x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Genocide's ghosts haunt Rwanda's model of growth

The UN's previous failures do not mean that it does not ask legitimate questions now and charges that Mr Kagame's army took part in "systematic and widespread" attacks need to be answered.

The French called Rwanda the land of 1,000 hills. With the fastest growing economy in Africa, Rwanda has become a land of 1,000 development projects. I was recently delayed by one of them, a widening of the country's mountain roads. To pass the time, my driver handed me his mobile phone: "Watch the president dance," he laughed.

He showed me a clip of Paul Kagame at a campaign stop. The Rwandan president struggled to keep up with the music and beat. But if the country's August ballot is to be believed, he had no trouble keeping up with the crowd. Mr Kagame won more than 90 per cent of the vote and a second seven-year term as president.

Mr Kagame may prefer a more disciplined cadence than the rhythm of an African campaign rally. At heart, he is a military man. It was 20 years ago this month that Rwanda began to unravel and Mr Kagame's leadership skills and military training in the US brought him to its forefront.

On the second day of a civil war between Rwanda's Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, Mr Kagame stepped in for the assassinated leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. He would lead his fellow Tutsis in a fight against the country's Hutu leadership and army, which had begun an increasingly aggressive campaign of ethnic supremacy.

Three years of grinding insurgency resulted in a truce and assurances that Tutsi rights would be protected. This would not last. Hutu extremists put their worst ideas to work a year later when the Rwandan president's plane was shot down under suspicious circumstances. In the spring of 1994, somewhere between 800,000 and a million Rwandans, the vast majority Tutsi, were killed in a three-month period.  

Mr Kagame's forces managed to bring stability to this horror but he also knows how fragile a calm can be. While that does not justify his rejection of calls for a more open political process in Rwanda, it does help to explain it. 

"No country has moved from genocide to confrontational politics overnight" he wrote in The Financial Times earlier this year. Rwanda must first build greater "social cohesion".

Many African despots have said something similar. Mr Kagame has not appeared to be one of them. When he came to power after the Tutsi genocide, he traded in his military uniform for a business suit, courting jet-set donors in western capitals. He became a poster boy for how aid to Africa could be well spent: in Rwanda it went to develop schools, hospitals, and infrastructure rather than into the foreign bank accounts of officials.

That he championed the rights and role of women made him more marketable. Rwanda remains the only nation in the world where women comprise a majority of parliament members. Of course, that achievement is also a marker of what war and genocide can do to a country's gender balance.

There are few old men in Rwanda. The same can't be said for its old grievances. A recent report from the UN alleges that the ghosts of Rwanda's genocide may be more alive than Mr Kagame's supporters would want to admit.

The UN's claims are damning. They accuse Mr Kagame's army of committing reprisals against Hutus, and possibly genocide, in the years that followed the mass killing of Tutsis.

Mr Kagame has been quick to hit back. Of course, his distrust of the UN runs far deeper than this one report. The UN did little to prevent the Tutsi genocide and was painfully slow to acknowledge it when it was under way. While the UN helped the country grapple with a refugee crisis, it was Mr Kagame and a patch-work government that mopped up after an unspeakable blood-letting and put the country on its remarkable path to growth.

But the UN's failures then do not mean that it does not ask legitimate questions now. Charges that Mr Kagame's army took part in "systematic and widespread" attacks and "targeted very large numbers of Rwandan Hutu refugees and members of the Hutu civilian population resulting in their death" demand more than a curt dismal. Mr Kagame's threat to remove a Rwandan peace-keeping force from Darfur in retaliation for the report's release does nothing to help.

The UN is not the only one demanding that Mr Kagame be held to account. His former chief of staff Theogene Rudasingwa said this week that jailing political dissidents in Rwanda was one of "many crimes hanging on the neck of President Kagame".

That Mr Kagame has been instrumental in turning Rwanda into an example for others in the developing world is not at issue. But for Rwanda to remain a model, there are two choices that Mr Kagame must make. In the short term, he must respond to the UN's claims. His own vision for his country demands as much. Mr Kagame has written that Rwanda's challenge is "healing the deep-seated wounds of a shattered society in need of both justice and reconciliation". His explanation of what happened before the fog of war lifted would go a long way toward that end.

And for the longer term, Rwanda's recovery depends not on Mr Kagame's leadership but on his ability to let go. He has said that after his second, seven-year term, he will step down. Too often Africa's most promising leaders have made these pronouncements only to go back on them. If Rwanda is to be different, Mr Kagame must be different.

The day is fast approaching when the number of Rwandans born after the genocide will be greater than those who lived through it; 40 per cent of Rwanda's population is younger than 14 years old. But when workers break ground on Rwanda's new development projects, they still uncover mass graves - reminders of everything that the country has not yet laid to rest.

Rwanda is growing more prosperous. But its present harvest can only do so much to make the country's past less painful or less of a danger to its future.

pgranfield@thenational.ae