Reflecting on the Rwandan genocide: lessons to be learnt

Although, conflict continues around the world, none in recent years has quite matched the magnitude of the Rwandan genocide that happened some 22 years ago. In this post, I reflect on the ways in which the small Central African nation has recovered and some of the lessons that can be learnt about the importance of genocide prevention. Historically, there have always been ethnic tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis. Interestingly, the only real difference between the two groups is that the Tutsis grazed cattle and the Hutus grew crops. The genocide began after then President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in 1994. The violence started immediately. Hutu militia were senselessly killing Tutsis. Within 100 days between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsis were killed, raped and maimed by organised militias. Now-President, Paul Kagame encircled Kigali and cut off its supplies and was able to capture the city by July. UN forces were sent in shortly after.

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In the aftermath of the genocide, the NRMD was outlawed. A coalition government was set up by the RPF with a Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu, and Paul Kagame, a Tutsi as Vice President and defense minister. However, due to allegations of corruption, a new constitution was created in 2003. Kagame became president and remains in power to this day. The new Rwandan political system reflects that of its former colonizers, Belgium and Germany. It now functions as a Presidential Republic. The president of Rwanda is elected by the people through universal suffrage to serve a 7-year term. The President also elects a Prime Minister who since 2014 has been Anastase Murekezi.

Images of the Rwanda that remained after the genocide are those of extreme poverty, violence, destruction and despair. A collection of skeletons accumulated over the fateful 100 days, some of which are still being discovered to this day. Paul Kagame has helped to unexpectedly transform Rwanda into a state unrecognizable from its former image. Rwanda has by far exceeded the expectations of countries facing the challenges that come in the wake of such atrocity. Transforming into a place filled with progress and hope.

Kagame has been described as ‘one of the most successful leaders in modern African history’ (Economist 2015). He has established a Democratic government largely free from corruption, and made vast improvements to the economy – something almost unheard of for a country still recovering from genocide. Of course, he cannot be solely celebrated for all of Rwanda’s successes but is revered by spectators for his contributions to the country during both of his terms. Gender equality has significantly improved; women now make up 63.8% of parliamentarians, giving Rwanda one of the highest percentages of women in parliament, well above the worldwide average of 22%. Rwanda is further enabling its women to have independence as they can now own land and inherit capital.

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Rwanda is one of Central Africa’s fastest growing economies today. Its economy is experiencing rapid growth and GDP grew by around 6% between the years 2001 and 2015. Rwanda still operates on a largely agricultural economy, with over 70% of the population working in subsistence farming. But the government has plans to move the state into a more knowledge-based economy outlined in “Vision 2020” – Rwanda’s development goals to transform the country by 2020. Many signs of economic growth such as increased life expectancy, increased literacy, almost universal primary school enrollment and increased spending on healthcare can be found in modern day Rwanda. As well as vast improvements to the standard of living.

However, despite excellent growth, there are still some challenges that Rwanda faces now and will into the future. There are criticisms about the heavy reliance on foreign aid which hinders the state’s ability to grow. Politically, there are fears about Kagame’s maintenance of power. Due to the issues Rwanda faced with undemocratic leaders, the government is skeptical about trusting different forces with power, leading to a level of political stagnation. Many of Kagame’s potential competitors have been killed, sent to prisons or mysteriously disappeared, leading to allegations of corruption. He has now been elected for 3 terms (even though he did not serve as President from 2006-2010) and it is unclear how much longer he will continue to serve as President. Concerns are developing as to how long this level of unitary rule can work before Kagame faces serious opposition similar to that in its neighbouring country, Uganda. Although many still argue that Rwanda is in safe hands – not many leaders would be so restrained in the face of sovereign powers.

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Even though Rwanda is now a peaceful country, the effects of Hutu refugees in neighboring countries have resulted in conflict outside its borders. When the violence ended, around two million Hutus fled, mostly to Zair (some managed to flee through safe zones). This played a big role in the beginning of the war in Congo which is still ongoing. In retaliation, A Congolese Tutsi rebel group remains active in an attempt to protect its community from genocide. Since 1996 Kagame has been invading Congo in attempts to stop the Hutu forces. It will be interesting to see how Rwanda continues to try to maintain peace within its border and eventually further out.

Eager to prevent the resurface of its violent past, the Rwandan government has built institutions in order to maintain peace and social cohesion. It tries not to put emphasis on ethnic identity in the political sphere and strongly prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, race or religion. The Kigali Genocide Memorial was also set up by The City of Kigali, Aegis Trust and other organisations in 2004. The memorial serves as a resting place for over 250,000 victims of the genocide. It aims to ‘to inform and educate visitors about the causes, implementation and consequences of the genocide, and other genocides in history.’ In the hope of ensuring that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future.


This blog post was written by Shereen Nassuna who is one of STAND UK's regional organisers, and studies International Relations at the University of Essex.

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