Has President Kagame Really Solved Rwanda’s Ethnic Tensions?

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is, no doubt, one of Africa’s most impressive leaders. With so many reputable achievements to his name, what clearly stands out – and what most records converge on – is the fact that, from the year 2000 when he took over power, he has successfully guided Rwanda from a failed state ravaged by longstanding conflicts and a genocidal war to a prosperous middle-income-earning country and one of Africa’s hub of development in the 21st century. This has won for him the hearts of many African nationalists for achieving, within the space of two decades, what is a dream for many African countries including giants like Nigeria.

Paul Kagame was born on October 23rd 1957 in Ruanda-Urudi, the last child of six children of a Tutsi family. But when he was two years, there was a revolution which brought about the age-long dominance of the Tutsi in Rwanda. There were palpable tensions in the country at the time and violence directed against the Tutsis. For this reason, Kagame’s family fled Rwanda to Uganda. It was in Uganda that Paul Kagame grew up, enlisted in the army in the 1980s, and fought on the side of the rebels who helped President Yoweri Museveni take over power. Later, he joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Paul Kagame was to become the leader of RPF after its leader, Rwigyema died early in the war. And, through this position, he came to play a pivotal role in negotiating the ceasefire which ended the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where between 500,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

Paul Kagame served as the Vice President and Rwanda’s de-facto leader from 1994 to 2000. He officially ascended the seat of presidency in 2000. Kagame has also been credited to have restored unity to Rwanda together with having spearheaded her economic resurgence in his so-far two decades timeline as president. The former he has achieved by strategically erasing the tensions left in the

country after the genocide by forgiving its perpetrators and seeking for redress of the wound of the victims. The latter, he has achieved, according to analysts, through continuous commitment to reforms, creation of a good business environment and implementation of a strategy to raise productivity and diversification of services. President Kagame had set a long-term target of making Rwanda a middle-income earning country by 2020. And reports show that the Rwandan economy as of 2010 was on a trajectory of steady growth, having expanded by 45.6 per cent from $5.77 billion in 2010 to $8.4 billion in 2016, amidst significantly reducing poverty levels. A 2015 report by Mc Veigh also shows that as of 2013, the country is developing strongly on key indicators, including health care and education; annual growth between 2004 and 2010 averaged 8% per year.

But, while President Kagame has since gotten on the good books of many African nationalists, he also has some ardent critics who accuse him of being one of the most repressive presidents in Africa. President Kagame’s critics have accused him of trampling on fundamental human rights and freedom of expression in the country. Reportedly since the two decades of President Kagame’s reign, eight journalists have been killed or have gone missing, 11 have been given long jail terms, and 33 forced to flee Rwanda. Political opponents are dealt ruthlessly with and others have either been forced to flee or have died under mysterious circumstances. And despite the economic growth and relative peace which the country has enjoyed under President Kagame, the country is yet to attain real democratic status.

President Kagame has currently ruled Rwanda for 20 years. After his first tenure as a democratically elected president ended in 2010, he sought re-election for another term in office for which he was eligible. And in 2015, a referendum was staged by his government, allegedly signed by over 3 million Rwandans asking for President Kagame to remain in office. Due to this new reform, President Kagame could remain in office till 2034. Although President Kagame has won the elections which kept him in office by a landslide (95.1% in 2003, 93.08% in 2010 and 98.79%), there are speculations that the elections have not been free and fair and have been largely controlled processes tailored to keep Kagame in power. The president’s critics have alleged that one of the reasons President Kagame is so keen on holding on to power is because he has failed in his mission to end the ethnic tensions which led to the Civil war around 1990 and the genocide in 1994. According to an anonymous critic cited in a 2017 report by BBC, ‘Rwanda is still heavily divided along ethnic lines, and in a free election, Mr Kagame would not win. For the president, it would signal that his biggest political mission – to end the ethnic divisions that caused the genocide – had failed. And probably this fear, more than any other, is driving him to repel threats to his rule.’ The same critic is also quoted to have said, “Kagame’s biggest mistake has been to say that we are Banyarwanda [all Rwandans]. He is ignoring the root cause of the problem: The tribe. How can anyone say there is no tribe in Rwanda?’

One wonders in the midst of President Kagame’s success, what truly is the future of Rwanda whenever he leaves office. If President Kagame has to remain in office for more ten years after two decades and has been a bit intolerant to his political opponents in order to keep checking the country’s ethnic problems the way he has done, could his critics, then, be right to say he has failed in that regard? A successful political tenure is one in which the pioneers can confidently leave office, confident of the system they have built, to have moulded worthy successors. Paul Kagame seems not to be satisfied with himself in this regard and certainly doesn’t feel secure enough to leave office.

While President Kagame’s performance is a source of pride to most African nationalists, it is not out of place to inquire if in the process of moving on from one mistake, an equivalent mistake is not being made. History is replete with issues that have been repressed by prosperous governments coming back to haunt the ignorant populace. It is a valid worry to ask what plans President Kagame has to ensure that the peace Rwanda currently enjoys under his government outlives his many tenures as president. There have been some prices for this peace, some of which involve, not very pleasant speculations – of which he has been accused of repression. Sustainable progress can only be maintained by lasting peace. And whether President Kagame has found the lasting solution to Rwanda’s ethnic tensions remains to be known.

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer and journalist and can be reached at chukwuderamichael@ gmail.com.

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