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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > Central Africa > Rwanda > Rwanda at the End of the Transition: A Necessary Political Liberalisation

Rwanda at the End of the Transition: A Necessary Political Liberalisation

Africa Report N°53 13 Nov 2002


Nine years after the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has reached another crossroads. The transition period defined by the Arusha Accords will be concluded in less than a year by a constitutional referendum and by multi-party elections which should symbolize the successful democratisation of the country. Today, however, there are multiple restrictions on political and civil liberty and no sign of any guarantee, or even indication, in the outline of the constitutional plan that the political opposition will be able to participate in these elections on an equal footing with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), in power since 1994.

Control over the activities of political parties was until now partly justified by the fragile security situation that Rwanda has experienced since 1994, during which it has been in a state of almost permanent war with the Hutu heirs of the Habyarimana regime on the DRC territory. The constant political and military support provided to the Rwandan Hutu militia by the successive Kabila regimes since 1998, has maintained a continuing security threat to the country. The restrictions on political participation can also be explained by the RPF’s distrust of multi-party politics and unrestricted electoral competition, inspired directly by the experience of the country’s political disintegration in early 1990s leading into the genocide.

Faced with the risk of electoral competition based exclusively on ethnic lines, the RPF wants first and foremost to restructure Rwandan political culture through popular education and the increased accountability of political leaders. The Rwandan leadership argues, in effect, that the transformation of existing states of mind is the prerequisite for the restoration of full civil and political rights. Thus, for the past three years, the political parties have either been dismantled or forced to accept the consensus imposed by the RPF, the independent press has been silenced, and civil society forced to exist between repression and coercion. The RPF wields almost exclusive military, political and economic control and tolerates no criticism or challenge to its authority. The opposition has been forced into exile, and anti-establishment speeches relegated to secrecy. In the name of unity and national reconciliation, the various segments of Rwandan society are subjected to a paternalistic and authoritarian doctrine and cannot express themselves freely.

But the RPF should recognise that its authoritarian actions, whatever their motivation, has worked against its own stated objectives and is creating its own opposition. The government’s repression of critical voices creates a vicious circle by radicalizing the opposition both inside and outside Rwanda. A blood pact, or “Igihango”, has even been sealed between certain heirs of the “Hutu power” and survivors of the genocide. This kind of alliance lends a dangerous legitimacy to an armed Hutu opposition whose position regarding the genocide remains ambiguous. Given the unstable regional dynamics, the rise to power by the opposition forces and the propagation of genocide denial pose a serious threat to the stability of the country, particularly at a time when the Rwandan government is preparing to liberate tens of thousands of prisoners through gacaca courts and to repatriate and demobilise a large part of its army and rebel combatants.

The Rwandan government has honoured its commitments to the Congolese peace process and has withdrawn its troops from the Kivus. It should now display the same goodwill for the end of the transition. The RPF must allow public criticism and stop being judge and jury, as well as participant, in the process of political competition. A neutral institution, such as an ombudsman’s office – equipped with political, administrative, and financial independence – must be allowed to establish equitable standards for political competition and to define the limits of freedom of expression and association, in order to avoid abuse bound to lead to ethnic tensions.

ICG does not argue that all surveillance and all restraint should be removed from party, media and civil society activities. The external security situation, and the fragility of the internal reconciliation process, make continuing caution appropriate. But the regulation of political parties should be seen to be above partisan manipulation, with standards imposed not by the RPF but a wholly independent authority. The government must give Rwandan society the chance to regulate itself, to assume its own responsibilities towards the genocide and to create the foundations for general reconciliation, and not seek to impose every element of that process. It must not destroy the institutions of common ground where Hutus and Tutsis can meet, talk, argue and ultimately agree on the future of the country. It must reach out to the opposition in exile and offer it participation in a national debate on the country’s future.

The year to come will be a crucial one for the credibility of Rwandan constitutional reform, electoral deadlines and post-transition institutions. The international community cannot remain silent accomplices to the authoritarian actions of the Rwandan government. It cannot finance elections that offer no political guarantees for a minimum of equity among the forces present. Today, eight months before the end of the transition period, the Rwandan government must bring itself to accept political liberalisation and reform.


To the Government of Rwanda:

1.  Cease all harassment of civil society and revise the law on associations to allow them to operate freely in the entire country without the constant control of government agents;

2.  Encourage the emergence of a responsible and independent press by allowing it to regulate its activities in the framework of its professional associations;

3.  Liberalise political activities across the entire country; and engage in a national debate on the rules of integration for all political constituents in the country in preparation for the next elections;

4.  Allow the return and the participation of political parties in exile in time for the next elections, on condition that they cut all links with the armed groups, clearly and convincingly acknowledge and deplore the genocide, and commit themselves to a reconciliation process;

5.  Create an Ombudsman’s office, directed by a committee of “wise men” representing different sections of Rwandan society and equipped with political, administrative, and financial autonomy from any branch of government. This office would have the responsibility of determining the rules of good conduct for politicians, establishing clear distinctions between legitimate criticism and genocide-denying or hatred-inciting behaviour. The ombudsman could also be mandated to recommend appropriate measures to deal with similar concerns arising in the press and civil society.

To the opposition in exile:

6.  Make contact with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and participate in the transfer of génocidaires within the framework of the Pretoria agreement;

7.  Stop immediately armed opposition and station, demobilise, and repatriate all its troops;

8.  Clarify its own political agenda for the future of Rwanda and spell out the programs by which it would advance reconciliation;

9.  Make clear its acknowledgment and deploring of the genocide and its rejection of revisionist sentiment;

10.  Participate in a national political conference in Kigali with the aim of debating the constitutional framework of the post-transition period, as well as its own participation in future elections.

To the international community and donors to Rwanda:

11.  Demand the unconditional release of Pasteur Bizimungu, Charles Ntakiruntika, Jean Mbanda, Pierre Gakwandi and all other Rwandan political prisoners;

12.  Support the establishment of an Ombudsman’s office and grant it the means of financial independence;

13.  Refuse to finance the 2003 elections and the establishment of post-transitional institutions unless they are not preceded by the liberalisation of political activities and a marked improvement in respect for basic freedoms of association and expression;

14.  Support immediately the creation of a program to monitor the electoral campaign and the elections themselves.

15.  Actively support the peace process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and particularly the disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation, reintegration, and resettlement (DDRRR) program for the Hutu rebels and commit to a serious surveillance of the security situation in Eastern Congo to allow the government of Rwanda to pursue its reconciliation and political program in a peaceful environment.

To the Government of South Africa

16.  Convince Rwanda to liberalise its internal political environment and to adopt an open-door policy towards exiled political parties, provided that they reject all links with the armed groups, contribute to the arrest and prosecution of known genocidaires at the ICTR, condemn genocide and clarify their stand regarding reconciliation in the country.

17.  Engage in cooperation with The United Nations Observer Mission to the Congo (MONUC) in a negotiation with other African countries on the resettlement of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) combatants who are ready to lay down their arms but refuse to be repatriated to Rwanda.

Nairobi/Brussels, 13 November 2002

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