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On the 22nd Anniversary of the Genocide, Rwanda is defying both global expectations and wishes

7 April 2016

By Claire Leigh – Consultant at UNDP, 2015 Labour Parliamentary Candidate and former Chair of LCID – @ClaireLeighLab  

Reconciliation village, Nyamata, 2016

Reconciliation village, Nyamata, 2016

It is almost frustrating to start every discussion on Rwanda by referencing the infamous genocide that took place there twenty two years ago. The country today is almost unrecognisable from the place that tore itself apart in 1994 at the cost of some 800 thousand lives, and its grim reputation abroad is starkly out of step with the feisty, controversial and modernising nation’s reality. Ask anyone what they know about Rwanda, and they will say the genocide. When pushed, they might mention gorillas. Pushed further they might have read a newspaper in which President Paul Kagame was slated as ‘another typical African dictator’.

But its government is faced with a dilemma when it comes to not allowing genocide to define it. Within Rwanda itself, the state has pursued a distinctive approach to reconciliation that makes ‘never forget’ more of an order than an entreaty. Constant and visible reminders of the genocide are everywhere; Memorials – often gruesome – appear in every town, while Reconciliation Villages bring perpetrators and victims together to give regular talks to Rwandans and visitors about the terrible events of April 1994. And the genocide is central to the governing regime’s domestic political narrative.

Skyscrapers in downtown KigaliAt the same time the country is attempting the unthinkable: to become a ‘hub’ for African business and a middle-income economy  within a generation. Already, the country seems to be making this vision seem less hallucinogenic, with GDP growth regularly in the double digits, and new sky-scrapers crowding the capital Kigali. But the PR issue remains very real; How to both ‘never forget’ at home while moving perceptions on abroad.

The result is that, despite its startling successes in maintaining the peace (against all expectations, the return to conflict being a miraculous non-event that the state fails to get credit for) and improving citizens’ prosperity, foreigners remain for the most part ignorant of the pretty astonishing changes taking place in Rwanda.

Observers who know more about its transformation are often deeply sceptical of the means by which it is being achieved. Part of the reason for this is Kagame himself, who is anything but a ‘typical African dictator’, but who is dictatorial nevertheless. Political space has been tightly controlled since the genocide, and democracy is simply not a priority of the Regime. As Harvard MBA students learn, Kagame runs Rwanda like the CEO of a large corporation. The government is ruthlessly performance-focused, and if it were judged by one of its own famous performance cards, it would get an A* for things like reducing maternal mortality, increasing incomes, and keeping kids in school. But the international community have in recent years awarded it a D- for democracy, with many withdrawing aid money in protest.

I lived in Rwanda six years ago (full disclosure, I worked for a charity and was based in the President’s Office) at a time when the international community was still in love with Kagame. And it is easy to see why; One of the safest countries in Africa, Rwanda is also the second least corrupt, and spends aid money incredibly effectively. And it was clear to anyone living there that the lives of ordinary Rwandans were being changed dramatically. Fast forward six years and the international romance is over (even ending in divorce for countries like the UK), with donors citing political repression as a growing concern. But Kagame, among the vast majority of Rwandans, remains wildly popular. Most Rwandans I talk to genuinely don’t seem to regard democratisation as either a priority or even desirable in the immediate future. After all, Rwandans have seen what majority rule can do in a country with a large ethnic minority. The government looks to Singapore – only recently democratising after decades of state-led development – as its role model, and surrounded as it is by weak democracies with even weaker development records, who are we to argue?

Twenty two years on from one of the greatest human tragedies of the modern era, Rwanda finds itself famous for all the wrong reasons, and criticised for achieving  all the right things in all the wrong ways. The defiantly unorthodox path being taken by Rwanda raises uncomfortable questions for the international community. We must continue to criticise where human rights abuses are apparent. And clearly Rwanda, like Singapore, needs an exit strategy from authoritarianism. But we must also be humble enough to admit that we might not have all the answers when it comes to Rwanda’s broader exit strategy from the tragic events of 1994.

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