Rwanda’s Unfinished Recovery

By Caroline Hopper and Regina Grossman

On April 6, 1994, and for the following 100 days, Rwandan men, women, and children were massacred in an orchestrated campaign of genocide. Despite overwhelming evidence of genocide, and knowledge as to its perpetrators, the international community deserted Rwanda. United Nations peacekeeping forces, mandated to not take action, stood idly and helplessly as the massacre erupted around them.

As nearly one million Rwandans were killed, 650,000 were displaced, and up to half a million women were raped, the world was silent.

This April, twenty years later, the world is no longer looking away. In fact, it seems that all eyes are on Rwanda. Earlier this month, world leaders gathered in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide. Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon spoke at the ceremony: “The resilience of the survivors almost defies belief…you have shown the world that transformation is possible.”

The Secretary General’s words reflect popular dialogue surrounding the anniversary. In many news stories, Rwanda has been hailed as “victorious”, “miraculous,” and as “Africa’s biggest success story.”

Rwanda has made immeasurable strides in recovering after a national horror, but the work is not complete. In many respects, this praise for Rwanda is absolutely deserved. At the end of the genocide, the country was left with collapsed institutions and a traumatized population. Under the efficient administration of President Paul Kagame, and with large influxes of foreign aid from a guilt-ridden international community, Rwanda has in many ways defied dismal predictions. Earlier this month, when discussing Rwanda’s success, Partners in Health cofounder, Dr. Paul Farmer, said, “I can think of no more dramatic example of a turnaround.”

Today, Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In the past twenty years, the country has achieved the highest school enrollment rates in Africa. Rwanda’s public health care is also quite remarkable, with over 90 percent health insurance coverage for citizens. There is a robust effort to move forward, and in other words, to move on from the tragedy.

This effort is evident in legislation. For example, in 2001 Rwanda set up the transitional justice system known as “gacaca” courts, established to rapidly try thousands of perpetrators and bring swift justice to victims. Another aspect of the rapid reconciliation effort is the criminalization of certain kinds discriminatory speech, reinforcing the notion that there are no Hutus or Tutsis, but rather a unified national identity – a Rwandan identity. In a very official sense, Rwanda has attempted to force the past to remain in the past.

The swiftness of this progress can leave a person breathless. Director of Women Under Siege Lauren Wolfe described in the Atlantic, “…what Rwandans endured is so extraordinarily horrifying – in terms of how many people experienced or witnessed brutal acts, and the sheer scale and speed of the killing – that the more time I spent in the country… the more I wondered how such a place could possibly go on…”

Resilience is a very powerful method for coping, but it cannot resolve the underlying destruction the country endured. Rwanda’s gacaca courts have been criticized for their inadequacy in meeting the needs of a grieving and traumatized population. In addition, the restrictions on speech, intended to keep the peace and unite the population, have the very real potential to prevent instead of promote productive discourse that could allow Rwandans to genuinely move forward together.

There’s something missing from Rwanda’s reconstruction – a culture of open dialogue. Evidence of genocide is omnipresent, but discussions about the tragedy are neatly curtailed. The topic is pushed out of Rwandan daily life, present only in their haunting memorial sites and during yearly commemorative events that take place during the 100 days that mark the anniversary of the genocide. This history is notably absent from many schools, yet evidence of its existence can be shockingly present as bones of victims are still being discovered throughout the land of a thousand hills.

What has not often been acknowledged in dialogue surrounding the 20th anniversary of the genocide is that Rwanda’s efficient social reconstruction has largely been rooted in “culture of unquestioning deference.” At the heart of this culture of unquestioning deference is “the instinct to obey rather than to choose, when told how to think or act” as described by former dean of the National University of Rwanda School of Law Jean-Marie Kamatali. He notes that this obedience, what he calls Rwandan culture’s tragic flaw, existed before the genocide, and its role in the genocide has been commonly acknowledged.

This “culture of unquestioning deference” persists in Rwandan life today. Is unmitigated obedience a potential threat to the country’s long-term stability? 

A culture of obedience happens to help Rwandans to pursue positive goals that have established a new structure and order after the genocide (for example, Umuganda, a monthly mandatory community service day). It also has allowed for much of the progress that Rwanda has seen in the economy, education systems, and in public health. However, unquestioned obedience as a cultural norm carries with it potential dangers and vulnerabilities. In analyzing the country’s state of affairs today as well as the hopes for its future stability, political actors both in Rwanda and on the global scale must recognize these vulnerabilities.

Allowing for individuals to challenge the government is essential for Rwanda’s progress. In fact, it is essential for the stability of any society. Individual thought must be nurtured to ensure that its government meets society’s needs. Furthermore, the option of dissent is vital in ensuring security. Consider, for example, the terrifying possibility that, for whatever reason, the norm might shift to again favor a divided population. A truly reformed state would have a government that is accountable to the needs and wishes of its people. In order to fulfill this duty, the government must hear the voice of the people, which simply cannot happen if public debate is stifled.

While the duty to prevent atrocity should belong first to the state, this prevention also requires collaboration between concerned states and the international community. A sovereign state has the obligation to guarantee the welfare of its people, and if the state cannot fulfill this obligation, then the responsibility to do so falls on the international community. This formal charge of responsibility is enshrined in article 1 of the Genocide Convention and embodied in the Responsibility to Protect. It was developed in part as a result of the international community’s failures surrounding Rwanda twenty years ago. Now, we must not allow ourselves to be so caught up in the celebration of Rwanda’s progress that we fail to see potential vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile, the international community has instead breathed a sigh of relief that one the worst massacres in the history of humanity, for which we so blatantly failed to intervene, has apparently cleaned itself up. Kagame has used guilt to gain powerful allies whose influential support and fervent backing have allowed for the oppression of those who disagree with the government, as well as the perpetuation of under discussed regional violence. We pat ourselves on the back that monetary investments have helped to “keep” Bill Clinton’s 1998 teary-eyed promise to “do everything in our power to help [Rwanda] build a future without fear.” However, fresh pavement should not cover up the fact that those streets were once covered in blood. We should not be so disillusioned as to think that our job here is done.

The international community’s commitment to “Never Again” should not only be visible in the face of crisis. In fact, it is in the best interest that less emphasis is placed on crisis response and more effort is given to crisis prevention. Promoting a culture of question, public discourse and healthy debate will strengthen Rwanda’s institutions. Doing so can minimize the risk of violence, improve crisis preparedness and strengthen the capacity of local and regional actors. In order to fulfill our collective duty to protect humanity from mass atrocity, the international community is responsible to fully appreciate Rwanda’s present condition. This requires looking deeper than the country’s truly remarkable accomplishments to acknowledge critical work that remains.    

This insight will be especially significant in 2017, when Kagame’s second and final presidential term is set to end. As the de-facto leader since the end of the war, Kagame is the only leader that post-genocide Rwanda has known. The anticipation surrounding the upcoming transition, including Kagame’s hints of seeking a third (and for now unconstitutional) term, has the potential to reveal Rwanda’s lingering vulnerabilities, and the international community should be prepared.



Caroline Hopper is a human rights and social justice advocate.  She has worked in Butare, Rwanda and is currently based in Washington, D.C. She received a B.A. in Political Science from George Washington University.

Regina Grossman has a MPH from the University of Michigan. She has worked and studied community health and education in Butare, Rwanda and is currently based in Washington, D.C.

[Photos courtesy of Adamn CohnJolly Jolson, and Troclaire ]  

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