Big Gamble in Rwanda

One morning last summer, while staying at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, I heard a great commotion below my first-floor window. I looked out, and saw a crowd of about one hundred distraught people pressing around a man who was dressed in a Canadian army uniform and wore the blue beret of a United Nations peacekeeper. Desperation was etched on their faces as they shouted at him in various languages.

This hotel is under the protection of the United Nations!” the officer barked. “There’s no danger!”

I walked quickly downstairs, and as I passed the officer, I saw the name on his uniform: Dallaire. A few steps away, just outside the hotel gate, crude roadblocks made of logs and wrecked cars had suddenly appeared. Crazed-looking young men with bulging eyes clustered around them, waving clubs and machetes. They eyed the gate menacingly, looking ready and eager to kill.

These figures were all actors in a film that is being made of the book Shake Hands with the Devil, an impassioned account of the United Nations’ pathetic response to the 1994 genocide written by General Roméo Dallaire,1 who was then commander of the UN peacekeeping force. Even though I knew I was witnessing a recreation of events that unfolded twelve years earlier, the scene was a powerful reminder of how far Rwanda has come since the enormous horror that was visited upon it.

After the slaughter of 1994, which ended when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front overthrew the Hutu government and seized power, Rwanda seemed likely to become either a Tutsi dictatorship or a failed state torn apart by ethnic warlords. Instead, it is stable and full of ambition. The central figure in its rebirth, President Paul Kagame, has emerged as one of the most intriguing leaders in Africa. He preaches a doctrine of security, guided reconciliation, anti-corruption, and above all a drive toward self-reliance that he hopes will free his country from its heavy dependence on foreign aid. This program has produced economic growth rates of 5 percent a year, and has won Kagame a fervent base of support among some development experts in the United States.

Josh Ruxin, the former director of a health program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, is so enthusiastic about Rwanda’s prospects that he has pulled up stakes and moved here. He runs a “Millennium Village” project in a rural part of the country that serves as a laboratory for the development strategies of Columbia University economist and anti-poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs.

I’ve worked in fifty countries,” he told me, “and I think this is the only country on the planet that stands a chance of migrating from extreme poverty to middle income in the space of the next fifteen years.”

Yet at the same time, the Rwandan government has been criticized by human rights groups and other observers for restricting free speech and political action. Before the 2003 presidential election, the man who would have been Kagame’s principal opponent was jailed on corruption charges. Political parties may not appeal to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics.

This contrast is striking in today’s Rwanda. Many outsiders believe that no other poor country is embarked on such a promising campaign to improve itself, and are thrilled with what President Kagame is doing. Others, however, are deeply skeptical. On a continent where development efforts have failed so spectacularly for so long, and where vast multitudes live in seemingly hopeless poverty, Rwanda’s contradictions embody a great conundrum.

With a dense population and few natural resources, Rwanda must rely on human development if it is to prosper. Kagame and other government leaders looked to top-down Asian models, especially Singapore and China, as they designed their ambitious anti-poverty plan. It rests first of all on security. The government keeps close watch on people it considers suspicious, limits their access to big towns, and periodically picks up street children and requires them either to return to their villages or accept vocational training in courses sponsored by the Red Cross. As a result of these and other measures, Kigali is probably the safest city in Africa today, and Rwanda one of the safest countries in the world. That makes foreign investors and entrepreneurs confident about moving to Rwanda. So many have arrived that this year an international school opened for their children.

Kagame believes Rwanda can rise to prosperity by becoming the trade and commercial hub of East and Central Africa, regions awash in economic resources including gold, diamonds, and a spectacular variety of minerals but plagued by inefficiency, corruption, and poverty. His strategy is to build a modern network of road, rail, and air connections; improve the education system, especially in science and information technology; encourage private investment; and oversee all of this with a state that is honest, impartial, and transparent.

Rwanda is still wretchedly poor, and tensions between its Hutu and Tutsi citizens still simmer beneath the surface. But some aid and development specialists have begun to see the country as a possible African success story. They are streaming in to build schools, open businesses, and organize development projects.

Go to the Congo, and every time you want to do anything, you have to pay under the table,” said Cathy Emmerson, a Canadian woman who runs a souvenir store and a small development project in the northern town of Ruhengeri. “Here you not only have a government that isn’t going to put its hand in your pocket, it actually encourages you.”

Other Americans are drawn to Rwanda through religious conviction. They see it as a place where people who have been through a devastating tragedy are now being redeemed by an almost unfathomable process of reconciliation. Rick Warren, the influential evangelical preacher and author of the Christian best seller The Purpose-Driven Life, is encouraging his followers to support projects in Rwanda; he has embraced Kagame (who does not attend church regularly) as a “wonderful Christian leader” and asserted that Kagame’s energy is proof that “God is blessing Rwanda.” Others, including a group that raised $5 million in Arkansas for a bank that will lend money to poor Rwandans, were attracted by the country’s most prominent clergyman, Bishop John Rucyahana, a charismatic, American-trained Anglican who says that God sent Kagame “to heal this nation and make it an example for all of Africa.”

The genocide deeply touched our hearts,” said Reverend Ian Cron, the pastor of Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, which has sent about one hundred of its four hundred parishioners on missions to Rwanda. “Kagame has done a good job of putting that country back together, so it’s fertile ground for transformation in ways that a lot of other poor third-world countries are not.”

While I was in Rwanda last summer, Bill Clinton dropped in to visit a hospital that his foundation runs near the village of Rwinkwavu. President Kagame told me that Clinton “feels some kind of guilt that he did not help Rwanda as much as he should have at the time he had the means and capacity to do that.” A few days later, Bill Gates showed up and announced that his foundation would spend $900,000 to build a medical center where doctors and technicians from across the region will be trained in treating infectious diseases.

This constellation of support has opened doors for Kagame in Washington. He has visited the White House three times in the last four years, and heard President Bush call him a “man of action” who can “get things done.” Rep. Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, chairman of the House subcommittee dealing with Africa, recently praised him as “a moral leader” who “has done an outstanding job of moving Rwanda forward” and “is well loved by the people of his country.”

Amid this enthusiasm for the new Rwanda, however, there is also doubt. According to Amnesty International, human rights advocates in Rwanda have been “forced to flee the country for fear of being persecuted or arbitrarily arrested”; journalists “face intimidation and harassment for articles criticizing government policy”; and thousands of Rwandans suspected of war crimes have fled to neighboring countries “because of suspicion of the authorities and rumors of politically motivated ‘disappearances.’” Human Rights Watch asserts that the government has “equated ‘genocidal ideology’ with dissent from government policy” and “continued to detain persons without charge in violation of Rwandan law.” Freedom House says “transitional justice has been largely one-sided in Rwanda,” and sees a “downward trend” in respect for civil liberties. The human rights analyst Samantha Power has written in these pages that while pursuing justice against Hutu extremists, the government has made it difficult for witnesses to testify against Tutsi soldiers indicted for war crimes by the UN tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.2 Reporters Without Borders, which ranks countries according to their level of press freedom, places Rwanda 122nd out of 167 countries surveyed.

Three years ago, Noël Twagiramungu ran the Kigali office of a private human rights group, Ligue des Droits de l’Homme dans la Région des Grands Lacs. Today he lives near Boston. By his own account, he fled Rwanda after being told that intelligence agents were plotting to kill him in order to stop his investigations. “Kagame is governing the country as a strongman,” he told me. “His will is law. Everyone is fearful, afraid of him.” Twagiramungu asserted that the Rwandan Patriotic Front has not lived up to the promises of democracy that its leaders made while they were fighting for power in the early 1990s:

You have to put this into context and go back to Rwanda in the period before the war…. We were told, “We’re working and committed to the development of the country, but we cannot open democratic space because that will create a vacuum we cannot manage.”

…In 1990, Kagame’s guys started a war. They said they were fighting for free, democratic speech and human rights values. How can you understand that the same guys who fought for democratic freedoms now have to develop the same argument as their predecessors? “No freedom of speech or democratic space, that’s not possible in our country because what matters is security and development.” It’s really a step back.

Rwanda, as the French historian Gérard Prunier writes in his book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide,3 “is not an ‘ordinary’ African country, supposing that such a thing exists.” It is very small, with 8.8 million people packed into a land about the size of Maryland. Its climate is moderate, it has few jungles, and slave traders never penetrated into its territory. Rwanda is landlocked, and for much of its history it was isolated from the world; the first European did not arrive until 1892. It has neither great mineral wealth nor space for large-scale agriculture.

Early European explorers found in Rwanda a highly organized, monarchical society governed by a class of people who seemed so clever and sophisticated that they did not fit existing stereotypes of Africans. These were the Tutsi, who made up about 15 percent of the population and ruled a land where the large majority was of another group, the Hutu. Europeans took this as proof of primitive racial theories that were then in vogue. They were, Prunier writes, “quite smitten with the Tutsi,” finding them a “superior race” of people who were “meant to reign,” possessed “a refinement of feelings which is rare among primitive people,” and had “an absolutely distinct origin from the negroes.” The Hutu, by contrast, were seen as “less intelligent, more simple, more spontaneous, more trusting…extroverts who like to laugh and lead a simple life.” Ignorant of the complex web of mutual obligation that had bound Tutsi and Hutu together for generations, European colonizers placed one group in direct control of the other.

Rwanda was a German colony from 1897 to 1916, and then fell under Belgian rule. The Belgians used finely marked rulers and calipers to measure the height of foreheads, width of noses, and other facial features that they believed would allow them to place every Rwandan in a category. In 1933 they made the fateful decision to issue identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu (a very small number belong to a third group, the Twa). In 1994 these cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them.

In the 1950s, as the decolonization of Africa was approaching, the Belgians changed their Rwanda policy. Moved in part by new egalitarian impulses that made them see Tutsi domination as undemocratic, and also by fears that educated Tutsi were turning toward Marxism, they encouraged a rising sense of Hutu grievance. Finally they decided, in the words of John Bale, author of Imagined Olympians, “to switch their support to the educated Hutu.” After ruling for generations through the Tutsi, they reversed themselves and made the Hutu masters of Rwanda just before granting the country independence in 1962. Bale writes:

Hutu militancy increased, as did opposition to the monarchy. The existing system of Tutsi advantage was challenged. It was now Hutu who increasingly felt they could re-write history…. They represented Tutsi as Aryan “immigrants” or “invaders.” …The power base had shifted to the Hutu elite. This was a turning point in the political history of Rwanda…. One can thus view the subsequent ethnic cleansing and genocide as horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s.

After independence, government-sponsored Hutu gangs carried out periodic massacres of Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled the country. Those who remained were given a subservient status much like that imposed on blacks in South Africa. They became second-class citizens and were denied full rights to education, employment, and travel. Whenever extremist or corrupt Hutu politicians needed a scapegoat, or wished to divert attention away from their misdeeds, they attacked the Tutsi minority.

More than 80,000 Tutsi took refuge in Uganda, which is across Rwanda’s northern border. By the 1980s, many found themselves trapped by two suffocating realities: exile in a hostile country was intolerable, but return home was impossible. A group of them formed an army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and on October 1, 1990, this army crossed into Rwanda and launched a guerrilla war. Paul Kagame, whose parents had fled with him to Uganda when he was two years old and who grew up in refugee camps, emerged as the RPF leader.

The insurgency gained strength, and President Juvénal Habyarimana felt compelled to accept a peace accord under which Hutu and Tutsi would share power. This enraged many militant Hutu, and on April 6, 1994, Habyarimana was assassinated when his plane was shot down near the Kigali airport. The killers have never been identified. Most suspicion is focused on radicals within the ruling Hutu group, but some suspect Kagame’s rebels. Kagame has denied involvement. “I did not do it,” he replied when a Canadian interviewer asked him, “and I had no reason to do so.”

In November 2006, a French antiterrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, issued a stunning accusation that Kagame and nine of his associates had planned the attack on the plane. Although Kagame, as a head of state, has immunity under French law, the public prosecutor’s office in Paris approved the judge’s request for international arrest warrants for the nine others. Bruguière, who had been investigating the downing of the aircraft on behalf of the families of the plane’s French crew, based his charges on the testimony of former members of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front. He did not consider other suspects or visit Rwanda. After he issued his charges, Rwanda broke diplomatic relations with France.

Judge Bruguière’s charges came just a few weeks after Kagame’s government opened an official inquiry into France’s role in the 1994 genocide. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy insisted that filing the charges was a “judicial decision” and not “the result of a political decision by the French government.” The two governments, however, are deeply hostile. Kagame is defying France by leading Rwanda out of the Francophone sphere and toward membership in the British Commonwealth, and has never forgiven France for its support of the old regime. In a damning new book called Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide, the British journalist Andrew Wallis asserts that France was “supporting a regime of killers for four years,” and that it bears “a great responsibility for the genocide.” Judge Bruguière’s charges, which have been admitted as evidence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, may be the latest volley in this diplomatic war.

Within an hour after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in 1994, the genocide began. Over the next one hundred days, at least 800,000 Rwandans, the great majority of them Tutsi, were slaughtered in an orgy of violence directed by the country’s senior leaders. The UN peacekeeping force was pitifully weak and unable to prevent the slaughter. Its failure haunted General Dallaire, who suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide several times after returning home.

In mid-July 1994, Kagame’s RPF finally routed the Rwandan army and put an end to the genocide. It proclaimed a new government in which the president and prime minister, along with fourteen of the other twenty ministers, were Hutu. For much of the next six years, Kagame and his comrades concentrated on suppressing a powerful Hutu counterinsurgency. Slowly, however, they lost patience with what they saw as the government’s loose ethics and plodding, business-as-usual approach to the urgent challenges of national development. After a series of clashes, President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000. Kagame, who had been vice-president, replaced him on an interim basis. In 2003, he took over as president following an election in which he won more than 95 percent of the vote. The constitution allows him two seven-year terms.

Post-genocide Rwanda faces an enormous challenge. The government estimates that two million Hutu are guilty of participating in mass murder. They could not possibly be investigated and tried within a reasonable time, nor would there be space to imprison them. Survivors cry out for justice, but justice could exacerbate group hatreds and even set the country back on the path toward apocalypse.

The Kagame government has settled on a system by which it classifies génocidaires according to their level of alleged guilt. Organizers and coordinators of the genocide face conventional trials, either in Rwanda or at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha. Lesser criminals, those who killed in their villages or guided death squads, may serve limited prison terms or none at all if they confess before local assemblies and show credible remorse. Political and religious leaders are urging people to forgive those who attacked them. An amazing number say they have.

In a remote and dusty village in Mbyo district, near the border with Burundi, I met a man and woman who were longtime neighbors. In 1994 the man, Xavier Nemeye, hacked to death the husband and four children of the woman, Rosaria Bankundiye. He tried to kill her as well, but she escaped with machete wounds in her skull. She told me that an itinerant Protestant pastor convinced her to forgive him.

Through God, we had the blessing of being able to reconcile with those who committed these acts,” she said, speaking slowly and with evident pain. “I don’t wish anything bad for him. If someone kills him, it will not be me.”

There was a long silence after she finished. Then her assailant began his account. “Considering what I did, if I had to sentence myself, even killing me would not be enough,” he said. “This was collective crime. I am guilty, and the government was guilty. The government planned the killing. I killed.”

Kagame’s government is counting on community trials, private acts of forgiveness, and growing prosperity to ease group tensions. Some doubt that will be enough. They warn that restrictions on political expression are feeding Hutu resentment and may lead to future conflict.

Edward McMahon, a University of Vermont professor who makes assessments of East African countries for Freedom House, told me that while he recognizes “the deep-rooted political polarization that occurred as a result of the genocide,” he believes Kagame’s government has “created more the appearance of democratic institutions than their reality.” The Kagame government, he continued, “has continually used the legacy of genocide as a justification” for restrictions on political opposition and civil liberties. McMahon worries that these restrictions could eventually undermine Rwanda’s recent recovery:

Over the medium to longer term you are likely to see increased corruption, the kind of political mistakes that occur in the absence of open dialogue, and the question of succession and political alternance not being resolved. Given this situation, there’s a very strong likelihood of renewed instability in the country.

Kagame’s defenders respond that too much democracy too soon will split Rwanda apart again. One who told me this was Tim Schilling, an agronomist from Texas who has spent the last four years in Rwanda organizing coffee cooperatives. “It’s necessary to have a little repression here,” he told me, “to keep the lid on” while Kagame’s economic development program takes hold:

There’s still a lot of bad feeling in this country. People never say anything, but it built up inside them for so many years, and that doesn’t just disappear overnight. If you let things go rampant here, genocide could happen again. There must be four million people out there who are ready to do something, given the right incentive and organization.

Many Rwandans feel this way. The editor of an independent newspaper, Shyaka Kanuma, who is the only Rwandan to win a Nieman fellowship to study journalism at Harvard, told me that for years he saw Kagame as “a power-hungry, self-serving guy,” but has now changed his view. “He has weaknesses, he has authoritarian tendencies, but he’s good for our country,” Kanuma said. “Some of the things he did to suppress opposition were necessary. We have people in our country who would do absolutely anything to get power.”

The Rwandan best known in the United States is probably Paul Rusesabagina, hero of the film Hotel Rwanda, which shows him sheltering terrified refugees inside the Hôtel des Mille Collines during the 1994 genocide. The film has made him something of a celebrity, and in 2005 President Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom. There is considerable debate over whether Rusesabagina actually saved the lives of people hiding at the hotel—even he says that he did no more than “help people”—but he has seized his opportunity. He has written a book, An Ordinary Man, asserting that there is “widespread injustice” in Rwanda, and calling Kagame a “classic African strongman” who governs “for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.” It is true that ultimate power in Rwanda is in the hands of Kagame and a small group of his Tutsi comrades, which creates an obvious political opportunity for ambitious Hutu like Rusesabagina. I visited him in Brussels, where he has lived for the last ten years, and came away with the sense that he wants to return to Rwanda and challenge Kagame, perhaps in the presidential election scheduled for 2010.

Any Hutu who can be an opposition leader, any Hutu who can plan, any Hutu who can implement a plan, any Hutu who is an intellectual or a businessman—always this is seen as a threat,” he told me. “I don’t see myself getting old in Belgium, being an old man here, with a small dog as my only friend.”

If President Kagame hopes to win a free election in 2010, he must persuade voters that old categories have no meaning in the new Rwanda. This may be a formidable challenge, as one diplomat in Kigali told me:

The official line is, “We are all Rwandans. Nothing else matters.” Many people accept that, but many others do not. Hutus are without power. They are the big majority, and they always held power before, so naturally they feel that something is not right. They feel excluded. They see this as a Tutsi regime, a regime of the small minority.

During my stay in Rwanda, I had several conversations with Kagame. People told me that although he is an indifferent public speaker, he is impressive in private, and I found that true. Physically he is tall and very thin—a legacy, he told me, of his childhood as an ill-fed refugee. He speaks softly and without much expression, but conveys a sense of controlled impatience and frustration:

Rwanda cannot have the majority of its people living on less than one dollar a day. It is simply unacceptable. You cannot have progress or a future when most of your people are just barely living. Yet apart from the mistakes of governance, leadership and politics, we have within us what it takes to develop. We aspire to be like others, like the developed world. There are countries we see that forty or fifty years ago were at the same level of development as our country. They have moved forward and left us behind. Why can’t we achieve that? That’s a question I constantly ask myself and other Rwandans.

In order to crush Hutu forces which had fled to the Congo (then Zaire) following their defeat in 1994, some of whom were waging cross-border war against his regime, Kagame ordered two large-scale attacks on refugee camps they dominated inside the Congo during the late 1990s. The first eventually resulted in the overthrow of the long-ruling tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko and his replacement by Laurent Kabila, who seemed more willing to crack down on Hutu militants in refugee camps. Kabila, however, did not deal with them as harshly as Rwanda had hoped, and that led to a second attack. These invasions resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. They also helped set off a decade-long conflict that has involved half a dozen countries and cost a staggering three million lives or more. When I asked Kagame if he regretted his actions in the Congo, he told me he had invaded only because the world community had refused to disarm Hutu militants or close their camps in the Congo:

We said to them, “Solve this problem for us. We have had genocide. Here is a situation that is going to repeat. We are going to see genocide taken to its completion. Help us.” …Not a single person, country or institution stood up against this with us….

My advice is that when you have problems, try to sort them out, because the international community never comes, or if it comes, it comes in the wrong way, at the wrong time.

Kagame was scornful when I asked him about charges that his government is repressive. Courts have banned some opposition parties, he insisted, only because they stirred up group hatred, not because they posed a political threat. As for former officials who are now in prison, including his predecessor, he insisted that every one was guilty of corruption. He argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression but underestimating the importance of stability and economic progress:

For me, human rights is about everything. Even languishing in poverty as a result of colonization and other situations of the past, violated human rights. If you solve that, you resolve the human rights issue. People in the West shy away from that, and don’t even want to talk about it. They run away from the significant blame that would be put on their shoulders. This is not just one person here or there. This is the killing of societies or nations we’re talking about. This constitutes the greatest violation of human rights.

The plunder of Africa has proceeded under a variety of names: slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, structural adjustment and neoliberalism. Kagame and his RPF believe they have found a way to escape from this cycle. The course they have chosen is at least as full of risk as it is full of promise. Over the next few years, it will be one of the most closely watched experiments in Africa.

—February 28, 2007


Rwanda: An Exchange May 31, 2007

  1. 1

    See the review by Guy Lawson, “Sorrows of a Hero,” The New York Review, May 26, 2005.

  2. 2

    See Samantha Power, “Rwanda: The Two Faces of Justice,” The New York Review, January 16, 2003.

  3. 3

    See the review by James Fenton, “A Short History of Anti-Hamitism,” The New York Review, February 15, 1996.