BY JEFFREY SMITH
“In Rwanda, politics is a dangerous life-or-death game.”
These stark words stand out among the many chilling passages and personal testimonies that dot Susan Thomson’s insightful, deeply researched book, Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace.
Dr. Thomson, an associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University, has written extensively on Rwandan affairs, and this latest contribution is a significant one. She has also paid the price, having been a frequent target of harassment, intimidation and ominous threats from Rwandan government figures and paid cheerleaders on social media (for what it’s worth, there is a portion of the book on Rwanda’s social media trolls, which I found particularly interesting). While Thomson does not raise her personal experience in the book, it is nonetheless important for me to highlight here. For not only is this book an excellent resource on historical and modern-day Rwanda, but it also represents a brave endeavor. Having been the target of vile attacks myself; I truly appreciate the courage that Thomson has exhibited.
But I digress.
One may best view Thomson’s contribution as a companion piece to two recent books that have highlighted and vigorously documented the growing authoritarianism under President Paul Kagame; most notably, Judi Rever’s In Praise of Blood (Penguin/Random House 2018) and Anjan Sundaram’s Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship (Anchor, 2016).
Perhaps no other leader on the African continent — or indeed the world — is as divisive and as profoundly controversial as Paul Kagame, who has wooed heads of state from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair and the world’s most influential philanthropists like Bill Gates, despite his regime’s rampant human rights abuses and vicious crackdown on dissent. Disappearances and assassinations of critics and one-time allies — both at home and abroad —have become the norm. Crucially, Thomson rightly reminds the reader that this trend has long been a feature under successive regimes that predate Kagame.
Paul Kagame first rose to prominence as a deputy chief of military intelligence in Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni (a similar long-ruling despot who has been in power since 1986). In fact, much of Rwanda’s current leadership, under the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), formed their initial bonds while living in exile in the refugee camps of southern Uganda. Upon being dismissed from his position in late 1989 — a period that Thomson details in-depth — Kagame and his colleagues began to plan in earnest their audacious invasion of Rwanda in order to retake the country from the supremely repressive Juevenal Habyarimana regime. For American readers, it might be of interest to learn that when armed forces entered the country on October 1, 1990, Kagame was actually in the U.S., training at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Ultimately, the Rwandan civil war, which then raged from 1990-1994 ultimately culminated in the 100-day genocide that entirely ravaged and continues to scar the country today.
That the Rwandan genocide did not occur in a vacuum is a point rightly stressed by Thomson. What we perceive today as fact – gleaned from Hollywood movies, western media reports, and RPF propaganda – is the story of “heroism in the face of rabid Hutu extremists bent on exterminating hapless Tutsi.” This manufactured history, on the part of RPF elites and its powerful media allies, has unfortunately had the effect of reducing the genocide “to a singular event rather than the brutal outcome of a series of complex historical, structural, political, economic and cultural processes.” The manner in which the Kagame regime has subsequently entrenched its power, following nationwide elections in 2000, has robustly enforced this revised narrative. In Thomson’s estimation, this process has laid the groundwork for future unrest in the country. Indeed, as Thomson points out from the beginning: “Assessing whether RPF rule could result in future episodes of mass political violence is the subject of this book.” And the prognosis is certainly dark.
While history may not exactly repeat itself, it does have the tendency to rhyme. And this is another theme that Thomson touches on throughout the book. In her own words: “Kagame’s autocratic manner penetrates the lives of Rwandans in much the same way as did those who preceded him: the head of state is to lead his people toward reason and eliminate enemies by terror.” What is more, just as Paul Kagame does today, former President Habyarimana had a “coterie of military leaders advising him on political and social affairs,” including how to silence a critical press and crush civil society. More disturbing: “Not unlike 1994, the international community is again funding violence in Rwanda. Under the RPF, violence is not derived from a policy of mass extermination but fanned from the embers of exclusion and resentment.”
Thomson also crucially reminds us that nearly six decades after achieving independence, Rwanda has yet to experience a peaceful transfer of political power, which results in a prevailing “sense of dread for many.”
To be sure, for over two decades, Paul Kagame has skillfully played on the sympathy of foreign friends, portraying “his people” as the sole victims of genocide, shoring himself and his allies up in the process as otherwise “blameless leaders.” Kagame has indeed exploited these feelings of shame — with successive U.S. presidents and UN Generals Secretary, as well as foreign donors and development partners — to dubiously justify his repressive policy choices that are made in the name of national security and economic development. Put simply: “Kagame is the CEO of Rwanda, running the country like a private corporation.” You are consequently either on board with his plan, or you will be dealt with accordingly. In Kagame’s own words: “If you say things that destroy the Rwanda we are building, we shall destroy you.”
As one genocide survivor aptly says in the book: “To survive in this country is to know how to walk on eggs without breaking them. If you break the eggs, trouble is around the corner.”
There has been much to think about since setting aside Dr. Thomson’s book. Its details and testimony will undoubtedly stick with the reader long after the last page is read. Among the many thoughts I have had is this one: How can world leaders — funders and donors and major development organizations alike — continue to justify investing resources and money, totaling over $1 billion in 2015, into a regime that clearly does not take seriously the human rights of all Rwanda’s people, nor democratic principles more broadly. This flawed approach is at odds with African human rights norms and other legal mechanisms on the continent; it also flies in the face of widely accepted democratic principles and 21st century notions like responsible sovereignty.
The Kagame regime surely needs to reform. But so too does the international system that has long enabled this profoundly anti-democratic regime to propagate unchecked.
Writer is founding director of Vanguard Africa and the Vanguard Africa Foundation and this piece first appeared at Vanguard Africa