Beyond Rwanda’s killing fields: A country in recovery

While Rwanda is remembered for the 1994 genocide, John Hearne looks at how the country has made strides under Paul Kagame, a president not without his share of controversy

RWANDA has no right to be held up as a success story. It is a tiny, landlocked country right at the heart of central Africa. Unlike its largest neighbour, Congo, which is rich in copper, gold and diamonds, Rwanda has no mineral wealth.

It is vastly oversupplied with people. Only a little larger than Munster, it has a population of more than 12m, most of whom are dirt-poor subsistence farmers.

Twenty years ago, Rwanda was torn apart by a genocide that saw 800,000 of its people killed in little more than a hundred days. The international community turned its back as the Hutu majority turned against the minority Tutsi and began a process of systematic extermination that only ended when the Tutsi-led Rwandan People’s Front (RPF) ousted the incumbent government.

The brutality of what happened is difficult to come to terms with even now. Those destined to be killed were rounded up in schools and churches and hacked to death with machetes, often by people with whom they had lived side by side for years. Women were raped and tortured. The stories that emerged from those three horrific months are nightmarish and scarcely believable. The new administration, itself beset by infighting, inherited a deeply traumatised society and an economy that had ceased to function.

Twenty years on the reversal of fortune is hard to credit. In 1994, life expectancy was 36. It is now 56. Hundreds of new schools and hospitals have been built. The capital, Kigali, is ringed in the most up to date fibre optic cable while tourists talk about the bustle, cleanliness and safety of the city.

The economy itself has achieved massive growth in the past 13 years. World Bank reports talk about “remarkable development success”. Between 2001 and 2012, real GDP growth averaged 8.1%per annum. The poverty rate dropped from 59% in 2001 to 45% in 2011.

If the Rwandan constitution, adopted in May 2003, is anything to go by, what we have here is a model of constitutional democracy. Article 9 lists six fundamental principles, which include “fighting the ideology of genocide and all its manifestations; eradication of ethnic, regional and other divisions and promotion of national unity”.

It also cites the importance of power sharing, pluralistic democracy, building a state committed to social welfare and “the constant quest for solutions through dialogue and consensus”.

One of its most striking features is its provision that women be granted at least 30% of posts in decision making organs. Susan Thomson is a long time Rwanda scholar and assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University in New York. “The government,” she explains, “has a very sophisticated discourse that more men participated in the genocide, women are more peaceful, so obviously the future of Rwanda is in having more women in parliament.”

Moreover, because more men were killed than women, there’s an entrenched gender imbalance in the population which has yet to work itself out. Sixty per cent of the people are women.

During the last parliamentary term, from 2008 to 2013, Rwanda had the highest number of women in any parliament in the world, at 56% representation. In September 2013 elections, 64% of the seats were won by female candidates. It’s an astonishing statistic, one that makes the established bastions of liberalism and equality like Sweden and Norway look positively medieval.

Is it all too good to be true? The answer to this, and to almost all questions about Rwanda’s recovery from genocide lead inexorably to the president. Paul Kagame is the military commander who lead the RPF to victory in the civil war, and the man who emerged from the post genocide chaos as Rwanda’s first and only leader since the killing stopped. It’s his portrait that adorns the offices of all government officials; there is scarcely a social or economic initiative that does not have his fingerprints all over it.

As far as the international political community goes, Kagame’s Rwanda is a dazzling success. In a continent where donor aid frequently disappears down a black hole of corruption, western governments can point at Rwanda and say, ‘Look what can be done’. Tony Blair has called Kagame a visionary, Bill Clinton, a man beset by guilt over his failure to act during the genocide, has trumpeted him as one of “the greatest leaders of our time”. At Davos, Kagame rubs shoulders with Bill Gates and Bono. He has toured American and European universities, picking up honorary doctorates on the way.

Last May, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commended him with this: “I hope many African nations will emulate what Rwanda is doing.”

Within Rwanda too, you will find little criticism of the president, but it is that lack that gives the game away. You are not in a constitutional democracy in northern Europe, you’re in a small African state run by an ex-soldier, currently on his second seven year term in office, and highly likely to amend the constitution to facilitate a third.

As you delve deeper into the story of Rwanda’s recovery, you find a lot that doesn’t quite flatter the lean, austere figure who leads his country. Take those female representation rates. While they’re entirely real, they’re not that real at all. “The political space remains very narrow,” says Susan Thomson. “It operates basically at the hand of Paul Kagame. Parliamentarians, whether male or female, have very little power.”

There is no real political opposition in Rwanda. During those September elections, the ruling RPF, on the face of it, outmanoeuvred nine other parties, but the reality was that it was in comfortable coalition with four of those while most of the others are led by cabinet ministers loyal to the president.

In the 19 years since the Rwandan Patriotic Front took power, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, prosecutions, killings, torture, enforced disappearances, threats, harassment, and intimidation against government opponents and critics.

Patrick Karegeya, a prominent exiled Rwandan dissident, was found murdered in South Africa in January 2014.

Only last week, South African police reported the third unsuccessful attempt on the life of a former Rwandan army chief of staff Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa who fell out of favour with Kagame five years ago and fled to Johannesburg.

There is little doubt that many of Kagame’s initiatives have improved the lives of his people. Malaria used to be a huge killer, but in the six years between 2005 and 2011, malaria deaths fell by 85% thanks to a mosquito net distribution programme. Initiatives like this, plus the establishment of a national health insurance programme have helped infant mortality fall by 70%.

Improving Rwanda’s image and driving investment is also central to Kagame’s vision for his country. Rwanda is currently ranked 32nd. Last year it was 54th. In 2005, it was 158th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business annual rating.

Other initiatives are a little more Orwellian. A recent government campaign sought the eradication of all grass-roofed huts in the country. Another banned people from dressing in dirty clothes, or sharing straws when drinking, even while at home.

Susan Thomson says too that, yes, things have improved for some of Rwanda’s people, but only some.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the RPF is largely staffed by people who returned to Rwanda since the genocide and those people tend to do better because they’re more loyal to the current government. When you see the images of Kigali, it’s amazing. There’s incredible infrastructure, there’s an airport ongoing, new road works, internet hotspots, they put a lot of money into tourism. Lots of these things are done for western edification, to please the western eye, but as soon as you leave the urban areas, things are very difficult.”

The country is still very poor; the average Rwandan lives on little more than a euro a day, while population growth trajectories indicate that the overcrowding and the consequent scramble for resources will only get worse. Thompson believes that many of Kagame’s initiatives have only the veneer of progressiveness and are deeply flawed.

“The population are rural peasants, and the government says we need to be a middle income country, let’s be a service economy. The people don’t have the education; the average education for a rural peasant is 3rd grade [about third class], they don’t even speak English.”

Nor has Kagame left his military past behind him. A UN investigation revealed last year that Rwandan troops crossed into the Congo to fight on the side of the rebel group, M23, a notorious militia, implicated in murder and gang rape. Though Kagame rejected the UN findings, the US reacted promptly by cutting $200,000 in military aid. This was the soldier president’s first black mark from what had, up until that point, been an adoring international community.

Image matters deeply to Kagame. In 2011, the government signed a £600,000 a year contract with London PR company Racepoint.

The contract makes for fascinating reading. It pays tribute to the president for his success in transforming the country but acknowledges that Rwanda suffers an image problem. In addition to the being known as the centre of one of history’s worst genocides, it is “bundled into the host of poverty stricken nations that western celebrities like Bono, George Clooney and others draw attention to as in need of western aid and intervention”.

Human Rights Watch is another thorn in the country’s side. The NGO we are told, continues “to advance a story of an unstable Rwanda as a means of continuing to attract donors and wield influence in the region”.

The PR campaign sought to negate “the misinformation being pedaled (sic) by expats, NGOs and others with a vested interest in creating an image of Rwanda as a failed state”.

As you would expect from the pricetag, this was a multifaceted campaign, targeting global financial and political elites, harnessing digital and social media as well as the established print and broadcast media.

No PR budget however will be big enough to eclipse the horror of what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago.



Rwandan refugee children plead with Zairian soldiers to let them cross a bridge to rejoin their mothers who had crossed moments before the soldiers closed the border on August 20, 1994, in Bukavu, Zaire.

The ethnic differences between Hutus and Tutsis, Rwanda’s largest ethnic groups, deepened during the colonial era when German colonists, believing that the lighter-skinned Tutsis were better suited to administration, favoured them above Hutus.

Control of the state passed to the Belgians after World War I. They brought large-scale engineering, health and education works but maintained the Tutsi supremacy. It was also the Belgians who introduced the identity card system which would be used to such devastating effect by the killers in 1994. These cards listed the ethnicity of the holder, and solidified the divisions between the two groups.

Subsequent years saw a groundswell of Hutu discord which culminated in the Rwandan revolution of 1959. This effectively inverted power structures in the country. As the Hutu took over, many Tutsi fled to neighbouring countries to escape violent purges. Through the eighties and early 90s, ex-patriot Tutsis frequently reorganised and attempted to retake power in Rwanda and finally a full-scale civil war erupted in 1991, instigated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) lead by current president Paul Kagame.

An uneasy peace was declared two years later with the arrival of a UN peace keeping force in the country. At that point, president Juvenal Habyarimana had led the country for nearly 20 years. The peace did not last. War had inflamed ethnic tensions and led to the rapid growth of a rump of hardline Hutu organisations. The army began supplying these groups with weapons from the early 90s, while the groups themselves began compiling lists of traitors whom it intended to kill. A new radio station, RTLM became hugely popular, broadcasting racist propaganda against Tutsis, while machetes and razors were imported on a huge scale.

The spark came with the shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 1994.

Though Hutu extremists are generally considered to have been responsible,these extremists blamed Tutsi rebels.

A crisis committee of army officers now assumed power, preventing the accession of prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimanas who was constitutional successor to the assassinated president.

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