Rwanda confounds its critics

While people across the world have been vowing this month that genocide, as took place in Rwanda 10 years ago, must never be allowed to happen again, two countries in Africa — Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan – stand on the brink of new social and political catastrophes from ethnically manipulated contests for land and power. The entire opposition and rebel members in Côte d’Ivoire’s fragile government of national reconciliation have just quit, while in Darfur province in western Sudan tens of thousands of black Sudanese are being killed or forced into exile in Chad by Arab Sudanese militias.

Rwanda’s political miracle of transcending half a century of such ethnic manipulation in a decade should, this month in particular, be the focus of attention for those concerned about the future of the continent. The usual calls for more outside military intervention — by the UN in Sudan or to bolster French troops in their former colony of Côte d’Ivoire — will not solve the profound political problems in these countries, any more than they have solved the deep political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Last autumn, Rwandans gave a resounding electoral victory to President Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The voters, to the surprise of most experts, bucked the trend of ethnic voting in Africa. Rwandans explained to anyone who asked that they did so because they valued the stability and the attempts at justice for perpetrators of genocide.

Kagame has appointed Hutus from well-known political families to high positions in his governments of national unity, and sought the return of RPF opponents. His characterisation by George Monbiot in these pages as ”one of the world’s bloodiest war criminals” will come as a shock to people who know him and the region. There are certainly war criminals in Rwanda, but they are not in power. They are men back in their home towns and villages seeking forgiveness from neighbours for what they did during the genocide, and subsequently in a decade of mayhem in eastern DRC.

The politics of the past, and guilt over the west’s role in the genocide, play heavily in western attitudes to the RPF leadership — and are intensified by Kagame’s refusal to take lessons from westerners on how to run Rwanda. Many diplomats in Kigali and Kinshasa, the most influential researcher for the US-based Human Rights Watch organisation, exiled members of the previous regime, sections of the Catholic church and some big players in the UN and the EU, notably France, have long recycled accusations against the authorities in Kigali. Monbiot’s claim that ”we overlook the atrocious crimes committed by the government of Rwanda” certainly does not include these influential people.

The alleged crimes of the Rwandan army — massacres, rapes, looting — took place in neighbouring DRC, were reported by Kagame’s powerful enemies, and have been consistently denied and rebutted in Kigali. There is no documented evidence implicating the Rwandan government; there were egregious errors in the UN report on Congo cited by critics; and confusion between the disciplined Rwandan army and the chaotic rebel groups is either deliberately malicious, or ignorant.

In 1996, Rwanda, Uganda and Angola ousted the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire, only to see the new regime of Laurent Kabila, installed by them, turn against Rwanda and bring thousands of men involved in the genocide into his army to fight them. These men were recruited across the region, including from UN-run refugee camps. Their own accounts reveal that they believed they would overthrow the RPF government and finish the genocide of 1994. This was old ethnic Africa talking, and it was no coincidence that the troops included old hands from Idi Amin’s army in Uganda, part of a regime that survived by excluding, terrorising and killing people from the southern tribes that Amin feared.

Heavy fighting took place in DRC, not only involving this disparate army led by Kabila, father and son. Particularly in the east, tens of thousands of Hutu fighters, and the civilians they had taken with them in the flight from Rwanda in 1994, splintered into groups that allied with Congolese militias as well as others from Burundi. They preyed on the local population, carrying out appalling atrocities. The horror of what happened in the Kivus region, and is still happening in Ituri, is only too real, but translating it into figures or neat categories of responsibility by outsiders is an illusion. Anyone who works with Congolese at a local level knows that the key to the continuing violence, as to the past violence, lies in Kinshasa’s irresponsible power games.

Rwanda brought its troops back from DRC in 2002 and began demobilisation. The government has also attracted back tens of thousands of Rwandan rebels from eastern Congo, including recently the key leader, Major General Paul Rwarakabije. The success of the reintegration of these war criminals into a country unrecognisable from the ethnically divided one they left is another miracle.

  • Victoria Brittain is a research associate at the London School of Economics – Guardian Unlimited Â
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    Victoria Brittain
    Victoria Brittain works from Manchester/London/Cambridge. Theatre/Film Company. Territory, The Meeting, The Proposal, Wrecked, Terminal. Watch Territory here Victoria Brittain & @_ReubenJohnson Victoria Brittain has over 512 followers on Twitter.

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