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Kagame will be Rwanda’s next president. Then what?

August 3, 2010

by Susan Thomson

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon with Rwandan President Paul Kagame – Photo: Reuters
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called upon Rwandan President Paul Kagame to investigate the politically motivated killings of opposition politicians and critical journalists in the run-up to the country’s Aug. 9 election. American Secretary of State Clinton recently encouraged the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front not to act against opposition politicians. These calls, however, are too little too late, as Kagame will handily win.

This raises the question of how international actors can work with the incumbent president knowing that he is a predator of political and press freedoms. It is now opportune for Western donors to revisit their support for Kagame as well as their role in Rwanda’s reconstruction and reconciliation processes.

Rwanda’s donors, including the U.S., the U.K., the European Union and the U.N., must continue to nudge the RPF towards a real democratic opening. This must include more than investigations into the RPF’s pre-election campaign of intimidation and harassment of its opposition and calls for free and fair elections.

Rwanda’s donors must press Kagame to create space for national dialogue, meaning an open and safe space where Rwandans of all ethnicities and from all walks of life can meet to discuss what happened to whom during the genocide and to strategize ways forward from the hurt of the past. The donor community must encourage Kagame to adopt inclusive policies that will create a common future of economic security and political stability for all Rwandans.

Such a space could be framed in patriotic terms of being Rwandan – rather than in the language of ethnic unity as is currently the case – as love of country is more salient for many of the Rwandans I’ve consulted over the years.

There are three things that Western donors can do to encourage President Kagame to create a more open and peaceful political culture once he is re-elected:

First is to question the government’s ability to manage Rwanda’s natural resources, its people and its land. The U.S. State Department estimates that by 2020, Rwanda will be home to some 13 million people. This gives Rwanda the highest population density in Africa with 225 people per square mile.

Some 90 percent of Rwandans eke out their existence as subsistence farmers and are the first to suffer when the central government is unable to respond to their daily needs. The government requires rural farmers to grow coffee and tea instead of the crops needed to feed their families.

A new land policy has decreased peasant holdings to less than a half-acre. The RPF does not allow peasant farmers to voice their concerns with its agriculture and the inequitable distribution of land into the hands of government loyalists.

There is no room for debate on appropriate technologies to build sustainable agriculture in the country. An underfed and disaffected local population is hardly the way forward to sustainable peace and democracy. Donors must continue to work with the RPF to ensure their agriculture and land policies are aimed at developing long-term peace and security, not quick gains for party loyalists.

Second is to encourage open dialogue and a culture of constructive criticism and debate about government policies amongst the political class. Foreigners write most of the academic and policy literature on Rwanda. Why? Because Kagame does not allow for thoughtful analysis that strays from the RPF’s official rhetoric that only Tutsi died during the 1994 genocide.

This may appear counter-intuitive to those donors who have visited Rwanda’s universities. Indeed they are flourishing thanks to foreign aid dollars. Donors can use their already existing relationship with Rwanda’s Ministry of Education and other institutions of higher learning to sponsor intellectuals whose ideas differ from those of the government as a way to spur openness and dialogue.

Third is to encourage Kagame to engage the diverse political views of the Rwandan Diaspora. This is not to suggest that he engage the extremist views of those that advocate the thesis that the RPF organized and implemented the genocide and other negative views.

Instead, he needs to acknowledge that such negative opinion exists alongside the positive involvement of the Diaspora in Rwanda’s economic development. Because the Diaspora contributed almost $130 million to Rwanda’s economy in 2008 – second only to tourist receipts – Western donors have failed to seriously push Kagame to engage dissident opinion within the Diaspora.

Fueled by the internet, sincere dissidents who criticize RPF policy exist alongside political extremists such as the FDLR (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda) rebel group, making it easy for Kagame to justify not including them in the Rwandan political sphere. Western donors must encourage Kagame to engage with all sectors of the Diaspora, good and bad, as part of the broader strategy of political openness and dialogue.

Paul Kagame will be Rwanda’s next president. Now is the time to reassess donor policy in the country to push for meaningful democracy.

Susan Thomson is a Five Colleges Professor, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass. She has been researching state-society relations in Rwanda since 1996 and is the author of numerous publications on the country. She can be reached through her website, www.susanmthomson.com, or at susanm.thomson@gmail.com.

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