Friday, March 19, 2010

Rwanda -- Could It Happen Again?

Free speech in Rwanda? Not a chance. Maybe that's what it takes to stop genocide in this part of the world?

Land That Outlawed Hate On Edge as Key Vote

KIGALI, Rwanda—The man who outlawed ethnic hatred in this tiny African nation is running for re-election, just as a delicate peace is showing signs of strain.

In recent weeks, politicians lining up against President Paul Kagame have complained of threats and physical attack. According to the 2009 U.S. Human Rights Report, journalists who criticize the government have been arrested — a pattern that has escalated recently, journalists say. Grenades have exploded here in the capital, Kigali. And ethnic violence is creeping back.

The incidents reflect a growing tension in the country, a byproduct of the government's determination to prevent a reprise of the genocide here 16 years ago. In 1994, some 800,000 people — one-tenth of the population, most of them ethnic Tutsi — were killed by machetes and farm tools in violence that ended when Mr. Kagame and his guerrilla army captured Kigali.

Today, Rwanda is a rarity among African nations: an economic success. Under Mr. Kagame, growth reached 11% in 2008, making it one of the world's fastest growing nations before the global economic slump kicked in.

Kigali's streets bustle with orderly commerce and are swept by cleaners in blue smocks. No beggars or prostitutes clog the sidewalks as in other African cities; the police round them up. The final Saturday of the month, Rwandans must join in a national clean-up day, tidying the area in which they live.

And in a remarkable attempt at social engineering, Rwandans are forbidden to say anything that might reignite hatred. Mr. Kagame's 2008 "genocide ideology" law is the heart of his nation-rebuilding strategy. It outlaws any dehumanizing behavior, including murder and hate speech, but also hard-to-define offenses such as "marginalizing," "boasting," "despising" or "stirring up ill feelings." Violators face up to 25 years in prison.

But memories are hard to erase. Some younger Rwandans point to next month, April—the month the genocide began, a period of national remembrance—as a time when the question of ethnicity again rises. Genocide is discussed in school, stirring questions about who is Hutu and who is Tutsi.

"We want to know," said one 28-year-old student, a minority Tutsi, who said he hopes to become a pastor. "In your heart, you are always thinking that all Hutu are bad."

At the same time, Mr. Kagame, who is widely expected to win re-election in August, faces allegations that he's using the broad language of the genocide-ideology law—as well as intimidation—to rein in opponents.

Bernard Ntaganda, who registered an opposition party last year, the PS-Imberakuri, was summoned in December to a senate committee hearing because the government said it had received a tip that the party was "ethnically divisive" and may have violated the genocide-ideology law. Mr. Ntaganda has denied the charges, calling them politically motivated. The matter is pending before the senate.

Last month, another politician said she was attacked in front of a government office where she and a colleague had gone to collect documents to register her party. The politician, Victoire Ingabire, said in an interview she believes the government was behind the attack, in which she says her passport was stolen and her colleague beaten.

She has been interrogated by police about alleged ties to genocide perpetrators, and denies any link. Days after last month's attack, her colleague was arrested and accused of participating in the genocide. He has said he wasn't in the country then.

The government denies the harassment allegations. Spokeswoman Louise Mushikiwabo said she believes Ms. Ingabire and her colleague used divisive language, and the government has a responsibility to maintain unity. "These politicians, failing on substance, are looking for trouble. They are trying to bring this language that is banned, language that even by law in this country is not allowed, and see how far they can get with it," she said.

Through an aide, Mr. Kagame declined to be interviewed.

By outlawing hateful speech, Rwanda hopes to create generational change. "Give it 10 to 20 years and you will have a new crop of Rwandans" who don't consider themselves Hutu or Tutsi, said Tharcisse Karugarama, the justice minister. "Today if you see somebody and say, 'What's your tribe?' people look at you suspiciously. Today you could ... take them to court for inciting racial ideology," he said. The minister added: "It's an experiment in positive living."

Many Rwandans say the genocide-ideology law casts a chilling effect on daily life. "You're always afraid," said one middle-class woman and member of the majority Hutu ethnic group. She agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity at a quiet hotel. As is common among Rwandans when speaking about politics in public, she fell silent whenever a waiter came within earshot, underscoring widespread belief that restaurant staff are paid to report people's conversations to Rwandan intelligence officials.

In another interview, a businessman gestured toward a portrait of Mr. Kagame in the café where he sat, rather than speak the president's name aloud.

Ms. Mushikiwabo said it's "just ridiculous" to suggest that Rwandans are afraid of speaking out in public. "There's a fear that comes from nowhere that this law is here to curtail people's views," she said. "There is no question that hate speech is difficult to regulate," she said, adding that she knows of no instances of the law's misuse.

The struggle with the past takes many forms. Murders of Tutsi genocide survivors have risen the past few years after a mid-decade decline, according to Ibuka, the genocide survivors' association. Reports of Hutu harassment of Tutsi more than doubled since last year, Ibuka said, to 99 incidents from 44 the year before. In 2008 and 2009, grenades were thrown at the genocide museum in Kigali, which is also a grave for victims.

And this month, French prosecutors arrested Agathe Habyarimana, the widow of the former president whose death triggered 1994's genocide, on a Rwandan international warrant. Mrs. Habyarimana is one of the top officials the Rwandan government would like to see tried in Kigali. Rwandan officials say she bears some responsibility for the genocide. She denies the charges.

Mrs. Habyarimana appeared before a French magistrate on March 2. She'll be summoned in the next few months to learn whether she will be extradited to Rwanda, according to her lawyer.

Mr. Kagame, 52 years old, is widely credited for rescuing a ruined country. He led the forces that ended Rwanda's genocide and has served as president for a decade. In that time, Rwanda became the envy of its struggling African neighbors.

The U.S., a major donor, extended $150 million in aid in 2009. Foreign investment, a trickle in 2003, soared to $120 million in 2008, the government says. Rwandan officials have estimated they will have signed more than $500 million in investment deals for 2009. "Our leadership is visionary and will do anything and everything to ensure that growth is not lost," said Clare Akamanzi of the Rwanda Development Bank.

A cross sits on top of the clothes of children two years and under who were killed in one section of the church. The compound and church in Nyamata held around 11,000 Rwandans, of which only six survived.

.Mr. Kagame, a member of the Tutsi minority, is himself shaped by Rwanda's ethnic conflicts. As a boy in 1960, he escaped with his family to neighboring Uganda when Hutus angry with the Tutsi aristocracy stormed from hill to hill, burning homes.

In Uganda, he secretly built a militia, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. In 1990, his militia attacked Rwanda, fueling civil war. Then, in April 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda's president was shot down by assailants whose identities have never been confirmed—and the slaughter of Tutsi began. Within 100 days, hundreds of thousands died.

In July 1994, Mr. Kagame's forces took the capital. He rose to the presidency in 2000. Challengers soon found themselves pushed aside.

As the election in 2003 approached, Mr. Kagame's main rival was accused of "divisionism," or advocating one ethnicity over another. He was later arrested and convicted on corruption charges and attempting to incite violence, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He has denied the charges; Mr. Kagame pardoned and released him in 2007.

The divisionism ban marked the start of the government's bid to eliminate hate speech.

Hutu and Tutsi share language and customs. And while Tutsi are stereotypically taller, the two have intermarried for so long that physical distinctions are often blurred. Their distrust has roots in colonial times a century or so ago, when Belgian colonizers favored the Tutsi and distributed ethnic-identity cards.

Despite the shared culture and Rwanda's effort to stamp out prejudice, deep sensitivity to differences remains. According to the young Tutsi student hoping to become a pastor, in one of his classes the teacher asked members of the genocide survivors' association (whose members are Tutsi) to raise their hands. Once students do so and identify their ethnicity, "There is now segregation," he said.

Another Tutsi student said he encourages younger Tutsi children orphaned in the genocide to be wary of Hutu. "I say, 'Beware, he might try to destroy you,'" the young man said.

In September 2008, Mr. Kagame's party won a parliamentary election with 79% of the vote, further cementing his leadership. A few smaller parties contested, with only minor support.

"We have many political parties, but we have no opposition," said Pascal Nyilibakwe of the League of Human Rights for the Great Lakes Region, a Kigali group focused on political issues. "Why vote?" he said. "We know the result beforehand."

As this August's vote approaches, myriad issues are becoming politicized. For instance, in 2008, the government decided to switch its official language to English from French.

It was partly a geopolitical move. Relations with France soured after the genocide because France had been an ally of the Hutu government at the time, and a probe by Rwanda's government found that the French government armed and helped train Hutu militias who were preparing for the genocide.

France has denied the allegations. Relations between Rwanda and France have since improved. On a recent visit to Kigali, French President Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged "errors" by France during the genocide, while stopping short of apology.

Officially, the switch to English was pragmatic. Rwanda hopes to market itself as a business hub in East Africa, a mainly Anglophone region.

But the switch to English has a side effect of blocking many Hutu—who grew up in a Francophone Rwanda—from good jobs. Many postings now require fluent English, including teaching and government positions. Most English speakers in Rwanda are Tutsi who grew up in exile or studied abroad.

Many Hutu are frustrated by a lack of opportunity. Despite economic growth, Rwanda remains poor. An estimated 80% of Rwandans are subsistence farmers, most of them Hutu.

In an echo of the past, the Hutu unease is fueling support among some for the brutal rebel group across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That group, known by its French initials, FDLR, was founded by Hutus involved in the genocide.

"Some support the FDLR," said the woman being interviewed in the Kigali hotel. As a Hutu, she says, she condemns the group's abhorrent violence. But other people say, 'We've had enough,'" she said. "They say, 'If the RPF got the country by the gun, why not us?'"

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