KIGALI, Rwanda – At the end of 100 days, between 800,000 and 1 million people were dead. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a period many Rwandans still struggle to understand, now seems like a fever that tore through the nation.
It stopped as suddenly as it started when a military commander retook the capital city of Kigali from extremist Hutus and ended the conflict. Paul Kagame became a figure of peace and a central character in the rebuilding of a country decimated by conflict. He also became president.
Twenty-four years later, Kagame retains this reputation and position in Rwanda.
For years after the genocide, Rwanda was held up as a paradigm of conflict resolution and reconciliation, and of a country that rebuilt itself socially and economically. The international community regarded the president as democratic and motivated by good, but he would not remain so for long. That vision of an ideal model of post-conflict resolution has been sullied as Rwanda slides further into dictatorship. It’s a signal to other nations that a post-conflict society is rife with opportunity to seize and retain power without consequence.
Immediately following the genocide, Kagame served as vice president and minister of defense. In 2000, after then President Pasteur Bizimungu’s abrupt resignation, Kagame went from de facto leader to president. Over the years, Kagame has slowly transformed into an authoritarian leader. This was put on full display in 2015, when the country’s parliament voted to change term limit laws specifically for Kagame. He alone now has the opportunity to remain in power until 2034. It’s a hallmark of a leader effectively awarding himself the ability to stay in power indefinitely.
He claimed to have received 98 percent of the vote in the 2017 presidential elections. But those figures are suspect at best. The U.S., United Nations, Human Rights Watch and others condemned the election for being a fraudulent one that suppressed free speech and silenced political opponents.
The election marked a turning point for Kagame. The previously slow slide into dictatorship took a sharp turn for the worse. The next month, Kagame ordered the closure of more than 700 churches. This is just one example of Kagame’s brand of authoritarianism and dictatorial style – consolidating power by putting practices in place that seems moderate to his supporters.
The churches, nearly all Pentecostal, were shut down under the auspices of safety. The churches are often run out of private homes and are crowded and shoddily built. Neighbors complain of noise pollution from the churches that are often run by charismatic leaders who claim to be able to carry out miracles. It’s easy to see how Kagame’s government could convincingly make the case to the public for the closures – charismatic religious leaders can easily become financially exploitative figures that can divide, rather than unite, communities.
And yet, the move is also a clear restriction on religious freedom. The crackdown gives the government the opportunity to silence potential critics and minimize the effects of community leaders throughout the country.
It was the same in 2017, when Kagame swept through the presidential election with overwhelming support. He had found a way to stay in power for up to 40 years by embracing parliament’s move to suspend his presidential term limits, which has seemingly given Kagame the confidence to take his authoritarianism public in more brazen and unapologetic ways. The western international community was quick to condemn the elections, but after long years of support, withdrawing praise had little to no impact on the Rwandan leader.
His impunity was further solidified shortly after, in January 2018, when Kagame was elected chair of the African Union (AU). Ironically, his first speech to the AU as chair was titled “Winning the Fight against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation.”
He had reaped the benefits of domestic and international approval, turning himself into a seemingly trustworthy, indispensable part of Rwandan life. The subtleties were pushed aside, and for such a fraudulent election, there was little pushback. The elections were peaceful, without protest, and ended with a calm announcement of a resounding victory.
There was, of course, some dissent. But the Rwandan people and the international community weren’t witness to it – Kagame has effectively silenced the free press over the past decade, in his signature slow-burn approach. Over the course of his tenure as leader, individual journalists have gone missing, been arrested and threatened and, even after fleeing Rwanda, have faced intimidation. The Rwandan government has ensured state media dominates the political landscape.
Any Rwandans opposed to Kagame are silenced, and their silence is key to the president’s ongoing efforts to cement his role as indefinite leader. Those who oppose him would appear to stand against the man credited with rescuing Rwanda from a bloody genocide in a country that is still recovering from the conflict.
Kagame was lauded as the leader Rwanda needed after the genocide. He was masterful in warfare, carrying out a successful coup d’etat, surrounding the capital and ousting the government in three months. He was a man who came to the rescue of the Tutsi population from the extremist Hutu government, and soon after helped to install a moderate Hutu president, emphasizing the need for forgiveness and repairing relationships.
Now, the question is – will Kagame ever peacefully hand over power?
For now, Rwanda continues to navigate a legacy of the genocide that tore the country apart. It’s hard to picture a future in which Kagame is not in power, especially as he continues to silence opposition. By the time the country is truly allowed to move on from their past, the opposition may be eradicated altogether.
Kagame is 60 years old. By 2034, he could be ready to step down. But even if he does, after 40 years of silencing political opponents, the media, religious institutions and free speech, it is difficult to imagine how the country could fill the vacuum left by the man who delivered Rwanda from a genocide, only to transform into an authoritarian leader.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Peacebuilding Deeply.
Travel to Rwanda was made possible through a grant from CARE and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.