Rwanda’s Political Problem Is Genocide Ideology

Genocide ideology is not the RPF’s underbelly; it is the entire society’s.

Many Rwandans were astonished by Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza’s op-ed “Intra-Rwandan dialogue is crucial for peace in the Great Lakes” for Aljazeera. I have followed governance in Rwanda closely over the past decade and also done research on politics and conflict in the Great Lakes region. I feel compelled to offer the readers a different perspective. Ms Umuhoza makes several claims about accountability and political exclusion in Rwanda and their impact on the region. None of them can stand up to close scrutiny. Here is why.

The manner in which Ms Umuhoza burst onto Rwanda’s political scene is as important as the style of politics she has chosen to pursue. It is a style that will not find space in “the New Rwanda”, the subject of analysis in her article. On the day of her arrival in Kigali, in January 2010, Ms Umuhoza did what most foreign dignitaries visiting the country do: she went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. She did so ostensibly to pay her respects to the victims of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi some of whose remains have been interred there. There are several similar memorials scattered across the country. She chose the most well-known and the one most visitors go to for purposes of paying respect to the victims of the genocide and to show remorse for humanity’s collective failure to intervene and stop the killings.

But paying her respects is not what Ms Umuhoza did. Instead, she chose to stand on the steps of the memorial and tell journalists that, now that she had seen the memorial for Tutsis, she would like to be shown the memorial for Hutus. She asked rhetorically: “when is our turn?” (ibyacu se tuzabigeraho ryari”?).

Her pronouncements were an affront to genocide survivors, a deliberate poke in a fresh wound. Beyond the moral aspects of her actions, however, the Prosecutor General’s office determined that her statements had contravened the laws against belittling the genocide. She was arrested. But her problems did not end at belittling the genocide. Additional  charges pertained to collaborating with the FDLR (an organisation formed by genocide fugitives who fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which the US Government has also officially designated as a terrorist organisation. This outfit seeks to overthrow the current Government of Rwanda. It is important to recall that much of the information linking Ms Umuhoza to the FDLR was provided by the Dutch government through judicial cooperation with the Prosecutor-General’s Office. In 2012, she was sentenced to 15 years in jail. In September 2018, she was released on presidential clemency.

This background is significant in at least two ways. First, for the first time ever, Ms Umuhoza recognises that the legitimacy of Rwanda’s “consensus democracy” emanates from the popular mandate derived from “consultations [that] have been the guiding philosophies of the governance implemented by the RPF over the past two decades.” These consultations, commonly referred to as Urugwiro meetings, took place between 1998-99 and set the trajectory of post genocide Rwanda’s governance.

For long-time observers of politics in Rwanda, Ms Umuhoza’s recognition is surprising given the fact that, since her touchdown in Kigali in 2010, she had insisted on the politics of confrontation which the consultations – to which she now refers – rejected because it was a key factor in the social polarization that led to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

In recognising the legitimacy of the current government’s approach to governance, Ms Umuhoza suggests that she does not seek to dismantle the arrangements in place, but rather to advocate for more inclusion beyond the “opposition affiliated with the ruling party,” as she put it. The objective of the consensus model is for political parties to come together in “a constant quest for solutions through dialogue and consensus.” Ms Umuhoza does not understand that affiliation with the RPF is not required. However, dialogue and consensus are a requirement as per article 10 of the preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda. For this reason, the Green Party, which has long rejected suggestions that it is allied with the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front, is a member of the Forum for Political Parties. The Forum is the platform through which political parties engage in dialogue. Dr Frank Habineza, the Green party leader, is its spokesman.

Ms Umuhoza wants it both ways when she asserts the legitimacy of the consensus democracy while rejecting its expression. She should know that the consensus democracy model cannot be inclusive to the extent of countering its provisions. A key provision of the “Urugwiro Village meetings” was that political parties that espouse genocide ideology would be excluded.  She is right, however, in her observation that there are growing voices in Rwanda and abroad that are pushing for the “transformation” of Rwanda’s political scenery in a direction opposite to that prescribed by the Urugwiro consultations. Is it by accident that this happens at the time of the resurgence of genocide ideology inside Rwanda, in the region, and abroad?  

The second significant, albeit subtle, aspect of Ms Umuhoza’s article is the reference to the “Tutsi’s genocide of 1994,” which suggests that she has abandoned her double genocide conspiracy theory that every credible observer of politics in Rwanda has rejected. Even French authorities were categorical that the genocide was against the Tutsi while acknowledging France’s overwhelming responsibility in the crime. However, on this too, Ms Umuhoza wants to have it both ways. As she acknowledges the victims of the genocide, she bemoans “The lack of public and official remembrance of the victims of war crimes committed in Rwanda before, during, and after the genocide against the Tutsis”. She argues that these “are creating conflicting views among citizens today,”. She adds: “This creates social grievances and weakens trust and cooperation among Rwandans.” Clearly, the demand for official commemoration of “war crimes” alongside the commemoration of the genocide aims at creating parity between genocide and war crimes. The objective is ultimately to establish moral equivalence between the two, thereby indirectly validating the claim of “double genocide”.

To understand the controversial nature of Ms Umuhoza’s reasoning, one would have to imagine a situation where a politician in Germany stakes his political career on the demand that commemoration of the Holocaust can only bring about reconciliation if it accommodates the commemoration of Germans who died during World War II. If that politician were riding a wave of Nazi resurgence, they would be accused of political opportunism that runs counter to European values. And if Germany were as severe in their approach to Nazism as Rwanda is with genocide ideology, he would likely be prosecuted for belittling the Holocaust. Both the genocide ideology in Rwanda and Nazism have, as we know, led to unimaginable destruction of lives. Genocide ideology or the Hutu Power ideology that promotes the imposition of ethnic majority rule in Rwanda and accommodates the elimination of Tutsis as a political solution to society’s resistance and its German equivalent, Nazism, which promotes the racial superiority of the Aryan, should have no place in politics.

If Ms. Umuhoza’s argument were that all political crimes should be punished before the country moves forward and that failure to do so “creates social grievances and weakens trust and cooperation among Rwandans,” then few people would be against this moral cause. However, this cause cannot be selective. Pushed to its logical conclusion, Ms Umuhoza’s argument would hold that, for the country to truly overcome social grievances, accountability would have to extend to the atrocities committed by successive governments in 1959, 1961-62, 1972, 1973, which to date remain unpunished. Therefore, the selective nature of her demand suggests that it is not a quest for moral purity but a manifestation of political opportunism that disregards context. Otherwise, the official commemoration of genocide – as is the case with the Holocaust– is a demonstration of moral difference in crimes.

Rwanda’s political landscape is far from perfect. However, it has two aspects that merit highlighting. One is the failure by those who pose as political opposition to meet the RPF on its strongest terrain and to compete there. That terrain is the RPF’s preoccupation with transforming the lives of Rwandans and ensuring accountability around the delivery of public services. There is a lot of political mileage to gain on this terrain. However, it is more attractive for politicians whose motive is to transform the socioeconomic outcomes of Rwandans to operate within the consensus governance model than it is to confront it. On the other hand, those who have rejected Rwanda’s consensus democracy have found themselves attracted to genocide ideology in the belief that it will provide a shortcut to people’s hearts and minds; they see the ideology as the soft underbelly of the RPF and a means of circumventing the heavy lifting needed to confront the ruling party at its strength: the preoccupation with transforming lives.

But genocide ideology is not the RPF’s underbelly; it is the entire society’s. Therefore, those who seek to reintroduce it into politics are mistaken because while they might succeed at destroying the reconciliation efforts of the last 27 years, it is unlikely that they will dislodge the object of their distaste, the RPF, from power – certainly not in the near future.

Two decades ago, at the national consultations, Rwandans identified genocide ideology as the biggest factor responsible for continuing social cleavages. This has not changed. Its resurgence calls for the deepening, not relaxing, of the consensus model by keeping out the type of politics that were rejected by the popular consultations.

If I were Ms Umuhoza’s political strategist, I would urge her to call for national consultations to uproot genocide ideology from Rwandan society as a means to ensure that it doesn’t spill over into the DRC where the failure of the international community – despite a MONUSCO force that has been deployed there for more than two decades – to reign in those who committed the genocide in 1994, the FDLR, is inexcusable.

The author has conducted research on genocide ideology in the great lakes region and has been a consultant on governance for the African Development Bank, African Union, and the East African Community, among others.

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