Who qualifies to judge Rwanda?

In April, Victoire Ingabire, leader of the FDU-Inkingi political party, was arrested for collaborating with a terrorist group. The prosecution later produced substantive evidence for the charges. Many news analysts were quick to denounce her arrest as definitive proof of the closing of the political space in Rwanda ahead of the forthcoming Presidential elections.

In April, Victoire Ingabire, leader of the FDU-Inkingi political party, was arrested for collaborating with a terrorist group. The prosecution later produced substantive evidence for the charges.

Many news analysts were quick to denounce her arrest as definitive proof of the closing of the political space in Rwanda ahead of the forthcoming Presidential elections.

This was typical of the manner in which international analysts interpret the political development of Rwanda. Yet it revealed a profound ignorance of the country’s post-genocide political evolution, and ignored a chain of events stretching back 10 years that led to Ingabire’s arrest.

On 2nd of March 1999, eight tourists, including four Britons, two Americans and two New Zealanders, were hacked and bludgeoned to death by Rwandan Hutu rebels in Bwindi forest, the Ugandan part of the gorilla-inhabited mountains shared by Rwanda and DRC.

The slaughter was carried out by the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR), made up of the Ex-FAR and Interahamwe militia responsible for the 1994 genocide.

Soon after, ALIR changed its name for FDLR (Forces de Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda) but this didn’t prevent the US Department of State from including ALIR on its Terrorist Exclusion List.

In November 2009, FDLR president Ignace Murwanashyaka and his deputy Straton Musoni were arrested in Germany for their role in alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and for leading a terrorist group.

In November 2009, the UN Group of Experts on DRC issued a report stating that FDLR military leaders were in phone contact with members of the FDU-Inkingi political party in Belgium and that Victoire Ingabire, the president of FDU, had attended “Inter Rwandan dialogue” meetings with pro-FDLR participants.

Two months later, in January of this year, Victoire Ingabire came back to Rwanda to contest the forthcoming presidential election.

She was accompanied by an assistant Joseph Ntawangundi, who has since been arrested in relation to a 2007 Gacaca court condemnation in absentia for participation in the 1994 genocide, a crime for which he finally pleaded guilty after an international campaign tried to defend him.

International media commentators and NGOs have been eager to conclude that the high-profile arrests, and other government actions to restrict sectarian politics and inflammatory media are evidence that - despite early signs of Rwandan exceptionalism - the country is inexorably reverting towards the perceived African norm of instability and dictatorial government.

Others, including Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, argue that these restrictions are themselves fueling renewed ethnic sectarianism, tension and instability. Rwandans in their overwhelming majority think otherwise.

Who should be the judge of Rwanda? Those who conceived its political system and those who support it, taking into consideration their history, political culture and tragedies they have suffered?

Or those who relentlessly seek fresh evidence of instability at the risk of fomenting it, and who if instability takes hold will be the first to be evacuated?

The current political regulations are part of an ongoing and carefully thought-through strategy of nation building that goes well beyond individual political personalities.

This strategy was developed in 1998 when representatives of all state institutions, of all political parties, intellectuals and surviving dignitaries of the former monarchy, as well as both the First and Second republics, gathered every Saturday for more ten months with the objective of answering two questions: how the Rwandan tragedy came to happen and how, from the ashes, to rebuild a peaceful, prosperous and vibrant country.

In parallel, every Sunday a radio show hosted by inquisitive journalists interviewed some of the direct protagonists of Rwanda’s recent history, taking questions from the public by phone for hours.

People were glued to their radios, for many it was the first time that they could start to make sense of the catastrophe that had shattered their lives.

From what was to become known as the ‘Urugwiro town-hall meetings’ came most of the subsequent key national programs: Gacaca, Decentralization, the 2003 Constitution, Vision 2020 development plan, the Office of the Ombudsman, the National Police, and so on.

The rationale behind the comprehensiveness of the strategy was that the programs would be mutually reinforcing and synergetic.

Ten years down the road how do Rwandans see things progressing? In 2007, for the first time, Rwanda was included in World Values Survey.

Out of 55 countries comprising Western democracies, most of Central and Eastern Europe, most emerging countries and a few of the least developed ones, the survey noted that Rwandans have the highest proportion of people who feels that the top priority for their country should be having strong defense forces; the second highest proportion of the population saying that they have ‘a great deal of confidence’ in the police and the third highest proportion in their Parliament; Rwanda ranks 6th for levels of confident in political parties.

But Rwanda comes in third from last for the proportion of those who believe that ‘most people can be trusted’, with only 5% believing so.

This account of high levels of confidence in state institutions and low levels of social trust correspond closely to the results of many other surveys.

They suggest that state institutions - with their peculiar set up - are the driving force of the national cohesion process, while society is still held back by deeply seated mistrust.

These surveys validate the government’s strategy of a cautious and gradual shift towards confrontational politics, which critics mostly from outside would have Rwanda adopt immediately.

And real progress is being made to improve levels of social trust. With the Gacaca process now nearing closure, a sense of social appeasement that was already perceptible last year is gaining momentum.

As the April genocide commemoration month ends, a police spokesperson revealed last week that unlike previous commemorations, when survivors were intimidated, threatened and sometimes killed, this year’s commemoration was generally free of such incidents.

I read this as a sign of increasing social cohesion, rather than emerging instability.

The aurthor is a policy advisor in Office of the President of Rwanda and author of forthcoming book Rwanda: The Popular Genocide.

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