What keeps Rwanda tense?

What keeps Rwanda tense?
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame.

0n  July  1,  2012,  the  central African  republics  of Burundi  and  Rwanda marked  the  50th anniversary of their independence from Belgium.  The last 50 years have seen these two small countries defined by the outside world in terms of ethnic strife, military coups and mass displacement of the population.

It has not been a happy and peaceful 50 years for the most part.  However, the  general  picture  of  ethnic  conflicts has  tended  to  drown  out  certain details. For example, both Burundi and Rwanda have for decades practiced community work, which explains why they generally tend to be clean places.

Also,  a  lot  of  rich  history  and tradition  has  gone  unnoticed  by  the outside world. Western country studies and  reports  on  these  two  countries often emphasize the headline political, military and economic story and leave unsaid  the  societal  story  beyond  the historic  ethnic  tensions  between  the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi in both countries.

Kinyarwanda  and  Kirundi  culture are  rich  in  proverbs,  sayings  and  a sense  of  history,  elegant  traditional dances  and  other  traditions  that  come with  cattle-keeping  and  farming communities in Africa.

However,  there  is  no  denying  the fact  that  50  years  since  independence, there are still a lot of problems. For this article,  let  us  concentrate  on  Rwanda which  because  of  history  is  much better known in Uganda than Burundi. However, because of their Belgian colonial history and ethnic composition, what is true of Rwanda is generally true of Burundi.

Geography, history and economics are the fixed facts of Rwandan history. Among  the  critical  problems  still lingering from independence is the fact that  there  is  just  not  enough  physical room  for  everybody.  Rwanda is the most densely-populated country in Africa.

The buying and selling of land that is a casual matter in Uganda does not exist in Rwanda.  An ordinary person cannot just wake up and buy an acre of land in the capital Kigali. It is simply too expensive.

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On  top  of  its  heavy  population density,  it  is  also  landlocked,  like Uganda.  In that way, its international trade is totally dependent on neighbours both as a transit route for trade within the region and access to the sea.

In a forecast for various economies of the world in 2012, the U.S. credit ratings agency Standard & Poors in a December 29,  2011  assessment  of  Rwanda’s economy reported that exports account for  only  4.5  percent  of  Rwanda’s  total Gross Domestic Product. Which means Rwanda imports 95.5 percent of all its GDP.

As  of  2010  according  to  the  World Bank,  Rwanda’s  GDP  stands  at  $5.63 billion,  less  than  a  third  of  Uganda’s. (Uganda’s GDP is at $17.01 billion).

The  economic  story,  then,  is  now uppermost  on  the  minds  of  most Rwandans,  Hutu  and  Tutsi  alike. Secondly,  despite  the  tendency  by  the Ugandan  and  western  world  media to  focus  a  lot  on  Rwanda’s  post-1994 recovery, it remains a poor country.

All these historical, geographical and economic conditions have shaped Rwanda’s foreign policy, much more so after 1994. They are some of the factors that explain the exceptional sensitivity to criticism among the RPF government leadership.

There is logic to this paranoia. If the RPF, a military force for the 15 percent Tutsi could in four years overthrow the well-established Hutu army, how much more can it be if a Hutu military force were to rise up and attempt to seize power from the RPF?

This  is  partly  why  Rwanda  cannot take any chance with the FDLR militia of  former  Rwandan  army  troops,  now based  in  neighbouring  Democratic Republic of Congo.

All  efforts  are  made  to  label  the FDLR  a  terrorist  organization,  in  the hope  that  the  word  “terrorist”  after September  2001  will  draw  the  United States  into  any  spot  in  the  world  that terrorists are said to be based.

It also explains why Rwanda makes frequent incursions into eastern Congo and is reported to support from time to time anti-Kinshasa rebel groups there. Because  its  economic  base  is  so  weak, Rwanda also is reported  to  exploit  the unstable  situation  in  eastern  Congo  to trade  in  timber,  gold,  diamonds  and other natural resources.

The Tutsi returnees to Rwanda were led by English-speaking exiles from Uganda. By this alone, they were always  going  to  receive  a  hostile  or  at the  very  least  a  lukewarm  response from the Rwandans in the country. The Hutu, for historical reasons, resented the invading RPF force.

The French-speaking elite, both Hutu and Tutsi, did not take to the idea of being ruled by English-speaking invaders.

The  RPF’s  Tutsi,  therefore,  were faced  by  a  combination  of  factors  that rendered  them  insecure.  They were Tutsi, a minority of only 15 percent. They spoke English, which made them even more a minority.

A Ugandan diplomat based in Kigali in  1987  at  Uganda’s  mission  at  the Kagera  Basin  Organisation  remarked that  he  could  feel  a  “time  bomb”  in Rwanda.

One  of  the  moves  the  RPF government has made to try and escape the restrictions imposed by geography and  economic  underdevelopment  and yet  it  still  has  political  uncertainty to  deal  with,  has  been  to  embark  on an  aggressive  international  media campaign,  directed  mainly  at  Uganda and  the  English-speaking  western world.

This effort at projecting Rwanda as  recovered  from  the  genocide and  as  an  efficient,  well-governed, technologically  ambitious  place  to do  business  is  intended  to  create  a momentum  that  in  turn  spurs  its  own economic growth.

Rwanda  since  1994  has  also  been at pains to take part in various United Nations  peace-keeping  missions  in various parts of Africa and is an active member  of  the  expanded  East  African Community.

Rwanda, 1962-1994

In  the  first  28  years  of  independence, the  majority  Hutu  controlled  political, military  and  economic  power  in Rwanda.  The Hutu were comfortable in their shoes.  Like most sub-Saharan African countries, rival factions within the ruling elite were to lead to a military coup in 1973.  But  even  then,  the  Hutu took  it  for  granted  that  they  were  still the overwhelming majority.

Because  of  the  1994  genocide  that was  blamed  on  the  Hutu  government and  elite,  subsequent  analysis  of Rwanda’s history by western academics and the media has tended to say nothing about the period between 1962 and 1994.

From 1962 to about 1963, the recently exiled Tutsi made several attempts from bases in Uganda to return to Rwanda. They carried out cross border raids into Rwanda but were beaten back by the Hutu army.

From 1963 and until about 1989, Rwanda was at peace, at least in the sense of all-out military conflict and civil war. It remained a clean, orderly society. It was the host of the powerful Radio Deutsche Welle transmitters in Central Africa.

Many  of  the  infrastructure  projects and  public  works  that  Rwanda  is  now praised for were started in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In  1979,  the  exiled  Tutsi  in  Uganda started  the  forerunner  to  the  Rwandan Patriotic  Front,  as  part  of  their  effort  to address  the  question  of  their  continued exile. The RPF was formed in Kampala in the late 1980s.

In 1989, Tutsi soldiers in the Ugandan army  the  NRA  started  to  quietly  enter Rwanda  and  conduct reconnaissance missions,  gathering  information  on  the country’s terrain and who was who at the local village and district level.

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The story of the October 1990 invasion by  the  RPF  and  the  four-year  civil  war that  resulted  in  the  Tutsi  rise  to  power in July 1994 is too long and complicated for an article, but it returned Rwanda to where it was in 1959 when Tutsi were first exiled to Uganda.

Meaning  that  the  truth  about  that 1990-1994 civil war has sown such seeds of  bitterness  among  the  Hutu  that  can only render Rwanda at least uncertain for years to come.

The  Tutsi  believe  the  genocide  was masterminded  by  the  late  President Juvenal Habyarimana and his inner circle, while the Hutu believe the genocide was masterminded  by  the  RPF  and  more Hutu died than Tutsi.

The conviction (regardless of the facts) by both sides that the genocide was masterminded by the other side poses a threat to Rwanda’s future.

The  arrest  and  jailing  of  Pasteur Bizimungu,  the  Hutu  president  for several  years  after  1994,  the  continued detention of the opposition Hutu leader Victoire  Ingabire  Umuhoza  and  the exiling and mysterious killings of several prominent Hutu politicians and military officers  since  1994,  has  deepened  the bitterness among the Hutu.

What  makes  matters  more complicated  now  is  the  appearance  of a  significant  section  of  once-prominent Tutsi who formed the core of the original RPF  political  and  military  leadership, who have steadily been falling out with President Paul Kagame.

The  widespread  suspicion  that  the June  2010  assassination  attempt  on the  exiled  Lt.  Gen.  Faustin  Kayumba Nyamwasa  in  South  Africa  was  by  the Rwandan government, has reinforced the image that even among the Tutsi elite it is not all unity and harmony.

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This is part of the reason the most recent presidential election was a crucial national event.  For  the  sake  of  dealing with this pressure cooker that is Rwanda, it  had  to  be  demonstrated  that  huge crowds  were  turning  out  at  Kagame’s campaign rallies and that he won over 93 percent of the vote.

Such appearances and posturing in Rwanda are not just political theatre but a national security issue.

The line between stability and sudden descent into all-out ethnic clashes is always thin.

This is what keeps Rwanda tense even in the best of times.

by Timothy Kalyegira