AUG. 18, 2017 — The elections earlier this month in the small African nation Rwanda, with a tragic history, call once more into question its likely future trajectory.
Rwanda’s president and top leader since 1994, Paul Kagame, and his party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, won re-election to his third seven-year term with some 99 percent of the vote. Even though the elections were in principle contested, the extent of that victory, and the strong-arm tactics that preceded it, make Rwanda a one-party state and Kagame one more African president for life, joining the likes of President Robert G. Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Teodorino Obiang Nguema in Equatorial Guinea and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.
The real problem lies in the fact that Rwanda has been ruled since 1994, and before 1959, by force by a 14 percent ethnic minority, the Tutsis. They rule over an 85 percent Hutu ethnic majority and a small group of Twa, sometimes known as pygmies. The vice presidential candidate of a party opposed to Kagame and the RPF was found beheaded before the elections.
The major complication in Rwanda in 2017 comes in the form of the fact that Kagame’s government has ruled the country of 13 million since it took over in 1994 very well in terms of economic development. When Kagame and the RPF came to power in 1994, Rwanda had been absolutely shattered as a society by a wave of genocidal killings carried out by the Hutus against as many as a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Now, Rwanda has become, in principle, English-speaking, as opposed to French-speaking, based in part on the language of the Tutsi leaders, returning from exile in English-speaking East Africa; the fact that Kagame and his colleagues saw English-speaking countries as the future; and, in part, on the fact that the Tutsis considered the French to be allies of the genocidal Hutu government that preceded them in power, from 1959 to 1994.
Rwanda has also become an African nation where, symbolically, the trains run on time. Investment is welcome, in an atmosphere of stability and rising prosperity, due in no small part to Kagame’s and his party’s strict rule.
So what is the bet? Is it on the Tutsis’ and Kagame’s continued ability to rule, reinforced in no small part by the majority Hutus’ fear of renewed violence and appreciation of the economic development? Or is it concern that once again Rwanda will return to rounds of inter-ethnic violence that occurred there in 1959 and 1994, fueled by a minority ruling an 85 percent majority largely by force? American governments don’t know and have been ambivalent, supporting the Tutsi government while expressing concern about the state of human rights in Rwanda.
The return of genocide would be a horror. At the same time, it would be irresponsible not to want to see democratic, participatory government as part of the picture of economic development that Rwanda represents. Then the question becomes, is that possible given the history and ethnic composition of the place? No easy answers.