How building 'Rwandan-ness' helped the country recover from the 1994 genocide

Thirty years ago, propaganda and racialised history contributed to a catastrophe, but Rwandans have rebuilt on a platform of national unity and reconciliation

Men bury a coffin containing the newly discovered remains of a victim of the 1994 Rwanda genocide at a memorial in the capital, Kigali. The country is still coming to terms with the brutal violence 30 years ago that the UN estimates claimed more than a million lives. AFP
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The genocide perpetrated against Rwanda’s Tutsi community, which began 30 years ago on Sunday, was something largely made possible by the racist propaganda that was directed against that community beforehand. Racism in this case could be best defined using the words of French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi: “the widespread valorisation of real or imaginary difference for the benefit of the accuser and to the detriment of his victim to justify aggression or privilege”.

Killing more than a million people requires the kind of organisation that only state structures can provide. In Rwanda’s case, the racist propaganda against the Tutsi was conveyed through speeches made by presidents, and politicians of all stripes, at party meetings as well as through the media, school programmes and songs.

This propaganda was inspired by a history of Rwanda that was built on a racial ideology constructed in western Europe between the end of 18th century and the beginning of the 20th, and which was applied to Africa as a strategy for managing colonised societies. Such a history was not constructed from authentic Rwandan sources. The poet, historian and Catholic priest Alexis Kagame adopted a comparable method in his 1943 history of ancient Rwandans called Inganji Karinga (The Victorious Drums) but later clarified that his sources had not been collected from within Rwandan society.

The application of racial ideology to Rwanda consisted of transforming social identities into racial identities. This focus on race pervaded the settlement history of Rwanda, the physical characteristics of the population, their economic activities, their sociopolitical status as well as their psychological characteristics. These interpretations were, of course, false. But, as British social scientist Michael Banton has noted, opinions on the character of a “race” – whether true or false – have always had great social significance, particularly when a given category is designated according to racial terminology. Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda were presented as different races that were absolutely opposed to each other despite these identities having much in common, such as territory, customs and a spoken language, Kinyarwanda.

Rwanda’s journey over the past 30 years teaches political leaders at all levels to stop violence and to reconstruct society by building a policy of unity. The first essential principle is to promote the construction of a national history based on a variety of sources and objective analysis. Such history counters preconceived ideas and hate speech created by racial ideology channelled into racist propaganda. The second principle is to promote the fight against corruption and ensure a fair distribution of wealth. Political leaders must avoid revenge, racialising society, marginalising a social category or indulging in nepotism and other illegal privileges.

It is important to redefine Rwandan identity and build a shared sense of “Rwandanness”, while preserving memory, truth, justice, confessions and forgiveness

It is possible for ethnic groups to share a state by building strong institutions that can transcend division by promoting good education and ethnic flexibility. The method adopted by Rwanda’s leaders was to establish the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in 1999, five years after the genocide.

This commission was assigned several responsibilities that included preparing and co-ordinating national programmes aimed at promoting national unity and reconciliation; establishing and promoting mechanisms for restoring and strengthening the unity and reconciliation of Rwandans; educating the population on national unity and reconciliation; as well as tackling actions, publications and utterances that promote any kind of division, discrimination, intolerance or xenophobia.

The national unity and reconciliation process witnessed in Rwanda should be a cornerstone of national development efforts and forms the basis for combating all types of discrimination and exclusion. According to Fatuma Ndangiza, the former executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, it is the only option for the survival for Rwanda as a nation emerging from genocide and a divided past, and that is moving towards a reconciled and democratic future.

This is why it is important to redefine Rwandan identity and build a shared sense of “Rwandanness”, while preserving memory, truth, justice, confessions and forgiveness. It is also vital to be inspired by those positive Rwandan cultural values that have become monumental in the country’s conflict-resolution mechanisms, citizenship building, good governance and economic empowerment.

In a speech delivered in January by Jean Damascene Bizimana, Rwanda’s Minister of National Unity and Civic Engagement, it was stated that more than 90 per cent of the country’s people believe that political decisions such as removing a person’s ethnic group from their ID card, the setting up of a new Rwandan military and establishing alternatives to prison for those who confessed to involvement in the genocide have all contributed to an increasing sense of national unity and reconciliation.

The unity and reconciliation commission in Rwanda took its inspiration in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established in South Africa following the end of apartheid. The objective of the South African body was to promote national unity and reconciliation in a spirit of understanding that could transcend the conflict and division of the past. Rwanda has shown how people can embrace such a policy to effectively overcome the toxic legacy of artificial racial divisions inculcated during colonial rule.

Published: April 07, 2024, 1:00 PM