Until recently, President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) were the international community’s aid darling, heralded for their role in stopping the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of as many as one million Rwandans. They now stand accused of a long list of crimes.
A recently-leaked UN report accuses the RPF of atrocities “that could be classified as genocide” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1996-1997 – mass murdering tens of thousands of Hutu refugees. The regime’s legitimacy and its leaders’ individual criminal responsibility are now being contested.
But how wise is it to swap one set of dangerous simplifications for another? Is Rwanda the model of progress and reconciliation, or is Kagame’s RPF the genocidal eye of Central African storms? And what does this tell us about international intervention in a region with an immensely troubled past?
Rwanda has long suffered from powerful imagery projected onto it by self-declared friends of the country. The analyses of socio-political trends often reveal more about the “expert” expounding his truths than about what actually happens to Rwanda’s people.
A century ago, Belgian colonialists, biased by the Flemish-Walloon cleavage that undermined nation-statehood back home, portrayed the complex Hutu-Tutsi relationship as fundamentally irreconcilable, mixing racist theories with political expediency.
During the cold war, the regime of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was the “enfant chéri” of development practitioners, the Catholic Church, and French President François Mitterrand. A 20-year dictatorship was deemed “a peaceful outpost” in the “dangerous” African jungle. When Mr. Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994, the regime’s core members unleashed a genocidal hell against Tutsis and some moderate Hutus.
Habyarimana’s old allies disbelievingly went into shock (Brussels) and continued support for the Hutu extremists through denial (Paris). Seeing their illusions go up in smoke was something Belgium and France handled with great difficulty, but with terrible consequences for Rwandans themselves.
Turning a blind eye
When Kagame and his predominantly Tutsi rebels took over, ending the 1994 bloodshed, a new generation fell in love with Rwanda. Anglo-Saxon politicians and aid workers combined geopolitical opportunism with genuine admiration for the RPF’s sophisticated security and good governance buzz.
Apparently willing to ignore the reprisal atrocities perpetrated by RPF forces against civilians across the country between 1995 and 1998, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have publicly led the defense of Kagame’s team as visionary reconciliators.
The unwillingness of outside actors to critically examine their wishful thinking about Rwanda has historically proved embarrassing. But it’s also led to terrible mistakes, including the inability to prevent the genocide that killed at least 800,000 people.
However, the problem is not just that Rwanda has been imagined as a non-existent African Shangri-La. It’s also that some armchair critics have often gone so over the top in demonizing the RPF – seldom based on any thorough, on-the-ground research – that the movement handily dismisses essentially legitimate concerns as baseless accusations. One Rwandan diplomat called the leaked UN report “an amateurish NGO job.”
It was once mandatory to demand “empathy” for the war-ravaged country’s authoritarian government. Today it is becoming fashionable among some to blame the regime – and Kagame himself – for almost all Central Africa’s wrongs. Desiring to denounce the RPF as the brilliantly evil organization “you love to hate,” too many commentators are now recklessly amalgamating charges of human rights violations, corruption, and bad policy.
Some are coming dangerously close to embracing revisionism about the 1994 crimes, too.
The conventional and well-documented account of the genocide is that government forces, extremist militias, and ordinary Hutus murdered at least 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu Rwandans in less than 100 days, following the assassination of “their” president, Habyarimana. An entire propaganda machine and a brutally crafted extermination ideology fuelled the massacres in churches, schools, and homes.
Dangers of a "double genocide" theory
Today, the idea of a “double genocide” is gaining strength, suggesting that the madness of 1994 was less a one-sided ethnic cleansing of Tutsis, but part of a long and vicious fight between Hutus and Tutsis that became “uncontrollable.” Unfortunately, and shamefully, it is no longer just Hutu génocidaires and their French silent accomplices who suggest the “double genocide” hypothesis, conveniently trivializing two decades of anti-Tutsi massacres.
Former NATO secretary-general Willy Claes was the Belgian Foreign Minister in 1994, and driving force behind the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from Rwanda during the genocide. He recently called Kagame co-responsible for the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. Numerous journalists, scholars, and activists are now jumping on the new UN report’s controversial hypotheses, claiming it offers supreme evidence of the culpability of a regime they loathe (for doctrinal or fashionable reasons).
Some even go so far as to theorize: If the RPF waged an extermination campaign in DRC in 1996-1997, then perhaps it also co-engineered the 1994 events so that it could take over power?
The real need to hold people accountable for what happened to the 200,000 Hutu refugees in the DRC during that time is at risk of being merged with the problematic agendas of genocide revisionists and not particularly innocent RPF detractors.
Debate over the technicalities of genocide seldom leads to concrete improvements on the ground. For example: The counterproductive debate about genocide in Darfur did little or nothing to end impunity and increase accountability in the Sudanese region. The risk is particularly acute because the report’s author, the UN, has not done a particularly good job of owning up to its own catastrophic failures in Central Africa.
This includes its shameful role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but also its shocking inability to neutralize tens of thousands heavily-armed génocidaires in the very refugee camps where it alleges the RPF massacred civilians. The UN would have far more moral credibility and political leverage to finally do something about the DRC atrocities if it had done its utmost to solve the deadly embrace between Eastern Congo and Rwanda during the past 16 years.
Unfortunately, the international community has yet to fully accept the devastating responsibility of Security Council members in this ongoing tragedy.
A treacherous time for Rwanda
Moreover, the debate is re-ignited at a treacherous time for Rwanda. Despite the semblance of a secure hold on power due to Kagame winning an impressive, and controversial, 93 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, tensions are rife in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
The RPF leadership remains an ultra-professional, but deeply paranoid, military organization, not an ordinary political party. Formal institutions collide with the informal logic of a leadership that thinks like a guerilla movement, in uncompromising terms. The RPF’s security-obsessed hardcore has disintegrated rapidly in recent years. The rivalry problem between Kagame and his former lieutenants (Kayumba Nyamwasa and Patrick Karegyeya) is not about policy but power. Politics in the (increasingly fragmented) RPF is more than ever based on “nobody trusts nobody” anymore.
The Kagame regime, both internally and externally, sees its legitimacy to rule as inextricably tied to having ended the 1994 “genocide.” Standing accused of the most heinous of crimes is more than a diplomatic insult. It’s questioning the regime’s right to rule.
Consequences for Central African stability
The RPF core will react the way it has learned to respond to such threats – by going on the offensive. (Withdrawing its blue-helmets from the Darfur peacekeeping force, as the RPF has threatened to do? Stirring up trouble in Eastern Congo to show it’s indispensable as a force for stability there?) At best, it will offer temporary tactical concessions through on-and-off negotiations.
Ultimately, the RPF will consider itself vindicated in its initial distrust of the outside world, shutting down avenues of mutual listening and further squashing internal dissent.
The inconvenient truth is this: With its genocide reference, this perhaps well-intended report will probably be counter-productive to justice and stability in Central Africa. It was written at a terribly sensitive moment, by an organization that is in no position to lecture Rwanda about accepting responsibility.
The chances of the leaked document leading to increased accountability for crimes in DRC of RPF officials seem nil. Calling the atrocities “genocidal” spices up the debate, but doesn’t further the cause of peaceful politics inside Kigali, and doesn’t necessarily bring justice any closer for eastern Congo massacres.
Harry Verhoeven is a doctoral student at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. He heads the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN) is co-authoring a research project on the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, “Point of No Return. Kabila, the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Internal Dynamics of the Great African War.”