From the torture, disappearance, and killing of opponents to the strict control and even gagging of media, the news is rife with the unsavory practices of authoritarian governments. Not content with violently targeting opponents at home, there has been a wave of incidents showing the increasingly long arm of non-democratic regimes, as the poisoning of Sergei Skripal or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi illustrate.
These events tend however, to reinforce, a common tendency to focus on some of authoritarianism’s more dramatic and violent forms, such as state violence and blatant repression. This tendency to focus on the more extreme strategies of authoritarianism also means that we tend to focus on authoritarianism’s more extreme moments. Journalists and scholars alike have especially tended to privilege moments we take to make or break authoritarian regimes, from stolen elections and coups, to when authoritarian regimes dramatically fall apart, such as the result of mass protest.
While understandable and indeed a very real face of authoritarianism, these lenses nonetheless cut us off from essential authoritarian dynamics that play out in more banal, or everyday moments. Authoritarianism is also made and unmade outside of dramatic, ostentatiously violent junctures.
InTrajectories of Authoritarianism in Rwanda: Elusive Control before the Genocide, I turn to pre-genocide Rwanda to make this case. I show how the continued adaptation of authoritarian regimes to manage their exclusive control serves to try and build this control. But it also often generates contradictions that can overtime unsettle regimes.
This plays out in ordinary, supposed settled times, as well as through relations beyond the elites – supporters and challengers – we have largely taken to be the shapers of authoritarian destinies. It is often the accumulation of more mundane moments and frictions within state-society relations that coalesce into the more exceptional authoritarian moments we have focused on. If we fail to pay attention to the long-term processes behind authoritarianism, we will never anticipate or be able to explain its short-term ruptures – including its most dramatic ones, including the next coup or genocide.
Rwanda’s First and Second Republics (1962-1990) are a good – even if surprising – illustration of our intellectual blinders when it comes to authoritarianism, and what they lead us to neglect. We associate the country with coups and state-led ethnic violence, including in its most extreme form, genocide.
First Republican authorities were deposed by those who would come to form the Second Republic. Rwandan history is also often exclusively recounted through some of its episodes of ethnic violence, to help shed light on the genocide the country experienced in 1994. Yet, while we have come to take Rwanda as an exceptional case, the authoritarianism as practiced by the First and Second Republics was rather conventional, and its strategies known to scholars of authoritarian regimes.
Pre-genocide Rwanda is a good exemplar of how the type of moments we mostly focus on when looking at authoritarianism – including in its most exceptional forms, as Rwanda lived in the early 1990s – can stem from much more ordinary frictions and relations.
Given the genocide it experienced in 1994, which saw massive participation on the part of ordinary Rwandans, it has become common to assume state control over populations was exceptional. As my research shows, however, the decades prior to the genocide illustrate instead the core challenge facing all authoritarian states: the ongoing struggle to achieve control, not its attainment.
If anything, Rwanda prior to the genocide is a reminder that control remains a Sisyphean enterprise undertaken to manage political challengers and society, never an achieved state. In pre-genocide Rwanda, regimes lacked the capacity for deep, extensive control, and this imperfect exclusive control itself generated new forms of challenges.
Emerging from colonial rule on shaky grounds, and little experience and established legitimacy, the pre-genocide authorities continually needed to keep managing political and military competitors. With limited institutional and structural capacities, and with few resources, they also continued to face the challenges of governing under hard economic and political conditions, which made selling their performance to Rwandans a constant struggle.
While many authoritarian polities manage to endure by providing basic necessities to their population and ensuring decent livelihoods, the First and Second Republics struggled to show that at a minimum, even if governing for the few, they nonetheless offered a baseline for Rwandans.
Pre-genocide authorities turned as a result to the type of authoritarian adaptation many regimes engage in when they feel stable control eludes them. For example, given the costs of repression and cooptation, both financial and in terms of reputation, and given the limited base of resources they could draw on, the two successive pre-genocide regimes largely centered their authoritarian practices around discourse and ideology. They tried to persuade Rwandans to support them, rather than coerce and coopt them.
This led them to invest in forms of symbolic and rhetorical authoritarian displays often neglected by scholars and donors, and in some of the platforms to support them such as media. As the work of Lisa Wedeen and Ed Schatz remind us, these displays are both a way to sell and legitimate the regimes, insisting on what they perform often in the absence of concrete performance, and to remind citizens of how they should behave. Similarly, the two Republics also focused significant efforts on decentralizing governance to lower administrative echelons.
Often seen as a strategy to bring management and service delivery closer to the people, Rwandan authorities were also keenly aware that decentralization helped their authoritarian aims. Local representatives could act as antennas, reporting back to the center, and hence act as extenders of control. Both discourse and decentralization are examples of ongoing adaptation and attempts to further their reach on the part of governments aware of their imperfect control. They show how authoritarian processes are ongoing, even in moments we take to be more banal or less meaningful to authoritarian consolidation.
These moments matter, however. In this constant process of building up their control, Rwandan authorities also accumulated mistakes and contradictions – from increasingly resting power in the hands of a small, shrinking core group, ejecting others from circles of power, to selling themselves as effective governments, but increasingly falling short of the record they tried to sell, for example.
Over time, it is these accumulated contradictions that fed the major survival crisis that each of these two regimes eventually faced. The growing group of ejected turned to coup attempts, and citizens felt a growing disconnect with national authorities, robbing the latter of deep bases at the local level. These more ordinary contradictions turned into the critical junctures at which Rwandan authorities chose to turn to some of the more ostentatious and even ethnically vicious forms we have come to associate with Rwanda, including the genocide.
What a focus on pre-genocide Rwanda shows is that, over the course of their time in power, authoritarian governments often end up creating more challenges than they succeed in managing. Authoritarianism carries in its very nature its seeds of decay. Understanding how these seeds of decay are built into authoritarian systems requires us to understand and focus on many of more mundane moments and practices that grow these very seeds.
Marie-Eve Desrosiers (@DesrosiersME) is the Chair of the International Francophonie Research Chair on political aspirations and movements in Francophone Africa, and Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.