Why Rwanda needs to build relations beyond its borders

Friday April 12 2019

A picture taken 03 December 2003 shows a witness facing the president (with umbrella) of a Gacaca court session in Rukira, during a hearing in relation with the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. PHOTO | DDP | THOMAS LOHNES


Understanding where Rwanda finds itself 25 years after the Genocide against the Tutsi should begin with one key fact: A country in which over a million people out of a national population of seven million were murdered in 100 days, most of them by their neighbours and other civilians, has since experienced no major violence.

Instead, the vast majority of genocide perpetrators today live peacefully alongside their victims’ families on densely populated hills.

This situation was far from guaranteed. Most other countries recovering from mass conflict around the world have witnessed persistent waves of violence.

One only has to look across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Uganda, all of which in the same period, have experienced large scale conflict, to grasp what Rwanda has accomplished in terms of peace and reconciliation.

At the same time, Rwanda still has much to do to improve relations in the wider region and among Rwandans living abroad.

Rwanda’s impressive recovery from the genocide can be attributed largely to the government’s four-pronged strategy after Paul Kagame became president in 2000.


It comprises commemoration, civic education, socio-economic development and reconciliation through justice.

Rwanda’s annual genocide commemoration, a 100-day period of mourning starting on April 7, the date the killings began in 1994, is not only a chance for Rwandans to remember loved ones who were killed but also to counter genocide denial within Rwanda and abroad.

The invocation of “never again” only resonates if the truth about the genocide is acknowledged.

Civic education

To help keep memories of the genocide alive, the government is using civic education as a means to construct a post-ethnic national identity of Rwandanness.

Most Rwandans from high school age onwards have passed through either ingando or itorero education camps. There, lessons cover themes such as the main causes of the genocide and the importance of Rwandanness as a means to regain a sense of unity destroyed by the Belgian colonisers.

The government’s talk of Rwandanness superseding damaging ethnic identities would ring hollow were it not backed up by its development policies, which extend equally across the ethnic divide.

Recognising that socio-economic inequality was a key cause of the genocide, the government has instituted a welfare programme, focusing on rural healthcare and education.

Between 2000 and 2015, Rwanda managed to halve its child mortality rate—the biggest reduction worldwide during that period, an accomplishment which the United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef described as “one of the most significant achievements in human history.”

Although rural Rwanda remains extremely poor, peasants tend to compare themselves to their neighbours. Hence, Hutu see that the state has assisted them as much as it has Tutsi, helping address some of the deep grievances that have riven local communities for decades.

The final aspect of Rwanda’s response to the Genocide against the Tutsi was arguably its most ambitious—and controversial.

Between 2002 and 2012, community courts called Gacaca prosecuted 400,000 genocide suspects. Sitting each week under trees and in village courtyards across the country, lay judges in 12,000 Gacaca jurisdictions heard more than one million cases.

The philosophy underpinning Gacaca was that reconciliation requires justice; that building more productive relations between individuals and between communities requires the public acknowledgement of crimes, punishment of all levels of perpetrators and creative forms of sentencing that quickly reintegrate convicts back into society as productive citizens.

The challenge for Kagame’s government and everyday Rwandans now is to extend the peace and reconciliation secured within Rwanda to the wider region and to Rwandans living abroad. Failing to do so could see a “blowback” to the domestic arena, undermining many of Rwanda’s recent advances.

The 25th anniversary of the genocide comes at a time of immense regional volatility, including hostile rhetoric between Rwanda and both Uganda and Burundi.

Rwanda could do more to lower the diplomatic temperature in the region, as it is currently doing in improving relations with the DRC.

New Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi’s recent visit to pay his respects at the Kigali Genocide Memorial—something his predecessors never did—was a compelling gesture.

Better Rwanda-Congo relations are critical to regional stability. They will also allow Rwanda to neutralise the threat posed by the opposition Rwandan National Congress—comprising exiled members of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front—which is reportedly seeking an armed alliance in eastern Congo with the Hutu-dominated rebel group, the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR).

Similar détente with Uganda and Burundi is a top priority for Rwanda which regional players, mediated by the African Union, must urgently pursue.

The other international arena where Rwandan relations must improve is in the diaspora. While Hutu-Tutsi relations inside Rwanda have improved palpably over the past 25 years, the same cannot be said for these communities in places such as Canada, the US, the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In these countries, Rwandans routinely hold ethnically separate gatherings—and often hold spitefully divergent views of the genocide, its causes and who should be held responsible.

The Rwandan diaspora suffered from not participating in Gacaca. It lacked a space to account fully for the genocide and to foster a cross-ethnic dialogue about Rwanda’s conflicted history, and the most productive ways forward.

Today, government-led Rwanda Day gatherings held annually in the diaspora focus on the country’s economic prosperity and include calls for citizens living abroad to contribute to development programmes at home.

More attention should be paid to improving Hutu-Tutsi relations.

The danger of fractious relations in the region and the diaspora is that they may start to filter back to Rwanda and undermine the reconciliation that Rwandans have worked so assiduously to achieve since the genocide.

Conversely, addressing these international dimensions will bolster those domestic gains, ensuring that Rwanda continues to flourish.

Phil Clark is a reader in comparative and international politics at SOAS University of London.