Rwanda's Brave New World

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which the government slaughtered over half a million people in 100 days, only one force stood between the country's ethnic Tutsi minority and complete annihilation. It was neither the United States nor the United Nations, both of which turned their backs. It was the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a guerrilla army of mostly Tutsi exiles based in neighboring Uganda, led by Paul Kagame. Though outgunned and outmanned, the RPF smashed the genocidal regime, sent its remnants scurrying in disarray and seized power.

The quiet and unassuming Kagame, a brilliant battlefield tactician whose family fled to Uganda during anti-Tutsi pogroms 40 years ago, is now president of Rwanda. On Feb. 5, he will visit Harvard's Institute of Politics and likely share with audiences his vision of a Rwanda without ethnicity.

Faced with a society warped by division between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, Kagame and his followers long ago concluded that the only hope for the future lay in making a clean break with the past and erasing ethnicity from the political discourse. He has argued that both ethnic groups should focus on their shared language, culture and homeland.

No one thought undoing these prejudices would be easy or without risks, but even during my brief time in the country, it was apparent that the bold attempt to remake Rwandan society, once so promising, has raised serious doubts.

Some have charged that Kagame's emphasis on merit over ethnicity simply hides the influence of Rwanda's Tutsi minority. But in dividing Rwandan politics into undifferentiated Hutu and Tutsi camps, these critics miss the point: the most important positions in Rwanda (as well as a disproportionate share of places in government, the army and schools) are held by Tutsi raised in exile, not the Tutsi who endured years of discrimination in Rwanda and lived through the genocide.

The two groups have little in common. Survivors' associations have accused the government of milking international sympathy over the genocide for political gain while failing to adequately care for those who suffered. Meanwhile, the speaker of parliament, a Tutsi genocide survivor, has sought asylum abroad, alleging that corruption charges against him were trumped up. The vice president of Ibuka (meaning "Remember!" in Kinyarwanda), the leading survivors' association, also fled the country early last year after his brother was assassinated by men in military uniform.

While trying (with only limited success) to suppress divisions of ethnicity and region, the government has simply created yet another fissure by supporting this new elite of Rwandans raised outside the country. This is understandable; after all, the RPF was founded because the previous regime would not allow these exiles, mostly Tutsi expelled at the time of independence, to return. Moreover, much of the old elite either perished in the genocide or had been involved in perpetrating it. Yet the tension, suspicion and mutual alienation between ordinary Rwandans and returnees is very real, putting the RPF at risk of being cast as conquerors rather than liberators and undercutting the legitimacy they accrued in stopping the genocide.

What is even more disturbing is that in reinventing Rwandan society, the RPF sometimes relies on the same authoritarian structures that made the genocide possible in the first place. Forget the stereotypes of "tribal chaos" and "failed states" that are used to describe the massacres. Mobilizing hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to slaughter their neighbors every day for three months required a dense, centralized network of administration.