Sexual Violence and the Rwandan Genocide: Kagame Stands in the Way of Healing

The UN is striving to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence and one of the key steps to achieving this lofty goal is to get an understanding of the scale and repercussions of rape and sexual assault during war.

A particular case in point is Rwanda where, 25 years after its brutal genocide, thousands of young adults are still unsure of who their fathers are. Why? Because their mothers were raped during the orgy of violence that accompanied the mass killings.

After Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana (an ethnic Hutu) was killed when his plane was shot down on the 6th April 1994, all hell let loose. In the conventional telling – one propagated by the ‘liberating’ forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – 800,000 Tutsis and ‘moderate’ Hutus were murdered in the following 100 days by extremist Hutu forces. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped – some multiple times.

By the end of the genocide there were mass graves everywhere

Of course, with anything so horrific there is complexity to the story. Whilst Tutsis were the majority victims of the genocide, they were by no means the only ones. There is good evidence to indicate that ‘extremist’ Hutus, too, were massacred by forces loyal to the RPF.

Since 1994, the RPF has ruled Rwanda virtually unopposed. Current President Paul Kagame has been the leader since 2000, the de-facto ruler for the six preceding years. Kagame is a darling of the international community for bringing stability to Rwanda so quickly after the genocide.

Whilst a not inconsiderable feat, this has come at a cost to many ordinary Rwandans. RPF loyalists and the urban elite have prospered. The rural poor have stayed poor. What’s more, they are under constant surveillance from a vast network of government employees and volunteers, who are required to report on any sign of dissent or transgression, however minor.

Kagame has become increasingly dictatorial

Kagame has been steadfast in his denial that the RPF were responsible for any atrocities during the genocide, repeating that they used violence only to halt the extremist Hutus from wiping out the Tutsis. But his subsequent pursuit of the fleeing Hutus into neighbouring countries (particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo) after the genocide (the Génocidaires) suggests otherwise.

Now a dictator in all but name, Kagame’s intransigence further scuppers the hopes of thousands of Rwandans from ever being able to identify their birth fathers. For how could it be a Tutsi when the violence of the genocide was only perpetrated by one ethnic group, namely the Hutu?

The majority of Rwandans rely on the land for their subsistence and income: few have seen real benefits during Kagame’s tenure

The events of 1994 transpired with such an unprecedented rapidity that nobody will ever know the whole truth. Much will have been lost in the bloodshed and the mayhem. To deny survivors some respite in their long-term suffering is avoidable, yet Kagame persists. With the support of the world behind him, he has been allowed to create a corrupt and authoritarian regime that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

If the UN is to succeed, it must start calling to account recalcitrant leaders such as Kagame. Without the pressure to reform his historical narrative, the pain of the Rwandan genocide will, for many, persist indefinitely.

Further Reading

Thomson, S. Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace (2018)


The Last Dictators? Kazakhstan and Algeria Enter New Eras

The reigns of two long-standing dictators are, in theory, at an end. Nursultan Nazarbayev has stepped down as President of Kazakhstan having led the country since the dying days of communism in the late 1980s. In Algeria, meanwhile, the ailing and reclusive Abdelaziz Bouteflika has abandoned attempts to serve a fifth term as president after protesters took to the street to oppose him.

Algeria has been rocked by street protests in recent weeks

Both departures – should they be realised – will mark a major turning point in each country’s history and, arguably, these two dictatorships were born out of a necessity that is no longer required.

Nazarbayev has overseen Kazakhstan’s development since the Soviet Union collapsed and, until his surprise resignation, was the only president his independent nation had known. Marshaling a vast, impoverished, country into the 21st century was no mean feat and relied as much on political repression and restriction of civil liberties as it did on profitable oil and gas exports.

Nazarbayev has been accused of fostering a personality cult

Bouteflika, on the other hand, was a seasoned campaigner in Algerian politics when he ascended to the premiership in 1999 in the latter stages of a bloody civil war. Having fought the French during their brutal final stand in the Algerian War (1954-1962) he negotiated an end to the most recent conflict – one that had killed more than 150,000 people – in 2002. Amending the constitution so that he would go on to serve an unprecedented four terms, Bouteflika has generally been successful at preserving a tenuous peace in a region plagued by domestic instability and transnational terrorist violence, aided too by vast natural gas reserves.

Both Kazakhstan and Algeria are deemed ‘not free’ by the Freedom House democracy index. In line with modernisation theory, political development is put on hold until economic prosperity creates a middle class eager for greater representation. For many people  in both nations, Nazarbayev and Bouteflika are the only political voices they have ever known.

Is the time for democratisation now? Kazakhstan’s economic growth rate has slumped from a +8% GDP increase in the years prior to 2013 to a comparatively measly 3.9% in 2017. Algeria was used to 4% growth rates in the post-civil war years but that has since decreased to just 1.4%.

With a younger generation struggling for jobs and perhaps less indebted to the enforced ‘stability’ provided by their dictatorial masters two to three decades ago, perhaps real political change is possible.

Even the tightly-policed Kazakhstan has seen popular protests in recent years as the economy has slumped

But – and there is always a but when it comes to authoritarian rule – slow degradation is far more likely than revolution. Nazarbayev, for instance, has not gone away. He has named his successor as president, elevated his eldest daughter to the second most powerful political position in the country, and been given the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’. The capital Astana is even being renamed Nursultan! 

It is somewhat different in Algeria where Bouteflika has basically been incapacitated since suffering a stroke in 2013. He has barely been seen in public since and sends delegates to official meetings and international forums. That said, it is under Bouteflika’s watch that the shady ‘Le Pouvoir’ (‘The Power’) has gained increasing informal power. It is thought that a group of military officials, politicians from the ruling National Liberation Front, and wealthy businessmen influence all key government decisions. How much sway Bouteflika has, particularly in his fragile condition, is unclear.

Bouteflika has not spoken in public since 2014

Either way, the state in Kazakhstan and Algeria has been captured by nefarious elites that will persist beyond the reigns of their figureheads. How effective people power and civil society will be in drawing concessions from them remains to be seen.

In Kazakhstan, it will likely take the death of Nursultan Nazarbayev to see whether a challenge to his daughter,and by extension her father’s legacy, will materialise. In Algeria, Le Pouvoir is unlikely to let go whilst the true extent of its reach is unknown, or until a mobilised populace rises up to sweep it away.

In an era of seeming democratic retrenchment, don’t expect these hotbeds of authoritarianism to perish with their leaders.