Rwanda : 18 years on


18 years ago today, on April 6th 1994, an aeroplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down by a missile as it approached Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

There are several theories to explain what happened that night, and we may never know the full story, but it was the spark for one of the most tragic events in a century that provided fierce competition. Three and a half months later, up to 1 million people, mainly Tutsis, were dead; which represented 1 in 7 of the Rwandan population.

The Rwandan genocide inevitably left the country economically, politically, socially and psychologically crippled. So how has Rwanda developed since?

It must be said, in many respects, Rwanda has made a remarkable turnaround, and if we look at it purely from a development point of view, it is one of the few countries in Africa to find its feet with such confidence after widespread unrest.

The government has placed development at the centre of its priorities and achieved measurable success. One of its most notable achievements is in poverty reduction; the number of people below the poverty line has reduced by 12% in five years, from 56.7% in 2006 to 44.9% in 2011.

There has also been a notable improvement in school attendance in the last five years. Primary school attendance 87% in 2005-6 to 92% in 2010-11, and secondary school attendance doubled from 10.4% to 20.9% over the same time period.

This was particularly boosted by the 2009 implementation of nine years free basic education, which as a result of its success was extended to twelve years in February 2012.

There have also been dramatic improvements in access to clean drinking water, maternal and child mortality rates and access to vaccinations (though malnutrition, particularly among children, remains a serious problem).

Many of the improvements have been attributed to the rapid economic growth which in recent years has frequently topped 8%; indeed, in 2011 it was 8.8%.

Kigali Rwanda today

Contributing factors have been a notable improvement in agricultural production and national infrastructure; the slowing of the population growth; and an increase in non-farm wages and income transfers.

The country has also used trade and diplomacy very effectively, forging ever closer ties with other countries in Africa, and gaining entry to the Commonwealth in 2009 along with all the trade advantages that come with it. Foreign investment has increased rapidly and the country is increasingly viewed as one of Africa’s safest places to “do business.”

Rwanda’s economic trajectory has been met with widespread applause, but the country inevitably faces a number of challenges.

The president is Paul Kagame, who rose to prominence as leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), whose victory over the incumbent government and the Hutu militias effectively put an end to the genocide in July 1994.

While the Kagame government has been undeniably successful in its handling of the economy, the president is a controversial figure who faces criticism for his human rights record. Rwanda is a de facto one-party state, and economic growth has not been accompanied by political freedoms.

Much of the reasoning for this can be put down to an understandable paranoia about potential unrest, but the criticism has been serious enough that The Economist went as far as arguing that Kagame’s government “allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe.”

Political opponents are often silenced through arrests, assassinations, sackings and expulsion from the country. In the lead-up to the 2010 election Kagame’s main opponent, Victoire Ingabire was arrested and jailed along with his American lawyer, and the acting editor of a national newspaper was shot after publishing an article criticising the president’s regime. Such occurrences are not uncommon around election time.

The government has also been criticised for its interference in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwanda initially invaded the DRC in 1997, ostensibly to protect its borders and counteract the Hutu militias. Since then, it has sent troops several times (including as recently as 2009) and intervened by providing support to militia groups in the DRC.

Some have argued that security concerns have been used as an excuse to exploit its neighbour’s resources (and it has indeed profited handsomely from Congo’s minerals) and accused Rwandan troops of exacerbating the conflict and committing serious human rights violations.

The psychological scars of the traumatic events of 1994 are slow to heal. Rwandans refer to the survivors as “bapfuye buhagazi” or “the walking dead.” There are the many that participated in the killings, the parents who witnessed the murder of their children, the orphans that grew up after watching their parents die, the women and girls that were raped by the interahamwe, the widows, the bystanders, the Hutu refugees who never returned, the innocents who were later unjustly accused and the guilty who fear discovery.

Some steps have been made towards reconciliation, particularly through judicial processes: The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has prosecuted many of those who are thought to have been most responsible for the genocide, though 10 are still at large.

The traditional community-based gacaca courts were given government endorsed responsibilities in 2005 to ease the burden on the formal court system, and have since processed over 1.2 million genocide cases. They have almost completed their work and will leave a mixed legacy; they have been responsible for some positive achievements including dealing with cases quickly and revealing extensive information about the events of 1994, but have also been criticised for violations of the right to fair trial, political interference, corruption and witness intimidation.

So, Rwanda today presents a very mixed picture; it has made great strides forward and life has improved dramatically for many people, particularly in the last five years, but material progress has sometimes been at the expense of various freedoms. One thing’s for sure though; no one would have predicted 18 years ago that Rwanda would have made it to the point it has today so quickly.

Long may such improvements continue, and hopefully with time the country will have the confidence to put human rights at the centre of its priorities along with development.

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