Established before the genocide and quickly regained under President Paul Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has a reputation in the international community for being a model country committed to development. But renewed allegations that the regime has been supporting the M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) led several committed donors to suspend their aid allocations during the last full week of July.
In spite of undemocratic tendencies, human rights violations, and economic intervention, donors have remained mostly loyal to the tenacious Rwandan regime as it has conducted economic and political reforms. Even as President Kagame continues to deny involvement, warnings from the US that he may be charged with war crimes suggest that perhaps these suspensions and accusations could alter the future of his relations with donors.
Accusations from a United Nations report in June that Kigali is funding the M23 rebels have led to the most significant international reaction to date against Rwanda. The United States has suspended $200,000 in military aid, while the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany have delayed $25 million, $6 million, and $26 million, respectively, in official development assistance.
Kigali was also accused in 2008 of backing the 2004-2009 eastern Congolese uprising of the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), leading Sweden to suspend its aid. Although a faction of the CNDP was integrated into the Congolese national army in March 2009 under a peace deal, in April 2012 rebels formed the M23 - their name a tribute to the peace deal on which they accuse the government of reneging.
Rwanda has since refuted the allegations in a 78-page document that called the original expert report “the latest act of a carefully orchestrated media and political strategy to cast Rwanda as the villain in this new wave of tensions in eastern DRC”.
Rwanda disputes much of the evidence produced, alleging that the photographs of Rwandan uniforms, weapons, and outdated ammunition appearing in the report could have been purchased anywhere. It also claims a radio interception between the Rwandan army and M23 as well as the transport of troops and equipment along poor roads would be technically impossible. Among other things, the administration repeatedly denounces the experts’ failure to consult Rwandan sources or allow anyone accused of wrongdoing the opportunity to respond.
Donors await Rwanda’s response and the final report from the UN’s panel of experts, due to go to the UN Security Council in early October, to determine whether the $790 million (which composes 35% of government revenues) could be permanently at stake.
To understand the significance of this diplomatic shift, greater insight about the specificities that create Rwanda’s unique position as an aid recipient is needed.
In addition to the task of development, the post-genocide Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) coalition government faced a number of institutional and political challenges. These included maintaining internal and regional security, judicial and media reform, prosecuting individuals for genocidal crimes, and preventing the recurrence of insurgency by the Interahamwe and other Hutu rebels.
The fact that Rwanda is today considered a country with relatively low levels of corruption, improving political stability, and governmental effectiveness is a testament to the regime’s success. Excepting 2009, official figures claim GDP growth exceeding 7% for every year since 2004. For that, it joins a legacy of 'aid darlings' including Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Many of the donors who allocate aid to Rwanda (which between 2008 and 2010 averaged around $1 billion in official development assistance) do so because it is perceived as genuinely committed to socio-economic development. Yet in spite of this commitment to progressive change and prowess at speaking the language of development, Rwanda often diverges from aid conditionalities in ways that displease its donors.
The Kagame regime has played the genocide card to its utmost advantage, developing and manipulating close relations with the US and UK (its two largest donors) to maintain high levels of aid in spite of its repression and failure to adhere to conditionalities like democratisation and requests for increased press freedom and reduced military strength.
The transition period also saw the alleged execution of a number of human rights violations which were vehemently condemned by human rights groups, but accepted as baby steps in the right direction by donors. Upon the adoption of a new constitution, Kagame was elected president in 2003, and overwhelmingly re-elected in 2010 in a contest preceded by political violence and harassment of opposition.
Minor disagreements also exist with the priorities the regime has set along its path to development. Goals include public investment in infrastructure, revenue raising, government reorganisation and decentralisation, health and education service delivery, agricultural modernisation (in a way that would decrease the scope for smallholder agriculture), and the expansion of the private sector.
Most donors agree that for state-building to progress, Rwanda should expand its economic base in a way that would increase sector productivity, not relegate it to the development of manufacturing and service sectors. This difference recognises the importance of providing employment for the vast numbers of underemployed rural inhabitants, 89% of whom are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.
Perhaps donors’ concerns are not more vehemently expressed because of a desire to ensure above all that their presence does no harm; some, suggests Peter Uvin, may even feel guilt about fuelling the inequality, racism, and oppression that sparked the genocide.
Still, apprehension exists about the level of governmental involvement in financial affairs. Will they oppose the standard neoliberal model and follow the East Asian example of governmental participation in business and narrow political space? Perhaps not, if we take into account Phil Clark’s assertion that the repression is actually aimed at showing strength while curtailing factions within the RPF, and if donors maintain faith that internal dynamics will eventually necessitate political liberalisation.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rwanda’s role in promoting regional stability must also be acknowledged, and it is here, as current events indicate, that the most controversy exists.
Not only the birth but also the ascendance of the RPF was a direct result of divisive ethnic relations. But the defeat of the Rwandan army that ended the civil war and sent the génocidaires fleeing did not reduce the RPF’s role in ensuring stability. In response to refugee camp violence and the victimisation of the eastern DRC’s Tutsi Banyamulenge, the RPF spearheaded a regional invasion in the First Congo War, backing Laurent Kabila’s ascent to power.
Rwandan authorities have long been accused (most recently by Human Rights Watch) of using the CNDP (now M23) as a proxy army to fight against the regrouped génocidaires known as the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), and of trying to maintain military influence in eastern Congo to benefit from the mineral resources in the area.
The continued presence of Rwanda in neighbouring territory until 2002 led Norway to freeze its official development assistance, while other donors remained conflicted about how to interpret and respond to these actions. Reports of illegal resource exploitation in the DRC and human rights abuses, led the UK to temporarily suspend its general budget support in 2004 in a plea that the sovereignty of neighbouring states be respected.
Since the genocide, donors have largely held their noses and given the Kagame administration the space it requests to overcome the institutional challenges lingering from its history of ethnic animosity. Although disagreements have occurred between donors and Kigali in the past, Kagame has hardly been in a situation where he has needed to change his path.
Although foreign aid has helped accomplish many of the regime’s development goals, Kagame has repeatedly called for Africa to graduate from aid dependence. Invoking this professed aspiration, Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo recently told a Kenyan business club in a speech related to the “mess” in Congo, "This child-to-parent relationship has to end...there has to be a minimum respect."
She continued: "As long as countries wave chequebooks over our heads, we can never be equal."
The Kagame administration has stressed that although it would work with the DRC (something it recently re-pledged at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa), it also would not hesitate to take matters into its own hands.
While the jury is still out as to whether Rwanda’s refutation will be sufficient to maintain its reputation as an aid darling, Mushikiwabo was certainly right about one thing when she said: "We have been in much worse situations than dollars being withheld from us."
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