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Twenty years after the Rwandan Genocide

By Scott Straus


We are now entering the month of April 2014—a time for reflection, empathy, and understanding for anyone in or involved with Rwanda. Twenty years ago, Rwandan political and military leaders initiated a series of actions that quickly turned into one of the 20th century’s greatest mass violations of human rights.

As we commemorate the genocide, our empathy needs to extend first to survivors and victims. Many families were destroyed in the genocide. Many survivors suffered enormous hardships to survive. Whatever our stand on the current state of affairs in Rwanda, we have to be enormously recognizant of the pain many endured.

In this brief post, I address three issues that speak to Rwanda today. I do so with trepidation, as discussions about contemporary Rwanda are often polarized and emotionally charged. Even though I am critical, I shall try to raise concerns with respect and recognition that there are few easy solutions.

My overall message is one of concern. At one level, Rwanda is doing remarkably and surprisingly well—in terms of security, the economy, and non-political aspects of governance. However, deep resentments and ethnic attachments persist, hardships and significant inequality remain. While it is difficult to know what people really feel, my general conclusion is that the social fabric remains tense beneath a veneer of good will. A crucial issue is that the political system is authoritarian and designed for control rather than dialogue. It is also a political system that many Rwandans believe is structured to favor particular groups over others. Fostering trust in such a political context is highly unlikely.

I also conclude that a “genocide lens” has limits for the objective of social repair. The genocide lens has been invaluable for achieving international recognition of what happened in 1994. But that lens leads to certain biases about Rwanda’s history and society that limit long-term social repair in Rwanda.

Rwandan Genocide Memorial. 7 April 2011. El Fasher: The Rwandan community in UNAMID organized the 17th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi hold in Super Camp - RWANBATT 25 Military Camp (El Fasher). Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID.

Rwandan Genocide Memorial. 7 April 2011. El Fasher: The Rwandan community in UNAMID organized the 17th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi hold in Super Camp – RWANBATT 25 Military Camp (El Fasher). Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via UNAMID Flickr.

During the past 20 years, a sea change in international recognition has occurred. Fifteen years ago, very few people knew globally that genocide took place in Rwanda. Today, the “Rwandan Genocide” is widely recognized as a world historical event. That global recognition is an achievement. We also know a great deal more about the causes and dynamics of the genocide itself.

However, several important controversies and unanswered questions remain. One is who killed President Habyarimana on 6 April 1994. Another is how to conceptualize when the plan for genocide began. Some date the plan for genocide to the late 1950s; others to the 1990s; still others to April 1994. A third question is how one should conceptualize RPF responsibility. Some depic the former rebels as saviors who stopped the genocide. Others argue that their actions were integral to the dynamics that led to genocide. And there are other issues as well, including how many were killed. Each of these issues remains intensely debated and hopefully will be the subject of open-minded inquiry in the years to come.

Contemporary Rwanda is at one level inspiring. The government is visionary, ambitious, and accomplished. The plan is to transform the society, economy, and culture—and to wean the state from foreign aid. The government has successfully introduced major reforms. The tax system is much improved. Public corruption is virtually absent. Remarkable results in public health and the economy have been achieved. Public security is also dramatically improved.

But there is a dark side. Most importantly, the government is repressive. The government seeks to exercise control over public space, especially around sensitive topics—in politics, in the media, in the NGO sector, among ordinary citizens, and even among donors. The net impact is the experience of intimidation and, as a friend aptly put it, many silences.

That brings me to the delicate question of reconciliation. Reconciliation is an imprecise concept for what I mean. What matters is the quality of the social fabric in Rwanda—the trust between people—and the quality of state-society relations.

Jean Baptiste and Freda reconciliation. Photo by Trocaire. CC BY 2.0 via Trocaire Flickr.

Jean Baptiste and Freda reconciliation. Photo by Trocaire. CC BY 2.0 via Trocaire Flickr.

A central pillar in Rwanda’s social reconstruction process has been justice. Much is written on gacaca, the government’s extraordinary program to transform a traditional dispute settlement process into a country-wide, decade-long process to account for genocide crimes. Gacaca brought some survivors satisfaction at finally seeing the guilty punished. Gacaca spawned some important conversations, led to important revelations, and prompted some sincere apologies.

But there were also a lot of problems. There were lies on all sides. There were manipulations of the system. Some apologies were pro-forma. And there were weak protections for witnesses and defendants alike. In many cases, justice was not done. But to my mind many the bigger issue is gacaca reinforced the idea that post-genocide Rwanda is an environment of winners and losers.

The entire justice process excluded non-genocide crimes, in particular atrocities that the RPF committed as it took power, in the northwest the late 1990s, and in Congo, where a lot of violence occurred. This meant that whole categories of suffering in the long arc of the 1990s and 2000s were neither recognized nor accounted for. Justice was one-sided. Many Rwandans experience it therefore as political justice that serve the RPF goal of retaining power.

The second issue is the scale. A million citizens, primarily Hutu, were accused. The net effect is that the legal process served to politically demobilize many Hutus, as Anu Chakravarty has written. Having watched the process of rebuilding social cohesion and state-society relations after atrocity in several places, I come to the conclusion that inclusion is vitally important.

If states privilege justice as a mechanism for social healing, judicial processes should recognize the multi-sided nature of atrocity. All groups that suffered from atrocity should be able to give voice to their experiences and, if punitive measures are on the table, seek accountability. Otherwise, in the long run, justice looks like a charade, one that ultimately may undermine the memories it is designed to preserve.

Here is where the “genocide lens” did not serve Rwanda well. A genocide lens narrates history as a story between perpetrators and victims. Yet the Rwandan reality is much more complicated.

Scott Straus is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at UW-Madison. Scott specializes in the study of genocide, political violence, human rights, and African politics. His published work includes several books on Rwanda and articles in African Affairs. A longer version of this article was presented at the “Rwanda Today: Twenty Years after the Genocide” event at Humanity House in The Hague on 3 April 2014. The author wishes to thank the organizers of that event.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide, African Affairs is making some of their best articles on Rwanda freely available. Don’t miss this opportunity to read about the legacy of genocide and Rwandan politics under the RPF.

African Affairs is published on behalf of the Royal African Society and is the top ranked journal in African Studies. It is an inter-disciplinary journal, with a focus on the politics and international relations of sub-Saharan Africa. It also includes sociology, anthropology, economics, and to the extent that articles inform debates on contemporary Africa, history, literature, art, music and more.

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