Rwanda: 20th Anniversary of the Genocide

The 20th anniversary ceremony at Amaharo stadium in Kigali, Rwanda, on April 7. (Photo: Derick Wolf)

Sitting in the Amahoro national stadium, it was impossible not to be deeply moved by the sight of the performers lying face down in the grass, chillingly representing the dead. From the speakers the words were projected, "Don't worry, the U.N. will come to save us." Then white actors crowded into a white Land Cruiser wearing blue berets and drove away, symbolically abandoning the country to its fate. Then members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ran out onto the field and chased off the Interahamwe, thus ending the genocide. The emotional outpouring of grief was overwhelming, but there was also another emotion in the crowd that this author found striking: pride. Pride in what Rwanda has achieved despite all the odds stacked against it. Twenty years ago, most political scientists would say, Rwanda was doomed to become another Somalia, but the country escaped that fate. Rwandans should be proud of their accomplishments, but if they are going to have a viable future they need to have a more honest narrative of what happened after the RPF chased the génocidaires out of the country.

First-time visitors to Rwanda are often struck by how clean the sidewalks and streets are in Kigali. It helps that all plastic bags have been banned in the country. Walking around the city late at night, pedestrians feel safe, un-accosted by beggars. Locals are always courteous and incredibly polite. This author even dropped his wallet, only to have a pedestrian return it to him and refuse to take any financial reward for his honest behavior. GDP growth has averaged 8 percent a year, and new shopping malls and modern buildings are being erected on seemingly every hill in Kigali. Politically, Rwanda's parliament is the first in the world to have a majority of women in its chambers. Rwanda is also one of the few African countries to break with cultural norms and strongly promote family planning. It is a major tech hub with some of the fastest Internet connections in Africa. The government is also promoting an ambitious economic agenda titled Vision 2020 to bring Rwanda into the 21st century. Even on Rwanda's money, you see young boys and girls wearing ties and studiously working on their laptops.

All of this is intentionally designed to project the image the government wishes the world to see. The message is clear: Rwanda is now safe, clean and prosperous. It is a place to do business, attract FDI and welcoming to tourists who can see some of the last mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. For these accomplishments the people of Rwanda should indeed be proud, but there are many things that will not be said during the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide.

If one were to venture down the top of Kigali's hills and start wandering down the unpaved roads to the local communities below, a different world is evident. In the valleys between the hills you will find primarily women working in subsistence agriculture to support their families. Looking up from the bottom of the hill to the top, you can see the social stratification between the different economic classes. Perhaps most startling, not all of these valleys are devoted to agriculture. Amidst the poverty is a golf course catering to Western and Asian businessmen with African caddies. Compared to other slums—in, say, Kibera in Kenya or a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—Rwandan slums are very clean, safe and have better access to drinking water, but very little electricity. Rwandans should feel a sense of pride in their economic progress, level of development and clean streets, but not all the economic growth is trickling down.

While the topic of ethnicity is an obvious and perhaps necessary taboo in conversation, a sizable portion of the Hutu population born after the genocide is being left behind. Economic inequality is coupled with political exclusion. The Tutsi-dominated government is naturally paranoid of its own population—evidenced by the ubiquitous network of spies present in every major place of social gathering—and operates a highly efficient authoritarian regime. Many Hutus remain silent out of feelings of collective guilt similar to that of the German people after World War II. Surprisingly, this self-censorship is not limited to the local population but also to the more astute expatriates. One remarked to me, "You never know who is listening." Many defend the authoritarian nature of the government because they see it as an unavoidable necessity given Rwanda's history. One defender of the government said to me, "The ruling elite has every reason to fear they will go to bed one night and wake up with a machete at their throats. Under such circumstances, can you really blame them?"

After the Rwandan genocide, there has been a concerted effort to eliminate the idea of Hutu and Tutsi identities and promote national unity by saying, "We are all Rwandans." These efforts are laudable in principle in order to create social cohesion and heal the rifts within Rwandan society, but these efforts appear to have stumbled. Reading the official newspaper of Rwanda, The New Times, you will find highly disturbing political rhetoric. One article that stood out from the rest of the propaganda tried to rebrand the Rwandan genocide as "the genocide against the Tutsi." The article read, "The Hutu were not in hiding for three months, they were not forced to drink urine, they were not subjected to seeing their parents burned alive. It's true that some Hutu were also killed, but not because of who they were, but rather because of either their opinions or sympathies for the Tutsi." The Rwandan genocide was one of the worst tragedies in the 20th century, but only emphasizing the deaths of 500,000 Tutsi and ignoring the 300,000 Hutus who died is a recipe for conflict and a disservice to all the victims and survivors. One colleague said to me after he read the article, "My father was a Hutu and he died because his friends were Tutsis. He tried to protect them. Are you telling me my father's death doesn't count?"

President Paul Kagame is publically hailed by much of the West as a great statesmen, a healer of a broken nation who has brought peace and prosperity to his people. Privately in Washington, Brussels and London, the attitude towards Kagame's government is shifting. The West and indeed the political leadership of the United Nations was willing to overlook many of Kagame's abuses out of a sense of their own guilt for failing to stop the genocide and because Kagame's rule seemed to be moving the country in the right direction. Kagame's international credit card of good will, however, appears to have expired regarding Rwanda's role in the Congo Wars. In many ways, the Rwandan civil war never ended; it simply crossed the border into Congo/Zaire.

The Congo Wars from 1996 to 2003 are estimated to have killed more than 5 million people. No one is entirely sure of the exact death toll, in part because the United Nations waited until 2010 to publish the results of its report, and only after of it was leaked to the global press. Part of the reason there has been virtually no media attention about the Congo Wars is that, unlike the Rwandan genocide, the deaths were slow, consistent, spread out over a longer period of time and relatively "quiet." The majority of the deaths in the Congo were not a direct result of violence but rather its bi-product: displacement, starvation and disease. Furthermore, the Congo wars involved more than nine African armies and dozens of local and foreign militias. The Rwandan army under Paul Kagame was the primary occupier and exploiter of the Congo, but there were many accomplices, among them President Museveni of Uganda, another close ally of the West. While the Congo Wars have formally ended, they have continued through proxy forces for years, and the illegal trade in Congo's conflict minerals continues to this day. These illegal revenues act as an efficient source of non-traceable revenue outside the government budget that has been funneled to the military and the RPF's political wing. The RPF then launders these funds into "legitimate" public companies, namely Crystal Ventures, and then deposits these funds in a Central American account.

The truth is, few in the international community wanted to condemn Kagame's government after they had so abysmally failed to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. However, their silence led to an even deadlier conflict across the border. Pragmatists also argued that if they applied economic sanctions against the Rwandan government, they would destabilize the region, apparently ignoring that the government of Rwanda has already done that quite effectively. President Kagame is going down a dangerous path. If a large part of the Hutu population of Rwanda feels that they and their children have no say in the country's economic and political future, then the current peaceful façade in Rwanda will not last. In addition, if no one in the RPF is held accountable for extrajudicial killings inside and outside Rwanda, the population will think that there is only victor's justice, which will play into the very hands of the Hutu extremists and their propaganda. It is appropriate to ban genocidal denial in Rwanda, but the current law is so broad, anyone who disagrees with the government can be arrested for promoting division.

If Kagame is smart, he will step down after his second seven-year term is completed. Kagame's rule has become increasingly erratic. Several members of his former inner political circle have turned on him, notably Patrick Karegeya and Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. Nyamwasa, a former lieutenant general, was shot in the stomach in 2010 and has now gone into exile. Karegeya, Rwanda's former intelligence chief, was recently assassinated in South Africa. These are not the actions of a stable government, but rather an increasingly desperate leader. The international community is doing no favors to the people of Rwanda by continuing to work with Kagame, who, as commander and chief and the former head of the Rwandan armed forces, is not simply a despot but also a war criminal under international law. On April 7, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon gave a clear and heartfelt apology to the people of Rwanda on behalf of the. If the international community and the United Nations are not careful, they will have more apologies to make in the near future.

Derick Wolf reported from Kigali, Rwanda.