State pushes campaign that critics say it is ethnically divisive

Saturday November 16 2013

Rwandan women hug after a function held in Nairobi to commemorate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The ‘Ndi Umunyarwanda’ programme, an initiative of the government, is aimed at reconciling Rwandans ahead of the 20th anniversary of the genocide next year. Photo/FILE

As the government embarks on making it a national agenda, the debate over a new campaign that mainly encourages Hutus to apologise to Tutsis in the name of the entire ethnic group is far from over.

The four-month-old initiative, known as Ndi Umunyarwanda (I am Rwandan), is now moving at a serious pace, with high-ranking government officials leading the apology queue.

“In the name of the Hutu family I apologise to the wider Tutsi family because of the genocide perpetrated against them and committed by my fellow Hutus,” Christophe Bazivamo, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala), said on KFM radio earlier this week.

A number of government officials have taken the same route after last week’s Cabinet retreat chaired by Rwandan President Paul Kagame was dedicated to discussing the initiative.

However, for some members of the society, who believe that criminal responsibility is personal and so should be an apology, the initiative is inadequate.

Committed no offence


“Why should somebody who committed no offence apologise?” wondered Ntihemuka Rwubusisi, a resident of Kigali.

The move has also attracted criticism from the most polished within Rwanda’s academia.

Prof Eugène Rutembesa, specialist in ethno-psychiatry who lectures at the University of Rwanda, Butare, said: “For an apology to make sense, it depends on who is apologising.”

For him, a request for forgiveness must be preceded by an admission of guilt, and this should only be a burden of a perpetrator or, tolerably, of his close relatives if the person in question is dead.

“I don’t think it makes sense making an apology on radio or TV to unspecified people and for offences committed by people you are not closely related to,” Prof Rutembesa said.

The university don was of the opinion that coming to a point where one would apologise for an offence that they did not commit can be dangerous.

“In the field of mental health, feeling guilty without being guilty can be a symptom of mental disorder,” he said.

In the debate raging in the media, and more intensely on social networks, some commentators have criticised the project, saying it is ill-timed and that Rwandans were subscribing to it simply because it has been endorsed by the head of state.

READ: Forgiveness ‘not a state project’

President Kagame backed the programme during a Youth Connekt event four months ago, saying that “for a people to co-exist one group has to own up the wrongs committed on the other on behalf of those who committed them.”

He has since renewed his call to make this initiative a success in the recent Cabinet retreat.

“It’s our responsibility to build a new Rwanda and everyone has to play an important role in this process,” the President said.

Prof Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, the president of Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of genocide survivors’ associations, has warned that Ndi Umunyarwanda should not only be seen as an apology platform but rather an occasion for Rwandans to discuss their dark history towards shaping a bright future.

Public display of ethnicity

With the project, which the government believes will promote true reconciliation and forgiveness among Rwandans, public mentioning of the ethnic group one belongs to is becoming ordinary.

It came as a surprise to many Rwandans who thought publicly mentioning ethnic groups was taboo when Mr Bazivamo did it on radio.

“I am Hutu,” the veteran politician declared.

For him, wiping away ethnic groups is not viable. He said: “It only becomes a problem when somebody gets a favour or is denied a chance because of the ethnic grouping he/she belongs to.”

Since its launch, the campaign has attracted intense debate with some people cautioning it could bring back ethnic divisions in a population which was beginning to see itself as Rwandan and not Hutu, Tutsi or Twa.

READ: Genocide: Debate rages on over call for apology

Others go yonder and warn it could set the nation 19 years back by undermining the reconciliation success achieved since 1994.

According to the current plan, Ndi Umunyarwanda will be initiated in all areas of the country as “a forum Rwandans would openly discuss their past and face the challenges that have resulted from Rwanda’s history.”

Following the retreat, the Cabinet has committed to ensure the central government reaches out to districts by month-end to look at ways of expanding the idea throughout the country. However, few citizens are convinced about the motive and outcome of the programme, with some choosing to keep it out of their conversation, citing lack of interest.

“For any remedy there should be a problem; to my knowledge, no persistent ethnic-related problem has surfaced in Rwanda,” remarked a local journalist who asked not to be named.

To others, however, this is being too realistic. They caution that ethnicity is as present as ever in Rwanda. They believe that if Rwandans do not use the words “Tutsi” and “Hutu,” it is because they have found other ways of saying them.

A recent National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) report pointed out that at least 30.5 per cent of Rwandans still view themselves in the ethnic mirror while 40 per cent still think that genocide is possible again in Rwanda.

Supporters of the programme trust it can reduce these numbers if well supported and adopted by the masses.