SOUTH BEND, Indiana — The world seemed shocked to hear of alleged political violence by Rwanda’s current government, headed by President Paul Kagame, following the recent leak of U.N. documents.
Since 1994, the world has been exposed to a steady stream of speeches from Kagame and other government officials on the international lecture circuit, journalistic accounts, popular books, including “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Parents,” scholarly books, such as “When Victims Become Killers,” human rights documents, including “Leave None to Tell the Tale” and, of course, the film “Hotel Rwanda,” all of which portray the Kagame government as the highly professional, rule-of-law oriented, militarily constrained savior of Rwanda.
The Kagame government was not only praised for saving its ethnic kin, the Tutsi, from genocide, but also for not killing its political and ethnic rivals, the Hutu. After the Kagame government came to power, there was still some violence in Rwanda and its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but it was largely blamed on the former genocide participants, known as "genocidaires," who fled to the DRC and who attacked civilians in Rwanda, prompting the new Rwandan government to pursue them.
While in eastern Congo, the Rwandans were again praised for military effectiveness and constraint. To suggest that there was any impropriety in Rwandan behavior resulted in Rwandans accusing critics of promoting divisionism within the country and interfering with their national sovereignty in the international domain. Indeed, Kagame has become adept at countering as well as eliminating any criticism of his government’s actions.
But Kagame's facade is certainly in jeopardy with the expected distribution of a 508-page report detailing 600 violent events that took place in the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003. The leaked report, compiled from more than 1,000 primary documents and 1,000 eyewitness accounts, maintains that Rwandan forces, under the leadership of Kagame, aggressively pursued the genocidaires. More controversially the report alleged that the Rwandans also killed innocent women, children and ethnic Hutu during this pursuit — seemingly without concern for their actual political affiliations or behavior. In this characterization, the Rwandans are not unbiased, effective military saviors, but bloodthirsty killers on the hunt for revenge and riches.
Of course, not everyone is completely surprised by these leaked observations. Close observers of Rwandan politics since 1990 have noted that Kagame government officials have not only been engaged in violent behavior but also that they are rather good at it. It is a largely overlooked fact that the then-rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which essentially became the current government, illegally invaded a sovereign nation. At that time, there was no genocide in Rwanda, only ethnic discrimination with a low level of violence. This is not to legitimate or justify the relevant behavior but merely to identify the context of the invasion.
Immediately after the death of the previous Rwandan president (in which Kagame has been implicated), the rebels continued their move to take over the country. At this point, there was genocide. As the rebels gained more territory, they led people to believe that they simply liberated formerly repressed kin and embraced the ethnic group that had previously persecuted them.
Eleven years of my research, with Allan Stam at the University of Michigan, shows that the RPF did engage in some violence when taking over the country, both at the front of their invasion as well as behind the lines of their control. The rebels did not simply assist in ending the genocidal campaign of the Rwandan government, but they also won an interstate conflict and they began a reprisal campaign of their own, which extended into the DRC almost immediately after their victory.
Of course, the violence of the genocide overshadowed that of the reprisal by a large margin, but there was retribution and there is also evidence that the pace of the invasion may even have further escalated the violence of the Rwandan government. This is not to argue that the two forms of political violence were equivalent. Rather, it is to suggest that there were at least two forms of violencet undertaken by the existing government at the time as well as the rebels.
Kagame’s government has done everything possible to prevent this acknowledgement. In 2004, I was called a “genocide denier” because I made such a claim. More recently, Peter Erlinder, a human rights lawyer from Minnesota, was arrested in Rwanda for making such a claim and numerous scholars have been prevented from entering Rwanda or denounced for raising this issue in print, on air or film. To say such things in Rwanda could result in arrest for "divisionism" or worse.
Even more evidence against Kagame could someday be revealed. There exists a yet-to-be-leaked U.N. report that alleges RPF-led violence led to the deaths of thousands. Because this report also insinuates Kagame and several governments (including the U.S.) wanted to avoid complications involved with accusing the new government, the report was never released.
The recently leaked U.N. report has brought all the accusations back, and its findings are consistent with my research, which shows the RPF engaged in violence against their ill-defined enemies. I say “ill-defined” because, as anyone who has engaged in or studied counter-insurgency or Rwandan history will readily attest, it is not always easy to separate political combatants from ordinary citizens; this is especially the case because Tutsi and Hutu share language, physical characteristics as well as belief systems and most knowledge about ethnic identity was locale which was disrupted by the massive population displacement at the time. Without this ability to distinguish or even a desire to do so, governments and/or rebels often kill those who could potentially challenge them.
The leaked U.N. report has resulted in a significant shift in perceptions about the Rwandan military in general and Paul Kagame in particular. The results from the latest election expand this shift, as well. The new view more accurately characterizes the complexity of the Rwandan conflict, and it tarnishes the simplistic narrative generally used to describe the Rwandan conflict of 1994. It paints Kagame not as a peacemaker exclusively engaged in ending genocide, but as a brilliant military strategist who quickly routed a rival government with violence, silenced a domestic population with violence as well as restrictive laws on expression, and stifled external enemies through another invasion — inciting civil war and wielding international guilt as well as accusations like a fine-edged sword. Kagame did this all under the observation and acquiescence of the same international community that watched the interstate war launched from Uganda, genocide in Rwanda and later military takeover of the challengers, as well as subsequent subversion of the DRC through fomenting civil war domestically and another invasion of a sovereign nation.
The world view of the Rwandan government and the man that many mistakenly believes to be a shining light in Africa – Paul Kagame – certainly is under question. Indeed, if he is a shining light, we should more closely examine what that light is illuminating.
Christian Davenport is a professor of peace studies, political science and sociology at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.