Twenty years of Rwandan Patriotic Front rule

19 May 2014 | ResolutionPossible

We recently looked at the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) foreign responses after the 1994 massacres as part of our Rwanda and Burundi Series. In this last blog as part of this series, we will take a look at the RPF government’s domestic actions within Rwanda in the last twenty years.

The question of national unity

Former Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu. [Image – BBC]

When the RPF took control of Rwanda in July of 1994, Rwanda’s future looked hopeful.  Politically, the RPF sought to install a government based on national unity encompassing both Tutsi and Hutu officials.  The attempt at national reconciliation could be seen in the appointment of Hutu President Pasteur Bizimungu.

However, problems soon began to form in the transitional government.  Many believed Bizimungu was merely a puppet of the RPF, with the real power resting in Paul Kagame and the RPF.  This was not just a problem being felt in the executive leadership of the country, but in all levels of government.  The Mouvement Democratique Republicain, the main opposition party, brought this complaint to light in November of 1994 though a published report.  The report alleged that non-RPF government positions were merely a front.  The strains on open political participation could be seen when Bizimungu was eventually placed under house arrest for starting a party opposed to the RPF.

The leadership in Rwanda was not merely a question of ethnic-based power.  Indeed, the Hutu suffered alienation and stigmatisation following the massacres; however, the Tutsi who had remained in Rwanda since the Hutu Revolution of 1959 were often viewed as collaborators with the Hamyarimana regime.  In the eyes of the RPF, these Tutsi were regarded with as much suspicion as the Hutu.  Therefore, when looking at the government make-up of RPF Rwanda, it was not a matter of Tutsi power, but a matter of Tutsi refugee returnee power.  Given that the RPF had been based in Uganda, most power was concentrated in Tutsi returnees who had been based there.  When this fact came to light, Kagame dismissed it as untrue, adding that any dictatorial characteristics were due to the lack of justice and security in Rwanda.

Post-1994 justice mechanisms

Gacaca court proceedings in 2003, Gikongoro, Rwanda. [Image – Human Rights Watch]

The lack of justice mechanisms led to the creation of the gacaca courts.  These were informal courts used to try génocidaires.  It was thought that their use would break down polarisation between the Hutu and Tutsi. However, it came to be controlled by the RPF government, lacked transparency, and provided no legal representation for the accused.  Furthermore, the gacaca courts were only run by Tutsi and only tried Hutu.  They were also thought to be responsible for large numbers of political killings and disappearances.

Hutu were routinely jailed in overcrowded prisons and given no trials.  Individuals were also detained in cachots – non-official holding cells which did not fall under the accountability of the Ministry of Justice – where torture, beatings and rape occurred frequently.  Official prisons held more than ten times the maximum allowed occupancy, making sanitation issues prevalent and space so limited that prisoners were not able to lie down.  If an accused Hutu were to be given a trial, it was usually done in the gacaca courts.

IBUKAsurvivor organisations which focus on genocide remembrance, were established by the government to address “issues of justice, memory, and social and economic problems faced by survivors”.  It regularly organises Tutsi-only remembrance events.  This has led to anti-Hutu stereotypes where “collective guilt, in turn, has been used as an excuse for collective punishment”.  IBUKA’s power is also felt in judicial settings where it wields absolute power to change convictions.  Their judicial power can also be seen through their ability to enforce convictions be carried over to family members if the convicted are not present for sentencing.

There is extra element to these judicial mechanisms – property acquisition.  Rwanda has the highest population density in East Africa.  A 2012 property and housing census documented 416 persons per square kilometre.   With such pressure on land ownership, the gacaca courts and IBUKA were often viewed as tools for property acquisition, where impartiality has often been criticised.

Armed ‘solutions’ – Kibeho

An Australian UN peacekeeper assists an injured child following the Kibeho massacre in 1995. [Image – Australian War Memorial]

This culture of  justice, security, and persecution led to an increase in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps within Rwanda.  The largest of these was Kibeho in southern Rwanda.  The RPF were concerned that the camp posed a security threat based on claims that it housed génocidaires.  In a similar response to the foreign security threat posed by the Hutu refugees in Zaire, and given the lack of Western attention to security issues in Rwanda, the RPF decided to disband the camp in April, 1995.

Given the judicial environment in Rwanda, many of the Kibeho IDPs feared for their safety if they left the camp; thus, many remained despite the RPF ultimatum.  As tensions mounted, the RPF surrounded the camp employing dispersion tactics such as firing weapons into the air.  This was followed by attacks with rifles and machetes, and finally mortars.  The death toll is still debated, and will likely never truly be officiated.  The Kagame regime claims it stands at 300.  However, Australian and Zambian UN forces tried to take an official measure and were able to count 4,200 corpses before being stopped by RPF forces.

Twenty years of RPF rule

Why are the developments in Rwanda since the 1994 killings relevant today? Rwanda provides an important example where the ‘western’ concepts of democracy and freedom of speech clash with a country’s need for getting back on its feet.

Many argue that without a history of open elections and a democratic framework that people understand, a democratic system in Rwanda may not have been able to focus its efforts on economic growth, but rather would have been dealing with disputes between political parties which may or may not have lead to more violence.

Then again, there is a fine line between economic success and economic failure when it comes to authoritarianism. Looking at Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe, for example, we tend to associate authoritarian presidents with crumbling economies. The story of Rwanda, however, is the opposite. Despite the arguably questionable justice system, dubious attempts at national unity, lack of freedom of speech and general suspicious military and political activity within the country, the RPF government has ensured steady economic growth since 1994.

The West turned a blind eye to much of Rwanda’s internal operations after the events of 1994.  This was due, in part, to guilt at having done nothing during the massacres.  However, there was an extra dimension to this hands-off policy.  International financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, applauded the RPF’s economic policies.  To be sure, these policies have reduced poverty and created the fastest growing economy in Africa.  Recent assessments of Rwanda’s economic future look good as well, with Kigali set to become one of Africa’s leading technology hubs.

However, regardless of the RPF’s economic and political accomplishments, there remain Rwandan refugees scattered throughout Africa, Europe, and North America.  The strides Rwanda has made have led the RPF to put pressure on the UN to issue a cessation clause on Rwandan refugee rights.  In essence, if approved, all Rwandans living abroad would be forced to repatriate to Rwanda, even though many of the judicial concerns mentioned here have yet to be resolved.

So what are the costs of raising a country’s economy while at the same ruling its people with an iron fist? Do people care about human rights and freedom of speech if there are no jobs, no food, no drinking water? Do these basic needs have to be put in place first before we can start talking about free and fair elections? We don’t have the answer. But we think it’s important to look at both sides of the argument and understand that there are significant pros and cons on both sides. There is a lot to learn from Rwanda’s past and present, and we expect more lessons will follow in its future.

ResPoss asks:

In the narrative which developed after the 1994 killings, the Tutsi are widely viewed as the victims of Hutu violence. However, we often forget that Tutsi RPF troops had been invading the north of Rwanda from Uganda since 1990, killing many Hutu on their way. The West in no small means helped perpetuate the view of the Tutsi as victim and therefore rightful rulers of Rwanda (check out an example of this in our ResPoss Culture Club blog on Hotel Rwanda).

  • Why would foreign stakeholders favour one group over another? 
  • What can be the repercussions of this kind of favouritism within a country like Rwanda?
  • Why do we like to think in terms of ‘bad guys’ versus ‘good guys’, for example Tutsis as victims, Hutus as perpetrators? What are the consequences of this kind of thinking? Do we apply this kind of thinking to everyday life situations as well? What happens?

Creating a narrative: The caption that came with this image (which means ‘to remember’) describes Kwibuka as “a call on all of us to remember the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda”, carrying on the agreed narrative of Tutsi as victim, Hutu as perpetrator.












As people from countries with an established democratic system, we have a tendency to view authoritarian systems with much suspicion.

  • Does a country recovering from political unrest need to prioritise human rights and freedom of speech or economic growth?
  • Can these go hand in hand, or are they mutually exclusive?
  • Were the measures the RPF government took necessary to bring stability and prosperity to Rwanda?

 Add your perspective:

Have any thoughts on the issues raised in this blog or in other articles in our Rwanda and Burundi Series? Let us know your thoughts on the comments section below, or contact us. We are looking forward to hearing from you.

Contributing writer/research: Eric Bell

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