Digests | April 28, 2014

Rwanda’s Twenty-Year Transformation

Esther Mujawayo, Survivor of the 1994 genocide
on the April 2014 International Day of Reflection.
Photo by Violaine Martin (UN Geneva)

This April marks twenty years since the horrifying 1994 Rwandan Genocide, though government coordinated commemoration ceremonies, dubbed Kwibuka 20, have been underway since January 2014. Amidst the remembrances, official and private, theatrical and sincere, Rwandans and international observers will be forced to consider the extent to which the situation in Rwanda has changed in the past two decades.

By a variety of measures, Rwanda’s progress has been remarkable. The country hosts over 11 million people on a plot of land the size of Maryland; despite the density of the population, the country’s ordered urban centers and remarkably well-served rural communities stand in stark contrast to the disorder that characterizes Rwanda’s neighbors in the Great Lakes Region. Between 2006 and 2011, Rwanda reduced the proportion of its population living under $1.25 a day from 57% to 45%–a remarkable feat that has earned Rwanda the title of a development success story.

This anniversary has provoked a great deal of research by scholars on the merits and strength of this story. A recent review of Rwandan “life narratives” compiled by Bert Ingelaere revealed improvements in governance, stemming from the RPF’s commitment to “improving the living standards of the people they govern.” [1] Discussions with Rwandan youths, published in a March 2014 issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies, found that, though their personal experiences may not reflect the lofty ambitions of the state, the RPF’s governance objectives and policies “have opened up new ways for young people to think about the possibilities for their lives…they have instilled a sense of possibility, hope, and aspiration for the future.” [2]

But those reflecting upon Kwibuka 20 in Rwanda and around the world would be well served in remembering that the violence in 1994 was not purely the product of underdevelopment, rather a disparity in power between groups and the development of a discriminating ideology in a militarized society. Economic growth is not a panacea for all societal ills−the composition of the social and political spheres of the country must be taken into consideration when analyzing Rwanda.

Political Scientist Jay Ulfelder, writing on his personal blog, described the paradoxical natural of Rwanda as such: “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.”

Ulfelder’s assessment, worth reading in its entirety, illustrates that the government has done little to address the structural issues that led to the eruption of violence in 1994. Today in Rwanda, ethnicity still plays a role in a repressive political environment, while the strict laws governing speech in the country largely prevent the sort of airing of such grievances that would promote reconciliation. Writing in The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch described the government’s manipulation of the narrative in describing the events of 1994:

“In 2008, the government once again renamed the crime. Now they call it “the genocide against the Tutsi.” It’s an inelegant phrase that has been slow to take hold, perhaps because the foundational idea of Rwanda’s post-genocide order is to emphasize an inclusive national identity, and to treat Hutu and Tutsi as distinctions that belong more to the past.”

Inherent to such language is a troubling duality–while all citizens are ‘Rwandan,’ some Rwandans are victims, while the unnamed (but implied) ‘others’ are perpetrators. This is particularly problematic as it is simply untrue. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Howard French reminds us of UN investigator Robert Gersony’s estimation that, between April and September 1994, as many as 35,000 Hutus were killed by members of the RPF. The United Nations never released the report cataloging the “well-organized, military style operation, with military command and control,” described by one investigator as “military campaign style mass murders.”

Further troubling, given these allegations are the structures of the state, including the Rwandan national solidarity camps, called Ingando. According to a 2005 Harvard Human Rights Journal study, the camps are attended predominately by students about to enter university and by former militia-members. These camps are modeled after the sort of military training camps the Rwandan Patriotic Front used while training in Uganda and are typically comprised of military training exercises and lectures from government officials on government policies. While such camps are not necessarily problematic, reports from both academics that have studied the camps and Rwandans who have attended the camps suggest that the camps are concerned with “teaching [Rwandans] to be soldiers” and developing loyalty to the RPF’s political campaigns. [3]

Ulfelder’s comment 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,” becomes all the more chilling when one considers the destructive capacity of those emerging from these camps.

President Kagame’s strict management of the country extends beyond military and security concerns and into the political realm. In 2010, ahead of national elections, the government banned two dissident newspapers and arrested opposition leader Victoire Ingabire after a speech she made calling for reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis after 16 years of exile. In that same election cycle, Amnesty International raised concerns about the difficulties imposed on opposition parties during the registration process and “a wider pattern of intimidation and harassment to discourage and discredit opposition group.” The continued precariousness of the political situation in Rwanda is illustrated by the murder of Patrick Karegeya, a political dissident living in exile in South Africa in January 2014. A number of international observers, including Michela Wrong in Foreign Policy, suggested that the murder was likely arranged by Rwanda authorities, given their unapologetic comments after it took place.

In light of this, it is clear that Rwanda is not immune to ethnic violence. In fact, by militarizing youth and oppressing the freedom of speech, Kagame may facilitate another violent outburst. The president of the Free Africa Foundation, George Ayittey lamented to the Wall Street Journal that “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.” In fact, “elite vulnerability” has been used as an explanatory framework to describe the heavy role of the center in all levels of the state, and the promotion of tightly controlled, technocratic and depoliticized system of governance.[4] Failing to address the structural inequalities and instabilities in the Rwandan political system threatens to reverse the strides that Rwanda has been made in the past two decades.

The international community’s sway over Rwanda has recently been demonstrated following the levying of economic sanctions and aid suspensions against the country for its support for militia groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. International influence could also be used to promote greater political opening, legitimate power-sharing and reconciliation projects in Rwanda. In light of both the remarkable successes and oppressive tactics of the Rwandan government, the international community has a responsibility to rethink its policies towards President Kagame’s administration. While the government’s programs and phenomenal economic growth is laudable and worthy of support, donors, academics [5] and advocacy groups alike have begun to question support for a government displaying increasingly autocratic tendencies. We shall see whether external leverage, internal tensions or reforms will lead to this next step in Rwanda’s transformation, a more open and less repressive political system.



[1] Bert Ingelaere, “What’s on a peasant’s mind? Experiencing RPF state reach and overreach in post-genocide Rwanda (2000–10),” Journal of East African Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2014), 214-230.

[2] Kirrily Pells, Kirsten Pontalti & Timothy P. Williams, “Promising developments? Children, youth and post-genocide reconstruction under the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF),” Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2014) 294-310.

[3] Hilary Matfess. Personal Interview Conducted in January, 2014; Andrea Purdeková,  “80 Rwanda’s Ingando camps: Liminality and the reproduction of power,” University of Oxford – Refugee Studies Center, September 2011.

[4] Benjamin Chemouni “Explaining the design of the Rwandan decentralization: elite vulnerability and the territorial repartition of power” Journal of Eastern African Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2014), 246-262.

[5] In addition to the many examples referenced throughout the article see African Affairs “Rwanda Virtual Issue: Twenty Years after Genocide” for some historical examinations of the Rwanda state over the years. http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/afrafj/rwanda.html




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