Updated: Nov 19
Like many other Rwandans, I heard for the first time of the United Kingdom (UK)’s plan to send its unsolicited asylum seekers to Rwanda to claim asylum there on the news. It was when the then UK Secretary of State for Home Department, The Rt Hon Priti Patel, and the Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Dr Vincent Biruta, were shown shaking hands on media across the word, after signing what the two countries called an ‘Immigration and Economic development partnership’ in Kigali, in April 2022. The topic had never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement and signing of the partnership.
Priti Patel, representing the British government, said that the UK had signed a world-leading Migration Partnership with Rwanda which can see those arriving dangerously, illegally, or unnecessarily into the UK relocated to Rwanda to have their claims for asylum considered and, if recognised as refugees, to build their lives there. She added that this will help break the people smugglers’ business model and prevent loss of life, while ensuring protection for the genuinely vulnerable. Dr Vincent Biruta, representing the Rwandan government, said that there is a global responsibility to prioritise the safety and well-being of migrants, and Rwanda welcomes this partnership with the United Kingdom to host asylum seekers and migrants and offer them legal pathways to residence. He also stated that the partnership is about ensuring that people are protected, respected, and empowered to further their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they choose.
The Rwandan government’s official press release, issued straight after the signing of both countries scheme of asylum transfer to Rwanda, reads that the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. The press release highlights that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, the dignity and rights of those migrants will be respected. It claims that migrants will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.
A considerable number of Rwandans have experienced what it means to be displaced, and even formerly or currently been refugees themselves, due to historical conflicts and/or political oppression as well as economic struggles in Rwanda. Rwandans, irrespective of their political stance—either against or for the ruling party in Rwanda—would understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, this does not change the fact that the arrangement to deport asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda is unlawful and that Rwanda does not qualify as a safe third country to send asylum seekers to.
Rwanda’s Legitimate Actions to Solve Global Immigration Issues
As a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (ratified on 26 January 1982) and the 1967 Protocol (ratified on 26 January 1982) as well as the 1969 Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) Convention Concerning Refugees (ratified on 26 January 1980), Rwanda already delivers upright and permissible actions to ensure the overall general protection, security, and safety of the persons of concern. These actions are executed in collaboration with the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), and developed countries that provide technical and financial support. It is through the delivery of these actions that Rwanda lawfully contributes towards solving global immigration issues.
For instance, Rwanda has been hosting refugees from neighbouring countries. Today, the country is home to 134,519 refugees and asylum seekers mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi. The majority of these refugees have been settled in six refugee camps located throughout different parts of Rwanda as well as accommodation in urban areas of the country. Rwanda’s Ministry in Charge of Emergency Management (MINEMA), in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is responsible for the smooth delivery of multi-sector assistance to refugees residing in refugee camps and reception centres, as well as to refugees and asylum seekers living in urban areas.
Rwanda is also a temporary host for refugees being evacuated from Libya. There has been a desperate situation unfolding in the country involving thousands of migrants and refugees languishing in detention centres or enduring homelessness, exploitation, and abuse while trapped in an endless cycle of violence. In response, the Government of Rwanda, UNHCR, and the AU signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in September 2019 to set up a transit mechanism for evacuating refugees out of Libya. Under this MoU, the Government of Rwanda agreed to receive and provide protection to 500 refugees and asylum-seekers who were being held in detention centres in Libya and willingly choose to be transferred to safety in Rwanda. The aim of this action is to temporarily host refugees and asylum seekers who have undertaken voluntary evacuation from Libya with a view that some evacuees would benefit from resettlement to third countries, while others would be helped to return to countries where asylum had previously been granted, or to return to their home countries if it was safe to do so. Some would be given permission to remain in Rwanda subject to agreement by the competent authorities. Two Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETMs) were established in Rwanda to support the agreed number of refugees and asylum seekers evacuated from Libya at any given time and to conduct case processing for resettlement and other durable solutions. While in the ETM, the asylum seekers go through refugee case processing undertaken by UNHCR to determine if they are a refugee. In October 2021, the first Addendum to the tripartite MoU of September 2019 was signed by the parties, agreeing to renew and extend the MoU until December 2023 and to increase the total number of individuals to be hosted in the centre to 700 people at any given time.
According to UNHCR, between September 2019 and March 2023, 1600 refugees and asylum seekers were evacuated from Libya to the ETM in Rwanda by way of 13 evacuation flights. The refugees and asylum seekers consist of mainly Eritrean, Somali, Sudanese, Ethiopian, South Sudanese, Cameroonian, Nigerian, and Chadian nationalities. To date, all refugees have opted not to stay in Rwanda but for resettlement to third countries. Over 900 refugees have subsequently been resettled to third countries. Currently, the ETM is hosting 698 refugees and asylum seekers. The European Union has been the main funding partner to UNHCR for the operation of the ETM in Rwanda—between 2019 and 2022, the EU donated €12 million to the project. The EU granted to the UNHCR an additional €22 million in February 2023 to support its operation of the ETM in Rwanda until 2016.
Prior to signing an arrangement for evacuation of refugees from Libya to Rwanda with the country’s government, the UNHCR had been involved in similar schemes with other countries. In May 2008, a tri-partite agreement establishing the Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Romania was signed by the Government of Romania, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR. In November 2017, UNHCR had established for the first time an ETM for the evacuation of vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers from detention in Libya to Niger and signed a MOU with the Government of Niger in December 2017 to temporarily expanding the Niger asylum space to these refugees and asylum seekers. The UNHCR schemes with Romania, Niger and Rwanda that evacuate refugees from Libya are certainly reasonable because they protect migrants from torture, sexual violence, and indefinite detention. However, this is not the case with the Rwanda asylum plan between the UK and Rwanda.
Rwanda also deploys troops in peacekeeping missions across the world. By doing so, Rwanda contributes towards addressing threats to international peace and security, an action that is connected to rightly solving global immigration issues. In that context, Rwanda has deployed its military and police personnel on UN peacekeeping missions in Darfur (completed in 2020), the Republic of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Interim Security force for Abyei. Rwanda is today ranked the fourth-most country contributing personnel to UN peacekeeping operations.
Rwanda has also entered into bilateral agreements with individual states which have led to additional deployments of its defence forces and police personnel into those countries to ensure security and peace. This was the case during the deployment of Rwanda defence forces and national police to Cabo Delgado, a province of Mozambique affected by terrorism and insecurity. The Rwandan force protection troops were also deployed to the Central African Republic to counter the targeting of the UN peacekeeping forces by rebels.
I commend the Rwandan government for the aforementioned actions, as they demonstrate that in spite of Rwanda being categorised as a poor and least developed state, it is certainly making a major contribution towards solving global immigration issues. Of course, more can be done to fulfil Rwanda’s commitment to protecting vulnerable people around the world. However, this is not to be rightfully done currently because the scheme to transfer asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda is not lawful.
Rwanda Policy is Unlawful
Just a few months after the MOU between the UK and Rwanda was signed by both countries’ officials, UNCHR, pursuant to its responsibility under the United Nations General Assembly to ensure the promotion and supervision of compliance with international refugee law, published a note that summarizes its views on the legality and appropriateness of partnership on the asylum transfer between the governments of the UK and Rwanda. The UN agency made the note with reference to international refugee law norms and principles, as articulated notably in the 2013 UNHCR Guidance Note on bilateral and/or multilateral transfer arrangements of asylum-seekers and UNHCR’s 2021 Note on the ‘Externalization’ of International Protection.
In its note, the UNHCR explained that although States may make arrangements with other States to ensure international protection, these arrangements must—as the preamble of 1951 Convection provides—advance international cooperation to uphold refugee protection, enhance responsibility sharing and be consistent with fundamental rights and freedoms of asylum seekers and refugees. International law requires States to fulfil their treaty obligations in good faith.
However, the UK and Rwanda arrangement does not advance international cooperation that would uphold any protection to refugees who would be transferred under the scheme. The MoU on the arrangement clearly states that it will not be binding in international law and does not create or confer any right on any individual, nor shall compliance with it be justiciable in any court of law by third-parties or individuals. It also stipulates that in case of disputes the participants will make all reasonable efforts to resolve between them all disputes concerning the arrangement. Neither participant will have recourse to a dispute resolution body outside of this. The absence of regularising the MoU raises questions on the protection of asylum that will be transferred under the partnership if, for unforeseeable reasons, the partnership suddenly ends.
Moreover, the arrangement between the two states does not contribute to burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing and puts the asylum seekers transferred from UK to Rwanda at risk of refoulement. The UNCHR’s assessment of the Rwandan asylum system is that the system is still nascent, while the UK asylum system is highly developed and has the capacity to consider asylum claims. This renders the arrangement as not promoting responsibility-sharing between the two states but simply shifting the burden from the UK to Rwanda, which is not in line with the 1951 convention. The UNHCR had submitted shortcomings in the Rwandan asylum system to the Universal Periodic Review in July 2020. Among these flaws include the inefficiency and untimely manner of asylum procedures, lack of objective assessment of the fairness and efficiency of the asylum procedures, lack of representation by a lawyer for asylum seekers, arbitrary denial of access to asylum by Rwanda’s Directorate General for Immigration and Emigration, discrimination in access to the asylum procedures for groups such as LGBTQ+ persons and so on. These shortcomings have resulted in those wishing to claim asylum in Rwanda being left undocumented, at risk of detention and deportation and produced incidents of chain refoulement. The flaws in the Rwandan national asylum system represent a challenge to the legality of the UK-Rwanda transfer; for any arrangement to transfer asylum to be deemed legal, it must ensure that access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status is guaranteed.
The UNHCR explains that the legality of transfer arrangements also requires those transferred to be treated in accordance with accepted international standards. These requirements reflect the rights granted to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Concerns over whether refugees transferred to Rwanda will be treated in accordance with respected international standards are considerable. Rwanda has constituently been categorised as ‘not a free country’ by Freedom House and has a history of and continues to disregard international obligations, including human rights such as those set out in the Convention Against Torture, amongst others. This situation is well-known to the UK government. In January 2021 during the 37th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, while sharing recommendations to improve human rights in Rwanda, the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office expressed its concerns regarding continued restrictions on civil and political rights and media freedom, and urged Rwanda, as a member of the Commonwealth and future Chair-in-Office, to model Commonwealth values of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights. The UK tabled recommendations for Rwanda to improve its human rights. However, Rwanda did not support these recommendations. This prompted the UK to issue yet another statement expressing its regrets that Rwanda did not support its recommendations, which was also made by other states, to conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture. The UK expressed its disappointment that Rwanda did not support its recommendation to screen, identify and provide support to trafficking victims, including those held in government transit centres in Rwanda. Human rights violations and torture affects anyone in Rwanda who dares to challenge the government’s narrative, including refugees hosted in the country. In 2018, twelve Congolese refugees were shot and killed by Rwandan police as they tried to march out of their camp in protest of a cut in food rations. 65 Congolese refugees were also arrested. Those arrested were accused of causing uprising or unrest among the population, of spreading false information or harmful propaganda with the intent to cause a hostile international opinion against Rwandan Government, and of holding illegal demonstration or public meeting. Only one person was acquitted, whilst the rest were sentenced to three to six years of imprisonment.
Lastly, international law requires that transfer arrangements must ensure that when a person being transferred is recognised as being in need of international protection, that person is able to access a durable solution. Yet evidence shows that Rwanda remains a poor and less developed country with limited resources. Rwanda produces its own refugees due to ongoing repression and the lack of economic opportunities.
One example of Rwanda’s insufficiency as a third country to transfer asylum is the previous bilateral arrangement between Rwanda and Israel. Unlike UK-Rwanda asylum transfer deal that was publicly announced, the transfer arrangement between Israel and Rwanda was of a secretive nature. Some 4000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers based in Israel were sent to Rwanda and Uganda between 2013 and 2018. For those asylum seekers sent to Rwanda, testimonies collected by the International Refugee Rights Initiative suggest that the majority, if not all, were being smuggled out of the country by land to Kampala within days of arriving in Kigali. They were not given an opportunity to apply for asylum, and even if they wished to stay in Rwanda, their refugee claims could not be assessed as the national refugee status determination committee has yet to be established.
The UNHCR note concluded that the UK-Rwanda arrangement fails to meet the required standards relating to the legality and appropriateness of bilateral or multilateral transfers of asylum-seekers, making it incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Convention. Furthermore, the note adds that the arrangement cannot be brought into line with international legal obligations through minor adjustments.
Although the UK High Court ruled that the arrangement itself is lawful, it added concern that the asylum seekers being transferred to Rwanda were not allowed to argue about the safety of Rwanda. Hence the case was appealed. The Court of Appeal concluded that the deal was unlawful because Rwanda was not a safe third country to send asylum to. The Court noted that Rwanda’s system for making asylum decisions was inadequate. The system has serious deficiencies, and at the date of the hearing in the High Court, those deficiencies had not been corrected and were not likely to be in the short term. The Court of Appeal also stated that asylum seekers transferred to Rwanda would be at risk of refoulment, making Rwanda not a safe third country. The Court established substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that the asylum claims may be wrongly refused by Rwanda’s national system. Moreover, it revealed that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda faced a real risk of mistreatment. The Court of Appeal also disagreed with the argument by the UK Secretary of State for the Home Office that the past and the present should either be ignored or sidelined in this case. The Israel-Rwanda agreement is illustrative of the danger and suffering that is likely to arise from the UK’s externalisation plan, and the shooting of Congolese refugees in Rwanda in 2018 has also been considered. The Court was not convinced by the UK Secretary of State for the Home Office’s uncritical acceptance of assurances from Rwanda, or that these assurances are enough to wipe away all real risk of violations while the structural institutions that gave rise to past violations remain in Rwanda today.
It is indeed a fact that institutions in Rwanda demonstrate use of violence against citizens and this makes Rwanda not a free country. Anyone who dares to challenge the government’s policies and narratives is persecuted and labelled an enemy of the state intending to destabilise Rwanda. I know this because I, amongst so many others, have experienced it first-hand.
Rwanda is Not a Free Country
In 1999, several years after the end of a civil war that culminated in the genocide against the Tutsis and crimes against humanity in Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—the country’s new rulers—held a national dialogue referred to as ‘Urugwiro Village’ meetings to discuss how Rwanda could solve its issues with democracy, amongst other issues. The outcome of these consultations was an agreement that going forward the East African nation should adopt a ‘consensual democracy’. This ‘consensual democracy’ was deemed the best option to supposedly guide the philosophies of governance in Rwanda based on its population, culture, and history in order to accelerate development and to prevent further ethnic violence in the country. However, the ruling party has over time transformed Rwanda’s consensual democracy into a political system that suppresses political dissent, restricts pluralism, and curbs civil liberty in Rwanda. This situation has led Freedom House to consecutively categorise Rwanda as not a free country.
Rwanda’s score on the Democracy Index has decreased and remained below global and African countries averages between 2006 and 2022. The Index has consecutively[AMH1] categorised the Rwanda regime as authoritarian. Indeed, a closer look reveals that lack of effective electoral process, pluralism and political participation are the main reasons that Rwanda has been assigned a stunted score.
There has been a pattern of restricting political participation in Rwanda, particularly during the periods preceding each Rwandan presidential election, since the RPF took power. The victims have always been members of opposition who do not toe the line of the government’s narrative and who have announced that they would run against the ruling party’s only candidate, President Paul Kagame, in those presidential elections.
Amnesty International reported that during and after the first post-genocide presidential election in Rwanda that took place in August 2003, opposition candidates and supporters faced harassment and intimidation. In fact, former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, who was one of the main presidential candidates against President Paul Kagame, was denied registration of his newly formed party the Alliance for Democracy, Equity and Progress. He was also forced to interrupt his campaign before the presidential election after death threats were made against his aides. The report of the European Parliament Delegation’s observation of the 2003 presidential elections stated that the best-placed opposition figure was eliminated from electoral contest by the invalidation of his candidature before the start of the elections campaign. The report added that this opposition figure was in prison at the time of the report’s publication. Dr Theoneste Niyitegeka, who took care of many people injured in the 1994 genocide, tried to put forward his candidacy but was rejected. Afterwards, he was charged with the crime of genocide and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2008. International and domestic human rights organizations have claimed the charges against Niyitegeka were politically motivated.
Rwanda’s record of human rights abuses were amongst the reasons that the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) recommended that the 21st Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting, held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in November 2009, should not make a decision about Rwanda’s Commonwealth membership application. In the end, however, the decision was taken to include Rwanda as part of the Commonwealth. I had truly hoped that our government would apply Commonwealth values in its governance, but this did not happen. Persecution of opponents who were in the best position to compete with President Paul Kagame increased once again in the run-up to presidential elections in 2010. Accusations of ‘divisionism’ and ‘genocide ideology’ which were based on vaguely-worded legislation continued to be used to stifle legitimate dissent.
Me Bernard Ntaganda was selected by members of the political party he presided over, the Ideal Social Party (PS-Imberakuri), to be their candidate during the 2010 presidential elections in Rwanda. He was arrested on the first day on which presidential candidates could register for the election. In 2011, the High Court in Kigali found Ntaganda guilty of endangering national security, ‘divisionism’—inciting ethnic divisions—and attempting to organize demonstrations without official authorisation.
In 2010, I left my husband and our three children and returned to Rwanda from exile in the Netherlands, with the intention of registering my political party and running in Rwanda’s presidential elections later in the same year. On the day of my return to Rwanda, I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi and gave a speech urging unity and reconciliation. I said that for Rwanda to experience true reconciliation, we need to recognise all crimes committed in Rwanda, including the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi and the crimes against humanity committed against the Hutu. My opinion was based on United Nations Report S/1994/1405. Three months later, I was arrested and dragged into a politically motivated judiciary process that would include years of solitary confinement, relentless smear campaigns, and a long, painful separation from my family. The then-UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Africa declared that I was arrested on trumped up charges. In 2012, the High Court of Rwanda sentenced me to eight years in prison for ‘conspiring against the government by use of war and terrorism’ and ‘genocide denial’. My speech at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre, where I called for effective reconciliation, was considered evidence of ‘genocide denial’. The European Parliament issued a resolution stating that my trial did not meet international standards and was based on fabricated evidence and confessions from co-accused who had been coerced through torture at military detention to make false confessions against me. The EU strongly condemned the politically motivated nature of my trial.
I was never deterred by the biased judgement of the Rwandan court. I appealed the High Court’s decision to the Supreme Court, only for the latter to extend my sentence from eight to 15 years. In 2014, I filed a claim against the Rwandan government to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR). In 2016, just as the AfCHPR was set to decide on my claim, the government of Rwanda withdrew its declaration enabling individuals to file complaints with the court. Nonetheless, having already reviewed my claim, the AfCHPR concluded in 2017 that the Rwandan government had violated my rights to freedom of expression and adequate defence. The court also ordered the government to reimburse me and my family for the material and moral prejudice I suffered during my prosecution and imprisonment. The government has refused to recognise and has not executed that court order to this day. This situation is an example of where the Rwandan government has failed to honour its international commitment. During the annual conference of African Bar Association held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2018, a resolution on Rwanda was passed urging the Rwandan government to respect orders of the AfCHPR in my case, amongst others.
In September 2018, I was released early by presidential pardon after eight years of detention, five of which I spent in solitary confinement. This pardon came with two conditions: I must appear before the primary level prosecutor in my place of residence, must appear at the prosecution office once a month and must seek authorisation from the minister in charge of justice every time I wish to go out of the country. These conditions shall cease to apply at the end of the remaining period of imprisonment, which I was supposed to serve till 2025.
Upon my release, I launched the political party Dalfa Umurinzi with a mission to strive for the rule of law and for sustainable development benefiting every Rwandan. Although the constitution provides me with the right to organise a general assembly, I am not permitted to register my political party or to be approved for operation.
In 2019, I received an international award from the Association for Human Rights of Spain (APDHE). I could not travel to Spain to collect the prize because I had no right to leave Rwanda without permission from the Minister of Justice. Two requests to do so have received no response from the authorities. I have not seen my family in the Netherlands for more than 10 years. Early this year, I wrote to President Paul Kagame requesting that he withdraw the conditions attached on the early pardon he gave me under humanitarian ground because I would like to travel to the Netherlands and be with my husband who is severely ill. I have yet to receive any response from the President.
During the 2023 annual conference of African Bar Association held in South Africa, another resolution was passed reminding the Rwandan government to respect orders of the AfCHPR , including my case.
Another presidential candidate, Ms Diane Rwigara, was only 35 years old when she decided to run in the 2017 presidential elections in Rwanda against President Paul Kagame. She was also persecuted, being accused of inciting insurrection and fraudulently obtaining the necessary requirements for her candidacy. She was arrested and detained with her mother for a year. Ms Rwigara and her mother were acquitted of all charges after the presidential election was completed.
Persecution in Rwanda is not limited to presidential candidates. Many of my supporters have lost their lives, or disappeared after responding to my call to struggle for the establishment of genuine democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law in our homeland. Today, eight of my supporters are still in prison after acquiring a book and attending an online training session about the philosophy of non-violence.
Freedom House has consistently categorised Rwanda as not a free country not only because of the political restrictions, but also the curbing civil liberties. Independent human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have frequently reported that judicial authorities in Rwanda prosecute opposition members, journalists, and commentators on the basis of their speech and opinions. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that Rwandan authorities have threatened, arrested, or prosecuted people reporting or commenting on current affairs via YouTube. The organisation noted that the judiciary system in Rwanda is lacking the independence to stand up and protect free speech in accordance with international law. Through politically motivated prosecutions, Human Rights Watch has alleged that the judicial authorities in Rwanda perpetuate a culture of intolerance to dissent. Indeed, those kept in detention have said that they are regularly tortured.
In June 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that a prominent Rwandan YouTube commentator, Aimable Karasira, accused prison authorities of beating him and other jailed critics. In a statement at a court hearing in Kigali in May 2022, Mr Karasira, held in Nyarugenge prison, also said prison authorities were intercepting and withholding privileged communications from his lawyer.
The shooting of 12 Congolese refugees that took place in Rwanda in February 2018, which is used as evidence that asylum seeker transferred from the UK to Rwanda are at risk of ill-treatment, is the result of that same culture of intolerance perpetuated across some institutions in Rwanda.
The use of violence to prevent citizens from exercising their rights, and particularly those who dare to challenge the Rwandan government and its narratives, is another example demonstrating Rwanda’s failure to honour its international commitments. This is especially true when looking at its international commitment to respect human rights as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and in ratifying the Convention Against Torture in December 2008.
Persistent human rights violations have only reinforced the top-down decision-making approach of the Rwandan regime. Thus, the level of citizen participation remains low and undermines good governance in Rwanda. The Worldwide Governance Indicators database, which independently reports aggregate and individual governance indicators for over 200 countries and territories, has revealed that Rwandan governance largely lacks voice and accountability (the extent to which a country's citizens are able to participate in selecting their government, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media). The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), an independent tool that measures and monitors governance performance in African countries, also came to a similar conclusion. The most recent IIAG shows that Rwanda governance is mainly affected by low levels of participation, rights, and inclusion in the country.
Rwanda’s strategy of placing women in high-level decision-making roles, though commendable, has not spurred participation. This is because, as a 2019 study found, the majority of women in high public responsibility roles are card-carrying members of the ruling party or its coalition partners. This means most women in high official roles owe allegiance to the ruling party, rather than the constituencies that elected them. Hence, they adhere to the ruling party governance methods known for not tolerating criticism and restraining citizen participation.
Failure to efficiently involve citizens in the decision-making has prevented the Rwandan government from achieving its development programme and prevented the economic progress made by Rwanda from being inclusive.
Rwanda’s Economic Growth Hides Flaws
The implementation of a ‘consensual democracy’ as a new political system to direct the governance of Rwanda was not the only outcome of the national consultation held in 1999. The RPF administration also promised to transform Rwanda from a low-income to a middle-income country driven by a knowledge-based economy by 2020. That plan was named the Rwanda Vision 2020 development programme and Rwanda started working towards achieving its targets in 2000. Over the following two decades, the Rwandan government received net official development assistance (ODA) from donor countries and institutions equivalent to 16 billion USD from 2000 to 2018. It has raised roughly 9 billion USD of tax revenue between 2009 and 2019. The government has also borrowed finance from external and domestic markets to the tune of 72.4% of GDP which is equivalent to 7 billion USD as of end 2020. Rwanda has experienced significant growth and has been listed the tenth-fastest growing economy in the world from 2001 to 2010, income per capita increased and so has the human development index of the country.
However, this growth has not been inclusive and is marred by inequalities in income, education, and health. Moreover, food insecurity in Rwanda is a challenge. Only 40% of Rwanda households are substantially food secure. Rwanda’s growth has not translated into any considerable poverty reduction, particularly in rural areas. The government has chosen to invest a large segment of public funds into the meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) industry, developing the touristic areas of the country, and building impressive infrastructure in the capital, Kigali. These efforts have not translated into increased employment across the country and have provided no benefit to rural communities struggling the most. MICE-related developments suffered a lot due to the pandemic, further limiting the gains made. Now as a result of these and other short-sighted economic strategies, Rwanda stands on debt equivalent to a whopping 73% of its GDP.
Despite the praise the Rwandan government has received internationally for advancing the country’s development, Rwanda remains categorised among the poorest and least-developed countries in the world. The government’s promise to transform Rwanda into a middle-income state by 2020 has not been delivered. Rwanda remains a low-income state and is categorised among the poorest and least-developed countries today. The Rwandan government has postponed the target to transforming Rwanda into a middle-income state in 2035. There are no official documents that explains why the government did not achieve the anticipated objectives of Vision 2020, and what needs to be improved so that the government’s future development programmes meet their targets. Instead, the government launched yet another ambitious development programme, called Vision 2050. This one aims to transform Rwanda into an upper middle-income state by 2035 and a high-income state by 2050. Rwandan economic progress has shortcomings, especially in those areas needed to achieve genuine social and economic transformation for the wider population.
In my opinion, there are four main areas that Rwanda’s economy has fallen short on.
First, Rwanda lags behind in human capital development. Between 2018—the year the Human Capital Index (HCI) was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on HCI has been consistently low. The HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. In spite of Rwanda having significantly increased the level of school enrolment in Rwanda, its score on the World Bank Human Capital Index 2020 is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. A child born in Rwanda today will grow up to be 38% as productive as they could have been if they had enjoyed high-quality education and healthcare. The reasons behind such a low score are Rwanda’s poor education standard and high rates of malnutrition. It is important to highlight that since 1998, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) has provided over 1 billion GBP in development assistance to Rwanda to develop areas including its agricultural and educational sectors. A persistently low standard of education is among the main reasons that Rwanda struggles to attract private investment.
Second, the development of a solid social capital that is genuinely reconciled and united and capable to advance the development of their country is yet to be achieved. This is challenged by the legacy of the history that led to the 1994 genocide against Tutsi and other crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda and the country’s governance since. Many people lack confidence that there has been justice for all the atrocities committed. I have always pointed out that genuine reconciliation will remain elusive until Rwanda honours and remembers all the victims, of all the crimes, committed during that dark period in our country’s history. Each time I called on the Rwandan government to ensure all crimes of our past history are recognised, I am referred as engaging in polarising politics. Ironically, the United States and the United Kingdom, Rwanda’s closest and most influential allies, share the view that failing to honour the many Hutus and others killed during the genocide paints an incomplete picture of this dark chapter in my country’s history. Curiously, they are never accused of being ‘polarising’.
The persisting human rights violations reported in Rwanda over the past decades honed by economic injustice such as authorities uprooting farmers crops or engaging in unfair land expropriations have contributed to social capital depletion in Rwanda. This has increased citizens’ distrust of government institutions and officials. Thus, Rwanda has consecutively ranked among the five nations with the least-happiest populations on the World Happiness index. According to findings of the African Youth Survey 2022, the optimism about the direction of Rwanda of Rwandan youth aged between 18 and 24 has significantly declined from 94% in 2019 to 60% in 2022.
Third, the lack of citizen participation in decision making remain low in Rwanda. The power remains with the executive in Rwanda. Human rights organisations have established that Rwanda’s judiciary system is influenced by the executive as in many occasions it has delivered politically motivated judgments. Rwanda has experienced sudden and rapid decline of its performance on index of economic freedom over the past four years due to, among other reasons, the lack of judicial effectiveness. Rwanda moved from being the 2nd freest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa and the 32nd freest in the world in 2019, with a score of 71, to the 30th freest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa and the 137th freest in the world in 2023, with a score of 52.
The Parliament that is supposedly to speak on behalf of the people is made of members from the ruling party and from opposition parties affiliated to it. Thus, citizens in Rwanda lack ability to hold their policymakers accountable and this has been an obstacle to development. While Rwanda scores above the sub-Saharan African average for ‘control of corruption’ and ‘government effectiveness’ in the Worldwide Governance Indicators, it falls well below the average for ‘voice and accountability’. Policies are typically implemented with little input from citizens and often lack sensitivity to the population’s wants and needs.
This top-down approach not only means that people may be not satisfied with government policies, but the stifling of dissenting voices also means those policies are less likely to be effective and well-designed. For decades, there have not been independent opposition political parties in the country capable of providing checks and balances to the government’s decisions and accountability. The lessons in history teach us that Rwanda is highly unlikely to transition to a modern and competitive middle-income country without developing highly capable and genuinely accountable institutions.
Finally, Rwanda’s relationship with its neighbouring states have been deteriorating. This has prevented Rwanda from maximising its potential in the region for the development of its economy. The strained relations arise from the Rwandan government often alleging that its neighbouring states are supporting forces made up of Rwandan refugees that want to topple its leadership by force. Moreover, some of these neighbouring states have accused Rwanda of meddling into their internal affairs. The situation has been creating regional political tensions and have prevented Rwanda from efficiently integrating in the region for the development of its citizens, for example transparently being part of the supply chain of the region’s natural resources.
Taking into consideration the flaws in the economy of Rwanda, how would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself? In fact, Rwandans are fleeing Rwanda to seek refugee abroad due to both political and economic reasons.
Rwanda Produces Refugees
Rwanda itself creates thousands of refugees every year, and its government has yet to guarantee a safe environment for Rwandan refugees settled across the world to return home. According to UNHCR, in 2021 alone, 12838 Rwandans fled the country and applied for asylum elsewhere. This tragic trend did not start recently. Rwanda has been producing refugees in significant numbers since before the country’s independence in 1962. The Rwandan Revolution of 1959, for example, pushed some 300,000 Rwandans into exile in neighbouring Tanzania, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaïre), and Uganda. Just over a decade later, in 1973, a coup d’état caused an additional 40,000 to flee the country.
In 1990, the RPF, the armed group made up of the descendants of those who fled the country in the wake of the 1959 revolution, launched an attack on Rwanda seeking to restore democracy and human rights in the country and facilitate the return of refugees to Rwanda. That war increased the number of refugees living in neighbouring countries to at least 600,000. The RPF eventually defeated the government forces and assumed control of Rwanda. But the civil war culminated in the genocide against the Tutsi and pushed about 1.75 million additional Rwandans to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Approximately 700,000 Rwandan refugees (the majority being those who had fled Rwanda during the 1959 revolution including their children born in exile) returned to Rwanda.
The RPF administration led by Kagame was determined to bring all Rwandan refugees home, using soft or hard power—at any cost. In 1996, as part of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) coalition, the Rwandan army invaded the DRC and fought the Rwandan forces that had sought refuge there after the 1994 genocide. During that conflict, the camps that were hosting Rwandan refugees were directly attacked and the UN reported that thousands of Rwandan refugees and Congolese nationals were killed in the process. Close to 750000 Rwandan refugees returned to Rwanda as a result of this conflict. Some of the survivors still live in the DRC, while others have managed to flee to countries in Southern Africa and outside the African continent. They all carry with them horrific memories of state violence. Moreover, the Rwandan government also sought to bring refugees home by signing voluntary repatriation agreements with the governments of African states hosting Rwandan refugees. The Rwandan government also convinced the UN to end the refugee status of Rwandans who had left the country before November 1998. Despite all these efforts, the number of Rwandan refugees in Africa and beyond remains concerningly high. According to the most recent figures by the UNHCR, there are still more than 250,000 Rwandan refugees across the world.
There are compelling reasons why so many Rwandan refugees do not want to—or do not feel safe enough to—return to their motherland. The devastating memories of the civil war, the genocide against Tutsi and the killing of refugees in the DRC by government forces are still fresh in the minds of many Rwandan refugees and in the absence of a comprehensive reconciliation policy, they have little reason to want to return to Rwanda. Moreover, persistent poverty and deep inequality, coupled with widespread political persecution and oppression, has not only discouraged the return of existing refugees but is pushing more Rwandans to leave the country and seek safety elsewhere.
The failure of the Rwandan government to guarantee a safe environment for Rwandan refugees settled across the world to return home has been a source of instability in the African Great Lakes region. Among the refugees that fled Rwanda to seek refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the RPF army took power in 1994, were the remnants of defeated Rwanda forces and militia responsible for the genocide. Since then, the Rwandan government has maintained that there are negative forces resident in eastern DRC who are set out to destabilise Rwanda, especially the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is an armed group formed by Rwandan refugees in DRC who, following their forcible eviction from Rwanda during the genocide, resorted to armed struggle as a means to retake power in Rwanda. Despite Rwanda’s armed forces and militia having launched military operations in collaboration with the Congolese army against the FDLR on numerous occasions, the Rwandan government still insists that the FDLR is a threat to Rwanda’s security.
In addition, there are other Rwandan refugees who have been grouped into political parties that oppose the ruling party and agitate for a voluntary and safe return to their motherland so they can exercise political rights without any restrictions. These political parties have members in many parts of the world, including Europe, America, and Africa. The Rwandan government claims these political groups are linked to armed dissident groups in the eastern DRC, or that the groups’ members are genocidaire. There have been political tensions between Rwanda with its neighbouring countries over allegations that these states are supporting Rwanda refugee opposition figures who want to overthrow the Rwandan leadership.
In 2016, the UN Security Council accused Rwanda of recruiting and training Burundian refugees with the goal of ousting Burundi’s then-President. Moreover, in 2012 and again in 2022, the United Nations went to the extent of alleging Rwanda’s support for M23, an armed group that is fighting in the eastern DRC. This conflict caused by the M23 has displaced and led to the death of millions of African civilians. Development partners of Rwanda, including the UK, have had to suspend and withhold their aid to Rwanda over the allegations that Rwanda supported the M23 in 2012. Recently the United States has publicly called on the Rwandan government to cease supporting M23 and to remove its troops from the eastern DRC. The European Union and United States have also sanctioned Rwandan military officials for backing the M23. Moreover, The United States has placed Rwanda on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List and suspended its military aid with the country due to Rwanda’s support of M23, an armed group that the United States says recruits and uses child soldiers.
Inter-Rwandan Dialogue: A Solution for Rwanda
On 1 July 2021, the 58th anniversary of Rwanda independence, Maître Bernard Ntaganda and I announced that we had submitted to the Rwandan government a Road Map for a promising future of Rwanda. The proposal was made to address the Rwandan refugee problem as well as the roots cause leading to Rwanda repeatedly being categorised as ‘not a free country’ under an authoritarian regime, where political spaces are restricted and human rights are violated. This regime has been alleged by the UN and its development partners to support armed group that have been creating instability in the east of DRC. The promise of a ‘consensual democracy’, reconciliation, and transformation of Rwanda into a middle-income state made by the RPF during the national dialogue in 1999 has not been delivered. Our suggestions argued that domestic governance reform is the single most vital aspect of setting Rwanda on the course it desires. Hence, we proposed that Rwanda hold another inter-Rwandan dialogue between the government, political opposition parties, and civil society organisations internally and externally. The purpose is for these stakeholders to agree on governance reforms that need to be adopted to ensure the political inclusion, respect for human rights and the rule of law, and guaranteeing an environment for a safe and voluntary return of all Rwandan refugees in a dignified manner to their motherland.
Why dialogue? The history of Rwanda since its independence has been characterised by successive regimes that have stayed in power by any means possible. The repercussions of this have been massacres and human rights violations, culminating in the 1994 genocide and crimes against humanity. To prevent history from repeating itself, an intra Rwandan dialogue for governance reform is a necessity today. This opening of discussion and inclusivity would help create an environment that could facilitate stability and the sustainable economic development in Rwanda and Great Lakes region that would be in everyone’s shared interests. Our proposal has strong alignment with Rwandan law. Seeking solutions to country’s problem through dialogue is enshrined in the constitution of Rwanda. Moreover, it is in line with the United Nations’ strategy for peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and resolution in the Great Lakes region, adopted in December 2020. This strategy promotes the use of dialogue across region to reach its objectives.
The outcomes of the proposed dialogue will not only shift Rwanda towards embracing Commonwealth values, but will also contribute to consolidating peace in the African Great Lakes region. This will also enable Rwanda to be at peace with neighbouring states, efficiently integrate in the region and be part of the transparent supply chain of the region’s natural resources for the development of its citizens.
Thus, instead of the UK government partnering with the Rwandan government on an asylum transfer scheme, it should support Rwanda towards resetting its governance so that it embraces Commonwealth value, enabling it finally become a free and democratic country. The UK should utilise its voice and global influence to advocate and endorse resolutions that call Rwanda’s leadership to reform its governance through the aforementioned dialogue. By doing so, the UK would have contributed towards creating secure social, economic, and political environment in Rwanda which can pave the way for fruitful long-term partnership between the two countries.
Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza
Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza is a Rwandan political figure who champions the establishment of genuine democracy, respect for human rights, and rule of law in Rwanda. In 2010, Victoire returned to Rwanda from exile in The Netherlands to run for presidential candidate but was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Rwandan Supreme court in a politically motivated judicial proceeding. Her appeal to The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights cleared her and held that Rwanda violated her rights to freedom of expression as well as to adequate defence. Victoire was released in 2018 by presidential grace after eight years of imprisonment, five of which she spent in isolated confinement. She has founded and is chairing the Development and Liberty for All (DALFA-Umurinzi) political party. Her party is yet to be registered in Rwanda. It strives for the rule of law and sustainable development that benefits every Rwandan. Since her release she has been advocating for governance reform in Rwanda through holding inclusive dialogue
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