Rwanda's Gordian Knot

On Monday, Aug. 25, Rwandans will go to the polls in their first presidential election since the 1994 genocide that took the lives of 800,000 of its seven million people. The results are easily predictable; current President Paul Kagame will win a seven-year term in office, if for no other reason than all his potential opposition has been sidelined, harassed or jailed. Western powers will play their roles, contributing generously to fund the election and placing observers at polls to make sure that all the votes for Kagame are properly counted.

Over the last nine years, the Kagame government and the international community -- which ensures the government's solvency with infusions of cash -- have wound themselves in a Gordian knot. Despite a lack of trust on both sides, they've now thrown their lots with a rigged election, crossing their fingers and hoping it will all work out in the end. As usual, the people of Rwanda stand the most to lose.

Rebuilding the small East African country after the 1994 genocide was never going to be easy. For decades, the distinction between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities -- about 85 percent and 15 percent of the population, respectively -- was used as a tool to consolidate political power. Eighty years ago, Belgian colonialists chose to institutionalize the status of the Tutsi in order to rule through them as proxies. In 1959, the Belgians switched their support to the Hutu, factions of which ruled for the next three decades. Ethnic-based political violence that began in the 1960s culminated in the 1994 genocide, in which radical Hutu elements tried to hold on to power by exterminating every single Tutsi in the country. The West watched and refused to intervene; only the success of an invading army of Tutsi exiles led by Kagame stopped the bloodshed.

Since then, Kagame's party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has led the country. Many of its actions have been laudable; it refrained from massive revenge killings of Hutu civilians; it instituted a national government of unity that included moderate Hutus; it ended the practice of listing ethnicity on national ID cards; and it has begun a national process of community-based participatory courts as an attempt at national reconciliation. Above all, the rhetoric of the government has been shining, with phrases such as "Respect for human rights" and "There are no Hutu or Tutsi, only Rwandans" in common usage.

But nice words only travel so far, and the luster around Kagame's government has begun to fade. It began in 1996, when Rwanda invaded neighboring Zaire (now Congo) in a drive to flush out the remains of Hutu military forces that had taken refuge there after the genocide. That invasion eventually led to the fall of Zaire's government, an African war involving six foreign nations, and charges of war crimes against the Rwandan army. To date, four million people have died in the conflict. Rwanda pulled its army out last year, but it supports a proxy rebel group that continues the fighting.

While the war goes on in Congo, international efforts to bring justice after Rwanda's 1994 civil war and genocide have been shaky. Rwanda has accused the UN Tribunal for Rwanda -- set up to try those accused of war crimes -- with inefficiency, waste, corruption and nepotism. The criticism of the court -- which has so far spent $500 million and completed only 15 cases -- is fair. At the same time, Rwanda has hampered its operation with low levels of cooperation and by publicizing only the court's failings in the state-run media.

The conflict has now reached a boil, fueled by chief tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte's intention to try members of Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Army -- including many current officers -- for war crimes committed during the 1994 civil war. Kagame contends such charges should be tried in Rwandan military courts, but critics point out that there has been little action on such cases in the last nine years. Del Ponte now charges that Rwanda has obstructed the prosecution's investigations and stopped witnesses from traveling to Tanzania. With her term as chief prosecutor now up for renewal, a skirmish has broken out in the UN Security Council. Rwanda, with US and UK support, has lobbied for her removal. France, which has always been an opponent of the Anglophone Kagame government, backs Del Ponte.

Perhaps the biggest danger the UN court poses to Kagame, if it does indict members of his minority Tutsi government, would be to call the government's legitimacy and moral authority into question. Kagame gets a lot of credit from the international community because he is seen as the moral force that ended the genocide.

In addition, Kagame might fear that prosecutions of RPA officers could stir up latent resentment in the majority Hutu population by recognizing facts that most know but are scared to speak about. Despite the government's assertion that ethnic divisions are a thing of the past, conversations with villagers reveal that people remain acutely aware of ethnicity. The average Rwandan citizen -- Hutu or Tutsi -- is a poor subsistence farmer struggling to get by. Until Kagame's actions match his rhetoric and the economic situation improves enough to provide the average person the hope of a better future, it's hard to imagine the Hutu/Tutsi divide being laid to rest.

That's why Kagame is taking no chances with the upcoming elections (parliamentary voting will follow a month after the presidential polls). According to one African specialist, the international community has become nervous about Rwanda becoming a "quasi-Apartheid state," which is why it has pushed Kagame for a transition to democracy. Kagame extended the transition once, adding on four years in 1999, but couldn't avoid it forever.

Instead, the government has taken repressive steps to ensure its victory. In mid-July, I watched the ongoing legal proceedings against Pasteur Bizimungu, Rwanda's first post-genocide president, in Rwanda's Supreme Court. Bizimungu, a Hutu and former RPF member, was arrested last year with a number of other government ministers on charges of planning to set up a new political party. A few months ago, the Rwandan Parliament completely dissolved another political party, the main political challenger to Kagame's RPF. The charges were that the opposition encouraged ethnic "divisionism," which is outlawed under the law. Most observers think it was a convenient way to get rid of the opposition.

To label someone divisionist in Rwanda is like calling someone a Nazi in Germany. But the government has begun using the term frequently, slinging it not only at opposing politicians but at Rwandan human rights organizations and journalists who don't toe the government line. As Human Rights Watch has documented, some thought to be a threat to the government have simply disappeared. In its drive to maintain control, Kagame's government is sidelining moderate opposition, creating a vacuum for more radical elements to fill.

In effect, Kagame has forced the international community to play his game. By eliminating moderate opposition, he has made the choice simple: Either back his government or opt for something potentially much worse. In a region that includes Congo and Burundi, stable authoritarianism is not the nastiest option.

Kagame is still a hero to many Rwandans. His supporters wear baseball caps emblazoned with the president's photograph and the apt slogan inkotanyi -- "tough fighter." More and more, though, it seems those who back Kagame -- including most government officials -- have something to gain from the RPF's political favors.

The international community is well aware that it failed to stop the 1994 genocide. As documented by Peter Uvin, author of "Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda," it actually provided aid to the genocidal government right up to the start of the killing. Now, if it refuses to back Del Ponte's prosecution of Tutsi officials and lends its support to stacked elections, the international community will have implicitly thrown its support behind Kagame's government. The choice has been made for short-term stability. With a Tutsi minority securing control of the government and its resources, the long-term outlook is considerably less sanguine.

Doug Merlino has written for the Seattle Weekly, Transitions Online and the Budapest Business Journal. He was in Rwanda recently as a FRONTLINE/World Fellow.

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