The Call

Rwanda’s other genocide

Rwanda’s other genocide

By Jonathan Tepperman

The government of Rwanda reacted with fury last weekend when a leak revealed that a forthcoming U.N. report may charge Rwanda with genocide stemming from massacres of Hutu rebels and civilians by Tutsi forces in the next-door Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following the 1994 Rwandan civil war. Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, blasted the 500-plus-page draft report as "fatally flawed" and "incredibly irresponsible" and threatened to withdraw the thousands of troops Rwanda contributes to U.N. peacekeeping operations in multiple African countries if the United Nations moves forward and publishes the draft.

At first blush, it’s easy to understand Rwanda’s rage. It does seem a little rich for the United Nations — which pretty much sat on its hands in April 1994 when Hutu extremists butchered some 800,000 Tutsis, ignoring the pleas of the United Nations’ own head peacekeeper for reinforcements — to now accuse the Tutsi government that stopped that killing of perpetrating a genocide of its own in the process. (The U.N. charges relate to a period of several years following Rwanda’s civil war, when the victorious Tutsis chased rebel Hutus across the border into the DRC, then called Zaire.)

And yet Rwanda’s livid reaction, and its refusal to even countenance the possibility that it too may share some blame for the mayhem, is another painful sign of just how badly things have gone wrong in that country since the Tutsi government of President Paul Kagame’s very promising start.

That’s despite the fact that this government has made massive strides since 1994, especially in economic and security terms. In fact, reading the papers today, it’s easy to believe that there are two Rwandas. The first is a darling of the international aid community, and with reason. This is a rare African success story, a place that seems to have managed to transcend the epic violence of 1994 and the blight typical of most of the continent thanks to honest, far-sighted, business-friendly management. This Rwanda has become an orderly, peaceful, and virtually crime-free place, which was ranked East Africa’s least corrupt by Transparency International this year. Its GDP grew by a stunning 11.2 percent in 2008 and a still-respectable 4.5 percent last year, and is in the process of completing a major high-speed internet network that should turn it into a regional IT hub. This Rwanda has a higher proportion of women in government than any other country in the world. Not bad for a country that was a synonym for ethnic cleansing a mere 16 years ago.

But then there is the other, more sinister Rwanda that coexists within the same borders: one where speech is tightly censored — mere discussion of Hutu-Tutsi differences is banned in the name of preventing "genocide ideology" — criticism of the government is not tolerated, freethinking journalists and politicians are exiled or killed, and Kagame won re-election three weeks ago with a very fishy 93 percent of the vote.

For years, Kagame has responded to anyone who challenged his tightening grip on power the way his foreign minister lashed out at the United Nations last weekend: by playing the victim card and denouncing the bona fides of his critics. But as the episode with the U.N. report underscores, this is a morally dubious and practically disastrous strategy. First, the mere fact that Kagame and his fellow Tutsis were once the victims of a terrible crime does not mean they were incapable of subsequently victimizing others — whether it was the Hutu refugees they are now accused of slaughtering in the Congo or the internal critics Kagame has silenced by a variety of brutal means. Second, by using the genocide as an excuse to silence criticism and a justification for his creeping authoritarianism (Kagame’s implicit bargain with his people seems to be, "having delivered you from slaughter and provided you with stability, security, and economic growth, I get the right to rule unopposed and unquestioned"), Rwanda’s government is now victimizing its people a second time by depriving them of political freedom, thus compounding their suffering and — if Kigali keeps stonewalling the United Nations — preventing justice for their Hutu victims as well. In yet another sad twist, the Rwandan genocide may now even threaten yet another set of innocents. Kagame’s threat to withdraw his U.N. peacekeeping forces is no idle one: 3,300 Rwandan troops form the backbone of the international military effort in Darfur, and the commanding general is Rwandan.

Yet, Rwanda is not a lost cause. The country still relies heavily on international aid. The West, especially the United States and Britain — whether out of guilt for having failed to intervene in 1994 or appreciation for Kagame’s real accomplishments — tends to coddle the tiny nation, sheltering it from international criticism. That should change. U.S. aid means U.S. leverage, which Obama, who has stratospheric approval ratings in East Africa, could wield most effectively if he chose. It’s understandable that Washington, which did fail Rwanda in its time of need, has been slow to take issue with Kagame until now. But the people of Rwanda — and soon, perhaps, Darfur — are paying the price for this reticence.

Jonathan Tepperman is Managing Editor and a director at Eurasia Group.