Rwanda: How to circumvent twin evils of majority dominance and minority autocracy

by Didas Gasana

One unique element in Rwanda that has for centuries driven and still drives the political agenda in the tiny central African nation is ethnic bi-polarity. This agenda has all the time led to a cycle of repression and brutal violence.

Before the recently leaked damning U.N. report, many believed the apex of this self-destruction was the 1994 genocide, but fresh investigations indicate the Rwanda Patriotic Front-led government also committed genocide against the Hutu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the inception of the Rwanda Patriotic Front far back in 1987 and the beginning of the Rwanda Patriotic Army’s “liberation” war, one of the core objectives of the RPF was to bring national unity and reconciliation to an ethnically fragmented nation.

Today, President Kagame publicly says Rwandans have reconciled, but he consciously knows the reality is the opposite.

Kagame knows there is such a deep seated acrimony among the Hutu majority that he can’t allow fully fledged democracy.

Kagame shares this thinking with some of his fellow Tutsis. This is the dilemma Rwanda’s democratization process faces, although it is publicly suppressed in favor of the reconciliation rhetoric.

In “Rwanda government critics in fear as election approaches” (The Guardian of London, Aug. 6, 2010), Xan Rice asks one Western diplomat based in Kigali if Kagame can trust the voters not to vote along ethnic lines. “I don’t think he can” was his reply.

This was the subject of my recent conversation with a U.S.-based human rights researcher who happened to sympathize with Kagame and his fellow Tutsi group. And the researcher is not alone in this thinking. Many believe the Tutsi have an existential threat – a fear of the unknown – and sympathize with them.

Yet this simple deduction manifests acute intellectual poverty. First, it ignores why this fear is there in the first instance. Second, it doesn’t provide a way forward. Third, this sympathy only provides Kagame with moral ammunition to hold on to power, at the sacrifice of the tenets of democracy.

To understand ethnic politics and how they drive the political agenda in Rwanda, one needs to understand that the nation’s history has been characterized by one ethnic group dominating the other, in alternation.

This is why Kagame’s most prominent PR point while he was waging the war was to bring an end to this cycle of ethnic dominance, agitating for national unity and reconciliation.

It is here that those who hold this misguided assessment forget Kagame’s responsibility in entrenching this ethnic bi-polarity.

During the war and after Kagame captured power, it is no longer a secret that he killed quite a good number of Hutus – both defenseless civilians and political opponents. Now, how he massacred Hutus in DRC has also been exposed.

How he has excluded the Hutus in administration by appointing Hutus in positions of power, but without executive power, is a glaring reality.

It doesn’t need a political scientist to realize how Kagame has ridden on the fallacy of collective guilt and vague genocide laws to silence and imprison the Hutus.

By this, Kagame has himself created resentment within the Hutu group. By prosecuting the Hutus for genocide when none of his forces has been seriously prosecuted for war crimes against the Hutus, Kagame is only fueling this ethnic hatred.

The only way to avoid this fear of majority dominance, and a probable cycle of violence, would have been for Kagame to create conditions favoring genuine reconciliation – tenets that embody the rule of law. These include, inter alia, justice for all, inclusive politics, respect for human rights, separation of powers, strong institutions, meritocracy and, later, surrendering power to the people to decide how they wish to be governed.

By prosecuting the Hutus for genocide when none of his forces has been seriously prosecuted for war crimes against the Hutus, Kagame is only fueling this ethnic hatred.

With this foundation, there is no reason his group would be worried about having a Hutu president after 16 years. Most importantly, there is no reason why the majority he fears would not vote for him or any other Tutsi president because fears of minority rule harbored by the majority would also be quashed.

However, unnoticed by many, what we have in Rwanda now is not minority autocracy but rather Kagame’s authoritarianism that has killed and repressed both Tutsis and Hutus alike. But the solution to this remains the same.

Kagame’s authoritarianism has killed and repressed both Tutsis and Hutus alike.

Most dangerously, Kagame’s authoritarianism not only cannot be sustainable but will also erode with greater repercussions. The only hope is that he has seven years to change the course of history. Unfortunately, there is no sign that he will. Over to you, Mr. President

Didas Gasana is the Deputy Managing Editor of The Newsline, where this commentary first appeared. He can be reached by email at or by cell phone at (+250) 788305549.