Is economic success masking political fault lines in Rwanda?

By Lee Butcher

Lee Butcher is a Researcher in the House of Commons for a Labour MP – all points expressed are done so in a personal capacity. In this post, Lee explores whether economic reform is outpacing political reform in Rwanda.

The concerns raised by the recent re-election of President Kagame in Rwanda and the report by the UN that Rwanda’s national army may have committed acts of genocide across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) highlights the problem of economic development outpacing political development in the country.

The administration of Paul Kagame, formerly military leader of the Tutsi Rwandans People’s Front (RPF), has been held up since 1994 has an African development success story. Economic development in Rwanda has indeed far outstripped many of its neighbours, and Rwandans can legitimately claim to live in one of the more prosperous Sub-Saharan Africa countries.

However, all is not so rosy in the post-genocide nation. Reports of harassment of political rivals, oppression of opposition voices from within Kagame’s own party and the media have lead to growing concerns about the direction Rwanda is heading in. President Paul Kagame was re-elected three weeks ago, with over 90% of the vote, in an election where the only opposition allowed were candidates that belonged to his own party, the RPF.

The international community takes the view that so long as Kagame continues to produce economic results, the rest remains an internal issue for the Rwandans. However, the troubles that have plagued Rwanda since the end of the genocide has crossed borders and have since then caused a bloody and disastrous war and that has feed into the chronic underdevelopment of the DRC.

What has gone on in the Eastern DRC since 1994 is directly the result of what occurred immediately after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; to understand the fate of the Eastern DRC, one must understand the fate of Rwanda.

The victims of the potential genocide in the DRC are ethnic Hutus living in the Eastern provinces that border Rwanda. The end of the 1994 genocide, which saw the Tutsi RPF rebel group occupying the capital Kigali, lead to the flight of thousands of Rwanda’s Hutus, including leading fighters of the Intrahamwe – the Hutu foot-soldiers of the genocide. Setting up camp in the Eastern provinces of the DRC the Rwandan military gave chase, and have since been involved in a damaging and bloody conflict across the border. It is the ethnic Hutus of the DRC, innocent of the crimes of their ethnic kin in Rwanda, who have faced the brunt of this fighting.

This conflict and the resulting human rights abuses are indicative of a problem that exists within Rwandan society; reconciliation and national repair that been a secondary objective compared to economic development. This may not have been an unreasonable policy for Kigali to follow, but by ignoring the wounds of genocide, the government and society are storing up problems that have plagued the DRC and threaten to damage the progress made within Rwanda since 1994.

Whilst fear of the Hutus, discrimination and violence persist, the extent that development can reach will be limited, and what has already been achieved could be put at risk.

The wise option for the Rwandan government would be to seek political reconciliation with the Hutu majority; the crimes of the genocide are for many unforgivable, and a real fear exists that if Hutu domination were to return so to would the killing. This needs addressing before Rwanda can move on to long term, sustainable, prosperity and a better relationship with its neighbours.

Economic development, checking the HIV/AIDs infection rate, building schools and hospitals could all be put at risk by further conflict; a new political ‘game’ must be established where each side knows the rules and knows that whatever an election result, harsh sacrifices will not have to be made, whether in economic terms, or in lives. Trust must be rebuilt if development is to lead to long term success for Rwanda, and a less bloody relationship with its neighbours.

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