Collateral damage


Average Rwandans suffer as government cracks down on political opposition, journalists

by Susan Thomson

In less than weeks, Rwandans will go to the polls to elect a president. The incumbent, Paul Kagame, head of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, continues to exert total control over the country’s election process.

Kagame, who came to power as the leader of a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), that ended the 1994 genocide, legitimized his rule in 2003 when he won the presidential elections with 95 percent of the vote nationwide. Anywhere else in Africa, and indeed the world, such a result would indicate that Kagame was hardly elected in free and fair elections. Despite the fact that Amnesty International, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations found serious irregularities and widespread oppression in the elections, Kagame won praise from major donors such as the United States and the United Kingdom for his thoughtful and benevolent leadership of Rwanda’s rebirth as a model recipient of international aid.

In advance of the upcoming presidential elections, many within the international community have remained supportive of Rwanda’s so-called “democratic transition.” They seem to ignore the widespread arrests of journalists and opposition politicians, the closing of independent Rwandan newspapers, ejection of a Human Rights Watch researcher, an assassination attempt against exiled Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, who had a falling out with President Kagame, and the killing of journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage, who attempted to report on the assassination attempt in the online version of a Rwandan newspaper whose print edition had been closed down by the government.

While diplomats and policymakers from some countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands, have cut their aid, others, like the U.S. and the U.K., continue to publicly support Kagame. As an American diplomat currently based in Kigali said, “Of course this government is not perfect. But no government is. The position of many in the diplomatic corps is to gently nudge the RPF towards democracy.” In other words, key donors like the U.S. and the U.K. view the continued harassment and intimidation of political opponents and critical journalists as par for the course in the transition from civil war and genocide to democracy.

While diplomats quietly acknowledge this repression of elites, there is no public acknowledgment of the impact of the elections on average Rwandans.

In Rwanda, politics is the preserve of elite actors, who represent around 10 percent of the population. Average Rwandans, such as rural farmers, teachers, nurses, low level civil servants, traders or soldiers who make up the remaining 90 percent of the population, have virtually no say in politics. In November 2009 a group of rural farmers resident in southern Rwanda sought to register a new political party to put forward their own presidential candidate. Several of them were arrested without charge, and the presumed organizers remain in prison; the rest fled to neighboring Burundi. Indeed, average Rwandans are the first to suffer when elites use all available tactics to gain political power. As the Swahili proverb goes, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

A climate of fear and insecurity predominates in the everyday life of average Rwandans. Anyone who questions RPF policies or its treatment of its opposition and critics can be beaten, harassed or intimidated into submission. Those who are perceived as sympathetic to the political opposition can be arrested, “disappeared” or, like Rugambage, murdered. The number of political prisoners as well as those who have disappeared is unknown. Human Rights Watch reports that repression of political freedoms is a strategy of the RPF to “silence critical voices and independent reporting before the elections.”

The strategy of repression means that none of the three main opposition parties – Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, FDU-Inkingi and PS-Imberakuri – are able to take part in the elections. Distant family members of opposition politicians and critical journalists find themselves under constant surveillance. As a result, the vast majority of the population waits silently and anxiously for the elections, hoping that they are perceived as model citizens so as to avoid attracting unwanted attention from government loyalists.

Rwandans are more than skeptical about the government’s commitment to democracy. They recognize the upcoming presidential elections as a form of social control to ensure they vote for the right party – meaning Kagame’s RPF. As an aide to the Minister of Local Government said, “In 2010, the people will also vote as we instruct them. This means that those who vote against us understand that they can be left behind. To embrace democracy is to embrace the development ideas of President Kagame.”

Average Rwandans interpret democracy as a form of repression. A male university student told me: “Oh, we understand that voting is not something done freely. Since the middle of 2009, students are told to take an oath of loyalty to the RPF. This means that we have to join the RPF – if we don’t, we don’t have any opportunities to get a job or get married or have any kind of life really. In Rwanda, democracy means to understand that the power of the RPF is absolute.”

A rural woman who lost her husband in the 1994 genocide told me a similar tale: “Democracy is something the government says we need when they fear losing their power. We heard this before the genocide, and we hear it now. Democracy would be OK if regular people like me could actually participate rather than being told whom to vote for and when.”

“In 2010, the people will also vote as we instruct them,” said an aide to the Minister of Local Government. A university student observed, “In Rwanda, democracy means to understand that the power of the RPF is absolute.”

For average Rwandans, democracy is the domain of the elite, who intimidate and harass the rural population into parroting the so-called democratic ideals of the RPF. This democracy is an alienating and oppressive daily reality – something which could crystallize into violence in early August 2010 when Rwandans go to the polls again. The words of a Rwandan colleague are emblematic: “Anyone who has the means to do so is getting out of the country. For those of us who can’t, we just hope the elections are without violence. When the government can imprison or kill anyone they please, we are all nervous because it means none of us is safe.”

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 at


  1. Thank you, Susan, for sharing your field work in Rwanda. Discussion of the plight of average Rwandans has been sorely absent amidst all the genocide ideology charges, then all the arrests, assassinations, and disappearances of opposition party members, lawyers and press, including the grisly beheading of Rwanda Greens' Vice President Andre Kwisereka.

    Which is not to say the opposition didn't try to talk about the rural population, the Rwandan majority who are Kinyarwanda speaking subsistence farmers. All of them, Frank Habineza of the DGPR, Bernard Ntaganda of P.S. Imberakuri, and Victoire Ingabire of the FDU-Inkingi talked to me about the need for agrarian reform, basic health infrastructure in the countryside, literacy campaigns, and most of all hunger.

    The Kagame regime succeeded in diverting all the world's attention to their 'genocide denial" excuse and diversion from the repression of Rwanda's majority, so ignored in the fairy tale about Rwanda's "development miracle:—meaning the city of Kigali, which some say is now slated to become Africa's Las Vegas.

  2. "Kagame, who came to power as the leader of a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), that ended the 1994 genocide […]"

    Of course Kagame ended the genocide… after his soldiers had killed a sufficient number of Tutsis and Hutus to achieve the desired terror and desolation. He started it, executed it and ended it. But really, for the Hutus, it never stopped. It continued after July 1994, in 1995, in 1996, then in Zaire, then in Congo. It is continuing today. Same guys, same killings.

    "Democracy is something the government says we need when they fear losing their power. We heard this before the genocide, and we hear it now."

    And who (falsely) raised the question of democracy between 1990 and 1994, before the genocide? Who feared losing their power? Not Habyarimana, not the Hutu elites. They knew they would win the elections easily. It was Kagame and the RPF who were afraid of loosing their power, so they really never wanted any democracy, but they were very good at propaganda and demonizing their opponents, with the help of their U.S. and U.K. sponsors.

    In 1994, Kagame and the RPF's only chance was their guns, but they made it look to a lot of people as if they wanted democracy and their opponents did not, which is exactly the opposite of the truth. While Western moralizing medias and gullible so-called "observers" were busy pointing their fingers at the imaginary Akuzu, Kagame and the RPF were using their guns and some machetes (to cynically achieve the desired theatrical effect) to kill more than one million people between 1990 and 1994. And they killed several million since then. Same guys, same false democracy, same killings.

    One of those days, Susan, you will hopefully connect all the dots and see the whole picture.

  3. arrowRubavu choose wisely – Kagame

    Fans of the RPF flag bearer in Rubavu have staged a unique campaign rally that pundits have described as probably the best so far. They inscribed large campaign words by the hillside reading: FPR, Tora Paul Kagame100%.

    As their hero arrived at the rally at exactly 12:30, a huge applause came from the crowd which was arranged on the hillside according to their sectors respectively.

    The RPF campaign manager, Ndayisaba Fidele, said, “ushaka ineza amwitaho iteka”, as he urged residents to support the RPF flag bearer in order to gain from good developmental policies.

    President Kagame took to the stage a few minutes after mid days, and said Rubavu residents are impressive in their deeds. “Murashimishije cyane,” he said, adding that, abanya Rubavu muratebuka, ariyo mpamvu mwahisemo neza.

    Kagame also recognised the different political parties that decided to ally and support the RPF.

    Testimonies from the fans stressed how “tears of women were wiped away by Paul Kagame. They said families are now very organized since women have gained their rights and are engaging in business.

    Another unique event at the rally was a short play that related to the achievements that RPF ushered in, including Nine Years basic education, women empowerment, security, tarmac roads and good health conditions due to the community health scheme.

    Another aspects highlighted was empowerment for the youth who described Kagame as “impamya kubanza.”

    The cheerful residents also thanked the government for recognizing the achievements of Rubavu through offering them an award.

    Regarding the private sector improvements in the district, the residents said, “mbere twari turi ba rwiyemeza muruho, ubu twabaye ba rwiyemeza mirimo.”

  4. check the following msg it is the majority of rural population the author is talking about

    Love for Kagame prove critics wrong
    While some misplaced critics find it strange to believe, to the common Rwandan, Paul Kagame represents hope for the future marked by progress, peace and security. This message is loud and clear at all RPF’s massively-attended campaign rallies.

    It’s only under his leadership that most people managed to get free education, health insurance and improved welfare. Sections of the community like women and youth that were once marginalised are now empowered politically and economically, while the private sector puts to good use Rwanda’s improved public infrastructure, good business environment and entry into bodies like the Common Wealth and the East African Community.

    For the first time in history, Rwandans feel a sense of pride after being assisted to recover from the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

  5. Love for Kagame prove critics wrong (Part two )

    But the good thing is that Rwandans can longer be duped to think otherwise. If numbers, the fanfare and morale at all the RPF campaign rallies is anything to go by, then this election may as well be declared an affaire accompli. August 9th is surely set for yet another landmark victory!

  6. You can't be a non Rwandan who is out of Rwanda and talk sense about Rwanda after all. It is also funny how an average westerner can open her mouth just for the sake of satisfying her own writing ability, again and again. I bet that that same person would if, in the midst of chaos as it was during the genocide of 1994, be crying for her nation to air lift her from the country leaving locals to suffer their worst destiny. This we have seen numerous times in the past and what the hell then you think you can allow yourself to lay back in the comfort of your chair to write nonsense.
    If you love Rwandans and would like to champion their cause, get the hell out of where you're and go campaign on the field with whoever you wish to support. If not please shut up!

  7. Then why do all the statistics reported say that the majority of Rwandans live in poverty, that life expectancy is somewhere between 44 and 50 years of age, that your inequality index has greatly increased since 1994, under Paul Kagame, that infant mortality rates shock, and, that you have a near catastrophic overpopulation problem.

    Why has Rwanda's population soared since 1994, with so little land to share among so few, and so much land concentrated in so few hands?

    A problematically high population growth rate is one of the hallmark signs of a very poor nation, one in which the majority of people are very very poor.

  8. If you want to write on Rwanda get your facts right Ms Ann Garrison. I do not know your motives for wanting to tarnish the image of Rwanda, but as an educated person, you should at least give credit where it is due. Also try to remember where Rwanda is coming from and allow your senses to analyze and recognize Rwanda economic transformation without being biased. The whole world recognizes the miracle the leadership of that country has done. A fact to prove you wrong: Why do you think Rwanda became number 6 country in the world in reference to the Gallup findings?

  9. Gallup findings? I've never heard of the Gallup findings. Here's a critique of Rwanda's development "miracle" by several university professors available on the Rusesabagina/Hotel Rwanda Foundation website: "Rwanda Today: When Foreign Aid Hurts More than it Helps,"….

    Also, I am weary of hearing Paul Kagame's defenders say "you're got the facts wrong, you're biased" etc., etc., without offering any credibly researched and documented facts.

    I'd also like to add that Susan Thomson's subject is rural Rwanda, and this is her article. My own concern has always been, above all, the consequence of the U.S. Pentagon's manipulation of tensions in Rwanda and the wider Great Lakes Region of Africa.

  10. There is a complex controversy in the politics that reigns currently in Rwanda. In all history there’s no ruse President like P.Kagame. Of my side, I throw a question to the observers or to the International Community in this sense: why it is only the Hutus that are imputed of the genocide ideology in Rwanda and ever the Tutsis? Therefore all Tutsis are holy! Why the poorest in this country is this same tribe? Why the jails are overflowed by Hutu in majority? Why the refused political parties are always those that are directed by the Hutu? Why, why!
    If we return on the genocide which is a luxury article for the business in this country, I think that the context of this word is changed in Rwanda and no elsewhere. Or like this term seems to be accepted by some States to the rest of the world in hiscontext changed by Kagame, then a revision of this word in an universal way is necessary! It is known that the Hutus died in majority than Tutsi if only we considering the people beaten by Kagame and his elite officers. If we consider those died outside of the country the number must quadruple. Then what means “genocide” if the Rwanda continuous to index the Hutus only and that the Tutsis are untouchables? Justice, Justice in Rwanda! Where is the justice in this country?
    Il y a une controverse complexe dans la politique qui règne actuellement au Rwanda. Dans toute l’histoire il n’y a jamais eu un Chef d’Etat rusé comme P.Kagame. De ma part, je lance une question aux observateurs ou à la Communauté Internationale dans ce sens : pourquoi au Rwanda c’est seulement les Hutu qui sont imputés de l’idéologie du génocide et jamais les Tutsi ? Donc tous le Tutsi sont saints ! Pourquoi les plus pauvres dans ce pays sont cette même tribu ? Pourquoi les prisons sont regorgées par Hutu majoritairement ? Pourquoi les partis politiques refusés sont toujours ceux qui sont dirigés par les Hutus ? Pourquoi, pourquoi !
    En retournant sur le génocide qui est le produit de luxe pour le busness dans ce pays, je pense que le contexte de ce mot a changé au Rwanda et non ailleurs. Ou comme ce terme semble être accepté par certains Etats du reste du monde dans son contexte changé par Kagame, il faut une révision de ce mot d’une façon universelle ! C’est connu que les Hutu sont morts majoritairement par rapport au Tutsi en considérant seulement l’effectif battu dans l’intérieur du pays par Kagame et ces officiers d’élite. Si nous considérons ceux qui sont morts à l’extérieur du pays l’effectif quadruple. Alors que signifie ” génocide ” si le Rwanda continu à indexer seulement les Hutu et que les Tutsi sont des intouchables ? Justice, Justice au Rwanda ! Où est la justice dans ce pays ?

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