IN the August 4 election, Rwanda president Paul Kagame extended his 17-year rule by winning a third term, with what some critics dubbed an “authoritarian” margin of 98.6%.
However, as observed in Part 1 of this series noted, there is also a lot to be gleaned from the wider post-genocide “Rwanda’ project” in its electoral outcomes, beyond what they say about the specificity of regime type and leader of the day.
That takes us to Rwanda of early 1995 about nine months after Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army had taken power and ended the genocide.
The stench of the genocide slaughter still hung in the air. The RPF had a country, but virtually no people, most of whom had fled or been herded by the Interahamwe forces into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
There was no economy. Everything had been razed. The telephone and electricity lines had been pulled down. The RPA grew food, and sold it to the markets because there were barely any farmers in the fields.
The RPF started reconstruction with the lessons of history, and the desperate exigencies of the moment, in mind.
Seeking to diversify their earnings, the farmers, who were historically mostly Hutu, sought to do so on grazing lands. However, the minority Tutsi, who were historically pastoralists, still occupied those lands. (Usually, in the Sahel, West Africa and Somalia pastoralists in the 18th, 19th and the early 20th centuries occupied lands that later became more vulnerable, forcing them on the edge, while the farmers thrived. In Rwanda and Burundi because of the terrain they were confined to the lower parts of hills and valleys, while the farmers worked the slopes. Environmental pressure hit the farmers first, and the soil erosion they suffered actually gifted the pastoralists. It’s one of the most mind-bending oddities of the two central African countries, that had an extremely peculiar impact on their political histories).
Anyway, Tutsi and Hutu were and are the same people, and the distinctions developed as economic ones – the cattle-owning class, and the farmers. Belgian colonialism concretised an economic difference, into an ethnic and the rest, to use the cliché, is history.
The new RPF ruling group also figured that one reason nearly a million people were killed in the genocide was because they were scattered in the countryside, making it hard to alert neighbours against danger and for the rebels, when they could, to defend large numbers.
Thirdly, because Rwanda was a shell, the quickest way to rebuild and bring services to the people at lower cost, was if they lived together.
Therefore to free land and reduce conflict; get people to live in formations that made it easier to defend and get services to them, the government pushed a soft collectivisation. Thus while Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania had driven collectivisation partly because the country was too big, Rwanda did so because it was too small. The hope of some of the idealists in RPF, was that they would create Africa’s first kibbutzim in some form, along the way.
Internationally, it was a controversial move, with human rights groups accusing the new regime of forceful villagisation.
My own reaction upon the first encounter with the new settlements was shock – though for very different reasons. It seemed that, with the genocide so fresh, it was a big gamble to make victims live face to face and so closely to what many of them saw as perpetrators.
Few would have realised that that “experiment” was to have a far-reaching consequence on what eventually became the post-genocide political settlement. The Tutsi and Hutu would not live apart, but face to face and find the terms that made that possible.
It drove the most unexpected of policy changes. For example, with the demand for punitive justice for perpetrators of genocide still raw, in 1997 over 20 people who had been sentenced to death by courts for genocide crimes were publicly executed.
There was no celebration. Instead a chilly pall and horror enveloped Rwanda. It became clear that that path of justice was not to work in a post-genocide Rwanda where people were now living the way they were, and in the midst of a national rebuilding. It would lead to a rapture.
Though the Rwanda parliament abolished the death penalty in 2007, it had effectively died 10 years earlier in 1997 after the executions.
But something else happened, which partly still reverberated in both the moving of the term last year and the elections last week. Some genocide survivors, mostly Tutsi, understandably wanted retribution .
To return the Hutu population home, and dismantle the menacing Interahamwe-run mini Rwanda state across the border, punitive justice had to be off the table and broad reconciliation the carrot. In return, the Hutu had to accept the legitimacy of the RPF and to disavow the old sectarian order.
To give it credibility, it needed to be enshrined in law, which was done via a power-sharing-flavoured constitution. However, like many deals it needed a guarantor. Kagame became the guarantor, the referee.
It has not yet been tested how much this settlement is now entrenched in Rwanda institutional practice, and how much of it is personal to Kagame. The potential quandary for Kagame then is that Rwanda could become his “Hotel California” of which The Eagles famously sung: he can check out, but he can never leave. Last year’s referendum, and the latest election, suggests that at as his departure comes closer however faraway in the future, the demand for him to stay seems to increase because the uncertainty over whether the post-genocide domestic détente will survive rises.
Therefore the most enduring legacy of Kagame’s new term, would be if the country gets to that point by the time it ends to test whether it has reached the post-genocide coming of age point.
And here the limitations imposed by Rwanda’s small size and growing population will come in sharp relief.
It has been noted that Rwanda, with Africa’s third highest population density, is running out of land as its population expands.
Hoping to reduce the huge number of people who make a living in agriculture, Kigali is banking on rapid industrialisation to ease the pressure, and in a rare move in Africa pushing aggressively to urbanise and even setting urbanisation targets.
But it’s too small to industrialise in cost effective ways, and while the size of the country and the development of infrastructure in recent years makes for quick distribution, it is still a tiny market.
When Rwanda joined the East African Community (EAC) in 2007 it was looking to solve this problem.
But the EAC has moved along in fits and starts. Looking to improve trade with the continent, and turn Kigali into a regional business hub, it established RwandaAir and became one of the first countries on the continent to remove visa requirements for all Africans.
This week Kagame, in one of his first post-win symbol-filled actions, launched the construction of Bugesera Airport, saying “We see this facility as an essential component in boosting intra-African travel, investment and business”.
Looking to unlock similar possibilities in the region, Rwanda led on scrapping work permit requirements for East African citizens seven years ago.
Still, while Kagame has taken on a more prominent role in pan-African enterprises, for example heading up the reform of the African Union, he has been shy-footed and less visible on East Africa.
Part of this has been because, until the election of John Magufuli as president of Tanzania in 2015, relations between Kigali and Dar es Salaam were too often chilly. To the north, there is Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni who expects to be treated like an elder statesman and with deference, and gets very touchy if he’s not.
A major project like the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) that is supposed to run from Kenya through Uganda to Kigali and got hobbled by regional political malaise, or the alternative Tanzania-Rwanda railway on which work has began, could be a game changer for the country.
Apart from dramatically opening access to the wider region, and reducing the cost of business, it would allow Rwanda – much like Uganda and Kenya did in the 20th century – to shift a large number of its people off the land to a new railway corridor and thus industrialise even more rapidly, through the incentive of better economic opportunities.
But being landlocked is not the only penalty of geography it would have to overcome. Rwanda is also located in a bad neighourhood.
THE MAGUFULI BOON
For the last two years there has been bad blood between Rwanda and Burundi, with the beleaguered Bujumbura regime accusing the Kagame government of stoking its troubles.
To the west, it is flanked by the humongous, mineral-rich, but long-troubled and fragile Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and its past interventions there have been largely disastrous. A stable DRC that is flourishing would be a big boon for Kigali. Already, it is the financial centre for the eastern part of the central African giant.
Northern neighbour Uganda used to be one of Africa’s red-hot economies, but in recent years it has slowed. Once-dynamic Museveni too lifted term limits in 2005, but has peaked in recent years. Recently as moves were underway to remove the 75-year-old rule age limit for president, and allow him to run in 2021 when his current term expires, and by which time he would have been in office for 35 years, an abracadabra event happened.
At the bottom of the pile of the records of his childhood church, a faded entry was found indicating that he was baptised in 1947. And since it was always known that he was baptised in the year of his birth, it meant he was born in 1947 not 1944. That discovery means that in 2021, he would be 74, not 77 – therefore no need to fiddle that part of the constitution.
But Museveni’s glory years are behind him, and his ability to see projects like the Kenya-Uganda-Rwanda through has diminished.
Magufuli, however, has been very helpful to Rwanda, and enabled it to considerably improve its terms of trade. And considering that he’s only two years into his rule, and will stand – and almost certainly win – in 2020, for all of Kagame’s third term he could have a reliable ally in Dar es Salaam.
Still, many of the solutions to Rwanda’s next-generation problems are not in Kigali or Kagame’s hands. Even he cannot move Rwanda to a better address, or create more land for it. But that isn’t a good reason not to try.