The house that genocide built: Why Rwanda is still worth worrying about
Somalia. Sudan. Iraq. Afghanistan. Pakistan. Haiti. North Korea. Lebanon. Iran. All these countries top Rwanda in the latest Failed States Index. (In 2009, Rwanda was ranked No. 49.) All these countries have long eclipsed Rwanda for the world’s attention. The 1994 genocide that decimated Rwanda happened a generation ago, but the country is still a nation in turmoil – evident by two big news events of the past week: Rwanda’s arrest and release of a U.S. lawyer, who was accused of denying the country’s official facts on the mass killings; and Rwanda’s alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on a former Rwandan general, who was living in South Africa.
The general will reportedly survive his critical injuries. And the lawyer is free to return to the United States. Both cases, though, highlight Rwanda’s ongoing instability. The country has made giant strides since the murders of 800,000 men, women and children, but critics have voiced doubts about Rwanda’s progress, and about Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who was a central figure in stopping the 1994 genocide but is now accused of quashing dissent. I interviewed Kagame in 2005, at a university event in California that was protested by Africans holding signs like, “Paul Kagame is a criminal.” The demonstrators – Africans now living in the United States – called Kagame a hypocrite for overseeing Rwandan military control of a neighboring portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like other countries involved in the Congo war, Rwanda stole millions of dollars in minerals. A United Nations report said Kagame and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had virtually turned into the “godfathers of the illegal exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of the conflict in the DRC.”
In Rwanda, Kagame has stifled opposition through “divisionism” laws that essentially require Rwandans to repeat the government’s accepted version of the 1994 genocide, which minimizes Tutsi atrocities. Kagame is Tutsi. Presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who believes that all Rwandan war crimes should be investigated, has been put under house arrest in the lead-up to new elections in August. Human Rights Watch has criticized Kagame’s crackdown on opposition candidates, and its undermining of Human Rights Watch’s work in Rwanda.
“The Rwandan government often accuses its critics of ‘divisionism’ or ‘genocide ideology,’ vaguely defined offenses to punish the spreading of ideas that encourage ethnic animosity between the country’s Tutsi and Hutu populations and the expression of any ideas that could lead to genocide,” the organization wrote late last year. “Largely aimed at the Hutu population, such offenses permit, among other measures, the government to send away children of any age to rehabilitation centers for up to one year—including for the teasing of classmates—and for parents and teachers to face sentences of 15 to 25 years for the child’s conduct. The government has repeatedly accused the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation and other media outlets, as well as Human Rights Watch, of promoting genocide ideology; accusations these organizations deny.”
Kagame’s government denies these charges of intimidation, but its finger-pointing at the media is another sign of the back-sliding that Rwanda has taken. Just like in 1994, Rwanda is in the news for all the wrong reasons. And just like in 1994, the world should be paying close attention. Otherwise, Rwanda may move even higher in the Failed States Index, vaulting past countries that offer their own grim lessons in instability, dysfunction, and violent upheavals.