By Susan Thomson
As Rwanda gears up for Presidential elections in August, it is a good time to reflect on the progress the country has made since the genocide in 1994, both in image and in reality.
By most popular accounts, Rwanda is a nation rehabilitated. Diplomats and journalists talk of President Paul Kagame’s phenomenal success in rebuilding the once-shattered country.
The capital, Kigali, boasts a modern airport, several international hotels, a modern ICT infrastructure, and countless new residential and commercial properties. Numerous cafés and nightclubs have opened, catering to the city’s growing middle class of bureaucrats and businesspeople. Kigali’s crime rate is low and its streets are clean.
In the Rwandan Parliament, women hold 56 per cent of seats, the highest proportion of female representation in the world. Tony Blair is a presidential advisor and international dignitaries, including Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks, frequent the country.
Kagame is praised as a benevolent and thoughtful leader who cares deeply about his people. His policies have reconciled the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide with Tutsi survivors. Community-based gacaca courts have processed more than 100,000 Hutu accused of acts of genocide with most successfully reintegrated into society.
But most foreign visitors do not see the deep poverty and daily hardships that confront ordinary Rwandans. For most of them, Hutu and Tutsi alike, life since the genocide is not as bright and shiny as the authorities in Kigali would pretend.
Some 90 per cent of Rwandans are peasants who rely on subsistence agriculture. Few of them have benefited from the country’s rapid reconstruction. The gap between the wealthy urbanites and the poor rural dwellers is on the increase. Government policies favour the urban elite, many of whom are Tutsi who returned to the country after the genocide.
The vast majority of Rwandan women and men who survived the genocide remain extremely poor, politically marginal, and, in many cases, traumatised by what they lived through. Almost 95 per cent of Rwandans in the country during the genocide have post-traumatic stress disorder. Few receive government-sponsored counselling or support.
With rare exceptions, Rwandan peasants are thin, their eyes lacklustre from continued hunger, with weathered hands and faces, giving them the appearance of being older than their actual age. Some have orange hair, a telltale sign of malnutrition. Many go barefoot and dressed in ragged clothes – often the extent of their wardrobe.
Most of the Rwandans I spoke to lamented the constant struggles of everyday life since the genocide. For them, there is a lack of food, clean water, and affordable and proximate health services.
Increasing levels of authoritarianism by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) stifle any attempts to address these inequalities.
Public space for free and open political expression is limited. The media and civil society operate at the behest of the RPF. Any individual or group that challenges the official government version of Rwanda as a rehabilitated nation, peaceful and secure, is harshly dealt with.
Opposition politicians, journalists, and ordinary folk alike who criticize the government are all subject to harassment, intimidation, disappearance, and, in extreme cases, death. Just ask Joseph Sebarenzi, the former Speaker of the House. Kagame forced him into exile in 2001 for his efforts to constitutionally limit the powers of the president. He writes about his experience in his recent bookGod Sleeps in Rwanda
Instead of allowing for frank and open discussion of the genocide, the RPF has forced reconciliation upon the people. They make Hutu tell the truth about what they did during the genocide, and make Tutsi forgive them. Reconciliation is not a sincere affair of the heart; it is an administrative matter.
The ordinary Rwandans I talked with are more than just skeptical about the government’s commitment to reconciliation; they also recognise it as a form of social control.
As Olive, a Hutu widow whose Tutsi husband died during the genocide told me, “All these confessions are a program of the government. Hutu confess to get free. But we know what happened! We were there in 1994. Not all who killed get justice – the government pardons them for reconciliation. Not all who didn’t kill go free – the government puts them in prison for reconciliation. What kind of peace is this? It is not from the heart.”
Local officials harass and intimidate those who fail to embrace this reconciliation; anyone who questions the sincerity of it can be imprisoned.
This is not a process grounded in an enlightened vision of peace and security. Instead, it forces Rwandans to remain silent and to not question the RPF version of peace and security. Rwandans are only simulating reconciliation as a means of coping with the demands of their government. As Jeanne, a Tutsi widow, said, “There can be no peace in the heart if there is no peace in the stomach.”
For many ordinary Rwandans, this has been an alienating, oppressive and sometimes humiliating experience – something that could, paradoxically, crystallize and create stronger dissent in the future, perhaps erupting into violence as early as August 2010 when Rwandans go to the polls again.
Susan Thomson is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa. She’s researched written and continues to be a great source of information about Rwanda. She runs a blog http://democracywatch-rwanda2010.blogspot.com. This article was first published on January 21, 2010.