News / Africa

Legacy of Genocide Fuels Political Repression in Rwanda

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Michael Onyiego

In the 16 years since the genocide, Rwanda has received nearly universal acclaim for rebuilding its shattered society and re-branding itself as a new "African Tiger."  But concerns are being raised that the legacy of that brutal event has been manipulated for the benefit of the ruling party.

During the past decade, Rwanda has undergone a seemingly impossible transformation.  The tiny central African nation, plagued by the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsi's were killed by the country's Hutu majority, has been tirelessly engaged in a campaign to reunite the country and change its international image.

President Paul Kagame has used his considerable authority to quickly rebuild the country, both economically and socially. Mr. Kagame has pushed for the elimination of ethnic identities in favor of Rwandan unity and laid the groundwork for significant investment throughout the country.

The president's government accountability programs have all but eliminated corruption in Rwanda, a minor-miracle in East Africa, and free primary education is nearly universal.

The country is now working to become the African hub of information technology by the year 2020, a growth strategy modeled after the "Asian Tiger" economies of the 1980s and 1990s.  There is also a monthly day of national service, called Umuganda, during which citizens contribute to public works such as planting trees and cleaning streets.

President Kagame has essentially run the country since the end of the 1994 genocide, after he led the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front's campaign against the Hutu government.

The president has been lauded as an African hero, receiving praise from world leaders such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The president also has near universal support among Rwandans. In the country's two presidential polls, Mr. Kagame was elected by more than 90 percent of the vote.

But Mr. Kagame's government has drawn sharp criticism in recent months.  The country has come under fire for controversial laws in effect to prevent "sectarianism" and the promotion of "genocide ideology."

In a new report, Amnesty International warns the laws are too vague and had been abused by the government to silence opposition.  The report, entitled "Safer to Stay Silent," charged the laws promoted self-censorship among Rwandans.  But Rwandan Media High Council executive secretary Patrice Mulama said the laws were necessary given Rwanda's history.

"Hate speech is never appropriate in any democracy, in any society, because it burns; it kills people," said Mulama.  "That is why, world over you have laws against discrimination, laws against segregation, laws against hate speech and stuff like that.  You must remember that this is a society that is recovering from a genocide, in which hate speech and racist speech had a very strong role in orchestrating."

In the lead up to the August 9 presidential election, the government was accused by rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, of suppressing opposition and, in effect, guaranteeing the president's re-election.

Opposition newspapers, such as Umuseso and Umuvigizi, were handed suspensions by Rwanda's Media High Council for publishing articles that allegedly incited public instability or promoted genocide ideology.

Opposition figure Victoire Ingabire was also charged with promoting genocide Ideology.  Ingabire, who had planned to challenge President Kagame in the election, argued that crimes had been committed by both Hutu and Tutsi populations during the genocide.

Ingabire remains a controversial figure in Rwanda, but the author of the Amnesty report, Erwin van der Borght told VOA that legitimate calls for accountability deserved a hearing in Rwanda.  The author urged Rwandan authorities to review the controversial laws in order to prevent further abuse.

"It is obvious that the Rwandese authorities, like any government, have a responsibility to ensure that hate speech is clamped down on, and that incitement to violence and discrimination and the people responsible for that are investigated and prosecuted," said van der Borgh.  "The problem is that with the Genocide Ideology law is the Rwandese government went too far in restricting freedom of expression.  We see that it is being abused and misused against political opponents, human rights activists and the media."

Controversy has erupted during the past week that could challenge the traditional narrative of the Rwandan genocide.  An upcoming U.N. report, leaked to the media has found the Rwandan Patriotic Front was involved in killing thousands of Hutu refugees in Congo before and after the genocide in Rwanda.

While the Rwandan Patriotic Front has maintained its efforts in Congo targeted Hutu militias, the report found evidence of large-scale human-rights violations committed against civilian populations.

The Rwandan government has blasted the report, calling it "immoral and unacceptable" and accused the United Nations of hypocrisy, citing the organization's failure to respond to the 1994 killings.  The central African nation has threatened to withdraw from its U.N. obligations if the report is published.  And, it has been revealed the government has completed a plan to withdraw its peacekeepers from the U.N. mission in Darfur.

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