Saturday, August 07, 2010

Rwanda: Growing list of adversaries to the president, sets the tone for a pivotal new term

By Jon Rosen in Kigali, Rwanda for ISN Security Watch

Despite a wave of suspicious killings and a crackdown on political dissent, Rwanda’s presidential poll is likely to pass without major incident, though a growing list of adversaries to the president has set the tone for a pivotal new seven-year term, Jon Rosen writes for ISN Security Watch.

When Rwandans go to the polls on Monday, few expect anything short of a landslide victory for President Paul Kagame - the man widely viewed as the architect of one of Africa’s best-governed states, built upon the ashes of its grisly 1994 genocide.

Since Kagame’s Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) seized power following the genocide - the 100-day bloodbath in which up to a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered - Rwanda has been transformed into an enclave of order and stability with designs on following the 'Asian Tiger' model to become a regional hub of IT, financial services and education.

Today, its capital, Kigali, is one of Africa’s cleanest and safest cities. Across town, yellow cranes and glistening office towers reflect GDP growth that’s averaged 8 percent over the last half-decade. Though rural poverty remains widespread, farmers have seen tangible benefits from government efforts to improve small-scale agriculture. Rwandans now have access to nine years of free primary education and affordable health insurance. In an ode to Kagame’s no-nonsense leadership, a recent report by Transparency International notes Rwanda is by far East Africa’s least corrupt country, with incidents of bribery negligible.

Yet while figures from Bill Gates to Tony Blair have praised Kagame as a visionary, and ordinary Rwandans are drawn to his confidence, a recent series of events suggest the former rebel leader is fearful of threats to his tight grip on power.

In the run-up to the elections, Kagame’s government has harassed and arrested opposition leaders and journalists, suspended two prominent newspapers from print, and prevented three main opposition political parties from registering for the ballot.

On 19 June, General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a long-time RPF loyalist-turned-Kagame-dissident, was shot in a botched assassination attempt from self-imposed exile in South Africa.

Days later, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, a journalist for Umuvugizi, one of the blocked publications, was killed outside of his Kigali home after claiming to have uncovered links between Rwandan intelligence and suspects arrested for Nyamwasa’s shooting.

Then, on 14 July, the body of André Kagwa Rwisereka, a former member of the RPF who defected last year to form the opposition Green Party, was found nearly decapitated outside Rwanda’s second city, Butare.

Cracks in the inner circle

Though the Rwandan government denies any involvement in these attacks, human rights activists and pro-democracy groups allege the incidents fit a long-established pattern of RPF-sanctioned violence.

Yet many wonder why Kagame would resort to such brazen measures at a time when his regime is under close scrutiny from the West - particularly given his efforts to brand Rwanda as a nation re-born and ripe for foreign investment.

Nyamwasa, who has been accused of ordering mass-killings while he was RPF director of military intelligence, has many enemies apart from Kagame, and it is possible his would-be assassin was no Rwandan hired gun. Some speculate the incident may have been self-inflicted in order to cement his asylum status in South Africa.

Regardless of the circumstances, Nyamwasa is just one among a growing list of military top brass and RPF insiders that have recently fallen out with their boss. In March, he and another senior military figure, Colonel Patrick Karegeya, fled the country after being accused of masterminding a series of grenade attacks in Kigali.

In April, the government sacked and detained two others, including Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, the former deputy commander of the international UNAMID peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan.

According to most analysts, Kagame’s control of the army remains strong enough that a coup attempt is unlikely. Still, chances are he will face further defections - a phenomenon Dr Wafula Okumu, head of the African Security Analysis program at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, attributes to “management of spoils from the state.”

Since 1996, when the Rwandan army began attacking the remnants of Hutu death squads in what is now the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN and other international bodies allege Rwanda - along with other governments in the region - has benefited handsomely from state-sponsored trafficking in Congolese minerals. Yet, in recent years, due to international pressure as well as Rwanda’s 2008 arrest of Laurent Nkunda - the Congolese Tutsi warlord considered by many to be an RPF proxy - the flow of bounty to Kigali is thought to have diminished.

According to Okumu, this scaling-back has led to strain in the military ranks, particularly among officers with links to Nkunda and those who’ve seen their mining windfalls reduced or eliminated. The situation is confounded by what remain murky links between Kagame, the RPF and Crystal Ventures - Rwanda’s largest investment firm, which has equity in many of the country’s biggest enterprises and sizable foreign assets in biotech, telecom and real estate. Though Kagame has long been fêted for his spotless record on corruption, Nyamwasa has called his accountability demands on others a “farce, demagogue, and playing to the gallery.”

“All of this will continue creating cracks in Kagame’s inner circle,” Okumu told ISN Security Watch. “At the moment the falling out is very bad.”

'Genocide ideology'

Far more visible to the public eye is the threat of a return to ethnic violence in a country just 16 years removed from genocide.

Today, while ethnic antagonism is muted, even the young and well educated admit it will be long before Rwandans shed their Hutu and Tutsi identities, putting Kagame in a precarious situation.

Though 85 percent of Rwandans are Hutu, Kagame, the bulk of the RPF hierarchy and much of the country’s brightest young talent are Tutsi who grew up as refugees in the Diaspora. This leaves Kagame - and Rwanda’s stability - vulnerable to critical media and opposition politicians that decide to play the “ethnic card.”

This is one explanation for the recent closure of anti-government newspapers and the arrest of opposition leader Victoire Ingabire. Charged with ‘divisionism,’ and ‘genocide ideology,’ the Union of Democratic Forces chairwoman remains under house arrest and blocked from contesting the election after speaking publicly on numerous occasions in a manner said to stir up ethnic sentiments. In particular, she has called for investigations into genocide-era crimes committed against Hutu and warned of future violence if Hutu are not given more political space in a system she deems repressive.

Many who lived through the genocide agree that Rwanda is not ready for such ethnically charged dialogue. Yet others say government’s uncompromising response to its critics is just as threatening, and that suffocating free speech may eventually backfire.

“There are other measures to deal with dissent in less harsh ways,” says Carina Tertsakian, Senior Researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “I would question what kind of stability this is really, when people cannot express themselves,” she told ISN Security Watch.

“The reaction we have seen by Kagame’s government to its critics shows signs of weakness and shakiness in the regime,” adds Okumu. “He would win the election anyway. He is trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”

Critical juncture

It is this type of intransigence that many account for Kagame’s success since the RPF captured Kigali and began the mission he had long dreamt of while a refugee in Uganda: building a stable, prosperous nation in his birth land.

Yet as recent events suggest, these same qualities may hold the key to his undoing - and with it the future of his grand Rwandan project.

Once re-elected, Kagame will begin a new seven-year term, and has pledged to step down when it ends in 2017. Yet with no likely successor in tow, some believe he will renege on his promise and stay in power, following the precedent of many African heads of state, including Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, for whom he once served as chief of military intelligence.

Others suggest a Putin-like maneuver, where Kagame would rule indirectly from an office other than the president’s. He essentially did this before - as vice president and defense minister from 1994-2000 under the puppet Hutu president Pasteur Bizimungu.

Whatever happens in 2017, Rwanda has considerable progress to make before it is ready for its post-Kagame era. Despite its dramatic re-birth since the genocide, Rwanda remains a nation that is built upon the cult of one man and a state devoid of institutions that are strong enough to outlive him.

For now, the country remains stable, and the main uncertainty in advance of the election is whether Kagame will garner more than 95 percent of the vote - a figure he won in 2003 after blocking critical opposition from the race, much like he has this time around.

Kagame’s real test will be the next seven years and whether he can muster the courage to slowly release his tightly clenched fist, allowing the opening of political space without sacrificing the order and efficiency for which Rwanda is so admired.

The stakes of this new challenge could not be higher, as this period may well determine whether today’s Rwandan children will be citizens of Africa’s first Tiger economy, or party to another wave of gruesome, incapacitating violence.

Jon Rosen is a freelance journalist focusing on East and Central Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has spent the last several months reporting from Kigali, Rwanda.