Monday, April 19, 2004


From: NPR. Caption: Refugees returning to their villages in 1996, between Gisenyi and Kigali [Rwanda's capital]. In the 10 years that have passed, the country has worked hard to move past the event. Today, Rwanda's capital is considered safe, orderly and peaceful. Many, including the current president, who was a leader of Tutsi rebels, refuse to talk about ethnicity, choosing instead to speak of themselves simply as "Rwandese."

Despite the above caption's implication, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has hardly been without controversy since his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power in 1994 after evicting the genocidal regime. Kagame deserves credit for navigating the country though an incredibly delicate period; one which, as I mentioned in the previous entry, is possibly without precedent. However some of Kagame's actions are more remiscient of a stereotypical African big man than of a Mandela-esque reconciliator.

Initially, the signs were good that the RPF would avoid a policy of retribution when it took power. The interim government established after the genocide comprised seven political parties. Although the RPF was seen as a Tutsi-dominated organization, the party's titular head was a Hutu: Pasteur Bizimungu. Bizimungu became president of the republic and Kagame, who'd been head of the RPF's military wing, became the country's vice-president. The symbolism was unmistakable: no anti-Hutu oppression to replace anti-Tutsi oppression, no victors' justice, no winners and, save the genociders, no losers. Yet despite the official titles, there was no doubt that Kagame was really in charge and that Bizimungu was a figure head.

As the genocide and civil war wound down, over two million Rwandans fled into refugee camps in eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). This included not only those who perpetrated the genocide, but those who organized it. This exodus/escape was facilitated by the French. The UN Security Council authorized Operation Turquoise. French troops thus created a so-called humanitarian corridor in the south of Rwanda whose objective was to allow Rwandans to safely flee to Zaire. In reality, its widely-assumed objective was to allowe the genocide's organizers, France's friends, to escape justice. If the organizers had to face justice, they just might reveal how much blood the French government had on its hands.

So the genocidal militias escape to eastern Zaire where they virtually controlled every day life in the refugee camps. Humanitarian organizations (NGOs) and the UN refused to crack down on the militias because they were afraid that action would compromise the NGOs' and UN's "neutrality." Militias used the refugee camps to launch raids into Rwandan territory. Several NGOs, such as the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), stopped work in the refugee camps in protest of the unwillingness to tame the militias.

As a result, Kagame and his ally, the Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, invade eastern Zaire under the pretext of creating a buffer zone so that Zaire would no longer be the staging grounds for attacks on Rwandan (and Ugandan) villages. In theory, this didn't seem entirely unreasonable. In practice, Rwandan and Ugandan troops occupied most of the eastern third of Zaire. Far from creating a small safe area, Rwandan troops occupied territory as far as 1000 miles into Zaire. It is believed by many that Rwanda and Ugandan profited handsomely from the mineral richness of that part of Zaire.

Even worse, one-time allies Kagame and Museveni had a falling out and Rwandan and Ugandan troops fought with each other several times on Zairean soil!

Domestically, Kagame has shown little patience with the opposition. The press is largely muzzled; the government controls all broadcast media and only one independent paper exists in the country. Opposition party activities are severely limited. All of these things are done under the pretext of fighting "divisionism." Unfortunately, Kagame invokes the genocide as an overly broad justification for everything in much as President Bush invokes 9/11.

The RPF does seem genuine in talking the talk of reconciliation. President Kagame has a reputation as an austere, no-nonsense, incorruptible figure. He invokes the excuse of "preventing another genocide" as a cloak to justify his every move and his group stopped the genocide when the rest of the world stuck their head in the sand. As a result, the "international community," frought with a guilty conscience, gives Kagame and the RPF a much larger benefit of the doubt than they would to other regimes that engaged in the same authoritarian behavior.

Kagame was recently elected president (he'd ascended to the presidency in 2000 when Bizimungu resigned). The opposition cried foul because of an alleged campaign of intimidation. But despite a dubious official tally of 95% for Kagame, the
oppoistion eventually accepted his election as reflective of the will of Rwandans. However, the opposition leader called on Kagame to "accept what he has promised, to give peace to Rwanda, to accept freedom of speech and association and also to accept democracy."

However, the most persistent allegations surrounding Kagame concern the 6 April 1994 assassination of then Rwandan dictator Juvenal Habyiramana, the event which set in motion the pre-planned genocide (any doubts that the genocide was pre-planned were removed by the admission of Jean Kabanda, Rwandan prime minister during the genocide).

The shooting down of the plane carrying Habyiramana and the Burundian leader has been a subject of fierce speculation ever since it occurred. One theory is that the plane was shot down by extremists within the regime furious that Habyiramana had agreed to power sharing with the RPF. According to the theory, the pre-planned genocide needed a pretext to set it in motion. The assassination of the dictator was the perfect excuse to feed the anti-Tutsi paranoia the extremists needed to incite mass genocide.

The other theory is that the downing of the plane was ordered by the RPF. In fact, a long French police investigation concluded that Kagame himself gave direct orders for the plane to be shot down. The investigation's conclusion was reportedly based on interviews with hundreds of witnesses, including one man who allegedly belonged to the assassination squad. This theory claims that Kagame knew the assassination would trigger mass reprisals against Rwanda's DOMESTIC Tutsi population but was willing to "sacrifice" that population since the RPF members and their families primarily came from the community of Tutsi EXILES in Uganda. This is a fairly severe allegation.

Personally, I consider this allegation unlikely but not inconceivable. Yet, I might be more willing to believe an inquiry conducted by authorities from a country that was not chummy with the genocidal regime overthrown by Kagame's forces.

Not surprisingly, the Rwandan government denied French allegations as "fantasy."

Kagame replied with equally grave allegations of his own. It had been previously believed that the French government was merely negligent in not exerting more influence on its client regime to stop the massacres. But Kagame went much further. While acknowledging that Rwandans themselves bore primarily responsibility for the genocide, he repeated accusations that France had trained and armed the Hutu militias who carried out the mass killings.

It had been widely known that the French had trained those who would eventually commit the genocide. Kagame's accusations go much further: France KNEW they were going to commit the genocide, according to the Rwandan president. "They (France) knowingly trained and armed the government soldiers and militias who were going to commit genocide and they knew they were going to commit genocide," he is quoted by Reuters.

A French junior minister strenuously denied the allegation as "unacceptable, humiliating and lying."

Suffice it to say, relations between Rwanda and France are not presently very warm.

The RPF's refusal to cooperate with the international tribunal in Arusha is a black mark against Kagame. The government legitimately complained that the Arusha Tribunal was slow and inefficient. The UN has tried dilligently to address those concerns, but RPF stonewalling continues. It is widely believed that Kigali is afraid of RPF members being before the Arusha Tribunal, possibly even President Paul Kagame himself. The RPF is suspected of having committed war crimes as well, but none have been tried either in Arusha or before domestic tribunals.

This wall of silence is perhaps the most serious threat to national reconciliation in Rwanda. The government may speak the words of reconciliation but until their actions match the words, it will not happen. The government must recognize that Hutus were victims of atrocities as well. It can claim that its overall fight against the genociders was morally right while still acknowledging that some of its forces occassionally acted beyond the bounds of what is acceptable. The government can say that although spontaneous war crimes are not morally equivalent to systematic genocide, both should be punished appropriately. By doing so, the RPF would send two important messages. Firstly, that the decades-long tradition of impunity was no longer. Secondly, that both sides' suffering must be recognized and must be part of the discussion.

The rest of the world has given the Kagame government a ton of leeway in the last ten years. It's time for the rest of the world to move beyond its paralysis by guilt and start nudging Kagame to act in a responsible manner consistent with his government's professed goals. International reaction may go a long way in determining whether Rwanda goes the way of Mandela's South Africa or Mugabe's Zimbabwe.


Tommorrow: conclusions.

Recommended reading: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International dossiers on the Rwandan government's human rights' record.


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