Rwanda and the Commonwealth

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Will Jones asks how we should see Rwanda’s new-found commonwealth membership: does the country meet the criteria for membership? How should we assess Rwanda’s democracy since 1994? Will its membership encourage further democratisation? Will Jones is a Junior Research Fellow in Social Sciences at Balliol College, Oxford, and a research at the University’s Refugee Studies Centre.

Rwanda represents an important innovation for the Commonwealth. Previously an informal club with no specified entry criteria, CHOGM[1] developed rules for entry in 1997 in response to interest in membership expressed by countries with no historical connection to British imperialism. These rules state any entrant must abide by the principles set out by the Harare Declaration of 1991, which amount to the usual commitments to democracy, human rights, and international peace and order. Rwanda became the first country to join the Commonwealth under these new rules in 2009.[2] As such, it is an important test case for the Commonwealth’s ongoing attempted transformation into a relevant international organisation animated by adherence to principles of liberalism and democracy, particularly because Rwanda continues to polarise debate. Just this spring has seen the publication of a wide-ranging critique of the regime by a leading political scientist of the region, a special edition of the Journal of East African Studies including many cautiously positive assessments, and an apologia barely acknowledging the existence of any negative aspects to Rwanda’s transformation, worth mentioning because of the seniority and influence of its author. This debate partly reflects the truth: Rwanda is mercurial, and probably does lie somewhere between the inspirational feel-good account of Kagame’s groupies, and the African North Korea envisioned by its critics.

But debate also arises because much of what passes for debate about Rwanda is, in reality, an implicit debate about the appropriate standards for assessing Rwanda. Very different evaluations of Rwanda follow if the implicit comparison is with the genocidal republic which preceded it, or the intractable violence of neighbouring Congo and Burundi, rather than a broader comparison taking in other post-conflict states, the rest of Africa, or further afield. The Commonwealth sharpens this debate, as it is at least principally committed to being an egalitarian club in which Rwanda can be compared with Zealand or Canada, and officially unwilling to apply different standards to different member states. Nor do the CHOGM rules give any scope for ‘special treatment’ based on particular historical experiences, in contrast to many that argue – for example – the recent genocide justifies tighter restrictions on freedom of speech in the form of criminalising genocide denial and hate speech.

The way forward has to be to resist a monochrome assessment of Rwanda, and begin separating out the RPF government’s successes and failures more systematically. For example, rather than the sterile debate about whether or not Rwanda is ‘democratic’, more nuance is required. If the question is whether Rwandan politics is competitive, the answer is realistically ‘no’. The RPF is extraordinarily dominant in all political structures from the very summit down to the smallest organs of local government. The RPF has been called the richest party in Africa. It is financially and organisationally hegemonic, and has won every election since 1994 by 73.78 to 93.08 percent. The question is harder if we ask whether Rwandan politics is participatory. The complexity of the electoral code and high number of indirectly appointed parliamentarians increases the power of the political centre at the expense of citizens, but this is also a political system with a huge and important apparatus of local government, and the RPF makes more credible efforts towards looking like a mass party than many of their contemporaries. This also contextualises questions about whether or not Rwandan politics is fair. In the general context of RPF hegemony, the scope of vote rigging or electoral manipulation is beside the point: it is hardly necessary. However, it is impossible to say with any accuracy whether or not the electoral results reflect the genuine popularity of the RPF, because the electoral game is so systematically stacked in their favour to begin with. There are numerous examples of the deeply uneven playing field Rwandan opposition politicians face beside outright ballot stuffing; the unrepresentative nature of the NEC, the barriers to registering a political party, the violence directed at some opposition figures, and the non-secret nature of some ballots are all points of legitimate concern. At this point, defenders of the regime will, with some justification, abandon politics for developmentalism. It’s credible to argue Rwandans are safer and more prosperous than they have ever been before. Rwandan women are less likely to die in childbirth, children more likely to be in school, everyone less likely to have malaria. As I have argued elsewhere, the Rwandan state ‘works’ in terms of its ability to deliver public goods to its citizens far better than any in the aftermath of the Genocide dared to hope. The government’s achievements on gender representation and progressive legislation are genuinely impressive. These are not insignificant achievements, but neither do they erase the legitimate concerns many hold concerning the political settlement.

The key ambiguity facing the Commonwealth is whether or not there are necessary tradeoffs between laudable goals. Put simply: does Rwandan prosperity require the repression? Unfortunately, there is no academic consensus. Many, echoing earlier generations of apologists for authoritarianism in the 1960s, believe Rwanda’s authoritarianism is necessary to deliver growth and stability. This is usually cloaked in the euphemistic language of ‘growing pains’, or ‘state-directed development’, which must be dropped if there is to be an honest and serious discussion of Rwanda’s future.

Even without getting to practical agreement on what was ‘going on’ in Rwanda, some aspects of what appropriate constructive engagement for the Commonwealth remain clear. Firstly, external interlocutors could take more time to avoid criticism presented in ways which have historically been seen by the Rwandan government as provocative and foreclosed ongoing discussion. For example, the government is unlikely to countenance the complete abolition of the ‘Genocide Ideology Law’, but it has responded productively before to calls to make media regulation less vague and hence susceptible to politicised manipulation or generalised ‘chilling effects’ on free speech. Similarly, the campaign against the invocation of the Cessation clause for Rwandan refugees from prior to 1994 is unlikely to succeed conclusively, but activism directed at ensuring the appropriate assessments and monitoring mechanisms to ensure Rwandans with ongoing concerns are protected or exempted from cessation bears much more chance of succeeding. Secondly, more attention could be paid to ‘early warning signs’ which, though perhaps less spectacular than events in Congo, could be critical junctures to influence the regime. For example, the recent defenestration of the businessman Tribert Rujigiro and his flight into exile to South Africa directly imperils the security of property rights and contract upon which the ‘Rwandan miracle’, underpinned by a sustained influx of foreign capital, has been built. It is precisely those less newsworthy, photogenic, or obviously morally-loaded cases which should receive particular attention from organisations like the Commonwealth. Thirdly, much more can be done to support a critical, independent, and responsible civil society which remains chronically weak. The Commonwealth can and should push the Rwandan government to continue their reform of institutions such as the High Media Council and the Civil Society Platform, and could do much more to gently enable the growth of pluralistic and peaceful organisations representing the voices of Rwandan citizens.

Finally, and most importantly, much policy towards Rwanda is incoherent and unpersuasive. Aid conditionality, to be effective, needs to be applied transparently, clearly, and effectively. The UK in particular has failed on all these counts. The apparently ad hoc way in which aid has been suspended, restored, and re-programmed means donor pressure is not taken seriously, and justifiably so. The timidity of British politicians such as Andrew Mitchell is unhelpful, as is his general error, along with parliamentarians such as Desmond Swayne and elder statesmen (who really ought to know better) such as Tony Blair, who confound generally being in favour of assisting Rwanda with precluding criticism. Currently, what criticism that is voiced of the Rwandan state seems to limit itself to Rwanda’s extra-territorial behaviour: support for rebels such as the M23 mutiny, or profits from illicitly acquired mineral wealth. Such issues are undoubtedly important, but too partial. Attention to them appears to have come at the cost of a clear and holistic response to domestic concerns within Rwanda.

If the question is whether Rwanda fully upholds the principles of the Harare Declaration, then the answer has to be ‘no.’ If, however, the question is whether Commonwealth membership might ultimately help foster adherence to those principles, the answer is probably yes. Isolating Rwanda is unlikely to improve it – it is simply not dependent on any goods Commonwealth membership brings for that to be an effective sanction. However, Commonwealth heads of government and civil society activists are fluffing opportunities for constructive engagement.



[1] The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The 1997 Meeting, the 15th, was held between the 24th and 27th of October in Edinburgh, the United Kingdom.

[2] Mozambique was admitted in 1995 prior to the development of formal criteria, and in recognition of its long-standing connections to the Anglophone states of Southern Africa.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 18 May 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Jones is clearly more impressed by Rwanda’s domestic policies over the past two decades than most Rwandan scholars. But I acknowledge that there is indeed a legitimate debate to be had about those achievements, especially in light of the dire circumstances in which the government seized power and the magnitude of the challenges facing it. What I find baffling, however, is Jones’ silence on the most serious accusations against the regime: Its slaughter of thousands to tens of thousands of civilians during its triumphant march to Kigali in 1994 (documented by HRW and the UN’s suppressed Gersony Report); its slaughter of tens to hundreds of thousands of refugees in eastern Congo in the late 1990s (documented by numerous journalists on site, by the usual litany of human rights groups, and most lately by the massive UN “Mapping Report”); its instigation of two wars in Congo that have cost some 3 to 5 million lives (Kagame himself acknowledges Rwanda’s role in these wars); and its continuing program of assassinating opponents and critics abroad (see most recently reporting from Rever and York). No intellectually honest discussion about the merits of admitting Rwanda to the Commonwealth can be complete without considering these matters and Jones’ silence on them is deafening.

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