a steep decline in a key commodity price, for example, coffee; a rise in fuel prices; a prolonged food crisis or drought; or a combination of several of these factors. A significant withdrawal of donor support could further reduce government service provision, and a reduction of direct budgetary support (the United Kingdom’s principal mode of assistance) could limit the government’s ability to make good on its growth strategy. Cumulative evidence of egregious human rights abuses or further allegations of planned political assassinations could drive a major rethinking among donors. It is unlikely that these factors would precipitate an immediate crisis, but their cumulative effect would be to embolden an opposition movement to press harder for reform and to take greater risks within Rwanda to precipitate change. Drawing on examples from the Middle East, North Africa, and neighboring Uganda, leading opposition figures might try to stage public protests in Kigali. In the midst of an economic crisis, protests might focus on food prices, wages, or government services. But they might also focus on the major social cleavages related to issues of exclusion and impunity, as noted above. Such protests might not be widely attended, but, as in Uganda, a disproportionate security response from the government could lead to escalation.
■ An unraveling of the current rapprochement between the DRC and the Rwandan government could raise fears in Kigali that the eastern DRC would become a base for Rwandan opposition forces. If the Rwandan government were to lack confidence in the DRC’s ability to adequately monitor and eliminate potential threats, Kigali would have little hesitation in intervening directly. A violation of the DRC’s sovereignty could reignite a cross-border conflict or, more likely, a return to proxy warfare in the eastern DRC. A sustained military campaign launched from the eastern DRC by opposition figures does not appear imminent, although Kigali has accused opposition figures of having links to militia groups there. However, within a 10-year time frame, if opposition forces are given no legitimate options to compete for political power, this possibility becomes more likely.
■ The assassination of a high-level figure within the RPF or in the opposition could provoke, on the one hand, a disproportionate security response from the RPF; or, on the other hand, a spontaneous popular uprising.
■ The question of who will succeed President Kagame-and when-will be a source of uncertainty and possible contention. The RPF’s power, decision making, public relations strategy, and legitimacy rest overwhelmingly with Kagame, and his departure would dramatically change how the regime is perceived. The elections in 2017 could be a moment for a significant political break. Kagame is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third term, although given the RPF’s control over the legislature and the legislature’s deference to him, a term extension is very plausible.
Constitutional changes of this kind are becoming less and less acceptable to African regional bodies and the international community. Forcing through such a change in Rwanda in 2017 could provoke a more sustained campaign by opposition leaders, particularly if backed by diplomatic support from African regional bodies or the international community. If Kagame were to step down, it is today hard to imagine that the RPF would countenance any election process that might entail their defeat. Opposition parties in the diaspora appear to be building toward a unified cross-ethnic platform and by 2017 may be adequately resourced and organized to present a real challenge in a free and fair election process. Rwanda’s last two elections do not bode well for its next one. There is some possibility―albeit slim―that President Kagame will be pushed out of office by elements within the RPF. That some of his most senior confidants have defected in recent years underscores this possibility―some of these former commanders may still enjoy the allegiance of a segment of the RPF or the military forces. Kagame is surely attuned to this possibility, and he has replaced these senior leaders with a younger set of loyalists without popular constituencies or alliances of their own, who are entirely beholden to him.
There are two competing narratives on Rwanda’s current trajectory. The first emphasizes the country’s promising economic growth, its stability, and the competence and vision of its leadership. The second, which is gaining adherents, stresses the government’s failure to open the political arena, the narrowing of its support base, and its continued willingness, 17 years after the genocide, to use often brutal tactics in silencing dissent. The government’s reluctance to open up to genuine competition is understandable on one level, but as time passes, this reluctance will in fact put Rwanda’s stability at greater risk. The danger is a vicious cycle in which RPF repression breeds resentment, mounting resentment imperils the RPF, and the RPF’s sense of vulnerability drives even greater levels of repression. If current trends persist, an opening of political space in Rwanda will become increasingly difficult for the RPF to countenance. The first step must be to build truly national institutions that are―in both perception and fact―genuinely independent of RPF control. If the ruling party chooses this route, its first priority should be the country’s judicial system. A credible, impartial judiciary will help adjudicate the inevitable political, social, and economic tensions that will arise as Rwandans chart their way forward.
In this situation, political competition and ambition are unavoidable. The question is whether they will be constrained within legitimate democratic institutions or be compelled, for lack of better options, to take a more disruptive and possibly violent course. There is nothing preordained in Rwanda’s future, but with current trends there should be cause for considerable concern.