Twenty-three years ago, one of the world’s most violent and vicious conflicts erupted in the small African state of Rwanda, and within a mere hundred days the situation escalated into a full on genocide. This conflict forever left its mark on not only Rwanda, but neighbouring states as well. Over the short span of time that it took place, the Rwandan genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 – 1,000,000 people in what can only be described as one the most horrific crimes against humanity in the 20th century since the Holocaust in the Second World War.
It is an understatement to say that Rwanda has come a long way from the dark times it faced in 1994. This is in no small part to the efforts of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s long serving president since 2000, and one-time rebel commander who helped end the genocide. Another key factor in Rwanda’s healing is the overwhelming desire of many Rwandans to reconcile and move towards a path of peace.
It is precisely this combination of government policy and national drive that has helped Rwanda shape itself into one of the shining stars of Africa. This is why the unique path to healing undertaken by Rwandans should be studied carefully in order to carve a potential path of healing for other equally divisive conflicts, particularly those that are so polarizing and involve ethnic factors such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.
Rwanda’s political troubles are directly tied to its colonial past and ethnic makeup, comprised of mostly Hutus with a Tutsi and Twa minority. Through a toxic mixture of racial colonial policies favouring the Tutsi minority for having more “Western” appearances and pre-colonial tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi, the stage was set for the long standing rivalry between both groups. From 1959-1962, conflict broke out between both groups in what became known as the Hutu Peasant Revolution which greatly sharpened tensions while signalling the end of Tutsi political dominance in Rwanda.
The Tutsis, displaced by the conflict, took refuge in neighbouring (at the time) Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania. In an attempt to regain their former political power, many Tutsis banded together and began staging attacks throughout the 1960’s on the new Hutu government. The situation was exacerbated when then president Juvenal Habyarimana refused to allow displaced Tutsi refugees to resettle in Rwanda due to what he cited as lack of economic opportunity and an already large population. In 1988, the Rwandan Patriotic Front was founded in Uganda, comprised mostly of Tutsis, and a civil war had fallen upon Rwanda’s doors.
Following a peace settlement in 1993, a tenuous ceasefire was established between the rebels and the government. This short-lived peace came to an end in 1994 when a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda crashed, leading to rumours that the RPF had assassinated the leader of the Hutu government. It was this incident, fuelled by an endless stream of Hutu propaganda, that eventually sparked the genocide of Tutsis and dissident Hutus.
The genocide finally came to a halt when the RPF, led by Paul Kagame, overran the government forces and their Interahamwe, Hutu nationalist, militia allies on the 4th of July, 1994. Since Kagame became elected as president in 2000, his government has invested heavily in parting paths with the past and developing Rwanda while attempting to reconcile between the victims and perpetrators of the genocide. As a result, Rwanda today is in a vastly different place than where it was in 1994. However, this path of reconciliation and rebuilding has not come without criticism or fault.
Rwanda’s streets and roads have consistently ranked among some of the cleanest in the African continent, partially due to an initiative known as Umuganda day, which takes place on the last Saturday of each month. Umuganda, the Kinyarwanda word for coming together to achieve a greater purpose, sees the entire country coming together for four hours to clean the streets and volunteer for community service. The four hours are divided into three of physical labour, and one of community meetings to discuss the needs of neighbours or those in need as well as the general affairs of the community.
Although government mandated with compulsory attendance, Umuganda has helped create a spirit of unity and community amongst many Rwandans. Furthermore, not only does this initiative break ethnic tensions, it also tackles socio-economic borders as all members of Rwandan society take part in the monthly cleaning and meeting, including farmers, students, merchants, bankers, the police, and politicians.
However, when boasting some of the cleanest streets on the continent, the question arises of what happens to those who do not fit with the picturesque image sought by the government. The Gikondo Transit Centre in Kigali is one such place where Rwanda’s “undesirables” may end up, this is where many of Kigali’s homeless, street vendors, beggars, and, until 2014 street children, would end up being taken and arbitrarily detained. Some are held for weeks, others months, and many asked to leave the capital they are perceived to tarnish after release. This is all done in the name of maintaining a certain standard in the eyes of local authorities, although it may come off to others as the government neglecting underlying issues while pinning the blame on society’s weakest.
Another unique approach in the reconciliation process adopted by many Rwandans has been the use of Gacaca courts, the term being derived from the Kinyarwanda word for grass to indicate the open air meetings held by local communities to resolve disputes. These local courts were set up in the aftermath of the genocide to firstly allow direct access to justice for local communities who had many of their own participate in the atrocities of the genocide. Secondly, the Gacaca courts aimed to reconcile and mend many shattered communities while shedding light on their country’s darkest period.
Since 2005, roughly 12,000 such courts have processed over 1.2 million cases and 2 million war crimes related to the genocide, in what Paul Kagame described as “An African solution to an African problem.” The Gacaca judicial model was adopted by the Rwandan government in 2005 following a surge in the number detained of genocide suspects, where at one point over 130,000 were held in a space meant for 12,000. With the rejection of any outside judicial aid, the Rwandan government faced a monumental task to swiftly reconcile between both ethnic groups and bring those who had committed war crimes to justice–enter the Gacaca courts.
This too, however, did not come without controversy as allegations were made by some that the Gacaca system lacked properly qualified judges and stretched a traditional judicial system meant to resolve property and communal issues to cover war crimes and traumatic events. In some cases, the victim’s surviving families had complained that the punishments being handed down, along with an apology extracted from the perpetrators, are far too soft of a punishment given the gravity of the crimes. It is thus difficult to truly measure the effectiveness of judicial reconciliation and justice in post-1994 Rwanda.
The case of Thomas Kanyeperu, convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in the genocide comes to mind. During an interview with the Guardian newspaper following his release, Thomas subtly mentions that he should not have been sent to prison and that while reconciliation is beneficial for all, in his eyes the burden of doing so had been placed solely on the Hutu people. This sentiment of isolation and division was precisely what built up prior to 1994, and as such is disturbing to hear of. Most telling of all, in the words of Thomas, many of those convicted of war crimes had apologized for their crimes so that they may get an early release from their terms, rather than sincere regret.
Whether these are the words of a war criminal who talks favourably of a different era or an admission of truth, is difficult to ascertain. What is clear is that Rwanda still has a long path to fully healing and achieving national reconciliation. What is evident however is that many Rwandans, both Hutus and Tutsis, place their faith in Paul Kagame’s government and its role in post-1994 stability and peace.
Amid allegations of political repression and a suppression of critics, Kagame has recently won his re-election bid in August 2017 with a 99% margin of victory. He was allowed to do so by passing a constitutional amendment in 2015 that extends his term limits and theoretically allows him to stay in power until 2034. Despite the flaws mentioned above, Rwanda has truly excelled in its swift economic recovery and attempts to nationally reconcile from its dark past.
Overall, the Rwandan model is years ahead of any such attempted efforts in other war-torn countries such as Somalia, Syria, the DRC, and even the post-war Balkans. While far from perfect, the initiatives taken by the Rwandan government truly provide for a solid structure of national reconciliation on which more can be built and enhancements can be made. This is because they have identified two key factors in post-war reconciliation. Firstly the initiative must start with the people, both victims and perpetrators, rather than government officials, and secondly national unity by means of communal efforts such as Gacaca and Umuganda are the keystones on the path to recovery.
What puts these efforts at risk though however is government mismanagement of reconciliation policies and the lack of change in national leadership. Kagame must be careful not to upset the tenuous peace by being perceived by Hutus as a symbol of political monopolization by the Tutsi. Furthermore, he must ensure that reconciliation through education rather than guilt confession takes place while protecting Rwanda’s political integrity, and providing its most vulnerable with opportunities.