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.

Sadly, the RPF regime has retained much of this oppressive edifice. It has created civilian militia to help patrol rural areas, continued the practice of obligatory communal labor, and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of peasants into prefabricated settlements instead of the dispersed homes customary in Rwanda. Justified or not, these policies do nothing to loosen the hold of the state on Rwandan society. Reforming this structure could do more to prevent organized mass violence than anything else.

The RPF regime's desire to change this tradition of centralized authority is yet to be proven. Local elections in 1999 only affected the lowest and least important levels of government. Ballots were not secret and candidates could not represent political parties. The first real test of decentralization will take place in March, when Rwandans will elect approximately 100 commune leaders, the officials who wield real power at the local level.

In anointing itself as the architect of a new society, the government has perpetuated the infantilization of the Rwandan people. Earlier this year, an RPF official raised in Uganda told a Kennedy School audience: "Our country is like a baby... We are trying to build a country that was completely destroyed."

Speaking the language of paternalism and new beginnings is the luxury of revolutionary elites. For ordinary Rwandans who witnessed, perpetrated or survived the massacres, forgetting ethnicity is much more difficult, and cannot be done on their behalf by people who did not share their experiences.

In the aftermath of the genocide, with the graves still fresh and the path ahead uncertain, benevolent authoritarianism seemed a reasonable gamble taken by leaders with conviction. And given more time, it may even work. But after seven years, asking tough questions about the present is needed far more than simply admiring visions of the future.

Darryl Li '01 is executive director of the Harvard International Monitoring and Action Group. He spent the summer in Rwanda.