Rwanda, 12 Years After the Horror

In Dissent, Constance Morrill looks at Rwandan politics in the shadow of the genocide 12 years ago.

RWANDAN political culture under the RPF is defined by the familiar Orwellian dynamic in which the state is the arbiter of historical truth. The RPF’s own “regime of truth,” to use Foucault’s term, has consisted of shrinking political space to avoid criticism and maintain power, and of “instrumentalizing” the genocide in its relations with the international community, while denying crimes committed by its own military wing against Rwandan Hutu civilians in 1994 and in the northwest in 1997–1998. Evidence of this cynical strategy abounds, although the U.S. government, one of Rwanda’s chief sources of aid, diplomatically characterizes the country as “a republic dominated by a strong presidency.”

Political space is constrained by a 2002 law that makes incitement to irondakoko (“ethnicism” or discrimination) and amacakubiri (“divisionism”) crimes that carry prison sentences of up to five years and a two-million-franc fine for government or political party officials who are found guilty. Divisionism is defined as any “speech, written statement or action that causes conflict . . . ” In practice, this law is less a tool to fight ethnic division than a political weapon designed to suppress dissent. Being accused of divisionism is tantamount to being accused of perpetuating the “genocidal ideology.”

René Lemarchand, a political scientist and scholar on Rwanda and Burundi, writes, “What is being thwarted through the ban on ethnic identities is the memory of atrocities endured by Hutu and Tutsi, where ethnicity, though singularly unhelpful for discriminating between victims and perpetrators, is crucially important for addressing the roots of the injuries suffered by each community.” The ban is heavy-handed—both psychologically and practically—and could well backfire. So far, numbers of Rwandan journalists and other civilians have been accused of inciting divisionism, arrested, interrogated, and otherwise threatened; many have fled the country.