There's something rotten in the state of Rwanda

Monday April 26 2010


By By Charles Onyango-Obbo

What is happening in Rwanda? In the past month or so, bombs have been going off in Kigali with alarming frequency. In an interview, President Paul Kagame explained that as the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and several European countries prove, such attacks can happen anywhere.

However, Rwanda is not just anywhere. It is, easily, Africa’s most efficient state. Secondly, the whole logic on which its political and security system has been built is that, following the genocide of 1994, such things will not happen again on Rwandese soil.

If bombs went off in Kampala or Nairobi, it would be terrifying, but not exactly surprising because the systems in these countries are relatively lax. By contrast, consider what happened in 1996, when the former Interahamwe forces that had carried out the genocide in Rwanda crossed back into the country from the DR Congo to wreak havoc.

In one instance, they went to a school, sorted the children along Hutu and Tutsi lines, and slaughtered the Tutsi.

The Rwanda Patriotic Front was just two years in power, not as established as it is today. I was on a reporting assignment, and on the road to DR Congo witnessed the army’s response.

It was something to behold. They cornered and killed several of the insurgents before they crossed back into the DRC. We are talking minutes here, not hours. There are few armies in Africa that can match that.

So, when bombs to go off in Kigali, observers who know this side of Rwanda, would naturally argue that it’s because something has gone fundamentally wrong at the heart of the system.

The arrest of two senior army officers last Tuesday, especially the influential Maj-Gen Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, seemed to confirm this view. Indeed, the Kigali media alleged that Karake had been questioned over the attacks.

With elections approaching in August, a wild card candidate, Victoire Ingabire, has returned from the Netherlands where she has lived since the early 1990s, to challenge Kagame.

The government last week arrested her for allegedly using the ethnic-baiting tactics that led to the 1994 slaughter.

In the same vein, the government recently suspended two pro-opposition newspapers for alleged incitement and a continued hate campaign against President Paul Kagame. As a column by Shyaka Kanuma in this paper last week pointed out, the papers have called Kagame everything from a murderer to Hitler, name it.

Still, the fact that the Kagame government has to resort to prosecution to rein in Ingabire, and to suspend hate-spewing newspapers, is telling. The RPF, like the government it built, is a highly disciplined party.

Sixteen years after it came to power, it should have the ability to comprehensively dominate the political arguments in the media and to overwhelm and push people like Ingabire to the fringe, rendering them ineffective without using a big stick.

The fact that it has to resort to the strong arm of the law to deal with hate-mongers, suggests a level of vulnerability that the outside world didn’t know existed.

Kagame, therefore, has an interesting problem. For the world to believe him, he has to convince it that his government is actually not as efficient and competent as it has been cracked up to be.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected]