Opinion: Reverberations from the 1994 genocide are still heavily evident in everyday life in the East African nation

By John Hogan, University of Groningen

Between April and July of 1994, at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered as part of an orchestrated effort by the extremist Hutu government and their militias to eradicate the Tutsi population in Rwanda. In the months prior to this, increasingly desperate warnings of the impending genocide from UN peacekeepers had fallen on unreceptive ears on the UN Security Council. As a result, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was rendered impotent by its mandate and pathetic lack of resources by the time mass killings started.

Shake Hands with the Devil, written by UNAMIR’s Force Commander Roméo Dallaire, details the mostly fruitless efforts he made to spur the world’s major military powers into action at the time of the genocide. Many of his impassioned pleas foundered on American reluctance to engage in missions that did not affect Washington’s vital interests, and French resistance to UN action against a government with which Paris had uncomfortably close ties.

Dallaire’s book is a harrowing read, but also a highly authoritative account of one of humanity’s greatest failures. It should be compulsory reading for all future UN Security Council members, a group which Ireland may soon be counted amongst.

From RTÉ One's Nine News, Rwanda marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide that killed more than 800,000 people

Ultimately, it was the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) military group, under the command of Paul Kagame, that brought the killing to a halt, following three months of ethnic cleansing, coordinated by Hutu extremists, and UN inertia. After a four year civil war ended in 1994, the RPF had ostensibly been in cooperation with the Hutu regime in constructing a new transitional government until the plane carrying Rwanda's then president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down by unknown assassins, prompting the start of the genocide.

Though not on a comparable scale to those of the Hutu regime, the RPF’s ascension to power was also marked by war crimes and ethnic killings. Worst amongst these was the 1995 Kibeho Massacre, when soldiers from the newly established Rwandan Patriotic Army reportedly killed 4,000 Hutu inhabitants of a displaced persons camp in one day.

Despite such vicious origins, Rwanda under the RPF (now a political party) has been described as a miracle amalgam of reconciliation, resourcefulness and ingenuity. The country’s first post-genocide president Pasteur Bizimungu, a high-ranking Hutu member of the party, resigned in 2000, saying he had long felt marginalised and mistreated, to make way for his then vice-president Paul Kagame, who remains president to this day.

From RTÉ Archives, Charlie Bird reports for RTÉ News from Benaco in Tanzania where thousands of Rwandan refugees have set up camp to escape the massacre in their homeland

By virtue of his role in ending the genocide, Kagame is a hero for many Rwandans. His successes in economic development have made him a darling for international donors, investors and many other heads of state. Since Kagame assumed power, the country has experienced growth rates of 7% per year, is now deemed one of Africa’s safest countries, ranks in the global top 5 in terms of gender parity, has seen life expectancy double from 1994 rates, and now has vastly improved access to medical care in a nation where 90% of the population has health insurance. Rwanda is now a popular tourist destination, in part because of its reputation as Africa’s cleanest country, a feat achieved through the practice of Umaganda, an obligatory community clean-up that takes place on the last Saturday of every month.

But alongside praise for Rwanda’s miracle recovery, there have been criticisms of increasing authoritarianism in domestic governance and international meddling in its foreign policy. Umaganda, once again, provides a supporting example. Though lauded by the government and travel bloggers, a 2015 Human Rights Watch report claimed the clean-up programme is used as an excuse by police to arbitrarily round up and detain "undesirables", such as street vendors, beggars and the homeless.

Kagame’s image as a heroic military leader-turned-exemplary statesman has also suffered in recent times. In 2014, a former UN Deputy Secretary General with extensive experience in Rwanda said a "regime that was born out of its heroic resistance to genocide has descended to one that is preoccupied with survival".

From RTÉ Archives, Charlie Bird reports for RTÉ News on the Rwandan relief efforts as thousands flew the massacre

In practice, there is no genuine political opposition in Rwanda today, as indicated by Kagame’s 2017 re-election when he secured almost 99% of the votes cast. Though the President’s enormous popularity is undeniable, opponents say the election took place in an environment of oppression that included the abduction and imprisonment of opponents, and the use of tax agencies, electoral institutions and fake nude photos to delegitimise other candidates.

In 2016, Anjan Sundaram published Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, which included a 12-page, non-exhaustive list of journalists who had allegedly been beaten, tortured, exiled or killed by Kagame’s government. Two years prior to that, Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence chief who fell out with the RPF government, was murdered in an expensive Johannesburg hotel. His family maintain Karegeya’s murder was conducted on Kagame’s orders, in part because he had started an opposition movement in exile.

On the international stage, the post-1994 government has a history of involvement in conflicts in neighbouring states. Rwanda has been accused of contributing to the already colossal bloodletting that has occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo by supporting the M23 rebel group (something the government denies). In Burundi, Kagame’s government has also been accused of stoking ethnic tensions by training rebels intent on overthrowing President Pierre Nkurunziza.

From RTÉ Radio 1's World Report, Paul Harareh reports on the 2010 re-election of Paul Kagame as president in Rwanda

A strong underlying force for all of the above policies, national and international as well as official and unofficial is a determination to never again return to the horrors of the past. By this logic, domestic criticism and dissension must be quelled in case it fosters social division. Foreign military interventions are necessary to eliminate the possibility of Hutu extremists mobilising in neighbouring states.

Many Rwandans resent simplistic assessments of Kagame’s rule. They see a hypocrisy in western states criticising an African nation for civil rights restrictions and foreign adventurism, particularly when those same states were deaf to Rwandans’ pleas for help in their most desperate hour 25 years ago. Other African observers, however, say Kagame’s popularity rests upon a false dichotomy between liberty and progress, and Rwandans deserve both.

The after-effects of the nation’s darkest chapter are complex and not always suited to binary categorisations of "good" or "bad", "miracle" or "mirage". However, looking back on Rwanda in 1994 still provides us with important lessons today about humanity. As life for people in states such as Syria, Yemen or Palestine show, humanity still has a lot to learn.

Dr John Hogan is a lecturer in International Relations and Security in the Department of International Relations and International Organisation at the University of Groningen.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ