Scott Straus, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison [1]

This past November, former Ivoirian Prime Minister Guillaume Soro traveled across the continent to visit another post-conflict country: Rwanda [2]. The Ivoirian, at least judging from Rwandan press accounts, was full of praise for his East African colleagues. Like others before him, Soro likened the histories of violence in the two countries. He then proceeded to call Rwanda’s model of recovery “inspiring.” The Ivoirian Prime Minister promised to “replicate” the Rwandan model in Côte d’Ivoire so as to “build unity and forgive one another in the interest of the country, to ensure that all Ivoirians, whether in the North, South East and West, we feel as Ivorian people moving in the same direction [sic]” [3].

Perhaps Soro was being polite to his Rwandan hosts. But he is far from alone in championing Rwanda as an exemplar for other post-conflict countries. Given its robust economic growth and political stability since the devastation in the 1990s, Rwanda regularly earns praise as a “beacon” or “model” not only for other post-conflict states but also for Africa in general. The praise comes from a variety of sources—the World Bank, the Clinton Foundation, Tony Blair, Fareed Zakaria, and evangelist Rick Warren who recently declared, "Rwanda is now a model for Africa and in the next 10 years, it will be a model for the rest of the world” [4].

For Côte d’Ivoire, the stakes of the comparison could not be more critical. Beyond internal security, a major challenge for Côte d’Ivoire is how to rebuild the country’s torn social fabric, how to create a climate of political fairness, how to grow inclusive institutions, and how to restore legitimacy to the state. Success in these domains will likely depend on how the state manages political opposition, public criticism, and the justice and reconciliation process.

To date, Côte d’Ivoire’s record is not inspiring. Among a significant share of the Ivoirian population domestically and abroad President Ouattara’s presidency continues to enjoy scant legitimacy. The domestic and international justice processes have so far targeted only those associated with former President Gbagbo’s regime. Opposition political rallies have been violently attacked, and the press has been subject to state interference. These are worrisome signs that bode poorly for long-term social repair and addressing the country’s democratic deficit.

With these concerns in mind, Rwanda is hardly a positive role model [5]. Yes, according to official statistics, Rwanda’s economy has grown steadily in the past decade. Yes, the country has significantly reduced poverty and made real progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Yes, the country that the current government inherited in 1994 was in shambles, but today it is stable, predictable, and safe. However, in assessing Rwanda, one must look beyond these indicators.

Politically, the climate in Rwanda is authoritarian. The government exercises strong control over public space; permits no real political opposition to take root; and harasses, intimidates and even physically silences critics. Independent civil society, including the media, has been all but snuffed out or coopted. Both the domestic and international justice processes have focused uniquely on the crimes of the former genocidal regime; as a result, justice is widely perceived as one-sided and politicized. Moreover, Rwandan officials not infrequently manipulate the memory of the genocide for political gain. This is to say nothing of the recent suffering in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to which Rwanda directly contributed through various military incursions.

Côte d’Ivoire’s politics are not those of Rwanda. The level of repression and social control in the former is not the same as in the latter. But like Rwanda, the post-conflict policies in Côte d’Ivoire seem to favor economic development over political development.

No one should underestimate the difficulty and complexity of rebuilding societies and states after wars and mass violations of human rights. Like Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire faces enormous challenges not only in physical and economic reconstruction, but also in social and political (re)construction.

The coming years will be critical for what kind of political and social environment is nurtured in Côte d’Ivoire. Will it be a country where former FPI supporters feel persecuted? Will it be a place where dialogue and debate flourish? Will it be a place where democratic institutions take root? Will it be a place where the justice and reconciliation processes are even-handed? Will it be a place where a sense of inclusive national belonging can be cultivated? For that, Ivoirians and their leaders would do well to study Rwanda, but as a country that represents a path not taken.


[1] The author would like to thank Tom Bassett for helpful suggestions.

[2] Kagire, Edmund. 2011. Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire to Strengthen Ties. The New Times, November 11 (accessed June 26, 2012).

[3] Rwanda Gateway. n.d. We Will Replicate Rwanda’s Model – Ivorian PM. Rwanda Gateway (accessed March 23, 2012).

[4] Zaimov, Stoyan. 2012. Rick Warren Guiding Rwanda’s New Leaders, Calls Nation His ‘Other Home’. The Christian Post, March 21 (accessed March 23, 2012).

[5] Straus, Scott and Lars Waldorf, eds. 2011. Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.