Rwanda still divided 20 years after genocide

UN holds day of remembrance for victims of Rwandan conflict

Dominic MacSorley, CEO of Concern Worldwide, headed the Concern team in Rwanda in the immdiate aftermath of the genocide. He visits a church where 5,000 people were massacred, whose bodies and clothing serve a reminder of the event. Video: Concern


Today is United Nations Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwanda Genocide.

The country’s president, Paul Kagame, has just completed a European tour, including a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin last week. While in Ireland he donated €50,000 to help build a robot for Cork teenager Joanne O’Riordan.

When Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ended the genocide by invading Rwanda in July 1994, it was the beginning of a new era. He was only two years old when his parents left Rwanda, and many in the diaspora had never set foot there before 1994.

Their return has created a new divide, between those who never left Rwanda, and “the Ugandans”, who form the elite in politics, business and the public service. English – not spoken by the majority of Rwandans – is now an official language and the country has aligned itself with English-speaking East Africa.

The tiny, mountainous state has the world’s highest percentage of women parliamentarians, with 64 per cent women in its lower house. The country has better roads and mobile telecoms penetration than most African countries but lacks natural resources.

According to a government spokesperson: “Rwanda’s long- term development goals are embedded in its Vision 2020, which seeks to transform Rwanda from a low-income agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based service-oriented economy by 2020.”

Free healthcare

The population’s health has vastly improved. Deaths of under-fives dropped from 230 to 55 per 1,000 live births between 1998 and 2012, while citizens are entitled to free healthcare, accounting for 24 per cent of the national budget.

About 40 per cent of that budget comes from international aid. Early in 2013 major donors such as the UK and US temporarily suspended aid in protest at Rwanda’s involvement in the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, in which up to 5.4 million people have died.

Hutu militias who fled Rwanda in 1994 remain in eastern Congo, and the Rwandan administration sponsored the M23 militia’s operations there until it was defeated by a beefed-up UN force last year.

Since then, Rwanda’s international relations have changed. Over the weekend, President Kagame called on France to explain its role in the genocide. France’s justice minister has withdrawn from today’s commemoration.

Last month, Pascal Simbikangwa was the first person convicted in France of participating in the genocide; and up to 20 cases await trial there.

In March, six Rwandan diplomats were expelled from South Africa after an attack on exiled Rwandan Lt Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa. Former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was murdered in Johannesburg in January. Both were once close to Kagame.

The Rwandan best known to many westerners – Paul Rusesabagina, on whose book the film Hotel Rwanda was based – told T he Irish Times his home in Brussels has been ransacked five times by Rwandan operatives. He left Rwanda in 1996 after an assassination attempt.

A pro-government journalist based in Kigali, Fred Mwasa, declined to be interviewed for this article due to Rusesabagina featuring in it.

The regime now rubbishes the story told in Hotel Rwanda , although Kagame attended the Rwandan premiere in 2004 and thanked director Terry George for telling the story. Rusesabagina says the fact he is a Hutu meant his story did not fit with the RPF narrative .

In Rwanda, public dissent is minimal. A government spokesperson said elections are peaceful, free and fair, and that there have been “several major reforms” aimed at ensuring media freedom over the last two years.

Opposition spokesperson Victoire Ingabire has been in prison since April 2010. A Hutu, she was found guilty of “belittling the genocide” after questioning why Kigali’s genocide memorial did not mention the moderate Hutus killed.

Kagame’s second term as president expires in 2017. He is barred by Rwanda’s constitution – which he wrote – from running again.

Asked whether this provision may change, a government spokesperson said speculating about the elections was not a priority currently.

Mary, a Rwandan living in Ireland, has mixed feelings on Kagame.

“There will be loads of bloodshed when Kagame goes. He is not going to go easy,” she said.

“He’s a dictator but at the same time he’s a good leader, he loves his country. Regardless of his political views and how he runs the country politically he’s very much there as a leader, especially businesswise: he is trying to build the country back up.”


Silence and fear
Human Rights Watch is the only human rights organisation with a permanent presence in Rwanda. Its researcher Carina Tsertsakian – who was thrown out of the country in 2010 – does not buy into the stability argument.

“In the longer or medium term it is not possible to build stability and peace on the basis of silence and fear. People in Rwanda are very fearful all the time. Some of that is the legacy of the genocide – 20 years is a very short time and it’s unrealistic to expect people to be smiley and happy all the time,” she said.

“But in addition to that trauma and fear it’s a very repressive and authoritarian government and that is adding another layer of fear.”

She is concerned that the aid suspensions of 2013 were solely focussed on Rwanda’s foreign policy.

“Almost half of Rwanda’s national budget is foreign aid: it could make a difference if donors expressed concern but western governments are generally very reluctant to speak publicly on this. It’s partly guilt about the genocide and it’s partly because Rwanda is one of very few aid ‘success’ stories in Africa.”

A spokesperson for Áras an Uachtaráin said President Michael D Higgins and President Kagame discussed issues including “the challenges of human rights in development”.

Mary says this isn’t good enough.

“It’s going to be too late again when the world realises what’s going on in Rwanda. And it’ll be worse than 1994.”

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