Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Military is the Biggest Obstacle to Democratic Reform in Rwanda

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In post-colonial Rwanda's public life has always been heavily militarized. During Juvenal Habyarimana's tenure, the military maintained a heavy and visible presence in the public sphere. They pulled the strings in almost every aspect of the state. In fact, it was often the case that for young people to overcome rural poverty, enlisting in the military was their sole option. Not only was the military the most effective organ of the state, but it was also the key determinant of political trends. Thus, in 1994 when the Rwandan military decided to kill Tutsis, there was little resistance.

Seventeen years after the genocide, one might want to ask whether the trend has reversed. In my view, and certainly one shared by many, Paul Kagame's Rwanda remains a highly militarized state. To be sure, it can be reasonably argued that, outside the military, Kagame has fortified a few more institutions.  For instance, the Rwanda Development Board has resulted in an increase of foreign investment, thus greatly improving the economy. Similarly, the Rwanda Revenue Authority is credited for its effectiveness.

Needless to say, I have my own reservations on these commendations. From my short-lived experience in the import and export business, I found the customs department to be extremely bureaucratic and seemingly paralyzed by inept nepotism. It took an irritatingly long amount of time to have anything cleared. Even more infuriating, some business men/women seemed to enjoy preferential treatment.

Militarism remains the most visible characteristic of the Kagame regime. It is also the most devastating export that Rwanda has offered to its close neighbors. In the past, our troops have invaded the DRC on various occasion including an occupation that lasted for several years. If our economy is doing well, it is partly due to the "effective" army and its control of DRC's mineral wealth. The investment branch of the military known as TRISTAR has done well from the wars and their net worth is estimated to several billion dollars. Of course, it is unsustainable to develop at the expense of our neighbors. The military-based business model can only take us so far.

Any visitor to Rwanda will be troubled by the ubiquitous troop presence on almost every street corner. By the way, the troop movements has increased dramatically since last year. We live in a small country where just like in a war zone, you have single file troops marching in most neighborhoods. The authorities say this is for national security, but we know better. Behind the rolling hills, unpaid paramilitary thugs, known locally as the Local Defence (LD), terrorize the villages. Their red uniforms are a constant reminder of state terror.

Rwandans seek an end to many years of military oppression. The biggest challenge though, is how to plant democracy in a place where the people have known nothing but brutal military rule. While I do not have an answer to this question, the collapse of such a system is undoubtedly inevitable. In fact, in the case of Rwanda, it is imminent! 

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