“Consensual Democracy” in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Evaluating the March 2001 District Elections
“Consensual Democracy” in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Evaluating the March 2001 District Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Report 34 / Africa

“Consensual Democracy” in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Evaluating the March 2001 District Elections

Ever since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) came to power in 1994 in the wake of a genocide in which 800,000 people died, its government has mainly been assessed in relation to the way it has faced the legacy of the genocide and maintained stability.

Executive Summary

Ever since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) came to power in 1994 in the wake of a genocide in which 800,000 people died, its government has mainly been assessed in relation to the way it has faced the legacy of the genocide and maintained stability. Understandably, the Rwandan regime has been preoccupied with its own security, especially as thousands of génocidaires reorganised in the Congo, initially supported by Mobutu Sese Seko, and then by both Laurent and Joseph Kabila.  And there is no doubt that the threat posed by the ex-FAR and Interahamwe rebels in the DRC is serious, and that little has been done by the international community to counter it.  However, it does not always justify the tight domestic political control still exercised by the RPF dominated government in Rwanda.

The international community, burdened by its own feelings of guilt for failing to stop the genocide in 1994 has accepted the RPF’s view that security imperatives require military dominance and that genuine political liberalisation willould have to wait.  Combined with an assumption that the RPF representsed a "new leadership" determined to invent a new political model rooted in Rwandan culture, this has produced an implicit international consensus which gives the RPF almost unlimited time to achieve its proclaimed goals.

The RPF regime has consistently asserted its intention to convert its highly militarised system of government into a civilian democracy rooted in ethnic reconciliation, purged of ethnic stereotypes and hatreds, and equipped with a new constitution. A time frame for the transition, originally set for five years, has been extended to nine years, to July 2003. The district elections conducted on 6 March 2001 were seen by both the RPF and the international community as an important stage in that transition process.  This report examines in detail the conduct of those elections and draws some conclusions about the direction in which Rwanda’s political reconstruction is proceeding. Those tentative conclusions will be tested in further ICG reports on the transition process, to be published over the next several months. 

The RPF and the Rwandan Government of National Unity (GNU)[fn]Soon after the genocide and the RPF’s military victory, the new government was set up with the aim of implementing the program of the October 1993 Arusha agreement, which foresaw a government of National Unity.Hide Footnote that it controls claim to be attempting to break from the country’s colonial and post-colonial political inheritance. Since November 2000, they have been decentralising government institutions and power with the declared aim of destroying the political machinery that facilitated the genocide. The administrative organisation of the country is being changed and newly created districts are becoming the focus of development efforts.  Resources are to be allocated to the new districts through collective decision-making at administrative levels that are closer to citizens. The objective of this policy is said to be local empowerment and mobilisation of people to take the destiny of their communities into their own hands. The selected political model is called "consensual democracy".

There was also a more important goal in holding the March elections, which was to begin to develop a new RPF "cadre" in the countryside and to build the party’s political base ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2003. Great care was taken, therefore, in the organisation of the elections. A RPF-controlled National Electoral Commission (NEC) supervised the entire process and delivered superbly organised polls. The national participation rate was over 90 per cent, and very few electoral malpractices were registered by local and international observers.

Yet, these elections were far from satisfactory by any democratic standards. The NEC abused its powers to veto unwanted candidates and guarantee that only supporters of government policies were selected. Voters could choose between 8,175 NEC-screened candidates to fill slightly more than 2,700 district counsellor positions. But the five senior executives of each district, and the mayor of the capital, Kigali, were chosen by electoral colleges rather than by popular vote. Eighty per cent of these electoral colleges were composed of cell and sector officials who themselves had gained their positions in rather undemocratic elections in 1999.  And their choices for district positions heavily favoured the status quo: 81 per cent of those elected were incumbent heads of communes (bourgmestres), previously appointed by the government.

The tight political control exercised over the district elections is at least partly explained by the fact that Rwanda remains a country at war. The Rwandan civil war has been largely exported to Congo's territory since 1994 but the security threat is not only external. The Ex-FAR and Interahamwe militias occasionally recruit inside Rwanda, and launch attacks across the border. Some segments of the population still share the “Hutu power” ideology that exploded seven years ago into the campaign to exterminate the country’s minority Tutsi population. One of the screens exercised by the RPF and government through the NEC was therefore to ensure that only counsellors and district executives who endorse the policy of “national unity and reconciliation” were elected.

But by constricting political freedoms under the motto of national unity and reconciliation, the RPF risks eroding the very foundations of its own policies and dampening hopes for Rwanda’s recovery. Rwandans have shown, for example by their acceptance of Community Development Committees (CDCs), that they are willing to take over management of their own communities when given the opportunity, training and resources.  But the omnipotence of the security services and the political control applied to basic political freedoms in the name of national goals have become counter-productive. They have driven government opponents outside the country, and risk feeding the external threat that the government claims to fight most. In this context "consensual democracy" has become the imposition of one party’s ideology.

It is time to look to look at governance issues in Rwanda from a fresh perspective and to acknowledge that the focus on external security has restricted reform of internal politics. Of course the regional security context has to be taken into account and the international community must do much more to assist in the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration and Rehabilitation (DDRR) of the Hutu rebels. It should also exercise diplomatic pressure to speed up the peace processes in the DRC and Burundi, both of which have important implications for Rwanda.

But nine years on, a change of course is necessary if the transition is to succeed. Without the acceptance of opposition voices in the internal debate and the eventual return and reintegration of the Hutu groups, political life in Rwanda will remain distorted and unhealthy. The on going writing of the new constitution is a good opportunity for the regime to show its willingness to increase political freedom.

International donors, whose aid is vital to resource-poor Rwanda, can make an important contribution to Rwanda's political reconstruction. but only if they realise that unquestioning support is not helpful. They need instead to use diplomatic pressure on Rwanda’s neighbours to improve its security but also to develop a critical dialogue with the government on the central issue of political freedom, use diplomatic pressure on Rwanda’s neighbours to improve its security, while supporting and to support Rwandan efforts with funds and technical assistance, to lay the foundations for a more stable future.

Nairobi/Brussels, 9 October 2001

Commentary / Africa

De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes

President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since assuming office in early 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) president, Félix Tshisekedi, has stressed his determination to dismantle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups blighting the troubled east of the country. He has also prioritised repairing ties with neighbouring states, which have historically both backed and fought against rebels in the eastern DRC over various cycles of war in the last two decades. Today, tensions are again mounting among the DRC’s neighbours – between Burundi and Uganda, on one hand, and Rwanda, on the other – potentially compounding the country’s security challenges. Alongside Tshisekedi’s diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, he has floated plans to invite these three neighbours to deploy their armed forces into the DRC to conduct joint operations with Congolese forces against rebels. Yet insofar as tensions among those countries remain high, such operations could pave the way for them to step up support to allied groups even while fighting rivals, and thus fuel proxy warfare. Civilians in the eastern DRC are likely to suffer most.

In line with its December Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that lay out the EU’s plans for re-engagement with the DRC, and to help President Tshisekedi de-escalate regional tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes region, an informal gathering comprising the UN (including both the UN’s special envoy to the Great Lakes and the head of its mission in the DRC, MONUSCO), the U.S., the African Union and South Africa, as well as the EU and several European states that are important donors in the region, such as Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU and European governments could designate senior EU and other European ministerial appointees to fill the group, over and above the working-level desk officers who normally tend to participate.
  • Use the increased clout this would bring to push for a mechanism whereby each of the three neighbours airs allegations against states they believe are backing armed groups in the DRC and supports the charges with evidence. Allegations can then be investigated by the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (the ICGLR comprises regional states and is a guarantor of a 2013 regional peace agreement; its joint verification mechanism and the UN expert group already have mandates to investigate claims of support to armed groups). Their findings could inform diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions among neighbours and end their backing of insurgents in the DRC.
  • At the same time, encourage President Tshisekedi to shelve, at least for now, his plan for joint operations with neighbours’ security forces.
  • Offer financial and technical support for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to ensure that Congolese militias linked to foreign rebels operating in the eastern DRC have a safe pathway to giving up their fight.

Security Challenges

In recent months, eastern DRC-based foreign insurgencies have escalated attacks on both the Congolese army as well as soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries. The Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan presidents are all rattling their sabres in response, accusing one another of proxy warfare.

On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan authorities blame the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They say the FDLR is working with another DRC-based rebel group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which they allege is run by one of President Paul Kagame’s former generals. They also say both the FDLR and the RNC enjoy Burundian and Ugandan support. In a speech, Kagame vowed to retaliate against anyone seeking to attack Rwanda.

After the Kinigi killings, fighters crossed into Burundi from the DRC to launch two separate deadly attacks. Burundian RED-Tabara rebels, whom Burundian officials say are backed by Rwanda, claimed the first attack. No one claimed the second, but Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, recalling Kigali’s support for mutineers in a 2015 coup attempt, blamed Rwanda for both attacks, alleging that Kigali supports RED-Tabara. Ugandan officials, for their part, assert that Rwanda is collaborating with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel movement with roots in Uganda that is implicated in dozens of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu since 2014.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other. Both governments have purged their security services of suspected traitors. Rwanda has now also closed a main border crossing into Uganda, suffocating trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, Burundi and Rwanda have dispatched troops to their mutual border while Uganda has deployed troops to its western frontier facing North Kivu. Should these tensions heighten, they could fuel more proxy fighting in the eastern DRC, further threatening regional stability.

Recognising the dangers, Tshisekedi invited Rwanda and Uganda for talks in July and August hosted by Angolan President João Lourenço in the Angolan capital Luanda. They culminated in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August, in which both countries promised to halt “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”. In addition to these diplomatic efforts, the DRC president floated plans that would involve the armed forces of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda conducting joint military operations with Congolese forces against insurgents in the eastern DRC. Absent political de-escalation among the neighbour governments, such operations could pave the way for all three to ratchet up support to proxies opposing their respective rivals. The eastern DRC could again become the arena for a multi-sided melee.

Calming Regional Tensions

In its latest Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the DRC in December 2019, the EU asserted its readiness to redefine its relationship with the country. This comes after relations between Brussels and Kinshasa cooled at the tail end of Kabila’s presidency, when the EU sanctioned some of his top henchmen in late 2018. President Tshisekedi has expressed an increasing willingness to work with Brussels even as the EU renewed sanctions in December 2019 against twelve of the fourteen Kabila-era officials. In particular, the EU could help de-escalate regional tensions and lessen neighbours’ support to foreign armed groups while contributing to pathways to surrender for Congolese fighters allied to such groups.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours while putting aside, at least for now, plans for those neighbours to conduct military operations in the eastern DRC. The EU’s best bet for pressing for an approach along these lines would be to increase its influence in the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes, the informal group to which it and a number of European states belong. Brussels and other European capitals should commit more senior officials both to the contact group itself and to liaising with the group and with regional governments. Together with the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, Xia Huang, who has recently been instrumental in bringing together the Burundian, Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs to discuss their deteriorating relations, the EU should use its weight in the group to prioritise the need for a political solution to tackling foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC.

Such a solution could entail Xia encouraging the three states to lay out their allegations and evidence of support by their rivals to armed groups in the DRC. He could share all information received with the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The evidence provided by regional states, and investigations conducted by the expert group and joint verification mechanism, could collectively inform diplomatic efforts to halt or diminish support to DRC-based insurgents.

By financially and technically supporting the national DDR process, the EU can also back Tshisekedi’s priority of tackling the plague of Congolese armed groups. Congolese insurgents, many of whom are sucked into alliances with more powerful foreign armed groups, often lack an alternative in the absence of a fully funded DDR program. Under Kabila, the Congolese authorities gave only limited resources to DDR. Several donors pulled out, frustrated by Kinshasa’s lack of commitment to funding a national program. Despite the uptick in attacks in the east, there are signs that some fighters are placing greater hope in Tshisekedi’s presidency and expressing greater desire to surrender. MONUSCO’s new mandate, adopted at the end of December 2019, encourages the DRC’s government to appoint a senior coordinator to lead the DDR effort. The EU could consider supplying this person with the necessary funding and expertise to carry out the mandate.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
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Don Cheadle

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