Speech Helen Hintjens, Rwanda Conference june 4

Helen Hintjens, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague

When Anneke first told me about this debate, I welcomed her initiative in bringing together people who do not agree.  Having long since grown weary of two highly polarized accounts of Rwanda that are around in scholarly research and in media, this debate could be a way to get beyond the two stories we tend to hear.  The first story is of Rwanda as a miracle economy, the Singapore of Africa, hub in ICT, and model for health and education policy reform. The second story is of Rwanda that is ruled tyrannically, an impoverished country where most people fear their own government, spy on one another, and where political opponents are ruthlessly pursued at home and abroad.  I’d like to suggest that such polarized accounts of Rwandan realities are part of the problem we face today in Rwanda-related scholarship and media production.  These over-simplified views on Rwanda pervade daily news, published research and popular understandings.  We need to find a way to get beyond them.

The title of today’s debate is: Rwanda: Is there a future without Kagame?  Can we imagine such a debate in Kigali – should the Dutch government resign?  Does the UK have a future beyond David Cameron?   So why are we debating Rwanda’s future today?  I think we are all in one way or other engaged with Rwanda.  In my case, my engagement gives me the feeling I need to think carefully, talk responsibly.  My engagement gives me no rights or privileges beyond that.  There is of course a future for Rwanda, with and without the current President. But what – or who - will shape that future?  Does their future depend mainly on Rwandans?  Within the Vision 2020 Document, the aim of government is to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by the end of the decade.  Yet donors and global economic actors still have an overwhelming influence on policy and social change.  If donors pull out, it may reduce their influence on Rwanda’s government and the direction of future change. 

In 1994 there was a genocide, and Tutsi Rwandans were the main target. Hutu and Twa viewed as supportive of Tutsi were also targeted for killings.   The fact of genocide is established and can no longer be literally denied.  Today I was advised by one of my friends, who is himself a survivor, not to sit on this platform.  The reason given was that I should not give solace to someone who is appearing with me, Paul Rusesabagina.  Rusesabagina is widely considered a hero, yet it is claimed he works with those who deny Genocide and with suspected genocidaires.  Paul himself does not openly deny the genocide in public, and has won prizes and much acclaim for his work. He claims to have saved 1200 people in the Hotel Mille Collines during the genocide.  Others contest his account, however, and again we have two, quite polarized accounts of the events surrounding the by now famous Hotel Rwanda story.  So I was reluctant to talk today, and yet I did want to take part despite my friend’s advice to withdraw.  In The Netherlands and elsewhere, there are still those who minimize the genocide by claiming the government in power is itself guilty, whether of crimes of genocide or of shooting down the plane that marked the start of systematic killings.  Some suggest that Rusesabagina is himself a denialist.  Twenty years ago, the genocide marked the end of the civil war.  Genocide was planned, centrally-organised and it targeted Tutsi and their supporters for killing.  It met all the criteria of the international definition of the UN Genocide Convention of 1951; the Rwanda genocide was prepared, planned, organized and then denied.  When I published an article called Explaining the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda in 1999, I was accused by one anonymous reviewer of being a ‘Tutsi PhD student’.  However flattering this was, it was clearly misguided criticism.  Fortunately the piece was later used by the ICTR as reading material. 

Genocide in Rwanda is not a law or a theory; it is history and Rwandans want to keep it that way.  Rwandans still spend the month of April mourning loved ones, and most recognize that all those who died were the victims of ideas – especially ideas about race, ideas that were brought into Rwanda by the colonisers.  Genocide ideology and ‘divisionism’ are crimes, and talking of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa is not acceptable in public any more.  This is intended to protect Rwandans from their own history of divisive identity-based politics. Identity, if you like, is like a knife in Rwanda – it is not something that you let children play with...  The government’s official position is that Rwandans should identify themselves with one another, as Rwandans.  Passports and ID papers carry the holder’s name, but not their racial identity, as from 1931 to 1994. 

There are experts on Rwanda who spend years studying agriculture, politics, or questions of social cohesion and peace-building. Yet it will still be Rwandans’ own opinions that count most when related to my expert testimony.  In the end, through their millions of daily decisions, it is Rwandans who decide not only on the outcome of elections, but also of legal and constitutional reforms, the direction of social change and so on.   In that case, to better understand what is happening inside Rwanda today, and get some idea of what may happen in future (with or without Paul Kagame) then those of us who live outside Rwanda may need to quieten down a little and start to listen more to what is being said by poor Rwandans.  There is sometimes so much noise among the diaspora, across global media, and among scholars, that it can be difficult to hear how public opinion inside Rwanda is shaping up, and shifting.  And it does seem to be shifting. 

Inside Rwanda, there seem to be some significant departures.  For instance, National Dialogues were started in the past couple of years, and seem a uniquely Rwandan innovation.  Known as Umishyikirano, they are overseen by the President, and aim to bring together the whole of the society so people can debate and solve their problems.  Public servants become answerable to the population. It reminds me of the former socialist slogan of the MPLA (Movement for the Liberation of the Angolan People).  O mais importante e a solver os problemos de povo. This roughly translates as: ‘The most important thing is to solve the problems of the people”.  This key point needs much more emphasis in debates about what is going on in Rwanda today.  It does seem that the government may be starting to shift and starting to listen to its citizens, and starting to take more seriously its responsibilities for reducing poverty and ensuring food security for all citizens.  Yet as the Rwandan government starts to move forward, donors seem to start pulling in the opposite direction.  Over the past two years UK and Netherlands governments and other major donors have made cuts to the Rwandan aid budget.  It is not surprising that self-reliance has become order of the day inside Rwanda. 

My suggestion would be that diaspora Rwandans and academics working on Rwanda, some of whom have legitimate concerns about democracy and human rights, should try to do more listening and less talking in future. Some see Rwanda as a bad case model, and are often frustrated by the fact they are denied a visa to travel to Rwanda.  They cannot get a visa, and it may not be safe for them to travel to Rwanda.  This does not mean that Rwanda is a model of tyranny.  Even critics of the government acknowledge that deep changes are taking place inside Rwandan society.  The national economy has also been transformed since 1994.  Social attitudes and mindsets have also undergone a quiet revolution, with more willingness today to tackle difficult problems like land sharing, gender inequality and health care, especially for women and children.  Improvements in medical care, health insurance, safer public transport, and improvement in other public services like education and judiciary, are now provided for the growing population. The government needs revenue.  Where can it find this revenue?  From donors?  This seems quite unlikely in future.  In part, therefore the revenue must come more and more from taxation, and this is already happening.  Taxes are being paid, and non-filers are publicly identified.  Intrusive, yet effective.  Kagame’s government and the Rwandan elite concentrated in Kigali are nothing if not ‘modernising’ in their outlook.  People are moved, sometimes even forced, from their traditionally dispersed dwellings into new villages, where they are provided with services.  Whether they like it or not, people who live in Rwanda, are forced to work harder than ever in order to improve their own lives collectively. 

The regime’s underlying belief is modernizing in the sense that the dominant attitude is that if something works in the wider world, it should also be tried in Rwanda. If technology or social change can bring benefits to Rwandans, after all, then it may help to secure peace and promote self-reliance. Yet critics see the present regime in Kigali as technocratic in their view, and far too remote from ordinary, poor Rwandans in rural areas.  Poor and small-scale peasant farmers, genocide widows all need a strong Rwandan state, capable of protecting them from various kinds of insecurities, and able to promote their rights.  In the few short years since 2003, there have indeed been massive improvements in many key indicators such as infant and maternal mortality. Both have dropped dramatically, and there have also been considerable improvements in educational attainment of boys, and especially of girls, have also been rapid.[i]  These are achievements that help explain why the government in place may be quite popular among Rwandans, who may not be able to imagine that other leaderships would work this hard.  It does seem the regime is doing what it can to improve everyday conditions for as many Rwandans as possible.  A can-do attitude among public servants is of course the counterpart of the constraints of performance contracts. Everyone must sign these contracts, which are regularly reviewed for everyone from Ministers downwards.  If people perform badly, they may eventually lose their job, and can be publicly named.  The performance contract for Kagame is his re-election, in a sense.  And so far his performance review seems to have gone quite well, since he gets over 90 per cent of the vote at election time. 

The Rwandans government keep tight control over political opposition.  They are extremely vigilant – and even aggressive - against perceived enemies of their staying in power.  Is this so surprising?  After all, following the Second World War, denazification required a whole new set of institutions and ideas.  Those guilty of complicity in the Holocaust were pursued over decades and brought to trial (for example Eichmann, who was tried in Jerusalem and whose trial gave rise to Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil).  Rwanda is still undergoing its own version of the painful process of denazification.  Removing racial hatred and genocide ideology from national political and social life is an on-going task. The Rwandan government tries to detect genocide ideology; it also uses legislation at times to persecute and prosecute its enemies and political opposition.  Many who opposed the government were exiled, having fled the country, and others were murdered or disappeared.  At first these critics were mainly outsiders of the RPF, but in recent years the ‘enemies of the regime’ have included many former closer allies, including many previously close to the President, such as the former Chief of Staff of the army, former ambassadors, and high-level Intelligence officials.  There have been attacks on exiles, including assassinations and character assassinations.  Since all of this is on record, it is hardly controversial to state this.  And none of it can be justified on the grounds of national security.     

The problem is that a liberal model of political democratization, promoted by Western donors and which insists that each and every country, even if recently a genocide took place there, needs a multi-party system in order to become a democracy. Rwanda’s past perfectly illustrates the risks associated with such an assumption.  Multi-partyism came to Rwanda in the early 1990s.  And the lethal genocide ideology and machinery that were created, were in part the result.  If everyone is free to say whatever they want, then hatred and racial antagonism can become the order of the day in Rwanda, as happened between 1990 and 1994.  Is this really what we hope for in future for a country and people that have suffered collectively so much already?  Rwandans have been through so much since 1994, and multi-partyism, which divides people up along identity lines, is a high-risk project for the country’s peace and security.  The present situation at least has the merit of encouraging Rwandans to blame ‘foreigners’ or ‘colonial history’, instead of blaming one another, en masse, for the genocide and their other problems, including the problems of poverty, land shortages, gender conflicts and so on.  Problems shared are indeed problems halved.

To come back to the question we started this debate with.  To my mind, it does not really matter whether Paul Kagame stays in power beyond 2017.  What matters is that whoever is in power at that time works as hard as they can to help tackle problems of ordinary Rwandans.  And that does seem to be happening – however tentatively - today.  I wish the diasporic opposition to President Kagame could go home and that the many scholars who are highly critical of the regime, could rest their pens and keyboards for a little while, and all go to Rwanda to meet and look for solutions that might help to make things work better.  The very polarized and extreme views often expressed about Rwanda do not help matters.  Rwanda is not heaven or hell, and is certainly no plaything for exiles, scholars or journalists.  It is a small country, the size of Holland, and full of people trying their best to manage with what they have.  They try in every way possible, creatively to to tackle problems so huge and complex they are sometimes hard to imagine.  I will conclude with 2 simple requests. 

1. We could try to stop talking about Rwanda for some time, and instead try to find out what poor and marginalized Rwandans are saying about the situation in their country. 

2. Perhaps after the 20th anniversary of the genocide next year in 2014, the Rwandan government could host a special dialogue in Kigali to scholars and media people critical of the RPF and of Kagame could be invited. They would be given visas (of course for all those without criminal charges) and could come to Rwanda to engage in a genuine debate around the best way forward for the country as a whole.  This would help break down the polarization that exists today in Rwandan scholarship and news production.  The 2 contrasting stories of Rwanda - the Singapore of Africa, the hub for IT and place for miracle cures, versus the authoritarian all-seeing surveillance state – both ignore the real complexity of Rwanda’s slow emergence from genocide.  Rwandans inside Rwanda are hardly heard amidst the noise, and I really think it’s time to focus on them and on their views and actions.  The present government seem to be trying to listen.  Innovative processes like the National Dialogue are initiated so that Rwandans can have some way to resolve their problems.  At the same time donors have started to withdraw financial support for the government. This is very ironic.

Rwanda’s future will be decided by millions of Rwandans who live inside the country.  All their decisions will of course be heavily influenced by the regional and global context.  For those who live outside Rwanda and want to make a difference perhaps they should focus more of their efforts on informed campaigning at the level of governments and EU policy-makers, and campaign for better fair trade policies, debt relief, and by insisting that investors and donors support land rights for farmers, for example.  This may the best way to engage positively in order to influence the government and future of Rwanda in a positive direction.   As Europe slides into long-term crisis, the priority of influencing agendas in aid and economic investment may be more important than ever.


[i] See for example data in this report: http://moh.gov.rw/english/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/MoH-annual-report-2010-2011.pdf  In 2010 74 per cent of girls and 65 per cent of boys completed primary schooling, compared to 39 per cent of girls and 41.5 per cent of boys in 2004. 

Vrijdag 19 april 2013

Ik moest even in mijn ogen wrijven. Hadden we het hier over het Rwanda van vóór de genocide?  

'…. if anything, the state became so powerful and efficient that it crushed and overwhelmed Rwandan society completely. (….) Rwanda illustrates the danger of an over efficient and centralized state, that 'does not embrace the entire polis' but only 'that part which members of the heremonic elite think it should embrace ( ….) Covert actions were an important dimension of the Rwandan regime's close political control, and were especially effective in a highly stratified society, where power differentials had long been taken for granted ….'

Helen Hintjens, docent aan het Institute of Social Studies (ISS), omschreef onder meer op deze manier het Rwanda van de jaren tachtig. Wat mij betreft kan deze tekst één op één worden geplakt op het huidige Rwanda. Opvallend is ook hoe ze het Rwanda verder omschrijft (ze heeft het opnieuw over de jaren 80): een Afrikaanse voorbeeldstaat, een eiland van rust en orde, met relatief goede wegen en gezondheidszorg. Bijna 20 jaar na de genocide geldt Rwanda opnieuw als een voorbeeldstaat, al zijn er sinds de presidentsverkiezingen in 2010 behoorlijk wat butsen in het blazoen gekomen. Hintjens beschrijft verder hoe economische malaise (extreme daling van koffieprijzen) aan de wieg stond van de genocide. Vanuit dat standpunt bezien kan het afblazen van steun aan Rwanda desastreus uitpakken en geeft het tegelijk Kagame een chantagemiddel in handen. Vanmiddag is er bij het ISS een herdenking van de genocide. Daar zal Hintjens ook zijn. Ik ook, ook al wordt er officieel alleen de genocide op de Tutsi's herdacht.