For the last twenty-seven years in Rwanda, the government led by President Paul Kagame has been successful in both creating and maintaining the image of a unique leadership style that saved a country from genocide and is moving its people towards prosperity, peace, and a democracy based on consensus. In recent years, however, the world has woken up to a different, more sinister reality. The emerging image – a picture that many Rwandan activists and human rights organizations have long been trying to spotlight – is that of a brutal regime that will literally do anything to silence opposing voices through intimidation, collective punishment, arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, ‘disappearances,’ and even state-sanctioned murder.
Serious fissures in the regime’s carefully crafted façade began to appear in 2015 when Kagame forced through a change in the country’s constitution to extend his rule. Until then – working with lobbyists in Washington, DC and other Western capitals – Kagame’s team had skillfully molded the president into a darling of Western donors and business leaders. Changing the constitution, however, caused his cheerleaders to wonder whether they had been duped into thinking that Kagame was somehow different from other long-ruling tyrants in the region.
Still, Kagame’s constitutional coup was not enough to reveal the full picture of his oppressive regime. Mainly due to a lack of consequences that served to further embolden him, what followed was a spate of successful and attempted assassinations on foreign soil of regime critics. There was also a series of high-profile arrests of politicians inside the country who had attempted to challenge the regime. In particular, the jailing of women leaders like Victoire lngabire and Diane Rwigara and her family, became a PR headache for a government that had cleverly constructed a gender-washing strategy that often earned it glowing headlines.
This year, too, events surrounding the forced disappearance of Paul Rusesabagina, and his sham show trial, dealt another, perhaps fatal blow to whatever remained of Kagame’s “progressive” image. For Rwandans, at first, the Rusesabagina ordeal was no different from what had befallen many dissidents before him. However, being a European citizen as well as a permanent resident of the United States helped the case to earn global exposure, and in turn unveiled a regime that clearly has no boundaries when it comes to silencing dissent.
While Kagame’s image has taken multiple blows on the global stage recently, many observers have failed to recognize that his stature is also gradually crumbling at home. Indeed, having failed to persuade Rwandans into believing the regime’s relentless propaganda of Kagame-as-ultimate savior, it has now chosen a last resort: to dial up the violent oppression.
Unfortunately for the regime, these attempts have so far been counterproductive. For example, the arrest and brutal killing of Kizito Mihigo – the talented genocide survivor who preached a gospel-inspired reconciliation message – has given him an almost saintly status. And Mihigo’s enduring courage to call for the remembrance of all genocide victims — not just Tutsis — has become a clarion call and even a model for genuine social reconciliation that many Rwandans now ascribe to.
Judging by the actions in preparation for the 2024 presidential election – which will coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsis – the Kagame regime, obsessed with protecting its manufactured image, is going full speed ahead on a self-destructive path. As people across Rwanda are beginning to openly voice dissatisfaction through social media, the most vocal voices are being rounded up, arrested and silenced – the most recent cases include journalist Theoneste Nsengimana and independent politician Rachid Hakuzimana.
Rwandan authorities also seem to be increasingly following calls by domestic extremists, led by unofficial regime spokesman Tom Ndahiro, to arrest anyone who challenges the state narrative. Nowadays, it seems that anyone with an opposing viewpoint is accused of “harboring a genocide ideology” or labeled as “supporting terrorists.” Relatedly, the regime is deploying its ideological stalwarts – led by Tito Rutaremara and Polisi Denis – to accelerate the teaching of an entirely warped version of Rwandan history. Their message, in effect, is a continuation of the propaganda long advanced through programs like lngando (political military education camps) and Ndi Umunyarwanda (a program to “build a common national identity”).
In their current forms, these messages have taken a sinister turn. Shared only in Kinyarwanda, the local language, the essence of what is being dictated is that all Hutus have been infected by genocide ideology. These messages follow a well-worn script initiated by Kagame’s now infamous 2013 speech in which he called on all Hutus to ask forgiveness for the trauma of the 1994 genocide. Proponents of this message have gone so far as to claim that Hutu children were “born with genocide blood” and “fed with genocide breastmilk.” It’s not hard to envision how dangerous this message can be if it takes root and extremists inside Rwanda respond in kind, especially as tensions begin to rise in the lead up to the 2024 election.
For the last three decades, Kagame has faced no consequences for his cavalier, reckless actions, nor the myriad crimes that have been thoroughly documented in reports like the U.N. Experts’ Mapping Report on crimes against humanity in the Congo, as just one example. Due to this apparent lack of accountability, the Kagame regime is now more emboldened than ever.
President Paul Kagame has had many opportunities to avoid the fate of fellow African despots like his Rwandan predecessor Habyarimana, but also those like Gaddafi and Mugabe who refused to open their country’s political space before it was too late. Perhaps on account of the “hubris syndrome” that is now so apparent, the regime has failed to consider or even listen to the growing discontent of a people who are tired of discrimination, economic injustice, and the constant harassment and totalitarian-like surveillance. It is clear today that Kagame and the regime backing him up have two choices:
1) the side of dialogue, genuine truth and reconciliation, accountability, and ultimately open political space and respect for democratic rights
2) or the side of hubris backed by regime propaganda, western PR efforts, forged economic statistics, totalitarianism, and ultimately self-destruction.
Whatever choice Kagame ultimately makes, one outcome is certain: no amount of propaganda or slick PR will succeed at rebuilding the regime’s crumbling image, both at home and abroad.
The author wishes to remain anonymous because of potential reprisals against him.