"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


why Rwanda's facade of reconciliation is dangerous

Timothy Kalyegira hits the nail on the head:
If Rwanda witnessed a mass exodus of part of its population in 1959 and a horrendous genocide in 1994, it follows that we should evaluate Rwanda’s progress not in the abundance of WiFi Internet connections, clean streets and laptop computers available in every home, but in how far these deep-rooted Hutu-Tutsi ethnic tensions have been resolved or addressed.

In Rwanda, there has been a strained effort since 1994 to blot out in total any reference to ethnicity, emphasise nationhood and focus on economic growth and management. This approach does not make sense.

If religion and ethnicity have been the driving force behind the raging civil wars and violence in the breakaway regions of Europe and the Caucuses in and since the 1990s - places that, presumably, had been turned into wholly secular and Socialist in belief for 45 to 74 years - how realistically can we claim that in the much more agrarian and rural African society, just 16 years from an appalling genocide, tensions between Tutsi and Hutu have eased?

Rwanda’s top priority and the image it projects to the world should be over matters of reconciliation and the attainment of real harmony between the Hutu and Tutsi. Ethnic tensions had lain hidden for decades in Europe, only to erupt in the 1990s. Between 1959 and 1994, there seemed to be a stable situation in Rwanda.

What is to prevent this ethnic hostility going underground for another 20 years, only to erupt again? Facing up to this aspect of the country’s history is what matters the most, not the mechanical, policy, administrative, logistical side. Certainly not beautiful flowers or street lights or nice pavements.
Beautifully put. This is exactly why I worry about the Rwandan government's increasingly tight grasp on the country's political space. For years, the RPF have put on a lovely show for the donors, journalists, missionaries, and politicians who pass through to admire the country's astonishing beauty and talk of reconciliation without asking too many questions.

But it's a facade. Tensions are boiling under the surface - both between Hutus and Tutsis and within those communities - and there is a very serious possibility that those tensions will again erupt into violence. More likely than not, as has been the case since the genocide, the next round of violence resulting from this tension will probably play out not on Rwandan soil but rather in the DRC. The elections scheduled for August 9 will be largely a sham; by not allowing any significant opposition candidates from parties not aligned with the RPF to register, Kagame has guaranteed his own re-election. And resentment of his policies will continue to grow among the Hutu majority.

By pretending that ethnicity doesn't exist - which nobody in Rwanda actually believes - rather than having open and honest discussions about everything that happened during the civil war and the genocide, as well as Rwanda's role in the wars in Congo-Zaire - Rwanda's government is playing with fire.


Blogger evan said...

a friend recently linked me your blog and I really like it. It shows how much time and effort you put in to make a really interesting read.
I agree, I think, with most of this. I am currently living in Rwanda and agree with how much a facade the whole reconciliation deal is and yeah everyone thinks the whole "were all Rwandans" and most know how bad things can get if they say anything bad about Kagame. For a while I thought there would be return to violence but I am starting to second guess these thoughts. I have been surprised to hear how many reprisal killings there each year see lots tension under the surface but I dont see it boiling over. Yeah people are mad, yeah people aren't reconciled but I think everyones livelihoods are too strong to throw them into violence. I feel like people say yeah, its way unfair, yeah I'm mad but you know what, I can put food on the table every night and in some form or fashion, I can pay my kids school fee and that trumps unsettled feeling for now. If Rwandas economy dropped out, we would certainly have another story but for now, I dont see things going too far down hill soon. But please, I would love to hear more from the other side of the lake kivu.

Thursday, July 15, 2010 6:48:00 AM

Anonymous James.T.King said...


While i think economic progress is generally a factor which discourages civil strife, we need to look closely at the situation in Rwanda before applying that standard.

I've lived here for more than 6 years. i speak the language and my neighbors are my friends, family, trusted confidants. I really am rooting for Rwanda to thrive and succeed in the future. The economic progress the nation has made is impressive, but it is also contained to a small select element of society. The growth and prosperity deepens the economic division between classes remains threatening to the future of the country. Historically, politicians have used these divides to magnify tribal tensions.

it is only a handful of the people who are really benefiting from the new found prosperity. life in most areas of the country are not much different today than they were 6 years ago. The exception being the political elite. Who continue to prosper and thrive. (Also, Kigali is a much more comfortable place for Muzungus to live...i think to cloud of a Disney World that it is causes people to forget what is all around them. People are stuggling to put food on the table, much less send kids to school. while the service economy growth is triving the agriculture economy (which 87% of the population rely on) is stagnant.

I also know many people on the edges of the political elite who have lost jobs, seen the kids thrown out of school, had lands taken, and friends arrested simply because they were becoming too successful and they come from the wrong ethnic background. It may be hard to see these things from the surface. But they happen every day.

if you want to encourage long term change and see people feeling that their economic opportunities are enough to avoid conflict then everyone needs the same access. That is just not the case here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010 7:23:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Tensions are boiling under the surface" How do you know?

"both between Hutu and Tutsi and within those communities" Apart from the usual resentment from people against others who are doing better than them, what is this?

"there is a very serious possibility that those tensions will erupt into violence" And how do we know that? Is Rwanda now the same as it was in 1959 and 1994? It is not. Are you saying that Rwandans are programmed to kill each other based upon so-called ethnic groupings and have no regard at all for peace, the interests of their children and the development gains that give people hope that was not there before? Really?

"the next round of violence resulting from this tension will probably play out in the DRC" explain please

"And resentment of his policies will continue to grow among the Hutu majority"
what resentment of his policies? are you saying they want more corruption and less development? and what do they want instead? what are the different policies of the FDU/Green/Imberaku parties? apart from the obvious ethnic card that Ingabire would like to play - her backers' plan is to destabilise - what is it that they want that causes the alleged resentment?

This is just more "we know best" stuff that always comes from outside Rwanda isn't it?

Thursday, July 15, 2010 7:30:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"life in most areas of the country are not much different today from six years ago"

really? mutuelle de sante health insurance? mobile phones? new roads? reduced malaria? reduced incidence of HIV? 9 years free education? girinka? one laptop per child?

life is still very hard for most people and there is poverty but to say that nothing has changed for the rural poor - implying that the gov't does nothing for them - is not correct. yes there is a long way to go but will everyone give it all up for violence?

Thursday, July 15, 2010 7:37:00 AM

Anonymous PDX Pete said...

If you believe the 1994 genocide was a spontaneous eruption of ethnic hate, then the deep rooted ethnic tensions will certainly emerge again when there is a catalyst.

If you believe that the genocide was not spontaneous, but planned a program by politicians, then it is the quality of leadership at any given time that will determine the future of Rwanda.

Friday, July 16, 2010 1:36:00 AM

Anonymous Zach said...

Full disclosure: I am the first respondant's roommate and colleague. We live in rural northeastern Rwanda and teach at a secondary school (not Kigali, thankfully).

I also concur with most of the original post. Ethnicity is not being dealt with in an open and honest manner, and this fact does not bode well for Rwanda's future.

However, I'm not sure Rwanda is ready for an open dialogue about the genocide, ethnicity, and socio-economic division. For such an exercise to be successful on a national level, there should be some preconditions met.

Foremost in my mind is education. Rwanda's education system, like its political system, is a facade. It gives the appearance of increasingly strong academic achievement, and thus presumably economic development (the basis for the first respondant's argument).

The reality is plainly obvious to anyone directly or indirectly plugged into the education sector. I firmly believe that my students (and many our colleagues, friends, and other acquaintances) do not possess the requisite skills to have candid, informed, and critical discussions about ethnicity, among other important topics. That, obviously, is just my anecdotal experience.

So, then, what is to be done? I agree wholeheartedly there has to be a different political solution, but it's far from clear what exactly should change. Meanwhile, low educational standards will continue to undercut any conceivable program designed to reverse the problems the author so articulately describes.

I too am rooting for Rwanda, but I guess some perspective is also in order. Full disclosure is not in the interest of the Ugandan refugee RPF elite. Does that mean conflict will be the only recourse in five or ten years...maybe. But what's more, in my mind open and honest discourse in post-conflict, post-genocidal/war crime scenarios historically does not emerge until much later than Rwanda's current status (Germany, South Africa, Guatemala, Argentina, etc.).

It's all a tough call, and ultimately one Rwandans themselves will have to make.

Friday, July 16, 2010 7:20:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is slightly off the original subject but can you say more of what you think about the current state of the educational system - I am involved to the extent of knowing that the term ends a week today and am looking forward - in hope and trepidation - to seeing a number of school reports after that.

Whether the students are up to discussing ethnicity is another issue but what is the standard and (clearly things take time) what progress is being made? The gov't is putting funds and effort into education with more classrooms being built and students attending P7 to P9 who would previously have left education.

Where have we got to? Are funds for students to attend secondary school in Rwanda - and I mean rural students who go to gov't or religious schools - well spent?

Friday, July 16, 2010 9:17:00 AM

Blogger Jeremy said...

I have been led to believe that Hutus and Tutsis are not different ethnicities, but a class divide originally manufactured by and through colonialism.

Certainly, the question of indigeneity vs Hamitic migration theories (Tutsis migrating from the Horn of Africa centuries ago) seems increasingly moot.

Regardless of the truth in any of this, I wonder then, to what extent characterising animosities between the two groups as ethnic conflict helps or hinders the issue? Yes, there are two groups. Yes, there is unresolved tension beneath the surface. But doesn't framing the issue as an ethnic conflict naturalise the issue a little?

If we change the references and replace Hutu and Tutsi with English and Scottish, I think the point might become a little clearer. We would be uncomfortable referring to underlying tensions between the english and the scottish as 'ethnic'. Why then would we all too readily assume that ethnicity is in play elsewhere?

Sunday, July 18, 2010 5:52:00 AM

Anonymous Zach said...

Anonymous (and Jeremy, to a certain extent),

The government has indeed made education a priority, which is an excellent first step, broadly speaking. However, good intentions are not enough.

There will always be debates about what type of investment produces tangible "results" in education. Given what I have seen (albeit in short amount of time) and gathered from colleagues and others, there is little to no incentive to work in education. Pay is little to nonexistent in many places, resources the same, and there is no cultural status attached to being a teacher (which is obviously not unique to Rwanda or Africa, but still presents challenges nonetheless).

Without resources or committed, trained teachers, students can only progress so far (or so the conventional wisdom goes). What's more, the teachers come overwhelmingly from the same education system, thereby reinforcing the style of learning and teaching.

Simply put, Rwanda needs to reassess it's education policies, focusing especially on its curricula and funding priorities. But of course, Rwanda's budget is dominated by foreign aid, which limits the governments ability to spend, particularly spend where they want.

Anonymous, you sound like you might be involved in student sponsorships, but I won't assume too much. If so, and if you haven't already, ask your students, if you interact with them directly, about what they learn and how. Ask them about the performance and attendance of their teachers. Question them about the resources they have. See how the kids feel about the conditions of their schools.

Jeremy, consider the cognitive implications of the thought exercise you propose. Of course the divide was manufactured; many of my students (or anyone else for that matter) can tell you this. But that doesn't mean they can engage in rational, clear-headed discussion outside the confines of a closed political system based on ethnicity (which the current system almost certainly is). Your point is valid but ultimately seem too academic at this point in time. Although I am relatively new to Rwanda, I just don't see the conditions on the ground for it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010 11:46:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the documentary I watched makes more sense. It explains the origins of the problems and this started with our colonisator(Belgium)...it's exactly the same thing that happened with the Katangese and Kasaians in Congo, the Zulus and Xhosas in South Africa...

Sunday, July 18, 2010 5:09:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


A few weeks ago there was a major discussion on this blog about Aid and one of the conclusions was that donors need to understand more about how donees/beneficiaries think. And I take that on board. It is not easy but clearly we need to do more.

On the limited number of occasions that I have spoken face to face with young students "from the village" they have said very little. I find that Rwandans are not great at communicating info anyway but anyone from the city or from the diaspora or a muzungu is very much a munyamahanga (foreigner).

There seems to be a certain amount of awe or respect for those providing valuable sponsorship which curbs tongues. Also there may be thoughts as to what I want to hear. There is a reluctance to give us bad news or news that we might not like. People cover up for each other.

I suspect that a student would not tell me if his school is bad for fear that I would decide to stop sponsorship.

Like anywhere else, there are efforts to get students into "good" schools. You need to be a detective to find out about the school from afar. Students change schools without telling/asking us and need persuading to move to a "better school". As with many things in Rwanda "getting to the bottom of things" is not easy.

Thanks for your suggestions. I will see what I can find out. There are already complaints about the food of course, standard for boarding schools everywhere.

Monday, July 19, 2010 6:16:00 AM


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