Rwanda- Twenty Years after Genocide

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 16 2016

Colman's Column3

Twenty years have passed since the genocide in Rwanda. The true numbers of dead will never be known – some estimates go as high as five million but the figure generally used is 800,000. In 1994, during 100 days, vast numbers of Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were killed in well-planned attacks ordered by the interim government that took power when President Habyarimana was assassinated on 6 April.

Divide and Rule
One cannot help but note that in the colonial project it was not uncommon for the imperial power to take advantage of, or even create, ethnic conflicts in pursuit of a divide and rule strategy. Britain did this with Jews and Arabs in Iraq, Tamils and Sinhalese in Ceylon, and in Kenya, Kikuyu and Luo.

Both the Germans and the Belgians promoted Tutsi supremacy in Rwanda, considering the Hutu and Tutsi different races. In 1933, the Belgians made the fateful decision to issue identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them.

One can view the subsequent ethnic cleansing and genocide as horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s. As the decolonization of Africa was approaching, the Belgians changed their Rwanda policy. They had favoured the Tutsi but they reversed themselves and made the Hutu masters of Rwanda just before granting the country independence in 1962. Hutu activists began killing Tutsi, forcing more than 100,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, including Uganda. In 1962, the now pro-Hutu Belgians held a referendum and elections in which the country voted to abolish the monarchy. Cycles of violence followed, with exiled Tutsi attacking from neighbouring countries and the Hutu retaliating with large-scale slaughter and repression of the Tutsi.

After independence, government-sponsored Hutu gangs carried out periodic massacres of Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled the country. Those who remained became second-class citizens and were denied full rights to education, employment, and travel. Whenever extremist or corrupt Hutu politicians needed a scapegoat, or wished to divert attention away from their own misdeeds, they attacked the Tutsi minority.
In 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana seized power in a military coup. Pro-Hutu discrimination continued, but there was greater economic prosperity and violence against Tutsi diminished.

Aftermath of Genocide
When Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front took over the country, the new government had the daunting logistical problem of dealing with the vast number of people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government carried out more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand arrests by 1997. By 2001, Rwanda’s prisons and communal jails were bursting at the seams with 120,000 alleged genocidaires. Rwanda’s courts were shut down for more than two years after the genocide. Amnesty International estimated that after the genocide there were only ten lawyers left in the country. The government calculated that it would take another 110 years to prosecute all the prisoners.

Philip Gourevitch wrote: “Nobody ever talked seriously about conducting tens of thousands of murder trials in Rwanda. Western legal experts liked to say that even the lawyer-crowded United States could not have handled Rwanda’s caseload fairly and expeditiously”.

Gacaca court system
To speed things up, Rwanda implemented the Gacaca court system, often translated as “justice on the grass”. This is a method of transitional justice designed to promote healing and a new start, with justice to some extent being placed in the hands of the victims.

International justice
Gacaca was Rwanda’s own approach to the aftermath of genocide. There was also international intervention. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set up in November 1994 by the UN Security Council in order to judge people responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international law in Rwanda or by Rwandan citizens in nearby states, between 1 January and 31 December 1994. The new Rwandan government came to view the tribunal as an assault on both its legitimacy and sovereignty.

There has been much animosity within Rwanda against the ICTR for its slowness, incompetence and alleged rampant corruption. The UN has a bad name in Rwanda because of its failure to intervene during the genocide.

What is Rwanda Like Today?
Rwanda is a small country with 8.8 million people packed into a land area about the size of Maryland. The population is young and predominantly rural, with a density among the highest in Africa. The climate is moderate, there are few jungles, and slave traders never penetrated into Rwandan territory. Rwanda is landlocked, and for much of its history it was isolated from the world; the first European did not arrive until 1892. It has neither great mineral wealth nor space for large-scale agriculture.

Many observers consider the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, to be the safest city in Africa today, and Rwanda one of the safest countries in the world. An international school opened for the children of foreign investors and entrepreneurs flocking to the country. Rwanda has low corruption compared with neighbouring countries. Many outsiders believe that no other poor country is embarked on such a promising campaign to improve itself, and are thrilled with what President Kagame is doing.

During the 2000s,  Rwanda’s economy, tourist numbers and Human Development Index improved rapidly. Between 2006 and 2011, the poverty rate reduced from 57% to 45%, and child mortality rates dropped from 180 per 1000 live births in 2000 to 111 per 1000 in 2009.

Human Rights
Not everyone sees Paul Kagame as a knight in shining armour. Not everyone buys the story of genocide. Barrie Collins, author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, argues that Kagame rose to power because NGOs and the UN convinced the world that what was, in reality, a brutal civil conflict in the early 1990s, was a genocidal act on the part of the Rwandan Hutus, led by then president Juvénal Habyarimana, against Rwandan Tutsis. US Ambassador at Large for War Crime Issues, Stephen Rapp, declared that Rwanda’s leaders could be tried by the International Criminal Court for aiding and abetting war crimes in neighbouring countries such as  the Congo and Central African Republic. Journalists criticising the government can be prosecuted for defamation. Political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics.

Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression but underestimating the importance of stability and economic progress. Kagame’s defenders argue that too much democracy too soon will split Rwanda apart again. Texan agronomist Tim Schilling said: “It’s necessary to have a little repression here to keep the lid on” while Kagame’s economic development programme takes hold. Many have argued that poverty fed the violence. Kagame is addressing the problem of poverty.

Whatever the concerns about human rights, there is no denying that Rwanda has transformed from a country devastated by genocide, to a peaceful nation striving for peace and prosperity. An important part of Rwanda’s ongoing recovery process has been the promotion of cultural industries that have clear social benefits. Rwanda’s government worked closely with international partners to establish a platform for promoting the creative industries. Rwanda is focusing on restoring relationships between people through mandatory community service, called umuganda, which means, “coming together in common purpose”. Umuganda contributes greatly to the process of developing a conciliatory accommodation between former antagonists. NAR (Never Again Rwanda) focuses on the role of young people in learning and reflecting on the genocide.

Kubwimana Venuste, Secretary General of the International Foundation for Transformation, wrote, “One needs to remember that there is something in the past to be forgiven. It is probably not possible to attain complete justice or reconciliation, but Rwandans created conditions that favour accountability so that they could move from reconciliation to conciliation.

Instead of moving back to a previous relationship, we built on the possibilities and forged new bonds. Each one of us, Hutu and Tutsi, has the moral duty and responsibility to ensure that never again shall there be the senseless shedding of blood in our country. Remembering can also act as deterrence.”