Village informers. Re-education camps. Networks of spies on the streets. Routine surveillance of the entire population. The crushing of the independent media and all political opposition. A ruler who changes the constitution to extend his power after ruling for two decades.
It sounds like North Korea, or the totalitarian days of China under Mao. But this is the African nation of Rwanda – a long-time favourite of Western governments and a major beneficiary of millions of dollars in Canadian government support.
The chilling details are from two recent books by researchers who spent years in the country. While the authoritarian nature of the Rwandan regime is already well-known, and The Globe and Mail has already reported evidence of Rwanda's role in attempting to assassinate exiled dissidents, the recent books give a disturbing portrait of a much broader system that puts the entire civilian population under the regime's tight control, through surveillance by spies and neighbourhood informers.
Until now, Rwanda has enjoyed a huge amount of support from foreign governments – mostly because of its ability to dazzle outsiders with its economic reforms, its anti-corruption drives and its clean and tidy streets, and because of the lingering Western feeling of guilt over the 1994 genocide.
Canada has given more than $500-million in aid to Rwanda since the genocide, including about $30-million in 2013 alone. In total, Rwanda gets nearly $1-billion in annual aid from the West, accounting for almost 40 per cent of its government budget.
But this support might finally be starting to change. The United States, while still an ally of Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame, has been increasingly critical of his human-rights abuses and his efforts to manipulate the constitution to stay in power. Under the latest constitutional changes, Mr. Kagame will be able to stay in power until 2034 – giving him a stunning 40 years in control of Rwanda.
A few days ago, the U.S. State Department said it was "deeply disappointed" by Mr. Kagame's announcement that he will seek another presidential term.
"The United States believes constitutional transitions of power are essential for strong democracies and that efforts by incumbents to change rules to stay in power weaken democratic institutions," it said. "We are particularly concerned by changes that favour one individual over the principle of democratic transitions."
With the United States shifting away from its blanket support for Mr. Kagame, and with the growing evidence that the Kagame regime is heavily involved in human-rights violations that include killings and the imprisonment of dissidents, it will be interesting to see if the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reconsiders Canada's support for Rwanda.
Already, in recent years, Canada has been moving away from general financial aid for the Rwandan government. Instead, it has preferred to support civil-society groups and independent agencies, especially in areas such as agriculture and rural development.
On its official website for its Rwandan programs, the Canadian government says: "Canada regularly stresses to Rwanda the importance of a pluralist society, respecting commitments on human rights, and seeking concrete solutions to challenges in the region related to peace and security."
But it's not enough to issue gentle reminders to a regime that brutally controls the daily lives of its people; consider the revelations of a newly published book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship. The book was written by Anjan Sundaram, who worked as a media trainer in Rwanda, trying to encourage and protect the dwindling band of independent journalists in the country. His book is a glimpse inside an Orwellian society of deep social control.
One by one, the Rwandan journalists in his training program were imprisoned, forced to flee the country, converted into pro-Kagame propagandists or even harassed into madness. The author attended rallies in which Mr. Kagame's obedient subjects sang his praises. He met a mother who denounced her own sons as rebels, allowing one of them to be executed and the other to be "re-educated." He even witnessed a Rwandan family gathering around a photo of Mr. Kagame and praying to him, seeing him as their sole protector.
"The state was highly ordered and controlled," Mr. Sundaram observed. "Every piece of the country was organized into administrative units benignly called 'villages.' Each village … contained about 100 families. Even the capital was but an agglomeration of such villages. Each village had its head, its security officer, and its 'journalist' or informer, all of whom had to approve of one's behaviour if one wanted something from the government – a passport, for example."
Thousands of rural people were ordered into new "villages" to deepen this control, he wrote. "Directives from the government now could be followed down to the individual. And there was no privacy. Officials and security agents in the villages kept track of visitors and those travelling. Permission was required if someone was to sleep overnight."
Another recent book, by Canadian scholar Susan Thomson and published in 2013, studies the tiny ways in which ordinary Rwandans try to resist the regime's social controls. The book, Whispering Truth to Power, describes a frightening mixture of control tactics by Mr. Kagame's ruling party, including "dense networks of spies" and "near-constant surveillance by local authorities and neighbours alike."
One of the most chilling examples of these control techniques is the system of military-style re-education camps and "solidarity camps." Many Rwandans are obliged or "encouraged" to attend formal lectures in these camps, in barrack-style quarters, for an average of 12 weeks each. At lectures, they are drilled on the regime's version of Rwandan history and government programs. "There is a significant military presence, with armed soldiers monitoring the activities of participants," Ms. Thomson writes.
Ms. Thomson, a professor at Colgate University in New York State, was able to research these camps from the inside – because she herself was ordered to attend a re-education camp. She had been conducting ethnographic research on how ordinary peasant Rwandans were affected by the government's national-unity policies, until the government ordered her to stop her research in 2006. It said the peasants had "filled her head with negative ideas," and she was "too kind to prisoners accused of acts of genocide."
So she was required to attend a Rwandan re-education camp. The government took away her passport until it was satisfied that she had been "re-educated."
In a separate academic article on her 2006 experience, Ms. Thomson described how she and other participants were marched to their lessons in single file and then subjected to hours of non-stop lectures. "No questions were allowed; anyone who stretched his legs or began to nod off was jostled back to attention by one of the six armed military escorts who stood guard around the pitch," she recalled.
One participant, a former physician named Antoine, quietly asked her to "alert the world" about the plight of Hutus under the Tutsi-dominated government. "When one of the ever-present armed soldiers who monitored our lesson witnessed this, he strode up to where we were sitting and slammed Antoine's bare feet with the butt of his rifle," she wrote.
Then the soldier went after the Canadian scholar. "He grabbed me, pulled me close to him and then threw me on the ground, pointing to where I was to sit silently for the rest of the lesson."