Rwanda can’t achieve reconciliation without fixing its democracy

Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial burial site. Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA

This month Rwanda marks 24 years since the genocide that left almost one million people dead. Healing is paramount in a society that’s not quite moved beyond the horrors of 1994. To ensure the past isn’t repeated, Rwanda needs to work towards meaningful political representation for all the country’s ethnic groups.

There is a model that other countries have adopted that could help it do this. It has been shown that consensus democracy is the best political mechanism to eradicate violent competition for power.

This kind of democracy – which is based on a power sharing model of government – has proven to be effective in the United States, The Netherlands and Switzerland. It also worked in South Africa during the country’s transition to democracy.

The challenge facing Rwanda is that it’s an autocratic regime. The democratic space in the country has shrunk dramatically. Independent thinkers and alternative voices have been silenced . President Paul Kagame has walked in the footsteps of his predecessors by concentrating power in the hands of a tiny political and military elite.

Should Rwanda continue this legacy, Kagame could be violently replaced by another autocrat. Experience has shown that a change of guard without deep structural transformation is not sustainable.

What is the way forward from here? We believe consensus democracy holds the answers.

Genesis of a genocide

To understand how Rwanda has reached this point, it’s important to explore the country’s history.

The intensity and destructive scale of the genocide in 1994 were unprecedented. But the underlying dynamics of ethnic violence started in the late 1950s when Rwanda was struggling to achieve independence from Belgium and to establish a democratic republic.

The First Republic led by President Grégoire Kayibanda and his Republican Democratic Movement – also known as the MDR-Parmehetu – was established in 1962 to heal the wounds left by colonialism and the Tutsi monarchy. The monarchy had been overthrown in 1961 by a Hutu elite which was backed by the Belgian administration.

The overthrow forced the monarch, his followers, and many ordinary Tutsis into exile. In the face of threats posed by exiled Tutsi insurgents, President Kayibanda consolidated his power, making Rwanda a Hutu republic, not a motherland for all its sons and daughters. Tutsis were executed or forced into exile. Those who remained became second class citizens.

The MDR-Parmehutu regime used the Tutsi insurgency as a pretext to silence all its political rivals. It killed some of their leaders and co-opted others. By 1965, Rwanda had become a one-party state.

It came as no surprise, then, that at the end of Kayibanda’s term in 1973 his associates called for constitutional change to allow him seek a third term in office.

But rather than focus on a power struggle that was simmering among the Hutu elites, the regime sponsored another wave of violence against the Tutsi. This scapegoating strategy proved counter productive and paved the way for a coup d’état in July 1973. The coup ended with the death of Kayibanda and his close aides. Many other key figures of the First Republic were imprisoned and held under harsh conditions.

The coup leader, Major General Juvénal Habyarimana, took over and vowed to build the Second Republic around the triple goal of “peace, unity, and development”. For many years, he succeeded at maintaining relative stability and economic development, becoming the darling of the donor community. Rwanda was hailed as a “model of African development.”

But Habyarimana failed to tackle two vital challenges: the ethnic tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi, and the Tutsi refugee problem.

The unresolved refugee problem paved the way for the 1990-1994 war, which pitted the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) against the Hutu-dominated government. The war also paved the way for the assassination of the president himself on April 6, 1994. This triggered the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, from which Kagame’s RPF emerged as the new ruling force.

Like its predecessors, Kagame’s RPF put forth impressive objectives, including reconciliation and national unity, good governance, and resolution of the refugee problem.

But the regime soon proved to be yet another dictatorship. It has been widely reported that Kagame’s regime is responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations against both the Hutu and the Tutsi. The regime operates on a de facto single-party system that’s increasingly intolerant of dissenters.

Consensus as a path to reconciliation

Consensus democracy in Rwanda would be characterised by free and fair elections, political accountability, rigorous check-and-balance mechanisms and concerted power-sharing arrangements. This model would entail the representation of all ethnic groups in every branch of government including in strategic cabinet departments and top security services.

Without these guarantees, extremists from each community will continue to have unfettered access to hijack the political system by harking back to past grievances and amplifying legitimate fears.

Consensus democracy could lay the foundation for healing by creating a sense of physical and emotional security within Rwanda’s two main ethnic communities. This would put an end to the historical cycle of vengeful violence.

It may seem unlikely at this stage to convince Kagame and his supporters that this is the way to go. As American journalist Stephen Kinzer once wrote, Kagame, who seemed to have “the chance to enter history as one of the greatest modern African leaders”, could also be remembered as another failed African big man.

It’s high time Rwanda and its true friends heeded the call for collective healing through consensus democracy. Such a move would mark the beginning of a new journey that frees the energy and resources necessary to build a Rwanda that is reconciled, democratic and prosperous.

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