By: Presley West
Rwanda today is a vastly different country than the one that faced massive devastation in the 1994 genocide that took the lives of over half a million people. Led by President Robert Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front a former rebel group that is now the ruling party, today’s Rwanda boasts a society in which there are no ethnic boundaries, no Tutsis or Hutus; only Rwandans living side by side.
Under Kagame’s rule, Rwanda has flourished, both economically and in the eyes of foreign political elites. Rwanda is still deeply impoverished, but child mortality rates have dropped by 70 percent. The economy grew by an average of 8 percent annually over a period of five years in the mid 2000s. Life expectancy increased from 36 years in 1994 to 56 in 2013, thanks to a national health care system and a massive anti-malaria initiative. Women in Rwanda hold 68% of seats in Rwanda’s lower house of Parliament—more than any other country in the world. Hailed by former US President Bill Clinton as a man who “freed the heart and the mind of his people,” Kagame is seen by most powerful international elites as a visionary who has transformed Rwanda into a post-conflict success story.
However, underneath Kagame and the RPF’s successful social re-engineering of a society once fractured by ethnic tension is a dark truth: current policies severely hinder the ability of Hutus to find social, political, or economic success; both domestic and foreign journalists face threats, legal action, violence, and forced disappearances for speaking out against government officials; and former intelligence leaders and policy makers who speak out against Kagame risk being murdered or disappeared, even after fleeing Rwanda due to personal choice or exile.
Kagame’s specific brand of social engineering has removed the construct of ethnicity from Rwandan society—and many Tutsis and Hutus alike identify only as Rwandans. While many would argue that such a social change was necessary for Rwanda to move forward after the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Tutsis perpetrated by the Hutus, the reality of the current state is that although ethnicity is not discussed publicly, it plays a large factor in how far one can advance in Rwandan society.
After the genocide, the Rwandan Patriotic Front established a gacaca court system—
a blend of traditional Rwandan Justice and western style legal jurisdiction—to give the Rwandan people agency in justice after the genocide and society building. Any Hutu wrongdoing that occurred during the genocide, no matter how small, was tried after the genocide, while any atrocities committed by the RPF and any wrongdoing committed by Tutsi were left out of the gacaca courts due to their designation as genocide justice courts. The courts brought justice to those convicted of wrongdoing in the genocide, but failed to bring justice to the large numbers of innocent people who lost their jobs and positions in society simply because they were accused of a crime they did not commit. With so many forced to leave daily society because of convictions or accusations of wrongdoing, the gacaca courts systematically excluded the Hutu population from economic or political power in post-genocide Rwanda. Today, Tutsis—who make up 15% of Rwanda’s population—live in largely cosmopolitan enclaves like Kigali, and control nearly all of Rwanda’s public and private sector.
Although journalists faced relatively few restrictions on coverage within Rwanda in the years following the genocide, conditions for journalists covering the country have drastically deteriorated since 2014. Threats, legal punishment, and disappearances affected local and foreign independent journalists alike, leading to self-censorship while covering Kagame and his administration. Although Rwanda’s constitution guarantees a free press, it also makes clear that public defamation of public officials can be punished legally through jail time and fines. The act of “divisionism”—a crime that could/would inspire conflicts within the population—carries an even longer sentence and heavier fining that defamation of public officials. While the law against divisionism was put into place with journalists’ role in perpetrating the genocide in mind, it is now wielded loosely by the government to silence the media.
Fears of being disappeared, jailed, or even murdered are not just felt by the media—critics of the RPF and government officials both in and out of Rwanda are at risk, too. Through the Rwandan government has denied any involvement in the attacks—including the high profile murder of Patrick Karegeya in 2014—the Human Rights Watch has “received reliable information indicating that the victims are likely to have been targeted because of their criticisms of the Rwandan government.”
While Rwanda’s economy, world status, life expectancy, and overall quality of life have improved exponentially since Kagame took power after the 1994 genocide, the threats faced by journalists, foreign officials, and former intelligence officers within the administration as well as the ongoing struggle for equal status in society by the Hutus show that Rwanda is not the nearly perfect post-conflict African success story that Rwanda’s government—and world leaders—portray it to be.