Political and Societal Repression in Rwanda: Not a Path to Peace

by Jennifer Ambrose

Those coming to Rwanda from other parts of Africa are often struck by the cleanliness of Kigali, the efficiency of its public transportation, and the number of well-paved roads. Those who stay longer than a whirlwind tourist touchdown notice the rapid construction, constant opening of new stores, and increasing availability of consumer goods. But the few who stay for longer and develop a deeper understanding of Rwandan society begin to see the tension and suspicion that characterize it. Nineteen years after the genocide that killed over 800,000 people, Rwanda is still working toward reconciliation and development. But government intimidation and repressive social norms limit the availability of accurate information and the possibility of open dialogue, making it difficult for the country to achieve meaningful reconciliation and build a sustainable peace.

Because ethnic tension still exists, talking openly about ethnicity or the genocide remains taboo. Rwandans rarely even mutter the words “Hutu” or “Tutsi,” much less publicly disclose who belongs to which group. Official accounts of the genocide show Hutus as killers, Tutsis as victims, and current President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan People’s Front (RPF) as saviors.  While there is much truth in this portrayal, it ignores the RPF’s numerous massacres of Hutus during the mid-1990s. For fear of being called a “revisionist”—someone who challenges the government’s narrative of Rwandan history and thereby risks imprisonment—Rwandans never mention these massacres. In fact, discussion of them is so stifled that many Rwandans may not even know they happened.

Rwandans are not only repressed in openly discussing the genocide. Though President Kagame has come under increasing and welldeserved scrutiny from international observers, particularly for his role in fueling conflict in neighboring Congo, the Rwandan government enjoys an almost complete lack of domestic dissent. Rallies held during Kagame’s reelection campaign in 2010 drew entire communities. The few who chose not to attend hid in their houses, fearful of the potential repercussions should anyone find out they did not attend. All businesses were closed during the rallies, and walking on the streets was essentially prohibited. It is nearly impossible, however, to know how many of those who attended rallies truly supported Kagame and how many simply attended out of fear they would be targeted if they did not. Rwandans who disagree with the government are generally too scared to voice their opinions since those who have spoken out have been jailed and even assassinated. Even Rwandans living in exile have been targeted, and some foreigners critical of Kagame’s regime have been banned from entering the country.

Unlike in other authoritarian states, the government of Rwanda is not entirely at fault for creating this repressive environment. Rwandan society itself is so characterized by suspicion that a culture of repression would likely exist regardless of the government’s actions. The sense of community that characterizes many African societies is much less prevalent in Rwanda; trust among Rwandans is largely absent and it often feels as if everyone is looking over their shoulder. Umuganda, community service work that takes place throughout the country on the last Saturday of each month, is often cited as evidence of Rwandans’ commitment to working together. Yet, what is less often reported is that umuganda is government-mandated, and people who do not attend are fined or even jailed. Many attend more to avoid punishment than to work together and it thus results in little substantive work or community building.

While the government may not be entirely to blame, it helps to maintain this repressive environment. Political leaders say repression is necessary to preserve peace and stability and to recover from the genocide, and many Rwandans perpetuate the idea that talking about sensitive issues would lead to another genocide. In the short run, bringing forward controversial ideas and previously hidden information could result in blame, resentment, and even more violence. In the long run, however, it is difficult to imagine a successful reconciliation process in a country where some truths are hidden and dialogue on relevant issues is forbidden. Moreover, the government will not be able to hide certain information forever, particularly as more Rwandans learn English, gain Internet access, and travel abroad, exposing them to more objective information and criticism of the RPF.

If it is committed to promoting long-term social and political stability, the Rwandan government must permit and encourage freedom of information and open debate. In addition to allowing the expression of dissenting opinions, incorporating a more objective history of the genocide into the curriculum of Rwanda’s schools would be a good place to start. Creating a space for dialogue in classrooms would give young Rwandans a chance to grow up with a more nuanced understanding of their country’s history and a habit of discussing difficult issues openly. Without significant international pressure, however, the current government is unlikely to allow any discussion that might call into question the RPF’s status as Rwanda’s savior.

About the Author

Jennifer is a first-year Master's student in International Development at The Fletcher School, and she is particularly interested in the impacts and unintended consequences of foreign aid in Africa. Prior to Fletcher, Jennifer served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda.

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