On September 23, just two days before Rwandan President Paul Kagame addressed the UN General Assembly, opposition politician Sylidio Dusabumuremyi was stabbed to death by unknown assailants at his workplace. He was the national coordinator of the Forces Democratiques Unifiees – better known as FDU-Inkingi party.
In July, his colleague Eugene Ndereyimana, an FDU-Inkingi legislator from eastern Rwanda, disappeared and has not been seen since. And in March, Anselme Mutuyimana, a spokesman for the same party, was found dead in the forests of western Rwanda.
Following the murder of Dusabumuremyi, the chairperson of FDU-Inkingi, Victoire Ingabire, who now lives in exile after serving eight years in jail for “threatening national security”, told the media, “after several unresolved assassinations of our party members, we have no hope that his murder will be fully investigated and solved.”
These incidents are part of a string of assassinations and forced disappearances of opponents and critics of President Kagame that have taken place over the past few years. While no direct link has been established between President Kagame and these killings and disappearences, human rights organisations have repeatedly criticised the government for its heavy-handed treatment of the opposition and failure to investigate political murders.
Nevertheless, President Kagame still enjoys overwhelming public support, with many Rwandans viewing him as a visionary who brought peace and stability to a country broken by genocide.
Indeed, since his rebel group seized power by force, ending the 100-day genocide that began on April 7, 1994, and making him the country’s de facto leader, he has done much to change Rwanda for the better. He deserves credit for the economic transformation of the country and for battling corruption. He has opened up the country for business, promoted the growth of new economic sectors and improved its bureaucracy so it ranks 29th globally on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
He has spent foreign aid prudently and used Rwanda’s natural resources wisely. Unlike so many struggling and corrupt African states that show growth only on paper, Rwanda boasts massive strides in economic development, education, healthcare, etc, which have markedly improved the lives of ordinary people. He has pushed for more women in political office – 64 percent of the legislators in Rwanda’s parliament are women, the highest percentage of any country in the world. He has also eliminated the scourge of tribalism that afflicts most of the continent, and has united the country after a genocide. Over the past few years, Rwanda has been touted as an “African success story”.
An overwhelming majority of Rwandans support the president. Since his rise to power a quarter-century ago, Kagame has won three elections with massive landslides. In 2015, Rwandans overwhelmingly voted for an amendment to the constitution to allow the president to potentially remain in power until 2034. While similar moves have sparked violence and instability in countries like neighbouring Burundi and the Republic of Congo, there has been no unrest in Rwanda about the constitutional amendment. Instead, Rwandans showed nothing but support for the president, who they believe played an unrivalled role in ending the genocide and rebuilding the nation from its ashes.
However, today Kagame appears to be putting all this at risk by walking down a familiar path of authoritarianism. By stifling dissent and allowing the murders of his political opponents to go unsolved, he is risking taking his country down a path which leads to nothing but more violence and oppression.
Perhaps in the eyes of Kagame, only a few decades after a genocide that cost 800,000 lives, a truly pluralist democracy poses too great a risk to the security and stability of the country.
Authoritarianism, however, is not Kagame’s only option. And in fact, it may be the most dangerous one. Political repression is not a guarantee of stability; the whole of North Africa rocked by protests and uprisings since 2011 provides plenty of evidence to that.
Rwanda has become hell for politicians opposed to Kagame’s rule and his policies, to the extent that their very survival within the country is imperilled. While their oppression might eliminate any challenge to his power, in the long-term, it could fuel resentment in various layers of Rwandan society which could undo many of the president’s achievements.
Indeed, the silencing of Kagame’s critics casts a dark shadow over Rwanda’s future. This wave of repression has already damaged the international reputation of the country and it may backfire in the future within its borders. Foreign media has had a field day in taunting Kagame as a murderous dictator while ignoring all the progress achieved under his watch.
But it is not too late for him to change course. He can still avoid ruining his country and having to make an ignominious exit like so many others before him.
Kagame needs to accept that those in opposition are not his foes and that opening up the political system for contestation would not threaten his presidency, or the peace and stability in the country. He needs to see that if he does not allow Rwanda to experience democracy today, the country may well fall back to its old ways after his eventual demise.
The world is watching Kagame, and he holds the pen of history in his hands. Will he allow the democracy he helped build in Rwanda to prosper and continue to be an example to other countries devastated by conflict the world over, or will he allow the shadow of political assassinations and forced disappearences cloud over his legacy?