Mention Rwanda and the only feeling and mental imagery one gets are the horrific scenes of the 1994 genocide that took away close to a million lives. This week marks the 22nd anniversary of the beginning of the most undignified act; an act described as worse than the World War II atrocities, perpetrated by the Hitlerites against humanity between 1939 and 1945. It was an act unmitigated by any extenuating circumstance. It was an act the pricked the conscience of the international community; it was also the act that has changed our thinking about human rights. Rwanda is a geographically small country with one of the highest population densities in sub-Saharan Africa. It is known for its breathtaking scenery – mountainous and rugged for most parts and green throughout the year. Rwanda is often referred to as le pays des mille collines (“the land of a thousand hills”). Its capital Kigali, located in the centre of the country on the Ruganwa River, is the neatest city in Africa.
Rwanda has a rich but checkered history. Conflicting accounts have it that of the three main groups (Tua, Hutu, and Tutsi) the Tua are indigenous, while the Hutus and Tutsis followed in that order in settling in Rwanda. Whichever is plausible, the fact remains that they are one and the same people, one language (Kinyarwanda), one culture. From 1894 to 1918 Rwanda was part of the German East Africa under one administrative authority with Burundi. Under the League of Nations Mandate System, Belgium replaced defeated Germany and ruled the two countries jointly under one administrative system as before. The territory was known as Ruanda-Urundi. The trusteeship ended in 1962, Rwanda having declared itself a republic in 1961 and having exiled its monarch (mwami), Kigeri, into exile. The revolt against the monarchy had started in 1959. It was an attempt to place power in Hutu hands. Under the leadership of Grégoire Kayibanda, Rwanda’s first president, the Party for Hutu Emancipation (Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation du Peuple Hutu) emerged as the spearhead of the revolution. It was also the beginning of instability as the revolution was extremely partisan, ethnic-biased, and divisive. The revolution had virtually run its course by the time independence was proclaimed in 1962. Thousands of Tutsi began fleeing Rwanda. There was a failed Tutsi raid from Burundi and many more thousands had to flee Rwanda for neighbouring countries, particularly to Uganda. With the tacit approval of the Belgian authorities, an all-Hutu provisional government came into being.
With the elimination of Tutsi elements from the political arena, north-south regional competition among the Hutus arose. With the north-south rivalry, came regional factionalism in the governance of Rwanda. Amid the turmoil, a coup came in 1973. It was led by Maj. Gen. Juvénal Habyarimana, who ruled for 21 years. An abortive coup in 1980 spurred tension between Hutus and Tutsi and inspired a Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (Front Patriotique Rwandais; FPR) rebel invasion from Uganda. Revisions were made to the 1978 constitution and negotiations were also started in Arusha, Tanzania, after a cease-fire had been brokered in 1992 between the FPR and the government. The Hutu extremists were opposed to the text and/or tenets of the agreements. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down over Kigali, killing everyone on board. This singular incident was the trigger point for the genocide. The next day Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu, was assassinated. The vacuum that was created enabled Hutu extremists to embark upon the extermination of everything Tutsi, an engagement which was carried out with zest, incivility, callousness, and brutish savagery. Over the next several months the wave of anarchy and mass killings continued, in which the army and Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have the Same Goal”) played a central role. The Tutsi-led FPR responded by resuming their fight and were successful in securing most of the country by early July. Later that month a transitional government was established, with Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, as president and Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, as vice president. Not less than 800 000 were officially known to have been exterminated.
The international community was slow to respond. The French and the Belgians tacitly supported the Hutus. (Read Meredith’s ‘The State of Africa’). The UN was unwilling to call it Genocide, because then, it would be forced to intervene with full force. At the height of the genocide, the UN withdrew its troops. We need to doff our hearts for the Ghanaian contingent that remained when all else had withdrawn. And in this our respect and reverence goes to General Anyidoho, (and his GHANBATT) for standing staunchly in the face of oddities in Rwanda. Posterity will reward him. (Read his book ‘Guns over Kigali’).
Today, Rwanda has recovered, more rapidly than any others would have thought possible. Beyond the Arusha UN Tribunal, the authorities quickly thought of a more human and effective reconciliation process – the gacaca courts. It is a traditional legal system that ensures peaceful arbitration instead of adjudication. Tens of thousands were tried under this system. Rwanda then settled for reconstruction. A new constitution, promulgated in 2003, employed strong language decrying the ethnic strife of the past, with a resolve to “fight against the ideology of genocide and all its manifestations” and “the eradication of ethnic, regional and other divisions and the promotion of national unity” among its fundamental principles.
Today, the Tutsi-Hutu divide is lost. Rapid economic development has yielded such dividends that tribalism is hardly known. Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The country’s economy is overwhelmingly agricultural with more than 70% of the population living in rural communities. However, industrialization is catching up fast with appropriate policies for enticing Foreign Direct Investment. All these could not have been possible but for exemplary leadership, exhibited by President Paul Kagame. He has been vilified, threatened with arrests (by France), labeled as a dictator, etc., but he has stayed steadfast and liberated his country from anarchy. If Africa would have ten only of his kind……! Africa has a lot to learn from Rwanda’s progress. Indeed, Rwanda, Never Again!