‘STICKY WORDS’ AND TWISTED TONGUES: Rhetoric, Symbols, and Regime Resilience in Post-Genocide Rwanda

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Laws, Meghan
Rwanda , Great Lakes of Africa , Post-conflict state-building , Authoritarianism , Ethnic control , Political rhetoric , Discursive legitimation , Social Control
This dissertation examines the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front’s construction and deployment of political rhetoric and symbols as key facets of authoritarian resilience and ethnic ‘control’ in post-genocide Rwanda. It identifies four overlapping and mutually reinforcing rhetorical ‘pillars’ that comprise Rwanda’s ‘public relations machine.’ These include: historical closure, and the promotion of a singular ‘Truth’; neo-traditionalism, and the ‘revival’ of pre-colonial values and practices to shape notions of model citizenship; national unity and reconciliation, and the ‘restoration’ of a unifying Rwandan identity; and economic development in line with the ‘Singaporean miracle’. Relatedly, the dissertation scrutinizes how the PR machine weaves together these pillars to craft a narrative of Rwanda’s recovery that reproduces power at home, and generates support for regime persistence abroad, despite the government of Rwanda’s questionable human rights record, authoritarian tendencies, and entrenched (albeit veiled) structures of ethnic domination. In addition to ‘building’ the PR machine, the dissertation also examines whether its content and deployment has shifted during the RPF’s nearly 25-years in power. It finds a striking continuity in the RPF’s rhetorical universe during ‘normal’ and emergency periods, the main difference being the regime’s ‘securitization’ of its rhetorical repertoire during ‘episodes of contestation’, while defining itself as the true guardian of public order. From a theoretical perspective, the dissertation contributes to a burgeoning comparative literature on authoritarian durability by presenting Rwanda as an example of resilient ‘hegemonic authoritarianism’ and ethnic ‘control’, and by treating rhetorical displays of power as central to political processes rather than epiphenomenal. In this way, the dissertation also distinguishes itself from Ian Lustick’s classical account of ‘control’, which ignores the central role of legitimation discourse as a key endurance tool. Finally, by exploring (dis)continuities in regime rhetoric over time, the dissertation contributes to a small body of literature on rhetorical path dependency, which focuses on established democracies. My initial analysis of Rwanda suggests that autocrats, like democratic leaders, may suffer high costs when they deviate from an established rhetorical path, meaning that words, like institutions, are often ‘sticky.’ This renders wholesale transformations in publically-deployed ideology unlikely, especially when a regime experiences positive gains.
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