Today is UN 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 Aras an Uachtarain last week. While in Ireland, he donated €50,000 to help build a robot for Cork’s Joanne O’Riordan.
When Kagame’s 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 highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world, with 64% women in its lower house. It 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.”
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% of the national budget.
Approximately 40% 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, which has killed up to 5.4m people.
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. In an interview this weekend, President Kagame called on France to explain its role in the genocide; France’s Justice Minister has pulled out of today’s commemoration.
Last month, Pascal Simbikangwa was the first person convicted in France of participating in the genocide; up to 20 cases await trial there.
In March, six Rwandan diplomats were expelled from South Africa, after an attack on exiled Rwandan Lt General 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 movie Hotel Rwanda is based – told the Irish Times that his home in Brussels has been ransacked five times by Rwandan operatives. He left the country 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 Paul 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 told the Irish Times that 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 does not mention the moderate Hutus killed.
Paul Kagame’s second term as President is up 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.
“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.”
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. 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 Uachtarain told the Irish Times that President 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.”
This piece was published in The Irish Times on Monday 7 April, UN Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwanda Genocide. Thanks to Mary for her help in researching it.