End of Transition in Rwanda: A Necessary Political Liberalisation
End of Transition in Rwanda: A Necessary Political Liberalisation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Report 53 / Africa

End of Transition in Rwanda: A Necessary Political Liberalisation

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.

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Executive Summary

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 the 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.

Nairobi/Brussels, 13 November 2002

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.

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