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No, Rwanda is not a safe country

15 December 2023

By declaring that it is, the UK Government is behaving recklessly, writes David Bagnall


The Home Secretary, James Cleverly, visits the genocide memorial in Kigali, last week. During his visit, he signed a new treaty with the Rwandan government

The Home Secretary, James Cleverly, visits the genocide memorial in Kigali, last week. During his visit, he signed a new treaty with the Rwandan gover...

I RECENTLY found myself sitting in a coffee shop in Kigali, lazily enjoying a flat white with a Rwandan friend. In many ways, the scene echoed perfectly the image of Rwanda which the British Government has sought to reassure us with in recent months: the cafe was bustling with sleekly dressed young professionals, the Wi-Fi was fast, and the coffee was outstanding. I could have been in a very sunny Shoreditch.

And yet, despite the apparent perfection of the scene around us, my friend was visibly tense and looked uneasy. “It’s genocide memorial month,” he explained, when I asked whether everything was OK, “and, at this time of year, things bubble up to the surface.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the Government’s plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda is unlawful (News, 17 November), the question whether Rwanda is a safe country has once again returned to public consciousness in the UK. Technically, the Supreme Court’s ruling hinged on the issue of “refoulement” — the unlawful returning of a refugee to their country of origin — and, concluding that there was indeed “a real risk” that this would happen, the Court rejected the Government’s appeal that Rwanda be designated a “safe third country”.

In reaction to this, the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, has since signed a new treaty with Rwanda, which makes a “clear and unambiguous commitment to the safety of people who come to Rwanda”; and the Government this week introduced new “emergency legislation” that would require judges to treat Rwanda as a safe country (News, 8 December). The Safety of Rwanda Bill passed its second reading on Tuesday even­ing, by 313 votes to 269.

Beyond the moral and democratic absurdities abounding here — to which we return shortly — the problem with the Government’s position is that it woefully, even wilfully, ignores the complexity of Rwanda’s recent history; for, as my friend’s words above imply, there are conflicts and pressures within Rwandan culture which run deep — far deeper than the legal niceties of refoulement risk express — and the clean-swept streets and gleaming skyscrapers of the nation’s capital conceal a tension that bubbles perilously close to the surface.

UNDERSTANDING this requires a closer look at Rwanda’s recent past. As many people will know, in April 1994, the civil war that had been raging for four years between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups erupted into genocide, and some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu people lost their lives.

After 100 days of unimaginable horror, Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) overthrew the genocidal regime and assumed a power that endures to this day. Among the first things that the RPF did on assuming authority was to “abolish” all ethnic distinctions between Rwandans, and the country soon had a new official slogan: “There are no Hutu or Tutsi, we are all Rwandans now.”

Despite this seemingly laudable commitment to a post-ethnic future, however, the crucial fact at the heart of Rwandan society — known to all Rwandans and unknown to nearly all foreigners — is that, in the 29 years that President Kagame has been in control, the RPF has gradually but definitively consolidated power in the hands of now officially “former” Tutsis.

As field data consistently reveal, members of the officially “former” Tutsi minority occupy virtually every significant political, legislative, and military post in the country; and, in a country in which “former” Hutus constitute 90 per cent of the population, and “former” Tutsis ten per cent, the irony is not lost on most Rwandans. What is more, any pointing out of this glaring fact is brutally repressed, and the RPF’s tight grip on both power and information has created widespread fear and resentment among the Hutu majority.

WHAT makes contemporary Rwanda so chronically unstable, then, is that, in a country in which even the discussion of ethnicity is outlawed, not only does everybody know what everybody’s ethnic identity is, but everyone also knows who is in power. Despite the “post-ethnic” rhetoric of the RPF, its grip on power keeps alive the ethnic tensions that its claims to have abolished.

This is what makes Rwanda so dangerous. It’s the lava that fills the volcano. It’s what bubbles away beneath the surface. It’s the truth that every Rwandan knows. “We’re sitting on a volcano,” as another Rwandan friend put it to me. “It’s an extremely dangerous situation.”

It is in the light of this that the British Government’s decree that “every decision-maker must conclusively treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country” is so unfathomably absurd and even reckless.

Rwandans are resilient people, but Rwanda itself is chronically unstable, as every observer, NGO, and human-rights organisation knows. Supporting a brutally repressive regime, filling its pockets with hundreds of millions of pounds, and thereby contributing to potentially serious regional instability seems a high price to pay for the support of a few backbenchers.

The Revd Dr David Bagnall is Associate Rector of St John’s, Princes Street, in Edinburgh. Earlier this year, he completed a doctoral thesis on the Anglican Church of Rwanda.

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