Rwanda 2014: Military Power Politics

(Originally published 18 April, 2014)

In my previous article we looked at the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide which took place between April – June of 1994, how it occurred and focused on how Hutu Power collaborating with Rwandan Government Forces conducted the mass extermination of the Tutsis and Hutu moderates. Now we consider the future of Rwanda, the legacy of the genocide, and the controversies surrounding the government of President Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) since they took power and what foreign onlookers are now starting to regard as another ‘ethnocracy’.

Let’s go back to the immediate aftermath of the mass killings. In just about one-hundred days 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were dead, millions more were refugees scattered across Central Africa and Rwanda was now the poorest country in the world, all infrastructure had been stripped, destroyed or pillaged. Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) and surrounding towns and countryside reeked death as countless bodies clogged the rivers, the stench of rotting flesh all-around as corpses, if not thrown into the mass-graves, baked in the tropical sunshine.

In a nut-shell Rwanda was now the archetypal ‘failed state’ and a paradise on earth was now a ghostly landscape, chillingly silent in the wake of self-destruction. Reconstructing the country would require immense economic, political, military vision and most importantly social reconciliation. How do you repair the community after such a personalised mass-slaughter where neighbours and families, every structure of society turned upon each other? One in five Hutu males were complicit in the slaughter of their countrymen.

This obstacles to re-construction also coincided with trouble brewing in Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of Congo) where a tragedy of equal, if not greater proportions were unfolding. The influx of refugees accompanied by a large segment of the previous genocidal regime fleeing in the wake of the RPF had made camp in the eastern Congo prompting a humanitarian crisis and the Congolese War. The genocidal elements occupying these refugee camps sole plan was to continue their work; that being the slaughter of Tutsis, many of whom had migrated to the Congo in both the 19th and 20th century both for economic opportunities due to the demographic density of Rwanda and to escape persecution at the hands of both Hutu officials and Belgian colonialists.

Hutu Power, the akuzu (the inner elements of the former government responsible for planning the genocide), and the Interahamwe keen to return to power in Rwanda were supported by an unlikely element; the international community whose humanitarian aid in the form of supplies, money, and more fell into the hands of the grateful murderers.

The refugee camps fast became military camps and the refugees who were innocent or wanted to return to Rwanda became human shields, those who tried to leave were often murdered by the militants. The international community instead of helping Kagame re-build the nation replenished those who had committed atrocities conjoining the internal problems with the external regional crisis consuming Central Africa.

For Kagame, strategy and military logistics dictated that these camps had to be dismantled and the refugees returned home to help re-assemble their country, or ultimately face trial for crimes against humanity. The RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) flexed its muscles and acted upon the sheer ineptitude of the international community already guilty of its previous indifference to the slaughter in Rwanda and proceeded to invade Zaire which saw the removal of President Mobutu.

This was then followed by the creation of several puppet factions within the Democratic Republic of Congo by from military headquarters in Kigali. These factions would be become pawns in Rwanda’s determination to maintain control both of the vast economic resources in the eastern Congo, influence the political scene in the Democratic Republic of Congo and bring those responsible for the genocide in Rwanda to justice.

On the face of it Kagame nicknamed ‘Africa’s Napoleon Bonaparte’ received acclaim from the majority of the international community. Between 1994-2003 he had stabilized a collapsed country, secured their interests abroad and against all the odds consolidated power in Kigali whilst his country, a tiny neighbour of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had punched above its weight in terms of influencing geo-political change. Above all he had uprooted the genocidal regime of Habyarimana along with all the extremists elements that accompanied it.

Something darker however co-existed with this triumph and has since pervaded Rwanda’s recovery, that Kagame for all his achievements has merely established a military ethnocracy, this time by the Tutsis. Though many Hutus are present in the current government and the first president following the genocide (Pasteur Bizimungu) was an ethnic Hutu, it is clear that the Tutsis and Kagame along with the RPA continue to dictate the political scene as essentially a de-facto one party state.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front has violated human rights, slaughtered many civilians in the wake of the genocide, murdered in excess those who criticise the regime, and has funded a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of Congo for its own gain.

The argument by the RPF that they are still bringing the former regime to justice is wearing thin, not to mention the use of the tragedy in 1994 as a shield against criticism to their actions externally (the funding of insurgences such as M23 in the Congo) or internally (the hamstringing of political opponents who if in exile die mysteriously abroad). The human rights of the prisoners were also shocking as they were jam-packed with both dissenters and killers.

In fact not only is it fascinating to hear that in recent years former allies of Kagame have described his regime as a a one party, arbitrary and secretive police state, but also to understand that the RPF engaged in systematic slaughter of the very people they were trying to save. Gerard Prunier, an expert on the Continental War (1994-2005) and the Rwandan Genocide claims that between early April and late September the RPF ‘killed between 25,000 and 45,000 people including Tutsi‘ with almost complete indifference to their plight. The selected killer teams, assembled the people for a “peace and reconciliation meeting” before indiscriminately slaughtering them and disposing of the corpses in mass graves or incinerating them.

It should be agreed that the international community, particularly the French, Belgium and the United States deserve condemnation; their inaction enough to suggest that morally they are certainly culpable as they so frequently claim to champion the halting of genocide, humanitarianism and moral righteousness. However using the legacy of the genocide as a pretext for political and economic objectivity is wrong and has blemished the memory of the genocide and Rwanda’s recovery even after two decades.

The military remains the main political tool of Paul Kagame’s regime and if you think about it, it does make sense. Kagame and his followers were born into and moulded by conflict, they have known war their entire lives fighting firstly for Uganda’s Museveni against Obote, secondly against the French and RGF under Habyarimana and thirdly against the RGF again during the genocide. It is only natural to think that men shaped by discipline and war would form an authoritarian/military dictatorship sculpted to some extent by our own guilt prompted by our failings in 1994. Kagame is not naturally a democrat, he is a military commander and a very good one at that.

Like Abraham Lincoln opinions will remain divided on whether his actions, like Kagame’s are justified a necessary evil to re-build a nation afflicted by civil war and in Rwanda’s case heal ethnic tensions. It is a delicate issue as it difficult to prove that Kagame was responsible for the reprisal killings in 1994 and the massacre at the Kibeho refugee camp. Nevertheless as Tzvetan Todorov quotes; “Vengeance settles nothing; its adds new violence to the old violence. On the contrary, it only prepares the way for new explosions.”

The RPA have been instigated in various massacres both in their own country and in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the most notorious off which being the Kibeho massacre (1995), where over 4,000 refugees composed of Rwandan civilians were slaughtered by members of the RPA. To this day the figure calculated by Kagame stands at 338 dead despite several eyewitnesses which included thirty-two Australian soldiers and medical officers.

In the Austrailian Army Journal, Paul Jordan stated; “While there little that we could have done to stop the killings, I believe that, if Australians had not been there as witnesses to the massacre, the RPA would have killed every single person in the camp.” Kibeho was a massacre (pictured below) that echoes Srebrenica the only difference being that the RPF were more  content to conceal their role in murdering their own civilians.

How far would you go to protect your nation’s interests and consolidate your own position in Africa’s by-enlarge Machiavellian jungle? Rene Lemarchand points out that ‘Rwanda’s military presence in eastern Congo continues to generate enormous resentment; both Congolese and the Rwandan Tutsi’ being ‘rescued’ by their government. It shouldn’t be doubted that Rwanda has made astounding progress under Kagame with continued ‘peace’, stability, substantial economic growth being positive traits attributed to his regime.

These feats seem impossible to fathom given the condition of Rwanda in 1994, but it has been done at considerable cost to his reputation in recent years. When will he give up his power and how long will peace last if he continues to dominate the political scene? Rwanda cannot banish the ghosts of its past if it does not adopt anything but authoritarian governments where military and political actions are exempt from criticism and those that do face repression, even death within the halls of power. “You cannot betray Rwanda and get away with it. There are consequences for betraying your country…..what remains to be seen is how you will fall victim..” were Kagame’s words in the wake of the discovery of Mr Karegeya (the former intelligence chief and a key member of the RPF) body in South Africa.

These are unnerving words for a man who claims to run a fair political society and Rwandan exiles abroad are terrified of the repercussions of criticism.

As onlookers, we can criticise the current government and how it has tarnished the memory of genocide (in any nation which has endured it, it is an issue of high sensitivity and tension) yet for those of us who live in a ‘civilised’ world it is almost impossible to fathom the sheer brutality of the violence that engulfed Rwanda in 1994.  It is difficult to imagine such carnage so physical and all-encompassing to every natural human sense.

How authoritarian would the United States government become in the wake of the slaughter of its people?  You only have to look at how militant Israel is in its foreign policy and part of that is the legacy of genocide, memories of vulnerability and the need to defend yourself from repetition even if the circumstances were extraordinary.

How would a nation come to terms with such violence?  Germany has engaged with its past progressively, whilst Japan and Rwanda continue to come to grips with the atrocities that they themselves have commited. Every culture’s genocide be it Asian, European or African in this case is different and you cannot compare each genocide or mass-slaughter perpetrated.

It seems that the regime paranoid of a return to violent ethnic conflict have become tyrannical.  Many Rwandan exiles abroad are fearful of retribution from Kagame’s government. Like an over-protective parent, the Rwandan Patriotic Front risks smothering its child denying it both the ability to develop and to come to terms with its traumatic past.

As Gerard Prunier perfectly places it; “The atrociousness  of Hutu Power’s ideology has tainted the victors…it has contaminated all social relations and perverted political calculations.” The result is an authoritarian, police state desperate to safe-guard its interests and that is not a peaceful state.

Matthew Williams