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Rwanda’s post-genocide model prioritises security over freedom and equality – a risk to future stability

RWANDA, a small and landlocked central African country, has made remarkable socio-economic progress since the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 500,000 people died. But the country, as well as the rest of the world, remains divided over the achievements made and the direction taken over the past 30 years.

Supporters of Rwanda’s trajectory believe in the aspiration of its president, Paul Kagame, for the country to become Africa’s Singapore. Critics, in contrast, see disturbing characteristics it has in common with North Korea. This stark divergence of views also besets the scholarly community. Some experts acclaim Rwanda as a developmental state and one with high-modernist ambitions to use science and technology for its advancement. Others denounce it as an ethnocracy, a state dominated by one ethnic group, and one run by a hyper-authoritarian dictatorship.

My scholarship centres on the study of conflicts and violence framed along ethnic and religious boundaries, and in strategies that promote co-existence and cooperation in plural societies.

I have been writing on Rwanda and its genocide for over 20 years. In my more recent research, I turn my lens on the question of whether Rwanda’s distinctive approach to state-building can endure in the long term. I conclude that a contradiction exists at the heart of Rwanda’s state-building model, placing a question mark on the country’s future.

Rwanda’s legacy

The persistent polarisation over Rwanda is partly the legacy of the country’s civil war that culminated in genocide (1990-94). The violence deeply divided Rwandans. Disagreements persist on responsibility and accountability for the genocide. But it is also partly a matter of differing priorities. Those who value democracy, civil liberties, justice and reconciliation find much wanting in post-genocide Rwanda. In contrast, those who think effective state institutions, socio-economic development and political stability are more important disagree and view Rwanda more favourably.

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There is also much more at stake in these assessments than just the fate of one small African state. Rwanda is a high-profile case in debates on state-building and post-conflict reconstruction in Africa. African governments, foreign donors and academic experts are keen to understand the model’s potential for replication elsewhere.

The path Rwanda’s government is charting has few precedents. I propose a new term to capture its distinctiveness: securocratic state-building.

The term is intended to reflect two core ideas. First, it aims to convey the importance a regime attaches to security in the wake of deeply divisive violence. It is for this reason Rwanda’s military and intelligence officials hold important positions and power within the regime and why coercion underlies its governance model. The regime stands accused of the politically motivated arrest, detention and trial, as well as suspicious disappearances and deaths, of its critics.

It is not that the regime does not believe in liberty and equality; it is simply that it unashamedly prioritises security over both. Its laws criminalising “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism”, for example, silence potentially legitimate dissent.

Second, the term seeks to communicate a commitment to a developmental but ideologically pragmatic agenda. Rwanda’s regime seeks to modernise Rwanda and it will pursue whatever policies will achieve this.

The question is whether its securocratic approach can endure in the long term. In an effort to answer this more empirically than speculatively, I conducted interviews over several years with thought leaders and change-makers carefully chosen from across Rwanda’s principal societal and political divides to ascertain their views on the country’s achievements and trajectory.

The aim was to elicit the competing rationales that regime supporters and critics each gave for the grand strategic choices the regime had made after the genocide. I sought to assess these rationales against each other and for their internal coherence. The approach – narrative analysis coupled with active interviewing – is premised on the idea that some insight into Rwanda’s future stability may be gleaned.

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The regime made three strategically crucial choices:

  • to establish “consensus” over competitive politics
  • to systematically de-emphasize the importance of ethnicity in society
  • to modernise the state and use it to grow and diversify the economy.

Supporters and critics

Strikingly, regime supporters cited the same two underlying rationales for each of these three choices: security and unity. They pointed to Rwanda’s two past experiences with competitive democracy (1959-62 and 1991-94), which had both been accompanied by ethnic violence. They highlighted the divisive and destructive power of ethnicity and argued it was best addressed by constructing an overarching national Rwandan identity. Finally, they claimed social stability could not be assured if Rwandans’ basic material needs were unmet.

Critics, however, offered different rationales. They claimed the regime avoided competitive elections because it was acutely conscious of its own illegitimacy. The senior partner in the coalition government, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, is dominated by the Tutsi minority and seeks to rule over the country’s Hutu majority. It could not win a truly free and fair election.

In social relations, detractors said the regime had sought to prohibit ethnic identification because it wished to obscure Tutsi hegemony. There would be a public outcry if the full extent to which the minority was over-represented in government and business in Rwanda were known.

Lastly, in economics, critics argued the strategy pursued sought simply to entrench and enrich the ruling party. While the regime has diversified the economy, this has been achieved through investment by companies controlled by the ruling party. And while it has built capable state institutions, they are staffed by party loyalists.

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Supporters and critics then have opposing understandings of why these strategic choices have been made. They suggest a depth of division and distrust between Rwandans that will likely persist long into the country’s future.

The bottom line

These competing rationales point to a fundamental tension at the heart of the Rwandan model. The regime’s preoccupation with security is at odds with its desire for unity.

It’s impossible to have “political consensus” without meaningful choice, yet choice is not compatible with coercion. Similarly, a post-ethnic society is not achievable if your choices reflect a fear of the enduring power of ethnicity in society. And, lastly, while Rwanda’s institutions are highly effective, they will lack independence and durability if you seek to appoint only those loyal to you and your vision.

Ultimately, the test of the success of Rwanda’s state-building model is regime succession. The current regime and its supporters view the regime’s continuity as a necessity. Yet every regime transition in Rwanda since 1896 has occurred outside the accepted institutional channels for change. Rwanda’s exit from violence should not be considered consolidated until there has been at least one genuine and peaceful transition of power.

OMAR SHAHABUDIN MCDOOM, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science

By OMAR SHAHABUDIN MCDOOM

Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science

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