"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


what's going on in rwanda?

The United States Embassy in Kigali confirms that two more grenade attacks happened in Kigali Thursday night around 8pm local time:
The first occurred in the Kimironko neighborhood near the Printemps Hotel. The second was in the Kinamba neighborhood near the Gisozi Genocide Memorial. Injuries and/or casualties are unknown at this time.
One attack occurred near the Gisozi Genocide Memorial. This follows three simultaneous attacks that occurred on February 19, killing one and injuring at least thirty. Kigali Wire has a nice round-up of all the reports on these terrible events.

Rwanda is one of the safest places I've ever been. The police and gendarmes have a noticeable presence in Kigali, and I've never felt as though I was in the slightest bit of danger there. Actually, I'd feel perfectly comfortable walking down dark streets alone at midnight while counting up my francs. It's that safe.

Even the most casual visitor to Rwanda notices the security measures the country takes to keep out weapons, drugs, and plastic bags, which are illegal in Rwanda. Visitors flying in through Kigali have to put all of their luggage through x-ray machines before they exit customs. Visitors crossing by land have their baggage subjected to an extremely thorough search by hand. If you cross by bus, as I often do, it can take an hour or more for the authorities to inspect everyone's luggage. Vehicles, especially public transport, are almost always stopped by police or gendarmes for inspection at some point along the country's main routes.

The justification for all of this searching and prodding is that it's necessary to maintain the country's security, particularly with respect to the FDLR rebels who operate in the Congo. Much of the FDLR's leadership was involved in the 1994 genocide, and their stated aim is the overthrow of the RPF regime in Kigali. The FDLR doesn't come close to having the capacity to do such a thing these days, which is why they bide their time terrorizing the people of Congo's Kivu provinces.

Do many FDLR spend time trying to sneak into Rwanda via the buses and border checkpoints? I doubt it, but that's not the point. The point is that Rwanda's government keeps a very close eye on what happens in its territory. They are therefore able to maintain an incredibly high degree of security and stability.

So what on earth has happened in Rwanda to allow five grenade attacks to happen in the country's capital city in just under two weeks? I can think of a few possible explanations:
  • The FDLR or extremist Hutus who tacitly support their efforts have managed to cross into Rwanda, sneak in illegal weapons or bribe officials to look the other way, and infiltrate Kigali, where they are using terrorist techniques to intimidate or harass the population.
  • Another, non-FDLR-affiliated organization has formed to create instability in the country in the lead up to the August 10 presidential elections.
  • The rifts between the RPF's current and former leadership are nastier than we thought.
  • The RPF or someone in it has an interest in seeing Kigali mildly destabilized so as to justify repressing political dissent and is somehow behind these attacks.
Let's consider each of these possibilities in turn. First, the FDLR. The FDLR is naturally suspect in that it is certainly the organization in the world that is most interested in the destruction of the RPF. Indeed, Rwanda's government quickly arrested two suspects after the attacks and said that both suspects are Interahamwe.

Here's one problem with the FDLR thesis. Violent extremists of all stripes tend to behave according to patterns. They're predictable. And launching secretive terrorist attacks on civilian populations in busy places isn't how the FDLR normally operates. Their fighters live in the forest. They tend to loot, burn down villages, rape women, and engage in mass slaughter. Random violence that has a relatively small impact isn't their normal way of wreaking havoc.

It is possible that they have changed tactics or that more sophisticated Hutu extremists are behind these attacks. Although Rwanda has tight control over its official border crossings, it does not and cannot monitor every inch of its borders to ensure that illicit material isn't being brought in. So that might explain it.

The second possibility is that another organization has formed, probably in secret, to oppose the RPF. This is also possible, but it seems unlikely that Rwanda's authorities wouldn't have heard about it and moved to stop its activities. Rwanda's authorities, especially at the local level, keep a very close eye on what the citizens are doing. Villagers are encouraged to report illegal behavior to the government and there are rumors that average citizens can reap financial rewards from turning in anyone whose activities seek to undermine the regime. For that reason, and the simple fact that dissenters in central Africa tend to be very visible (by starting websites, issuing press releases, etc.) I'd categorize this possibility as highly unlikely.

Third, perhaps the rifts in the RPF leadership are nastier than we thought. There's no question that there are tensions in the RPF based on what amounts to a power struggle between those loyal to Kagame and those who were once in the leadership but have since fled the country and who oppose Kagame's regime. Jason Stearns has a good summary of this relating to the RPF's accusation of Lt. General Kayumba Nyamwasa as one of the people accused of masterminding last month's grenade attacks. Nyamwasa used to be an RPF leader, but is now accused "of complicity with the FDLR." Nyamwasa, for his part, says that the attacks were planned by the government in Kigali.

Could Nyamwasa be right? The final option is almost painful to consider. Is it possible that Kigali is behind these attacks? As Geoffrey York points out in this must-read piece, it's a fact that the RPF suppresses political dissent and free speech in the name of maintaining unity. It views open disagreement with its policies - particularly when so-called "Hutu grievances" are raised - as treasonous behavior that could lead to another genocide. None of this is in dispute by people who are serious observers of the region. Even The Economist - a longtime cheerleader for Kagame's impressive economic record - has finally acknowledged the reality of the lack of press freedom and political freedom in Rwanda.

Does the RPF have an interest in pointing out that their leadership is needed to keep Rwanda stable? Absolutely. But would the RPF resort to violence against its own citizens in order to create a climate of fear by which the repression of competing political candidates could be justified? I sincerely hope not. The RPF has a lot to lose, especially given that it's been on somewhat more shaky terms with some donor states since the latter clued in to Rwanda's role in the Congo conflict. Kagame is well aware that there is a high degree of focused attention on Rwanda's upcoming elections on the part of the West. I just can't see him going so far when so much is at stake.

The third option seems to be the least complicated and most likely explanation for this sudden instability, at least for the moment. And it appears that at least some close observers of the RPF's political machinations agree. For example, the Christian Science Monitor spoke with a Rwandan political analyst (who, for obvious reasons, chose to stay anonymous). He or she views the attacks as "more likely to be expressions of problems within the ruling party, rather than attacks launched against the Rwandan state by rebel groups such as the" FDLR.

The RPF's actions certainly support the idea that they believe former RPF members to be responsible. Despite some rhetoric about the FDLR/Interahamwe being responsible in the immediate aftermath of the first attack, at least two of the three officially suspected masterminds or perpetrators of the grenade attacks are not Hutu extremists, but rather former members of the RPF leadership. In addition to Nyamwasa, Kigali says that Deo Mushayidi, who is now an opposition political party leader, was arrested in Burundi in conjunction with Thursday's attacks.

I can't say with any certainty who is behind these attacks. What I can say is that the attacks are almost certainly - in one way or another - connected to the raw tensions that underlie the surface in just about every Rwandan community and that is at the root of the Congo conflict. What does it mean to be Rwandan? How do Hutus and Tutsis who won't toe the RPF line fit in to life in post-genocide Rwanda? What justifies keeping one's political enemies silent? How does a landlocked country with virtually no valuable natural resources attract investment and develop its economy in order to give its citizens a decent standard of living? How can a minority of a minority continue to rule while maintaining an international image as a haven of good governance and stability in a turbulent region?

As per usual, when it comes to central Africa, there are no easy answers.


Anonymous alli said...

I've now read your blog quite a few times, usually linking here from various other places. In many instances I'm perplexed by your take on the Great Lakes. This post in particular though, made me want to actually comment. Before I make my comments however, I'd like to not make any assumptions. So as not to do that, I'd like to ask what you know about the RPF. I'm not sure if you consider yourself some sort of "expert" or perhaps just a "knowledgeable" person. But either way, I'd just like to get your take on the RPF, or their activities in central Africa. How do you see and define their presence? Thanks in advance.

Monday, March 08, 2010 1:44:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

you seem to consistently write about rwanda with such bias and misunderstanding, purporting to have studied and observed it extensively.

why then do you write about his grenade attacks as a desert?

grenade attacks (and always specifically grenades) have occurred in kigali at an intermittent consistency to many years. most often, on genocide rememberance days and other important or significant days. it is no surprise that a rise in grenade attacks accompanies this election cycle.



(and for the record, they almost never x-ray bags at the airport. i flew in an out countless times and never had this happen)

Monday, March 08, 2010 3:05:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Alli, I did my PhD dissertation on the Kivu provinces in the eastern DRC and have been researching the region for about fourteen years. While I would never purport to know everything about the internal workings of the RPF, I do think I have a pretty good grasp on the situation there. My quick take is that the RPF right now is still not interested in sharing political power inside Rwanda, that they have made strides in their relationship with the Congolese government, and that they are still benefiting from the illegal extraction of Congolese natural resources. It's an open question as to whether the RPF is still supporting the CNDP rebels, or as to whether they have any intention of actually trying or handing over Laurent Nkunda. The RPF is definitely facing some contention within the ranks at the moment; there's a lot of discontent, and, as I mentioned in the post, you can see that playing out in these grenade attacks, which the government is openly blaming on former RPF members.

Anon, I'd appreciate your pointing out what I have said that is factually incorrect before you accuse me of writing with bias. I always try to correct factual, evidence-based errors as soon as I or someone else catches them. That said, thanks for the reminder of the earlier grenade attacks. My memory is not perfect and I don't pretend to know everything.

For what it's worth, I've flown in and out of Kigali airport many, many times in the last five years and have never not had my bags x-rayed. Perhaps I and my fellow passengers look more suspicious than you do.

Monday, March 08, 2010 6:31:00 PM

Anonymous alli said...

Thanks for answering my questions. Although I have to say that your answer kind of skirted around the question. While familiar with the region (although I wouldn't consider myself an expert), I'm shocked that rather than acknowledge the violence perpetrated by the RPF in the region, you choose to profess not to be familiar with "the inner workings" of the RPF. Unless you're on the RPF's payroll, I don't expect you to know that. But as a researcher, you do everyone a disservice, including yourself by not acknowledging their role, in the conflict. To write as though the RPF would NEVER be violent against its citizens or that they have resolved every conflict they have been a part of in the region tells me you need to do a lot more research on the region and the RPF in particular (and I don't mean their inner workings by this), but more so about their activities. I'm not going to proselytize here. I'm just going to encourage you to do some open minded research on the RPF and their violent activities in the region (as much as you know about the FDLR). You will be utterly surprised as to what they are capable of doing. Real talk.

Monday, March 08, 2010 11:39:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Alli, from what you've said, it sounds like you're not a regular reader of this blog. If you were, you'd know that I've definitely discussed the RPF's role in supporting and creating regional violence in the past, including with respect to Prunier's critique of their actions in the immediate aftermath of the genocide.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010 11:49:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the spirit of weighing up the various explanations, what about Nkunda loyalists? They have the motivation and probably the resources to carry out an attack in Kigali -- by blackmailing Kagame / Kabarebe and Rwanda's investment image against the release of their 'chairman'.

Whilst the deaths in Kigali are hugely sad, the nature of the attacks suggest theatrics rather than bloodthirsty malicious intent -- the 5 grenades could have been thrown into a busy market or restaurant and caused significantly higher number of casualties. To me, this suggests some sort of message / threat. Kagame implied that the blasts were a message in his recent press conference.

Kagame is passionate about making Rwanda an investment and tourism destination. Denting this image in the run up to the election is a powerful bargaining tool for whomever wants leverage.

Another, arguably more far fetched hypothesis, could be disgruntled RPF trying to sow a level of instability and thereby justify a coup attempt -- the same was done in 1973 by Habyarimana before he came to power.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 3:10:00 AM

Anonymous Eamon said...

Whenever I read an analysis of the situation in Rwanda these days, I think of Syria, a place I know much better that seems to have some instructive similarities. It's another country with a repressive regime that (though not on the West's good side) uses the reality of past chaos to justify its iron-fisted ways. In Syria, there are periodic incidents (often involving Kalashnikovs or grenades) that the government and its sympathizers blame on terrorists or the Israelis, and everyone else blames on the government. The pundits and armchair generals have it out on the blogs and papers arguing about who is responsible. But no one can ever really say what happened -- it's impossible to know, because all the political actors are morally capable of the violence, and the investigation will be carried out by a state security apparatus that some will say is responsible or involved in the attack.

It makes for an uncomfortable situation where every explanation is a conspiracy theory. A bit like Rwanda.

I like a thoughtful analysis like yours -- laying out the possibilities without pointing fingers -- because rather than playing a pointless guessing game about who is responsible, it makes clear some fundamental problems: In a politically closed, propaganda-reliant country, the threat of violence will always exist, truth will be elusive and justice will be suspect.

It would be nice to see Rwanda figure these issues out. As Syria has shown, the further you go down that road, the harder it is to get off of it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 8:15:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Eamon, very interesting comparison. I don't know a lot about Syria, but that's definitely food for thought.

Anon, I'm hearing very similar rumblings to the things you're saying here, but am waiting for more confirmation from sources on the ground before posting anything on it. I think the tension between Nkunda loyalists and others would fall under that "inter-RPF" tension explanation, albeit in a quite different way.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 11:54:00 AM

Anonymous JT said...

Is Rwanda a communist country? If so, what is the difference between the RPF government and any communist countries? Searching and frisking, somewhat of a police state where police is all over the place, civilians reporting on civilians to the government, repressive against opposition (virtually a 1 party state), etc...

Monday, March 29, 2010 7:07:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

JT, Rwanda is not a communist country because it has a free market economy. A communist state has a centrally-planned economy in which the government decides what to produce, how much to produce, and (typically) sets prices for goods and services.

The characteristics you mentioned are those of authoritarian regimes. Any regime that uses repression and that limits political participation is authoritarian. Most communist regimes have also been authoritarian regimes, but not all authoritarian regimes are communist, if that makes sense.

Monday, March 29, 2010 9:22:00 PM

Anonymous JT said...

Thanks for your response TiA.

I have read reports that somewhat fit the following about the Rwanda's economy: "economy in which the government decides what to produce, how much to produce, and (typically) sets prices for goods and services."

For example in some places the government has ordered the population to stop producing crops like banana and plant tobacco or coffee for example. They also dictate how these goods are sold on the market. An individual cannot just sell or trade their crop without going through government programs.

Have you heard about this?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 12:51:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

JT, I'm not an expert on economic planning, but my understanding is that some of that sort of centralized planning happens. However, it still wouldn't be considered Communism (in technical terms - I'm a political scientist and I think about these terms in very specific ways) because all of the economy is not under state control, and it's not driven by the ideology of Communism. Truly Communist governments don't, for example, invite in large amounts of foreign direct investment.

Is Rwanda's economy totally free-market? No. But it's not at the other extreme, and you don't have a Marxist-Leninist ideology driving economic regulation.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 4:53:00 PM

Anonymous JT said...

Thank you so much for clarifying. So basically communism in scientific terms is in regard to how the economy is run and not necessarily things like allowing only a single political party system or single political forum (in the case of Rwanda) if I understand correctly. Would China be considered a communist country in scientific terms? If Cuba and North Korea opened their markets to foreign investors would that make them non-communist? Thank you for the info.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 5:51:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Those are good questions. Outside of North Korea, it's increasingly difficult to find a purely Marxist-Leninist economic system. (That's arguably because it doesn't work.) China today is pursuing what some people call Leninist capitalism, which is a blended form of the two. It's not a completely free market but it's not nearly as tightly controlled as it was even twenty years ago. Of course, China is still an authoritarian state that uses force and repression to maintain control.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 9:10:00 PM

Anonymous Amanda said...

This is most likely a deeply stupid question, but are there any substantial similarities between the Kagame regime and the government of Park Chung Hee in South Korea? My impression from the mass media is that Kagame's goal is to turn Rwanda into an industrializing democracy-in-name-only like the Asian Tigers of two generations ago. I didn't read anything about trying to buy off the Hutu majority with the freedom to get rich analogously to the KMT, and Rwanda isn't a port city-state, which leaves South Korea as a viable model.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 6:43:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Hi, Amanda,

It's definitely not a stupid question, but it is one to which I don't fully know the answer as my knowledge of South Korean political history is seriously limited. Kagame has quite openly modeled Rwanda after Singapore, which of course still has strict limits on civil liberties.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 9:30:00 PM

Anonymous Amanda said...

Thank you for the lead! From an economic point of view, I'm not sure how one can compare a small landlocked farm-based state with an island city-state; having an automatic potential claim to a piece of the trade between China and the rest of Eurasia is a much better position than Rwanda has between a rock and a hard place. I suspect, without evidence, that he's referring more to Singapore's persistent dictatorship and the touchy ethnic relations of the whole Malaysia-Indonesia area as justifications for his own dictatorship.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011 6:10:00 AM


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