The real challenge for Kagame

Most of the focus in the run-up to the elections in Rwanda has been on the crack-down on opposition and the media. People are right to focus on this out of principle, but this is not where the real political struggle is taking place. The opposition is weak and divided and does not pose much threat to the RPF.

There is a much more acrimonious battle taking place outside of the media limelight, within the ruling RPF party. Since the RPF came to power in 1994, there have been defections. Initially, the RPF tried to include other political constituencies in government, led by Hutu politicians like Faustin Twagiraumungu, Pierre-Celestin Rwigema, Pasteur Bizimungu and Seth Sendashonga. They fell out with these leaders, and many of them fled into exile, leading Paul Kagame to take the reins as president in 2000. These initial defections, however, did not affect that core RPF leadership.

A bit later, some of the military top brass of the RPF were also sidelined from government, albeit in a much less public fashion. These included the commanders of the RPF who were Kagame’s peers or older: General Sam Kaka (the first army chief of staff), General Frank Rusagara (former commander of military academy) and others. In 2001, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who had taken over command of the RPA from General Kaka in 1998, fell out with Kagame, as well, and in 2005 the head of external intelligence Colonel Patrick Karegeya was arrested on allegations of insubordination.

This crisis within the RPF elite festered until breaking out into the open this year, when Kayumba fled into exile in South Africa, and two other top generals were arrested in Kigali (Gen Karenzi Karake and Gen Charles Muhire). Of the most senior RPF commanders from 1994, many have gone into exile, are retired or have bene arrested.

Two explanations have been offered for this. In private, Rwandan government officials say that these officers have been marginalized because they did not share the same ideological vision as Kagame. They were more interested in personal power and wealth than in seeing the country advance. Indeed, all of the arrests have been made based on accusations of corruption, embezzlement or insubordination.

The other explanation comes from the dissidents – Nyamwasa and Karegeya say that they grievances are political: Kagame has horded power and is incapable of allowing for other opinions. He goes so far as to assassinate his rivals. The most important military and security positions have been given to officers who were relatively junior in 1994, but who are fiercely loyal to Kagame. Emmanuel Ndahiro (head of security) was Kagame’s personal doctor; General Kabarebe (Minister of Defense) was commander of his bodyguard and General Kayonga (Army Chief of Staff) was his military advisor.

Whatever you believe, it boils down to a struggle for power among the party’s inner cabal that could end up becoming very nasty. In private, RPF officials have told me: ” This is probably the biggest challenge we have faced as a party in many years.”

Many donors have heralded Kagame’s vision for the country and have looked the other way when the RPF have curtailed civil liberties. In fact, many in private seem to think that the authoritarian touch is a boon for a country coming out of such mass violence. Also, it isolates the government from the democratic pressures that have driven patronage politics in Kenya and Nigeria, for example. Because Kagame has such control over government, he doesn’t have to pay any constituencies off, he can push through tough economic reforms and clamp down on corruption.

That assumes that the black box of the RPF is actually a solid, unbreakable thing, that Kagame really does command absolute respect within the RPF.

It is notoriously difficult to maintain stability in an authoritarian government. You need to have a way of satisfying your leaders’ ambitions, of empowering them and making them feel part of a process. In Rwanda, many of the erstwhile military and political leaders have been marginalized and left without many prospects in a country where the economy and power is largely in the hands of the RPF.

Kagame’s real challenge over the next few years will be to manage these tensions within his own house and make sure that irredentist former RPF members don’t link up with the other people who have a bone to pick with Kagame: Nkunda’s men, Uganda, the radical Hutu opposition, FDLR, etc. Will he meet this challenge by decentralizing and democratizing power over his next 7 year mandate, or will he continue to dominate the political scene? And if he doesn’t manage to deal with this tensions, what could the outcome be?