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05. August 2010

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Rwanda’s ambivalent path to the future: trapped between human and women’s rights issues

Guest commentary by Edit Schlaffer, photos Carla Goldstein, Omega Institute, Rhinebeck (Die Presse, 31.07.2010)

Rwanda is a country full of contradictions. Preparations for the upcoming elections on August 9 are well underway. Whilst political opponents and inquisitive journalists are disappearing, voter registration is exemplary. For the first time, voter registration cards include photographs. The number of registered voters has risen from 1.3 million, at the last presidential election in 2003, to 5.2 million this year.

Reporters without Borders have asked the European Union to withdraw financial support for the upcoming elections. A number of journalists working for the independent daily Umurabyo were arrested last month. In most cases, the detained are accused of stirring up public and ethnic unrest. The deputy chief-editor of another newspaper has recently been found shot dead near his house. The authorities claimed it was a holdup murder, because his mobile phone and wallet were missing, but for many it was more than a mere coincidence. The vice-chair of the Green Party Andre Kagwa Rwisereka was found decapitated. Prior to the elections, two opponents of the regime were murdered within a fortnight. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has asked the Kagame regime to investigate these murders.

Kagame receives international sympathy and admiration. Bill Clinton awarded him with the Global Citizen Award for his excellent leadership and public services. The US, Great Britain and their Western allies use the Holocaust analogy to justify their economic and military support of Rwanda. They like to portray Rwanda as the Israel of Africa. The genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus is compared with the extermination of the Jews. Yet the Commonwealth Human Rights Group concludes in November 2008 that the Rwandese government is not committed to the protection of human rights and democracy. Consequently, the Group recommends postponing the elections to win ample time for the implementation of an efficient, international observer group.

After the 1994 genocide the prospects of the genocide torn country seemed bleak. In the meantime, the destroyed infrastructure—ranging from devastated telephone lines to burnt down churches and houses—has been reconstructed. The perpetrators—often former military leader—are visible to the public. They wear pink overalls and do social work all over the country. While Kagame imprisoned thousands of them, during the day they are active in reconstructing the country that they destroyed. They remind of Rwanda’s past atrocities.

The handling of the prisoners is based on the political cell structure of the ‘old’ Rwanda. They work in small, well-organised cells, without need of supervision. In the old societal system of Rwanda, people were also organised into such cells, some open, and some secret. This system provided the basis for the genocide since this informal organisation across the country was based on total and unquestioned obedience. As a consequence, Hutus even killed their Tutsi wives and children, and neighbours denounced neighbours. And again, it is exactly this structure of discipline and obedience that now allows Kagame and his followers to rule and sustain their power base. But the change he has achieved is remarkable. For example, Malaria, apart from HIV, the greatest challenge in Africa to date, was contained successfully: by 2009 Malaria had dropped by 75%. Many other countries, including the US, can only dream of a healthcare system á la Rwanda, since almost the entire population now has universal healthcare.

The army, always a potential threat in post-conflict societies, was integrated into the country’s reconstruction process. An official ‘army month’ is dedicated to welfare services, during which houses and entire villages are built, and on average 20,000 children are vaccinated.

The military strategist Kagame, who for years planned the liberation of Rwanda in the jungle, within a short period of time, mastered the arts of leadership and innovative economic expertise. During the reconstruction of the telephone lines, he was not satisfied with the re-instauration of the copper-based system. Instead, he introduced mobile networks with the help of South African experts. This was the start of a multimillion dollar empire; the most successful business in the county.

International observers suspect part of the economic success and recovery of Rwanda is due to natural resource exploitation in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But with the retreat of the Rwandese troops from the regions bordering the DRC, Rwanda has managed to appease the international community.

Another contradiction is the fact that in the heart of Africa a government structure was designed based on imposed gender equality. Rwanda boasts the highest number of female MPs worldwide, an impressive 56% representation in government. It was the first county worldwide to hold an absolute female majority in parliament. Key areas are directed by women: a third of the cabinet, 54% of local government representative, and 52% of the Supreme Court posts are held by women. The Supreme Court’s president is also a woman.

Given these facts, is Rwanda a post-feminist model? I feel that Kagame is rather a friendly face of the patriarchal set-up of the 21st century. With his consolidated power base, Kagame has from the very beginning of his liberation struggle strategically focused on smart power. While planning and organising the liberation during his time in the jungle, he sent his envoys to Kenyan and Ugandan Universities, and tasked them to find the smartest students to join him. In particular, he tapped into the talent pool of young exiled women, Rose Kabuye being one of them. The Rose I met at an official dinner in Kigali was different from the Rose I knew from the media. She is 1.80m tall, slender, an exotic beauty in a cocktail dress and high heels. Rose Kabuye’s career started in uniform with a shaved head, and led to her important position as a major general of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), the governing party of Rwanda.

As a student, Rose watched the recruitment of young men from her campus. As these fighters left her behind, she swore to join them. She grew up with eight siblings in an Ugandan refugee. Being her father’s favourite, she was allowed to do what only boys were, such as milking cows and riding a bicycle. As a bright girl, she was accepted to boarding school and later to University. Finally, she joined the liberation movement, due to her extreme willpower and dedication. They had a child and moved into a small house in Uganda. Her civilian life did not last long though. When the liberation movement decided to attack the regime in Kigali, she was not asked to join, because she had an infant at home. ‘My baby was 11 months old, but I knew that I had to be part of the struggle for a new Rwanda. I left my son with my husband David and only saw him again when he was two and a half years old. He didn’t recognise me.’

Rose became one of Kagame’s main confidants and collaborators. Kagame appointed her mayor of Kigali as soon as the city was recaptured. During our dinner together, she repeatedly kept a protective eye on Kagame. She is now the head of protocol and in his inner circle. Rose made headlines across Europe a couple of years ago when she was arrested in Germany and deported to France. She was accused of being involved in bringing down the aeroplane of Rwanda’s former president Juvenal Habyarimana’s airplane in Kigali in 1994. It was this incident that sparked the genocide, which subsequently led to the slaughtering of an estimated one million people across the country. Rose’s arrest caused country-wide protests. Already an icon of liberation, Rose became a national hero. The allegations against her were later dropped.

Aloisea Inyumba is currently a senator and was the first minister for women’s affairs in Kagame’s cabinet. She previously also held the position of chairperson of the national reconciliation commission. Like Rose, she was part of the liberation movement. Aloisea grew up with her mother in an Ugandan refugee camp. She learnt to read with other refugee children, usually by sitting together under a large tree, a quasi open-air classroom. As there was no electricity, the children had to wait for full-moon to study for exams. When Rwandese pupils were accepted into local schools of their host countries, they impressed their new teachers. Aloisea noted, ‘We were determined and dedicated. There was no normality for us, only the hope of education and achievement.’

She studied social work and administration at Makerere University, when she was approached by Kagame’s envoys and asked if she was interested in political training. The day after her last exam, she left everything behind, and went deep into the bush to prepare for Rwanda’s liberation struggle. As part of her preparation she studied political economy, analysed injustice and poverty, but also underwent military training. She was given a codename and became Kagame’s key international fundraiser. Aloisea remembers how she was picked up one night, and how, after a long walk through the jungle, she boarded a plane to Europe. ‘For our supporters in the West it was shocking to see how we lived in the jungle. I was always close to Kagame. I was involved in the entire logistic. We kept the money, not the army. The army had to focus on the battle. Of course, Kagame’s closest allies questioned why he trusted a woman with such an important task. That is understandable. I was young and inexperienced. But he only replied: Aloisea is clever and nobody can bribe her.’

Paul Kagame, the leading feminist of Rwanda? ‘Yes,’ says Aloisea, and continues: ‘The first time I heard about the gender agenda was from him. When I asked Paul, “So what is gender?”, he explained to me that it is about creating opportunities for both women and men. When he appointed me a as minister, I again sought his advice: “what shall I do first? Rwanda is in an awful state. Should I build houses? People need houses; they need to overcome the trauma.” He answered: “Just listen to them and show them that you love them.”’

Paul Kagame will co-chair the UN summit for the presentation of the Millennium Development Goals with the Spanish Prime Minister José Zapatero, in New York in November this year. At this occasion he will once more talk convincingly about his favourite topic: progress by using women as engines of change and securing the participation of women at all levels of society for achieving sustainable development.

Travelling through Rwanda is an emotional journey. The landscape is defined by soft hills, covered by rich vegetation. As I absorb the seducing scenery, I think of my interview partners and remember their stories, and imagine the desperation of those who were systematically killed with machetes, their screams echoing from hilltop to hilltop. The massacre was well planned and effectively executed between 8am and 5pm. At the end of my trip I ask my local guide, who goes by the beautiful name Innocent, whether he still lives at home. He sadly shakes his head and says, ‘No, I live in student accommodation.’ The young man is the only survivor of his family. The last time he felt his mother’s touch was when she gently pushed him into the attic, as the killers approached their house. ‘I only dared to come down after days. I left my house, dead parents and siblings behind.’

Kigali’s impressive genocide memorial appears to float over the capital. The entrance of the memorial site reads: ‘Remember the Nazis didn’t kill 6 million Jews; the Interahamve didn’t kill one million Tutsis. They were killed one by one. Genocide is not one act. It is a million acts of murder.’


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