The coalition of "unity" - made up of both Tutsis and moderate Hutus - that formed Rwanda's government following the country's 1994 genocide, appears to be crumbling.
Vice President Paul Kagame was appointed interim president, following the Thursday resignation of President Pasteur Bizimungu.
The resignation apparently resulted from clashes between Mr. Bizimungu, a moderate Hutu, and Mr. Kagame, whose Ugandan-based Tutsi-led guerrilla forces drove Hutu militants responsible for the genocide out of Rwanda.
Bizimungu's resignation comes just months after both the prime minister and the speaker of parliament quit their posts. Political analysts count Bizimungu as the eighth Hutu to resign from an important post citing the impunity of a powerful Tutsi clique, and unfair reprisals and corruption witch hunts against prominent Hutus.
Rwandan officials say there is no political crisis. "Just because one person has left, there is no reason to believe there is a crisis," says one official, who requested anonymity. He says the ruling party makes most important decisions collectively. "It is common sense that even [the president] must bend to the collective will of the organization. He has an option - either to bend to the consensus of the majority, or to resign like he has done."
Independent observers, however, say the resignations signal a deepening power struggle within Rwanda's government - raising questions about a regime that promised to bring stability, but is already under fire for fueling Africa's biggest war.
"The final step of removing Bizimungu is the end of that hope of a multiethnic government," says Alison Des Forges, consultant for Human Rights Watch and author of a book on the Rwandan genocide. She says Bizimungu was the last remaining Hutu in the inner circle of power.
Long seen as a figure-head, Bizimungu's resignation is unlikely to change much about the way things work in Rwanda. But the growing number of critics of Rwanda's ruling party say it spells out a pattern of undemocratic and sometimes violent power struggles within the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) - as well as a move away from the hopeful national unity espoused in government rhetoric.
In 1994, Kagame's rebel army that ended the genocide that claimed some 800,000 lives, took power as the country's best hope for peace. Led by a Tutsi minority that had been targeted for extermination, the RPF pledged to build a "new Rwanda" based on ethnic harmony and power-sharing with Hutus, who make up 85 percent of Rwanda's people.
Now, RPF officials will nominate two names for the presidency on April 1, and a joint session of parliament and the Cabinet will elect one nominee as the new head of state. It is unclear if Kagame - largely seen as the real source of power in the ethnically divided country - will take the presidential seat at the end of his four-week interim stint.
"This is a big warning light," says Filip Reyntjens, a prominent historian of the African Great Lakes region and professor at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.
Western donors who have given financial and military support to Rwanda will become increasingly skeptical after these recent developments, Mr. Reyntjens says.
"They are now asking very serious questions about whether these are the good guys: How are these people going to do what they are expected to do, which is create stability in the region?" he adds.
Rwanda has come under increasing fire for its role as a catalyst in Africa's "great war" in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
The war in Congo
The RPF began engineering rebel attacks in the Congo in 1996, after the international community failed to disarm its enemies. Remnants of the Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, fled to Congo to reorganize, and launched cross-border attacks against Tutsis in Rwanda.
But after the fall of one Congolese president and many actors switching sides, the conflict has dragged on at a great cost in human lives. Shattered rebel alliances and an increasing interest in diamonds give the war's many players few reasons to bring the stalemate to an end.
Now in control of an area in the Congo 15 times its own size, Rwanda has earned an image as the region's feistiest power-broker. That image could turn sour, observers say, in the wake of a recent UN report accusing Rwanda of ignoring an arms embargo in Angola and new speculations - based on a leaked UN memo - that Kagame's own soldiers fired the fatal shot that broke a peace agreement and sparked the genocide.
Just how much Rwanda cares about appearances remains to be seen. After years of pushing an image as a multiethnic movement, the RPF is expected by many in Rwanda to usher in the country's first Tutsi president, abandoning a last symbol of ethnic coalition.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society