Rwanda 20 Years After Genocide; Democracy Hard To Come By

Written by Andrew Friedman

This week marks the 20th anniversary of one of mankind’s darkest moments. 20 years ago Sunday, 100 days of horrific slaughter began in the East African country of Rwanda. Over the three months an estimated 800,000 people would die. In this ‘Rwanda 20 Years After Genocide’ mini-series AFKInsider is examining what the 20 years have meant for a people desperately trying to put the violence behind them.

In Part one we examined the astounding economic advancements made over the last two decades. Out of the shadow of the genocide, Rwanda has experienced tremendous growth and transformation.

With his ambitious economic plans, President Paul Kagame is transitioning the country from a subsistence agriculture based society to an “African Silicon Valley” with focus on tech entrepreneurship and education. He has also cultivated relationships with many important policymakers and business leaders throughout the world leading to unique investments and aid.

According to the World Bank, this has led to an average growth rate of 7.66 percent over the last three years, well above both the international and regional averages.

While Rwanda’s economic success has amazed onlookers and left policymakers across the developing world attempting to replicate it, Kagame’s governance style has become increasingly dictatorial and intolerant of dissent.

The contrast between Kagame’s success in cultivating friendships with policymakers and business leaders in the West and his tyrannical leadership style has led the world to look twice, with prominent news outlets releasing major analysis pieces with titles such as “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman,” “Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s Redeemer or Ruthless Tyrant?” and “The Darling Tyrant.”

Unfortunately, the on-the-ground reality is much less eloquent.

Over the last 14 years of Kagame’s rule, the country’s political arena has been dominated by one party, the President’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, while forcing many challengers out of politics using brutal means.

One-Party State

In one example, in the most recent round of presidential elections in 2010, Kagame won with nearly 93 percent of the vote. The election was monitored by the Commonwealth, which, according to the BBC, found “no intimidation.”

However, the Commonwealth observers noted a “lack of critical opposition voices” during the campaign because the damage had been done prior to Election Day. The two most candidates who received the most votes after Kagame both had ties to his party and any actual opposition had been barred from participation, some in a brutal fashion.

According to a statement from the American National Security Council’s spokesman Mike Hammer, the Council was “…concerned…about a series of disturbing events prior to the election, including the suspension of two newspapers, the expulsion of a human rights researcher, the barring of two opposition parties from taking part in the election, and the arrest of journalists.”

The Council’s “concern” did not even mention the most troubling allegation against the ruling party. An opposition politician was found dead, nearly beheaded, near the Burundi border, in the run-up to the election. While the government officially denied any involvement, the brutal murder of Democratic Green Party Vice President Gakwe Rwisereka no doubt sent a message to any serious challengers to the ruling regime.

The murder of Rwandan regime opponents has become increasingly commonplace. In recent months a diplomatic row has developed between Rwanda and South Africa due to attacks on Rwandan regime opponents seeking asylum in South Africa.

On New Year’s Eve a former Kagame confidant and Rwandan Intelligence Chief Patrick Kareyega, was murdered in his hotel room. Then, in early March, another attack occurred in the residence of former Rwandan Military Chief Faustin Nyamwasa, another former member of Kagame’s inner circle.

Exile Assassinations?

While the government has officially denied any involvement, when asked about Kareyega’s death, Kagame told Kenya’s The Nation “When you betray the government, you betray the people of Rwanda. The fact that these people live in exile has consequences. They are not at peace,” and further told the Wall Street Journal that while Rwanda did not kill him he “…wish[es] Rwanda did it.”

A major part Kagame’s rule has been the not-so-distant memory of 1994.

While proponents of his leadership style would say that he is attempting to foster a sense of nationality, where “Rwandan” is more important than “Hutu” or “Tutsi,” critics call it a bald faced method of political dominance. Kagame’s Tutsi ethnic group is tremendously overrepresented at all levels of governance and often those that point out such dominance are accused of “fostering divisionism” a vague crime that has, in practice, been used to silence dissenters and opposition politicians.

The memory of the genocide has been two-pronged for Kagame’s leadership. He has both been able to use it to silence dissent through the aforementioned “divisionism” laws and has used Western guilt for lack of action to foster aid and investment relationships and silence foreign critics.

While Kagame’s leadership has led the country past the economic destruction of those three months in 1994, his tyrannical style has flown in the face of democracy and human rights. If there is to be any progress made in this arena his high powered friends in the West must become willing to criticize his dictatorial tendencies. Otherwise Rwanda will have difficulty moving past “The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman” and his one party state.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.