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Is Rwanda really unravelling?

By Andrew M. Mwenda  

Recent events in Rwanda have filled my inbox. For example, a journalist in Uganda wrote to me on Skype in celebratory mood: ‘Finally your Rwanda (sic) is unravelling; pretty fast, very dramatically: Newspapers suspended ahead of elections, grenade blasts, senior army officers arrested, endless talk of a putsch underway, diplomats deserting their stations and fleeing, wow! What a country?’

‘In fact,’ he continued, ‘this casts doubt about the quality and credibility of your insights about Rwanda. Even when it was clear that Rwanda was deeply unstable and misgoverned, seething under the iron hand of a despot, you continued to paint a deceptive picture of a dynamic country marching ahead. Well, I love it that the passage of time has exposed [President Paul] Kagame.’

The assessment that Rwanda is one of the best governed countries in Africa is not my view alone. It is shared by the major global institutions like the World Bank and by the most respected leaders in business, academia, church, politics, and journalism like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Michael Porter, Rich Warren etc.

Lately, the government has taken actions that jeopardise this otherwise great reputation like the suspension of two newspapers. This is a legitimate ground to criticise it; but it does not take away its reformist orientation. If the Rwanda government feels aggrieved by Omuseso, it cannot be complainant, prosecutor and judge. While I recognise that even a democratic government can have reason to suspend a newspaper, such action can only be justified if it is done through independent courts of law.

But do the aforementioned events suggest, even remotely, that ‘Rwanda is unravelling?’ Bunkum! It is self evident that the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF)is in effective control of the state; that the forces of opposition are still disorganised, inarticulate, weak and incoherent. The best we can say is that they are just beginning to show signs of life.

The defection of Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa is a sign that internal conflicts are beginning to deepen among the ‘Anglo Tutsi’ in RPF ‘ and they are going to intensify.

But conflict is a healthy part of the growth of any system. The way RPF handles them will have powerful implications on its own record and the future of Rwanda. RPF currently enjoys sufficient moral credibility. It should feel more confident to respond to criticism by force of argument, not of the police.

Yet alarmist projections like the one from my journalist friend in Uganda are guided by prejudice rather than analysis. Economists call it ‘confirmation bias’; if you believe Rwanda is ‘deeply unstable and misgoverned’, you are likely to interpret every event, however insignificant, as confirmation of such bias. Yet bad events are commonplace.

Take the US for example. Every now and then there is a large scale massacre; Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood etc. Do any of these tragedies suggest that the USA is ‘unravelling, pretty fast, very dramatically’? And you can quote examples from Britain, France and Italy where worse riots take place every so often and entire streets and neighbourhoods are turned into battle grounds between the police and rioters.

In Uganda we have had large scale demonstrations when Kizza Besigye was arrested in 2005; and later over Mabira Forest and the Kabaka’s intention to visit Kayunga. In all these cases, the police were unable to ensure security in Kampala and the government was forced to call in the military. Armoured Personnel Carriers, tanks and mambas patrolled the city and its suburbs.

There was legitimate reason to claim that ‘Uganda is unravelling, pretty fast, very dramatically.’ Yet in spite of all this, Uganda is stable, Museveni still in power and is likely to rig himself back to office next year ‘ with serious but containable political repercussions.

Consistently, analysts in Africa have failed to appreciate the fundamentals of our politics. Opposition groups have been ineffective because they mistake the wind for a hurricane. From Togo to Mobutu’s Zaire, Gabon to Cameroon, Kenya to Zimbabwe, incumbents have held power for decades after analysts had predicted their fall.

Besigye has consistently mistaken large crowds at his rallies as a sign that Museveni is collapsing; he has been consistently disappointed. Widespread political discontent though necessary is not sufficient to bring down an entrenched regime.

Kagame and the RPF are evidently far away from any significant threat; recent events are a mere trifle. There have not been any mass protests in Kigali. There is no rebel group with military capacity to challenge the Rwanda Defence Forces. And there is no individual with political clout and legitimacy to challenge Kagame as effectively as Besigye did Museveni. Why?

Rwanda has one of the most effective states in Africa in terms of security, economic performance and public service delivery. The fact that Rwandans are not rioting is because most (certainly not all) are content. To be realistic about this does not necessarily require you to be pro-RPF; it is necessary to appreciate the difficulties the opposition face. The only strong card against the RPF seems the whip of ethnic sentiment that Victoire Ngabire was seeking to exploit. But that is a dead end.

If there is any significance in the recent events (even here I will deliberately exaggerate so as to keep hope alive for the opposition in that country) they only signal that Rwanda is beginning to enter a competitive juncture where RPF’s power is questioned and challenged.

Nyamwasa’s break would have offered hope, but so far he has disappointed. Since he escaped, he has not stated any serious political and policy differences with RPF as David Tinyefuza and Besigye did in Uganda. He has only said that Kagame is intolerant of dissent. However, that is a personal, not an ideological disagreement.

Let Nyamwasa make clear his position on press freedom, space for opposition political parties and judicial independence (where I think there are legitimate concerns).  What is his vision of healthcare, education, agricultural extension services, energy and infrastructure policy etc.? Shouting wolf at Kagame is not enough.

The lesson from Uganda is that political organisation against the state is very difficult in Africa. Compared to Rwanda, Uganda has a far more developed infrastructure for opposition politics: A larger private sector, a well developed media, vibrant civic associations, a larger educated middleclass, a diversified ethnic base, older political parties and deeply entrenched traditions of free debate.

More critically, we have a much more corrupt and incompetent government. Public infrastructure is collapsing and public services like health and education are in dire straits. These factors give the opposition daunting legitimacy to rally support in Uganda compared to Rwanda where the state is disciplined and responsive to the needs of the citizen.

In spite all these factors the Museveni regime is not ‘unravelling pretty fast and very dramatically.’ This makes any threat to the regime in Rwanda even more remote. In any case, this is not the first time senior Rwandan politicians and army officers have run to exile. In the late 1990s to early 2000s, Seth Sendashonga, Col. Alex Rezinde, Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Habyarimana, Pierre Rwigyema, Faustin Twagiramungu etc did so.

It would have made more sense to make such claims about Rwanda in 2000. Because then, RPF’s legitimacy was largely based on the co-optation of these senior Hutu politicians and army officers. Yet rather than weaken it, the RPF emerged from these defections with a changed mindset and political strategy that I still believe is setting Rwanda apart from the rest of Africa in terms of real political reform.

From thence, RPF (or Kagame’s) strategy of consolidation has focused on two things: First, building an effective military and security apparatus that can stop any violent power-grab. Anyone with the least knowledge of Rwanda would see a measure of success ‘ recent grenade blasts notwithstanding.  But force alone is not a sufficient instrument of power. The RPF recognises that it needs a second basis ‘ legitimacy i.e. acceptance.

In most African countries, this is done through the co-optation of powerful ethnic and religious leaders in a neo-patrimonial bargain. Often, this flabby and heterogeneous coalition lacks a shared national goal. So the divided elite come to the state in search of particularistic advantage. The cheapest alternative to hostile stalemate is to give individual corruption a free reign. So corruption is the glue that holds the coalition together.

RPF began with this strategy and appointed a Hutu president, a Hutu prime minister; a Hutu this and that. This strategy failed largely because Hutu faces in government lacked shared objectives with the Tutsi power-holders. The best solution would have been to allow individual corruption. It seems Kagame was unable to appreciate the necessity of such a bargain or was unwilling to accept it.

So there were continuous sparks in the government leading many senior Hutu officials to quit. I suspect they had calculated that such a move would strip RPF of legitimacy ‘ both nationally and international given its Tutsi ethnic base. Yet these resignations forced RPF to radically reconsider its political strategy, again evidence of the value of conflict.

To win legitimacy, RPF has since sought to deliver public goods and services to the people. This has in turn forced it to build effective public institutions that can ensure an impersonal application of public policy to anonymous citizens. Rwandans do not need to line up at the homes of political patrons or relatives to get healthcare or education. They get public services based on their claim to citizenship.

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