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President Paul Kagame

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Burundi: The Next Genocide?

The good news is that the killing in Burundi has not yet grown into a civil war like the one that killed 300,000 people in 1993-2005, let alone a genocide like the one that killed 800,000 people in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. The bad news is that Burundi is getting there.

It’s hard to speak well of Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former head of Fifa, the international football federation. But Africa would owe him a large debt of gratitude if he had persuaded Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza not to seek a third term, and instead to accept a job as Fifa’s “ambassador for football” to the world.

When the story came out recently in Blatter’s autobiography, the Swiss foreign ministry (which asked Blatter to make the offer) explained that “The intention was to contribute to a peaceful solution in order to prevent the current crisis in Burundi.”

It might even have worked. Nkurunziza is a keen footballer, and he certainly has put aside enough money to retire on. But he chose to stay on and run for a third term, and started Burundi on the road back down to Hell.

African presidents suffer from two besetting sins. One is the belief that they are irreplaceable: almost two-thirds of African countries had two-term presidential limits in their constitutions by 2000, but since then ten of them have seen attempts by their presidents to remove the limit. The most recent was Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame’s last permitted term will now end in 2034.

But Pierre Nkurunziza’s excuse was particularly pathetic. He became president at the end of the civil war in 2005, when the peace was precarious. There was no time for a presidential election, so he was elected to the presidency by a parliamentary vote.

On the basis of that, Nkurunziza began claiming last year that his first term shouldn’t count towards his constitutional two-term limit because he was chosen by parliament and not by the people. Even Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe (seven terms and counting) saw the humour in that. “They say the first term was not a real term,” he said at an African Union summit last June, “but you were there for five years!”

Burundi’s Constitutional Court accepted Nkuruniza’s claim, however, as it would have been hazardous to the members’ health to do otherwise. (One of the judges then fled the country, saying that they had all been bullied and threatened into giving that judgement.) The opposition parties all boycotted the election last July, so Nkurunziza “won” – and by then the level of violence was rising rapidly.

The killing started after a failed military coup that tried to stop the sham election, and the reported death toll is now around 400. The known victims are mostly political activists and ordinary citizens murdered by the police in Bujumbura, the capital, but the real total of the killings must be far higher. Rural killings are rarely reported, but a quarter-million people have fled the country in the past year and now live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

The one consolation in this dreadful situation until recently was that it wasn’t a tribal confrontation. In both Rwanda’s genocide and Burundi’s civil war the majority Hutus (85 percent of the population) were on one side and formerly dominant Tutsi minority on the other. Since the civil war, however, Burundi’s army has been evenly divided between the two ethnic groups, and the opposition groups have also included both Hutus and Tutsis.

The other besetting sin of African presidents, unfortunately, is that if they come from the biggest tribe (as they most often do), when they get into deep political trouble their default solution is to fall back on tribal loyalties. That is what Nkurunziza is doing now. The army is being purged of Tutsis, and the very same language used by the Hutus in the run-up to the Rwanda genocide is now being used by Nkurunziza’s Hutu backers in Burundi.

Révérien Ndikuriyo, the president of the Burundian senate, has been referring to the regime’s opponents as “cockroaches” (the same word used for Tutsis by the Hutu extremists in Rwanda). He has even called on the government’s supporters to “start work” (“kora”), which was the code-word used in Rwanda for the launch of the 1994 genocide.

Nkurunziza is trying to turn a political confrontation he might lose into an ethnic conflict that he could win, but the cost would be another genocide. The future of an entire country of ten million people is being put at risk by his personal ambition.

The African Union offered to send 5,000 soldiers to help quell the violence, but backed down when Nkurunziza objected. There are 19,000 United Nations peacekeepers just across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the political will to send them in is lacking.

So far the opposition parties (which are, of course, mostly Hutu) are resisting Nkurunziza’s attempts to scapegoat the Tutsis, but in the world’s poorest country many ordinary Hutus will be tempted to go along with the regime’s lies in order to steal their Tutsi neighbours’ land. We may be weeks away from Africa’s next genocide.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 12, and 14. (“When…Burundi”; “Révérien…genocide”; and “The African…lacking”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

The Kagame Dilemma

“Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame told a rally soon after the country’s former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, was found strangled in a South African hotel room last January. Karegeya had quit the government and become a leading opponent of the regime, which President Kagame would certainly see as a betrayal of the country.

It’s not unusual for dictators to see their own interests and those of the country they rule as one and the same thing. It’s not even uncommon for dictators to have people killed. What’s really rare is a dictator who has had quite a lot of people killed, but is congratulated by other countries for his excellent administration and showered with foreign aid. That is the happy lot of President Paul Kagame.

Fewer than half of Rwanda’s 12 million people have personal memories of the terrible genocide twenty years ago, but the country as a whole is still haunted by it. Kagame has ruled Rwanda for all of that time, and he is convinced that only he can stop it from happening again. It’s only a small step from there to believing that he has the duty to maintain his rule by any means necessary, including even murder.

All the murders are officially denied, but nobody believes it. Last week four not very competent assassins, one Rwandan and three Tanzanians, were found guilty by a South African court of trying to kill the former Rwandan army chief of staff, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, in Johannesburg in 2010. They shot him in the stomach, but he survived after months in intensive care – and they didn’t get away.

The South African judge, Stanley Mkhair, said diplomatically that the plot to kill Nyamwasa came from “a certain group of people from Rwanda.” The South African authorities even know how much the assassins were paid: 80,000 rand ($7,500). But it was just not worth naming Kagame.

Last March, when South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe warned Rwanda to stop after another attempt on Nyamwasa’s life, the two countries went through a ritual round of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats. Once a year is enough, but at least South Africa complains occasionally. Most other African countries look the other way when Kagame’s hit squads turn up, people like Tony Blair accept lifts in his private jet, and the aid agencies don’t even flinch.

These people aren’t fools or knaves (except Tony Blair, of course), so why are they all giving Kagame a free pass? Because they secretly suspect that Kagame is right: that only he can prevent another genocide in Rwanda. And maybe they’re right.

The 1994 genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people, about 10 percent of the population. There is no reliable estimate of how many of the victims were Tutsis, who were once the dominant caste but by 1994 were a persecuted minority. A fair guess is that more than half of those murdered were Tutsis (the rest were “moderate” Hutus), and that at least half of the total Tutsi population died.

The Tutsi survivors, and more importantly the Tutsi exiles who fought their way home with Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front, still provide the core leadership of the country twenty years later, although Tutsis are now down to around 10 percent of the population. Kagame insists that “we are Banyarwanda” (all Rwandans), and that there are no separate tribes in Rwanda. Technically he is right. But in practice he is wrong, and he knows it.

The Tutsis and the majority Hutus both speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. Once upon a time the Tutsis were herders and the Hutus were farmers, and even longer ago they probably were separate ethnic groups. But in the present, they are better seen as castes defined by their (former) occupations. Indeed, even the herdsman/farmer distinction no longer really applies.

Yet the “caste” distinction is just as strong, and potentially just as lethal, as it was in 1994. That’s why Rwanda is a thinly disguised dictatorship, run by a man who kills people – but only individuals who threaten his rule, not whole groups.

Kagame has produced a very impressive rate of economic growth in Rwanda (an average of 8 percent annually in 2001-12), in the hope that prosperity will ultimately defuse the Tutsi/Hutu hostility. But he dares not allow a truly free election, for the Hutus, still strong in their identity, would vote him out of office. And almost everybody else goes along with his behaviour, because they buy into his belief in his own indispensability.

But all his efforts may ultimately amount to no more than a finger in the dike. Rwanda was already one of the most densely populated countries in Africa in 1994, but its population has increased by half since the genocide. There is little evidence that everybody (or even most people) thinks of themselves as “Banyarwanda”. Kagame is just playing for time.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 11.  (“The South…Kagame”; and “The Tutsis…groups”)v