For analysts and advocates trying to assess risks of future mass atrocities in hopes of preventing them, Rwanda presents an unusual puzzle. Most of the time, specialists in this field readily agree on which countries are especially susceptible to genocide or mass killing, either because those countries are either already experiencing large-scale civil conflict or because they are widely considered susceptible to it. Meanwhile, countries that sustain long episodes of peace and steadily grow their economies are generally presumed to have reduced their risk and eventually to have escaped this trap for good.

Contemporary Rwanda is puzzling because it provokes a polarized reaction. Many observers laud Rwanda as one of Africa’s greatest developmental successes, but others warn that it remains dangerously prone to mass atrocities. In a recent essay for African Arguments on how the Rwandan genocide changed the world, Omar McDoom nicely encapsulates this unusual duality:

What has changed inside Rwanda itself since the genocide? The country has enjoyed a remarkable period of social stability. There has not been a serious incident of ethnic violence in Rwanda for nearly two decades. Donors have praised the country’s astonishing development.  Economic growth has averaged over 6% per year, poverty and inequality have declined, child and maternal mortality have improved, and primary education is now universal and free. Rwanda has shown, in defiance of expectations, that an African state can deliver security, public services, and rising prosperity.

Yet, politically, there is some troubling continuity with pre-genocide Rwanda. Power remains concentrated in the hands of a small, powerful ethnic elite led by a charismatic individual with authoritarian tendencies. In form, current president Paul Kagame and his ruling party, the RPF, the heroes who ended the genocide, appear to exercise power in a manner similar to former president Juvenal Habyarimana and his ruling MRND party, the actors closely-tied to those who planned the slaughter. The genocide is testament to what unconstrained power over Rwanda’s unusually efficient state machinery can enable.

That duality also emerges from a comparison of two recent quantitative rankings. On the one hand, The World Bank now ranks Rwanda 32nd on the latest edition of its “ease of doing business” index—not 32nd in Africa, but 32nd of 189 countries worldwide. On the other hand, statistical assessments of the risk of an onset of state-led mass killing identify Rwanda as one of the 25 countries worldwide currently most vulnerable to this kind of catastrophe.

How can both of these things be true? To answer that question, we need to have a clearer sense of where that statistical risk assessment comes from. The number that ranks Rwanda among the 25 countries most susceptible to state-led mass killing is actually an average of forecasts from three models representing a few different ideas about the origins of mass atrocities, all applied to publicly available data from widely used sources.

  • Drawing on work by Barbara Harff and the Political Instability Task Force, the first model emphasizes features of countries’ national politics that hint at a predilection to commit genocide or “politicide,” especially in the context of political instability. Key risk factors in Harff’s model include authoritarian rule, the political salience of elite ethnicity, evidence of an exclusionary elite ideology, and international isolation as measured by trade openness.
  • The second model takes a more instrumental view of mass killing. It uses statistical forecasts of future coup attempts and new civil wars as proxy measures of things that could either spur incumbent rulers to lash out against threats to their power or usher in an insecure new regime that might do the same.
  • The third model is really not a model but a machine-learning process called Random Forests applied to the risk factors identified by the other two. The resulting algorithm is an amalgamation of theory and induction that takes experts’ beliefs about the origins of mass killing as its jumping-off point but also leaves more room for inductive discovery of contingent effects.

All of these models are estimated from historical data that compares cases where state-led mass killings occurred to ones where they didn’t. In essence, we look to the past to identify patterns that will help us spot cases at high risk of mass killing now and in the future. To get our single-best risk assessment—the number that puts Rwanda in the top (or bottom) 25 worldwide—we simply average the forecasts from these three models. We prefer the average to a single model’s output because we know from work in many fields—including meteorology and elections forecasting—that this “ensemble” approach generally produces more accurate assessments than we could expect to get from any one model alone. By combining forecasts, we learn from all three perspectives and hedge against the biases of any one of them.

Rwanda lands in the top 25 worldwide because all three models identify it as a relatively high-risk case. It ranks 15th on the PITF/Harff model, 28th on the “elite threat” model, and 30th on the Random Forest. The PITF/Harff model sees a relatively low risk in Rwanda of the kinds of political instability that typically trigger onsets of genocide or politicide, but it also pegs Rwanda as the kind of regime most likely to resort to mass atrocities if instability were to occur—namely, an autocracy in which elites’ ethnicity is politically salient in a country with a recent history of genocide. Rwanda also scores fairly high on the “elite threat” model because, according to our models of these things, it is at relatively high risk of a new insurgency and moderate risk of a coup attempt. Finally, the Random Forest sees a very low probability of mass killing onset in Rwanda but still pegs it as a riskier case than most.

Our identification of Rwanda as a relatively high-risk case is echoed by some, but not all, of the other occasional global assessments of countries’ susceptibility to mass atrocities. In her own applications of her genocide/politicide model for the task of early warning, Barbara Harff pegged Rwanda as one of the world’s riskiest cases in 2011 but not in 2013. Similarly, the last update of Genocide Watch’s Countries at Risk Report, in 2012, lists Rwanda as one of more than a dozen countries at stage five of seven on the path to genocide, putting it among the 35 countries worldwide at greatest risk. By contrast, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect has not identified Rwanda as a situation of concern in any of its R2P Monitor reports to date, and the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention does not list Rwanda among its situations of concern, either. Meanwhile,recent reporting on Rwanda from Human Rights Watch has focused mostly on the pursuit of justice for the 1994 genocide and other kinds of human-rights violations in contemporary Rwanda.

To see what our own pool of experts makes of our statistical risk assessment and to track changes in their views over time, we plan to add a question to our “wisdom of (expert) crowds” forecasting system asking about the prospect of a new state-led mass killing in Rwanda before 2015. If one does not happen, as we hope and expect will be the case, we plan to re-launch the question at the start of next year and will continue to do so as long as our statistical models keep identifying it as a case of concern.

In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to ask a few country experts what they make of this assessment and how a return to mass killing in Rwanda might come about. Some were reluctant to speak on the record, and understandably so. The present government of Rwanda has a history of intimidating individuals it perceives as its critics. As Michaela Wrong describes in a recent piece for Foreign Policy,

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said in mid-January, “We are troubled by the succession of what appear to be politically motivated murders of prominent Rwandan exiles. President Kagame’s recent statements about, quote, ‘consequences’ for those who betray Rwanda are of deep concern to us.”

It is a pattern that suggests the Rwandan government may have come to see the violent silencing of critics—irrespective of geographical location and host country—as a beleaguered country’s prerogative.

Despite these constraints, the impression I get from talking to some experts and reading the work of others is that our risk assessment strikes nearly all of them as plausible. None said that he or she expects an episode of state-led mass killing to begin soon in Rwanda. Consistent with the thinking behind our statistical models, though, many seem to believe that another mass killing could occur in Rwanda, and if one did, it would almost certainly come in reaction to some other rupture in that country’s political stability.

Filip Reyntjens, a professor at the University of Antwerpen who wrote a book on Rwandan politics since the 1994 genocide, was both the most forthright and the most pessimistic in his assessment. Via email, he described Rwanda as

A volcano waiting to erupt. Nearly all field research during the last 15 years points at pervasive structural violence that may, as we know, become physical, acute violence following a trigger. I don’t know what that trigger will be, but I think a palace revolution or a coup d’etat is the most likely scenario. That may create a situation difficult to control.

In a recent essay for Juncture that was adapted for the Huffington Post (here), Phil Clark sounds more optimistic than Reyntjens, but he is not entirely sanguine, either. Clark sees the structure and culture of the country’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), as the seminal feature of Rwandan politics since the genocide and describes it as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the RPF’s cohesiveness and dedication to purpose has enabled it, with help from an international community with a guilty conscience, to make “enormous” developmental gains. On the other hand,

The RPF’s desire for internal cohesion has made it suspicious of critical voices within and outside of the party—a feature compounded by Rwanda’s fraught experience of multi-party democracy in the early 1990s, which saw the rise of ethnically driven extremist parties and helped to create an environment conducive to genocide. The RPF’s singular focus on rebuilding the nation and facilitating the return of refugees means it has often viewed dissent as an unaffordable distraction. The disastrous dalliance with multipartyism before the genocide has only added to the deep suspicion of policy based on the open contestation of ideas.

Looking ahead, Clark wonders what happens when that intolerance for dissent bumps up against popular frustrations, as it probably will at some point:

For the moment, there are few signs of large-scale popular discontent with the closed political space. However, any substantial decline in socio-economic conditions in the countryside will challenge this. The RPF’s gamble appears to be that the population will tolerate a lack of national political contestation provided domestic stability and basic living standards are maintained. For now, the RPF seems to have rightly judged the popular mood but that situation may not hold.

Journalist Kris Berwouts portrays similarly ambiguous terrain in a recent piece for the Dutch magazine Mo that also appeared on the blog African Arguments (here). Berwouts quotes David Himbara, a former Rwandan regime insider who left the country in 2010 and has vocally criticized the Kagame government ever since, as telling him that “all society has vanished from Rwanda, mistrust is complete. It has turned Rwanda into a time bomb.” But Berwouts juxtaposes that dire assessment with the cautiously optimistic view of Belgian journalist Marc Hoogsteyns, who has worked in the region for years and has family ties by marriage to its Tutsi community. According to Hoogsteyns,

Rwanda is a beautiful country with many strengths and opportunities, but at the same time it is some kind of African version of Brave New World. People are afraid to talk. But they live more comfortably and safely than ever before, they enjoy high quality education and health care. They are very happy with that. The Tutsi community stands almost entirely behind Kagame and also most Hutu can live with it. They obviously don’t like the fact that they do not count on the political scene, but they can do what they want in all other spheres of live. They can study and do business etcetera. They can deal with the level of repression, because they know that countries such as Burundi, Congo or Kenya are not the slightest bit more democratic. Honestly, if we would have known twenty years ago, just after the genocide, that Rwanda would achieve this in two decades, we would have signed for it immediately.

As people of a certain age in places like Sarajevo or Bamako might testify, though, stability is a funny thing. It’s there until it isn’t, and when it goes, it sometimes goes quickly. In this sense, the political crises that sometimes produce mass killings are more like earthquakes than elections. We can spot the vulnerable structures fairly accurately, but we’re still not very good at anticipating the timing and dynamics of ruptures in them.

In the spirit of that last point, it’s important to acknowledge that the statistical assessment of Rwanda’s risk to mass killing is a blunt piece of information. Although it does specifically indicate a susceptibility to atrocities perpetrated by state security forces or groups acting at their behest, it does not necessarily implicate the RPF as the likely perpetrators. The qualitative assessments discussed above suggest that some experts find that scenario plausible, but it isn’t the only one consistent with our statistical finding. A new regime brought to power by coup or revolution could also become the agent of a new wave of mass atrocities in Rwanda, and the statistical forecast would be just as accurate.

Egypt’s recent past offers a case in point. Our statistical assessments of susceptibility to state-led mass killing in early 2013 identified Egypt as a relatively high-risk case, like Rwanda now. At the time, Mohammed Morsi was president, and one plausible interpretation of that risk assessment might have centered on the threat the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters posed to Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Fast forward to July 2013, and the mass killing we ended up seeing in Egypt came at the hands of an army and police who snatched power away from Morsi and the Brotherhood and then proceeded to kill hundreds of their unarmed sympathizers. That outcome doesn’t imply that Coptic Christians weren’t at grave risk before the coup, but it should remind us to consider a variety of ways these systemic risks might become manifest.

Still, after conversations with a convenience sample of regional experts, I am left with the impression that the risk our statistical models identify of a new state-led mass killing in Rwanda is real, and that it is possible to imagine the ruling RPF as the agents of such violence.

No one seems to expect the regime to engage in mass violence without provocation, but the possibility of a new Hutu insurgency, and the state’s likely reaction to it, emerged from those conversations as perhaps the most likely scenario. According to some of the experts with whom I spoke, many Rwandan Hutus are growing increasingly frustrated with the RPF regime, and some radical elements of the Hutu diaspora appear to be looking for ways to take up that mantle. The presence of an insurgency is the single most-powerful predictor of state-led mass killing, and it does not seem far fetched to imagine the RPF regime using “scorched earth” tactics in response to the threat or occurrence of attacks on its soldiers and Tutsi citizens. After all, this is the same regime whose soldiers pursued Hutu refugees into Zaire in the mid-1990s and, according to a 2010 U.N. report,participated in the killings of tens of thousands of civilians in war crimes that were arguably genocidal.

Last but not least, we can observe that Rwanda has suffered episodes of mass killing roughly once per generation since independence—in the early 1960s, in 1974, and again in the early 1990s, culminating in the genocide of 1994 and the reprisal killings that followed. History certainly isn’t destiny, but our statistical models confirm that in the case of mass atrocities, it often rhymes.

It saddens me to write this piece about a country that just marked the twentieth anniversary of one of the most lethal genocides since the Holocaust, but the point of our statistical modeling is to see what the data say that our mental models and emotional assessments might overlook. A reprisal of mass killing in Rwanda would be horribly tragic. As Free Africa Foundation president George Ayittey wrote in a recent letter of the Wall Street Journal, however, “The real tragedy of Rwanda is that Mr. Kagame is so consumed by the 1994 genocide that, in his attempt to prevent another one, he is creating the very conditions that led to it.”

Jay Ulfelder,

Political scientist