Silent sabotage: How the Rwandan peasantry is defying ‘reconciliation’

Sunday July 24 2011

By Susan Thompson

Why would peasant Rwandans resist the government’s post-genocide reconciliation programme, particularly when so many people — donors, journalists, policy-makers and civil society representatives alike — see Rwanda as a peaceful, stable, development-oriented country in the midst of the violent turmoil of the Great Lakes Region?

From the perspective of the rural poor, the answer is that many of them consider the programme unjust and illegitimate as it works against their interests as peasants. This is an important point to consider given that peasants were the main actors in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide as both perpetrators and survivors. Incorporating peasants who lived through the violence of the genocide into the Rwandan policy as participating members is necessary to avoid future mass atrocity.

Rwanda’s programme of national unity and reconciliation is the backbone of the Rwandan government’s reconstruction strategy following the genocide in which civilian Hutu killed at least 500,000 Tutsi – though most estimates hover around a million. Introduced in 1999, the programme aims to create “one Rwanda for all Rwandans,” meaning the government actively seeks to undo Tutsi and Hutu ethnic labels in favour of an inclusive Rwandan one.

The government claims that the programme is successfully promoting ethnic unity as the basis of lasting reconciliation between the country’s main ethnic groups. From the perspective of Rwandan peasants I interviewed, the programme forcibly produces the appearance — but not the reality — of national unity and reconciliation.

Thus obedience to the dictates of the programme is frequently tactical, rather than sincere, as peasants employ various strategies to avoid participation. A look at the resistance of peasants to the programme opens up for analysis the extent to which the government’s rhetoric about delivering peace, justice, and reconciliation to Rwandans is reflected in the lived reality of the populace.

The mandatory activities imposed on peasant Rwandans in the name of national unity and reconciliation (such as the umuganda or community work days, the ingando citizenship re-education camps and the gacaca justice trials) prevent them from tending their fields and engaging in other life-sustaining activities.


That Rwanda’s rural poor do not support the programme of national unity and reconciliation may seem counter-intuitive to those who know of Rwanda’s admirable recovery from the violence of the 1994 genocide, particularly given the country’s impressive economic and institutional gains. Peasant Rwandans resist largely because the programme does not allow for frank or open discussion of how ethnic categories shaped the violence of the genocide, nor is there any official recognition of lived experiences that differ from the official version, in which only Tutsi were victims and only Hutu killed.

Nor does the government allow for public acknowledgment of the existence or experience of Tutsi and Twa perpetrators; Hutu and Twa rescuers; Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa resisters; or Hutu and Twa survivors. Tutsi are rightfully and correctly survivors of genocide, as they were targeted by virtue of their ethnicity, but all Rwandans are survivors of conflict, jostled and shaped by traumatic events over which they had little or no control.

Because the programme of national unity and reconciliation does not acknowledge the multitude of lived through experiences of Rwandans of all ethnicities during the genocide, peasant Rwandans I consulted understood well the risks of speaking out against the programme and so found subtle, indirect, and non-confrontational ways to avoid or subvert the demands of the programme.

A common tactic employed by peasant Rwandans is “staying on the sidelines,” and is embodied in an array of avoidance tactics to keep out of trouble with the local authorities. of all ethnicities shared this sentiment with me. For example, Aurelia, a 39-year-old Hutu widow, says that she actively tries to avoid her local official: “The best strategy is to avoid the authorities. When you see them, they make demands for reconciliation. [My official] knows that I lost all of my people [family members] during the events.”

Another common form of peasant resistance is withdrawn muteness. These are purposeful and strategic acts of silence that peasant Rwandans employ to defy the expectations of the programme in ways that either protect their limited resources or assure their dignity in their interactions with local officials. For example, Trésor, a 16-year-old Tutsi boy, described the purpose of withdrawn muteness as a tactic that sabotages government efforts to promote reconciliation: “Remaining silent is very rewarding because it angers local officials. They ask if we are stupid. They ask why we are so difficult. That is the point. The officials make us get reconciled but I just want to be left alone. Being silent is a good way to avoid the difficulties of life since the genocide. Silence helps us do that in ways that make sense to us, not to local officials.”

The truth is that peasant Rwandans feel that the programme makes their daily struggle to provide for survival more complicated. Rather than blindly or willingly accept state-led directives to reconcile with each another, peasant Rwandans recognise that the policy is yet another form of social control that they strategically avoid so that they can get on with more pressing matters of rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. Domestic and international actors that care about sustainable peace in Rwanda and in the countries of the Great Lakes more broadly need to consider the behaviour and attitudes of rural folk, lest they once again take up arms against neighbours, colleagues, and friends.

Susan Thomson is a researcher at the School of Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College, Amherst, USA