Against the odds: Rwanda, 20 years after

Rwanda has made rapid strides in development since 1994.

Rwanda has defied all negative predictions after the genocide, writes Golooba-Mutebi [AFP/Getty Images]

In the aftermath of the genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda and the victorious Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel movement that had taken over the government, faced numerous challenges. The political institutions had collapsed and there was virtually no justice system. The part of the population which had not fled was traumatised, fearful and mistrustful of the new government.

Genocidaires continued to roam the countryside, threatening the security and lives of genocide survivors, driven by a deep-rooted genocidal ideology nurtured over three decades of systematic demonisation of the Tutsi minority, while a belligerent defeated army was just across the border in the then Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo), preparing to return and continue with the genocide. The national coffers were empty.

There was also a peculiar challenge: Some observers believed that because they were from a small minority, the new leaders could not possibly hold power for long, over a hostile Hutu majority. Potential donors withheld support as a result, in anticipation of further violence. In the early days, save for hundreds of uncoordinated NGOs pursuing their own narrow agendas focused mainly on refugees and internally displaced persons, the international community remained indifferent, sceptical and shocked by the scale of violence ordinary Rwandans had indulged in against fellow Rwandans.

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France, widely accused of supporting the genocidal regime and of facilitating many genocidaires to escape, is reported to have been hostile towards the new government from the very beginning, and to have undermined its efforts to secure assistance, including from multi-lateral development agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank.

Emerging from the abyss

For some time after it seized power, the RPF grappled with running a broken country on a shoestring. To finance some of the government’s activities, it dipped into resources it had previously mobilised for the war effort and took to fundraising from individual supporters in and outside the country. Much of this was happening alongside a ferocious insurgency mounted from then Zaire by remnants of the defeated forces. For a young government led mainly by returning exiles without much prior experience of running a state, these challenges could have easily proved overwhelming.

However, with assistance from external supporters whose number has grown over time, and backing from its internal political partners, the RPF slowly began to pick up and put the pieces of their broken country together again. Few who had seen the civil war and genocide unfold expected Rwanda to recover. The general expectation was that it would join the list of Africa’s failed states, with their cycles of ethnic violence and perpetually high dependence on external aid.

None of this happened. Instead, post-genocide Rwanda has, in ways some characterise as miraculous, lifted itself out of the abyss into which the civil war and genocide had plunged it, and become one of Africa’s most-talked-about countries on account of the rapid and remarkable advances it has made across a wide range of domains. If to some commentators Rwanda is “a country in a hurry“, it is because it has defied all the negative predictions, and instead demonstrated an unexpected capacity for driving change on grand scale.

In the economic sphere, it has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Between 2008 and 2012, growth averaged 8.2 percent. In 2013 it was the ninth fastest growing economy in the world. One outcome of this trend was the lifting of over one million Rwandans out of poverty between 2005 and 2010, the equivalent of 12 percent poverty reduction rate. Just as significant, over the last 20 years Rwanda has achieved the highest school enrolment rates in Africa, at 95 percent for boys, and 98 percent for girls, with overall completion rates at 72.7 percent. Access to health care for the entire population is also high. At over 90 percent, Rwanda has probably the highest health insurance coverage for ordinary citizens not employed in the formal sector, in the whole world. As a result, life expectancy has doubled in the past two decades from 28 in 1994 to 63.5 in 2012. Rwanda is easily the only African country expecting to achieve all or most of the Millennium Development Goals.

At the level of institution building, the Rwanda Defence Forces and the Rwanda National Police have gained much respect in the world, having distinguished themselves, for example, in the UN’s peace support operations across Africa and in places as far-flung as Haiti. Rwanda’s judiciary, which in 1994 lay in ruins, has been rebuilt. Today many jurisdictions and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda trust it enough to extradite genocide suspects for trial.

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Advances in the socio-economic sphere and the benefits they have bestowed upon ordinary Rwandans provide a basis for looking forward with optimism that their bad history is fast receding into the background, and that their future promises greater prosperity and wellbeing.

The government’s expectation is that this will re-orient Rwandans away from focusing attention on the sectarianism that in the past divided them and fuelled the genocide, to pursuing the wide array of possibilities the new Rwanda offers everyone regardless of background. In the end, this is supposed to drive much-needed reconciliation of which a great deal has been achieved, and much still remains to be done.

Challenges ahead

None of the achievements highlighted here ought to minimise the vast challenges post-genocide Rwanda continues to grapple with. A key priority for the government is to eradicate the sectarian ideology that made the genocide possible. The continued presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) of elements of the genocidal forces bent on promoting the ideology, makes combatting it inside Rwanda that more urgent. The international community’s failure to defeat and demobilise these forces renders the government’s task more complicated. Their capacity to promote the ideology can only increase over time. More and more Rwandans may be embracing the government’s unifying national identity that emphasises Rwandan-ness, dignity, hard work and self-reliance. However, many still remain vulnerable to manipulation after 30 years of unrelenting indoctrination by the sectarian governments of old.

Also, as long as they have the space to organise themselves and recruit new members, the genocidal forces will continue to pose a threat to Rwanda’s national security. These forces have been at the root of numerous wars in the DRC, in which Rwanda has participated or has been implicated in, usually with negative consequences for its reputation and ability to remain focused on its transformation agenda inside the country. More wars are a real possibility and will remain so for as long as these forces continue to roam at will and grow in size and strength.

The nature of Rwanda’s political system and the perception that it is closed and should be opened up to democracy also poses a serious challenge. While the choice the RPF and other registered parties operating inside Rwanda have made is one of a consensus-driven system based on power and responsibility-sharing, key actors continue to press for an adversarial competitive system that Rwanda’s political elite argue is ill-suited to a still-fragile post-war and post-genocide context. How this still low-intensity controversy but which seems likely to escalate will be resolved may or may not put the country’s still fragile context at risk.  

Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based independent researcher, analyst and columnist. He was educated at Makerere University in Uganda and at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK.