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Debating Rwanda

Last week was Ibuka, Rwanda’s annual day to commemorate the genocide of 1994. Every year, this is an occasion for speeches and ceremonies around the world to remember these horrific 100 days of horror. This year, these speeches were particularly emotion-laden in Rwanda, as the country has been gearing up for elections, and the usual criticism of the lack of political space and repression of the media have been flung about. Kagame defended himself here, saying “They call me Hitler…am not bothered at all…I just hold them in contempt,” referring to an article in Umuseso newspaper last year.

Let’s be clear: Rwanda is not the only country in the world with laws against genocide denial. Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria all have laws on their books against Holocaust denial and hate speech and have prosecuted prominent revisionists – unlike in the US, where neo-Nazis still march down main street and deny the Holocaust.

The difference, according to groups such as Human Rights Watch, is that in Rwanda, the law passed in 2008 was so broad that it allows the government to imprison people for merely criticizing the government. Even prominent chroniclers of the genocide, such as HRW’s own Alison des Forges, have been accused by the government of being genocide apologists. According to the European Union, in the run-up to the 2008 parliamentary elections, opposition groups were intimidated based on this law, and the preparations for the 2010 elections this year have also been marred by abuses – the Green Party and PS-Imberakuri have had difficulty registering for elections, and the head of the Green Party has been accused of genocide ideology. Both parties have now split into different factions and have little hope of gleaning many votes during elections in August.

The Rwandan government has taken its offensive abroad, as well, with prominent members of the RPF writing Op-Eds in the Huffington Post, and in The New Times. They have been followed by a barrage of support from friends in international circles: former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer (see here for his debate with human rights activist Noel Twagiramungu), as well as Josh Ruxin (writing here on Nick Kristof’s blog) and Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda here. Here is a good example of the kind of argument you can hear in some diplomatic circles, as written by Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Kagame has been criticized for his authoritarianism and heavy-handed constraints on political freedoms. On this day, I leave Ntarama [a genocide memorial site] thinking that full-fledged democracy sometimes needs to take a back seat. Kagame’s legacy will be whether he can build the institutions of democracy, as he claims to want to do, in this blood-soaked land that has suffered so much.

On the other hand, there are also ever more critics of the Rwandan government from within the ranks of the RPF elite. In past months, the former head of national intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, their former army chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa, and the former speaker of parliament Joseph Sebarenzi have all been criticizing the regime. Some of what they say is pretty emotional, but there is some level-headed stuff, too. This is what Sebarenzi, now in exile in the US, has to say:

For Rwanda to thrive, economic performance, for which Kagame deserves credit, must be coupled with political reconciliation and strong democratic institutions. History shows that stability and economic growth are durable not where strongmen reign but where institutions of governance are strong. Kagame needs to heed this lesson, or Rwanda could very well devolve into chaos again.

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