smoke and mirrors

Marta Bernardi
Current events

Rwanda. Generally, the hearing of this name sparks a couple of different reactions. The first usually entails a quick check on the nearest map, choice of every person that did not memorise an entire atlas in their past schooldays. The second one is more common in the case of readers who spent their time in the 90s being a little bit interested in what was happening with the world, and usually revolves around some foggy memory of Hutu, Tutsi, and a terrible genocide. No surprise in either case, some could say. Situated in central Africa, Rwanda can hardly be defined as the centre of Western attentions, given its tiny size and absence of natural resources. However, in 1994 the eyes of the world were fixed on it. It was the year that saw the unravelling of the infamous genocide, when members of the Hutu majority group attacked, tortured, and killed members of the Tutsi minority group, albeit, in reality, members of all ethnic groups became victims.

The genocide lasted approximately a hundred days, resulting in an incredibly high number of victims, estimated between 500.000 and a million people. It was generated by the diffusion, which lasted decades, of specific, politically legitimised, sectarian images of ethnicity, alongside with a spiral of social exclusion and impunity. These issues settled in a social fabric torn by years of civil war (1990-1993) which, after the genocide, was left shattered. Notwithstanding the conspicuous flux of humanitarian aid directed into the country, very few believed that Rwanda could get back on its feet again.

Incredibly, even those elements that constitute a point of pride, like its attention towards gender equality, end up in being instrumentalized by the regime and used to guarantee its stability in the long run.

Clearly, such an event will always leave an indelible mark in the country’s history and on its society, one that will not be forgotten – or forgiven – soon. However, with time passing, the world started to follow the Rwandan recovery, being increasingly surprised and pleased with its results. Managing no easy feat, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and its party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), started to successfully rebuild the country. This exploit of course granted them many praises from the international community, lone governments, and non-governmental organisations alike, stricken by the ever-growing Rwandan economy and the – very publicised – attention of the government towards gender policies.

The term “gender policies” identifies all those actions and measures, undertaken at the state level, which are aimed to guarantee gender equality and to stop gender-based violence. For instance, women quotas and anti-discrimination laws belong to this typology of interventions. When Rwanda’s interest in gender issues translated in a swift increase of the number of female members of the parliament (female MPs), to the point of surpassing even Sweden, it caused a certain ferment in the international community. Frankly, it is quite easy to understand and share such enthusiasm when the starting point of Rwanda’s reconstruction is taken into consideration; for it to rival a country like Sweden, which is permanently at the top of democracy rankings, was certainly unheard of. Furthermore, when this commitment for gender issues confirmed itself as a lasting trend, both Kagame’s and the RPF’s images and reputation were positively strengthened.

However, these encouraging evaluations are not enough to counterbalance the ever-increasing authoritarian tendencies of the Rwandan regime, even though they do manage to hide them partially. Besides, if the fact that Kagame and the RPF are ruling the country since 1995 without interruptions is considered, some doubts on the quality of the Rwandan democracy swiftly arise. Moreover, if such an issue is summed with all the restrictions imposed on the civil and political rights of the Rwandan citizenry, alongside the human rights violations and war crimes committed both within and outside the country’s borders, the situation appears much less than idyllic.

Since the very first years of Kagame’s rule, it was clear that he and his close clique intended to cling to power as long as possible, keeping a tight control over the country in spite of the power-sharing accords mandated in the aftermath of the genocide. This will to remain in power was clearly understood by the main political actors and civil society representatives, who sadly found themselves forced to run for dear life after having lamented their dissent. After such premises, the fact that the years immediately following the genocide were characterised by a string of mysterious murders and disappearances, of waves of repression directed towards civil society and the media community, and by attempts to co-opt as many groups and people as possible, comes with no surprise. From those first moments, 25 years have passed and still, these remain the preferred strategies implemented by Kagame’s regime to deal with dissent and retain control over the country and its citizens.

Nevertheless, mechanisms like the repression of political opposition, censorship, and co-optation are not the sole strategies utilised by the regime for the maintenance of the status quo. Incredibly, even those elements that constitute a point of pride, like its attention towards gender equality, end up in being instrumentalized by the regime and used to guarantee its stability in the long run. Prime example of such a phenomenon are women’s quotas. Mandated by the 2003 Constitution, they dictate the presence of at least 30% of women inside the country’s decision-making organs. Usually, the implementation of such measures in countries with an authoritarian past is cheered upon since there is the belief for which a gender-balanced parliament is more democratic, hence, better.

Sadly, the Rwandan parliament is far from being autonomous and free. Loyalty to the regime is expected from all politicians, whose affiliation to a party rather than another does not change the fact that they are all subjected to Kagame’s wishes and, if they are perceived as possible threats, they are immediately discarded. Any kind of opposition is met with brutal responses, and such brutality constitutes an effective deterrent in the formation of more dissent. In a similar context, being a man or a woman is the same; each MP belongs, agrees or is forced to obey to the directives of the RPF ruling elite, led by Kagame. Expecting female MPs to be able to bring change and democracy, as was hoped by many organizations all over the world, seems to be a daringly optimistic opinion in Rwanda’s case. In fact, the high presence of women in the Rwandan parliament signifies only the presence of females loyal to the RPF, who, like their male colleagues, will not challenge the regime and, therefore, are actively contributing to its survival and to the maintenance of the status quo.

Moreover, the attention to gender issues displayed by Kagame and its government establishes the regime in one more additional fashion. In fact, the RFP’s gender policies testify Rwanda’s adhesion to those coveted international standards, veiling the real situation on the ground and shielding the regime from critiques and attacks coming from international organization and states alike. This game of smoke and mirrors is vital for the regime to run smoothly, since having a positive self-image is necessary to attract those funds and investments that the country so desperately needs. Moreover, displaying such a virtuous interest in gender issues diverts the international community’s eye from much less pleasant actions undertaken by the same Rwandan government, like the unsanctioned military interventions carried out in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hence, it appears that the Rwandan governments undertake progressive measures like gender policies not for sake of an equal society but rather as a Realpolitik tool: they are used to stabilize the regime and enhancing its power in the long run.

[1] Reyntjens, F. (2015). Rwanda: progress or powder keg?. Journal of Democracy26(3), 19-33.

[2] Debusscher, P., & Ansoms, A. (2013). Gender equality policies in Rwanda: public relations or real transformations?. Development and Change44(5), 1111-1134.

[3] Longman, T. (2006). Rwanda: Achieving equality or serving an authoritarian state?.

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