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Rwanda makes peace with its violent past

Rwanda makes peace with its violent past

It is a grim reminder about how ingrained prejudice can destroy societies and the profound challenges of rebuilding and healing three decades after the genocide.

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Last Updated : 07 April 2024, 22:15 IST
Last Updated : 07 April 2024, 22:15 IST
Last Updated : 07 April 2024, 22:15 IST
Last Updated : 07 April 2024, 22:15 IST
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On April 7, 1994, a genocide began in Rwanda. Close to 800,000 people — one tenth of Rwanda’s population — were killed in 100 days, making it one of the darkest moments in human history. The immediate reason for the genocide was the ethnic violence that broke out after an aircraft carrying then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down by a missile near Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Habyarimana belonged to the Hutu ethnic group. The ethnic groups in Rwanda are the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. The Hutus are the majority, while the Tutsi and Twa are minority communities. Within hours of the plane crash, militants from the Hutu ethnic majority unleashed brutal and frenzied killings of Tutsis. Nearly 70% of the Tutsi population was wiped out in the genocide. The 100 days of slaughter saw neighbours turning on neighbours and friends turning on friends. Rape, sexual torture, mutilation, and enslavement were used as weapons to attack, terrorise, and slaughter thousands of Tutsis. It has been estimated that more than 250,000 women were raped during the genocide.

Lack of any strategic interest in Rwanda was a major reason for the ignorant attitude of the countries.  A genocide of this scale of bestiality did not happen spontaneously. There is no doubt that Rwanda’s colonial past played a greater role in spreading hatred and venom between various communities.

Rwanda’s Road to Recovery

Though the massacre still casts a long shadow over the small Central African state, the past three decades have seen Rwanda undergo a significant transformation, becoming a rare success story in Africa. Rwanda may be a more prosperous and stable state now, but the road to recovery has been long, and reconciliation with the events of the past is still ongoing. While the genocide destroyed the social, moral, and ethnic fabric of Rwandan society as a whole, it is important to note that the Rwandans rose like a phoenix from the ashes by adopting “locally engineered policy innovations,” known popularly as “home-grown solutions” (HGS). 

The Genocide of 1994 and its aftermath changed the political economy in Rwanda. Forgiveness, peacebuilding, and good governance initiatives were key elements of HGS. No other country in the world has effectively made use of the power of HGS more than Rwanda. The peacebuilding initiatives undertaken through the Urugwiro Village (President’s Office), formed between 1998 and 1999 to discuss ways to strengthen national unity, democracy, decentralisation, justice, economy, and security, are notable in this regard. The consensus outcomes that emerged from consultative meetings in Urugwiro Village were incorporated into the 2003 post-transition constitution in Rwanda.

The HGS played an important role not only in ensuring peacebuilding but also in achieving sustainable development. The HGS have been in vogue even before the onset of the pandemic.  Between 1990 and 2017, Rwanda’s Human Development Index (HDI) doubled from 0.250 to 0.524; in 2021, it stood at 0.534. GNI per capita changed by about 19.51% between 1995 and 2021. Rwanda is also a global leader in health care in the East African region in terms of alternative care reforms. The Multidimensional Poverty Index in Rwanda declined from 0.461 in 2005 to 0.231 in 2021. In the case of the Gender Development Index, the 2021 female HDI value for Rwanda is 0.521, in contrast to 0.574 for males, resulting in a GDI value of 0.954. 

The de-ethnicization (Ndi Umunyarwanda) could empower a generation of youngsters who can openly say, “I am Rwandan, not Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa.” The women have actively participated in all areas of Rwanda’s peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery processes. Currently, 49 of 80 seats in Rwanda’s parliament are occupied by women, the highest proportion in the world. Women also hold half of the Supreme Court seats. While post-genocide peace and goodwill are encouraging developments, one wonders why such horrendous human tragedy was needed for better sense to prevail. Why can’t better sense prevail without having to incur such a cost? These questions are relevant even today, given the conflicts happening in Gaza and Ukraine. 

As the world commemorated the 30th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsis, now is the time to reflect on the remarkable progress the country has made in all sectors. Rwanda has been heralded as a paragon
of sustainability in Africa in recent times, and its road to recovery is an inspiring one.

While the scars of this crime are still etched in the consciousness of the survivors and the current generation of Rwandans, they are not seeking
revenge and retaliation against those who carried out the injustice; instead, they decided to build an inclusive Rwandan society rooted in democratic principles and ideals.

Developing countries like India and even less developed countries can learn a lot from Rwanda’s home-grown solutions or the strides it has made in the health and education sectors. Despite the devastating loss of life and infrastructure in the genocide, Rwanda successfully rebuilt its health care system with the collective support of its citizens at the local and national level, foreign funding, health insurance coverage, and political will under Rwanda’s ‘strongman’ Paul Kagame. Rwanda has made considerable investments in the health sector and has been able to pool resources within the country and abroad, cementing its strength. Rwanda’s development programmes are also more attuned to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Rwanda is one of the most rapidly urbanising countries in Africa, especially Kigali.

While Rwanda’s efforts on peacebuilding and reconciliation have been praised by the international community, the democratic deficit in Rwanda is a concern. Though Vision 2050 Rwanda has comprehensive and holistic development strategies to make the country an economically powerful nation, there is no serious commitment to strengthening democracy and robust democratic principles in the country. Rwanda may become one of the most developed countries in the world, but can it sustain development without a good democratic society?

Meanwhile, the nation and its citizens have made peace with the past, and the prohibition of ethnic identification in present-day Rwandan society is a positive outcome. Rwandan nationality is given utmost importance, and it is the only acceptable identity in the country. A democratic and inclusive society is a primary requisite for sustaining this narrative within a larger framework. 

(Jos Chathukulam is a former professor, Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralisation and Development, ISEC, Bengaluru. Giressan is
professor and director, MIT School of Government, MIT World Peace
University, Pune)
 

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