In April 2011, in the midst of upheavals and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, Rwandans commemorate the seventeenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide - a period of 100 days during which over a million Rwandans were slaughtered. Although the country has made significant gains in reforming its socio-economic landscape and achieving increased gender parity, many observers argue that this has come at the expense of core political freedoms.
What is the state of democracy in Rwanda 17 years? What could Rwandans learn from the dramatic events currently playing out in states to the north?Since 1994, Rwanda has seen remarkable political stability, holding three elections and a constitutional referendum. The 2008 election was significant as Rwandan women were appointed to a staggering 56.2% of the parliamentary seats - the highest representation of women in parliament globally. Rwanda has seen extraordinary growth rates boosted by high levels of international aid (receiving an estimated $171 million from the US in 2010) with growth reaching an impressive 8% last year.
The country also appears set to be one of few African states set to meet the Millennium Development Goals with improvements in housing, infrastructure, disease control and life expectancy. While corruption remains a problem - in 2009 Rwanda was ranked 89 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – the government has shown a strong commitment to transparency. The country has come a long way economically; the World Bank’s 2010 Doing Business Report named President Paul Kagame as the “world’s top [economic] reformer”. Sadly, in the face of all these gains, worrying trends have also begun to appear with regard to human right
President Paul Kagame came to power as the leader of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF or Front Patriotique Rwandais) which ended the 1994 genocide and became the ruling party of the post-genocide period. Rising to presidency in 2000, he won a landslide victory in 2003, although these elections were marred by irregularities and intimidation. The 2010 elections produced an overwhelming result of 93.8% of the vote in favour of Kagame - a result rarely seen since the fall of the USSR. International observers noted that the election was “devoid of critical opposition voices” and that the other three candidates were linked to the RPF coalition. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in January 2011, in the run up to 2010 elections, opposition parties, government critics and independent journalists faced relentless intimidation and harassment, including arrests, detention, ill-treatment, death threats, and at least two extrajudicial killings. Civil society and human rights organisations claimed that they were confronted by hostility from government, which made it difficult to work.
The independent media were also affected by a number of informal and legal controls and the government was accused of intimidating foreign journalists and academics. In April 2010, the state-affiliated High Media Council suspended two independent newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi and demanded their closure for alleged threats to national security. The editors of these and other publications have been charged and convicted of crimes such as defamation of the president and face substantial jail terms; many have since fled. Jean-Léonard Rugambage, an Umuvugizi journalist was assassinated in June 2010; he was investigating politically sensitive cases including the attempted murder of Rwandan general in exile and vocal government critic, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa.
The Freedom House 2010 Freedom in the World report declared Rwanda ‘not free’, with particularly low political rights and civil liberties scores. In 2008 The Economist stated that the Kagame government “allows less political space and press freedom at home than [does] Robert Mugabe”. In spite of this, donors have remained broadly supportive of the government and largely ignored their violation of citizen’s human rights. Kagame defends his regime from criticism over its human rights record by saying “this is not about criticism or debate or opposition, it is a line drawn on the basis of what is right and wrong for us.” In the government’s view, their suppression is legitimate as they are protecting society from a resurgence of the ethnic tensions of the 1990s although critics and opposition groups see their efforts as ways to shore up RPF political dominance.
The state suppression of civil society and public debate as well as growing income inequality in Rwanda are vaguely reminiscent of the situations that had been prevalent in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Jordan. In spite of major economic and social gains, the political stability of the RPF has come at the cost of core political freedoms. The opening of political and democratic space in Rwanda will be crucial to prevent the future of insecurity and instability that is currently playing out across the Middle East and North Africa, the ripples of which have been felt across continents and inspired pro-democracy forces as far south as Swaziland. The Rwandan government must take notice.
Written by Nicole Beardsworth, an intern with SAIIA's Governance and APRM Programme.