As Rwanda enters the 18th commemoration of the 1994 genocide, there is another important fact: more than half of the Rwandan population is under 18. In other words, half of the population was either unborn or too young to remember the terrible massacres. We owe it to this generation (and those who left us) to make sure that the lessons of this tragic episode do not evaporate unheeded.
Just a quick look at the recent scholarly work expresses the tough reality that still cast a dark shadow on our country. Two extremely antagonized camps have emerged, and while we live in relative peace, the pendulum has swung in the favor of a one-man’s dictatorship. The dictatorship continues to enjoy what seems to be unconditional support from the West. In effect, these western counties either do not understand the local politics or believe they have settled for the lesser evil.
As if we never learned anything from the past, our opinions are as bitterly divided as ever; the political establishment playing the leading role. In the past two years, we’ve seen an increase in grenade attacks that threaten to undermine the façade of security that we have. Even some of these Western supporters who have naively imagined Rwanda as the model of Africa, are beginning to issue travel advisories to their citizens. As it seems, the precarious reality can no longer be masked.
Some have mirrored the current situation to that of the pre-1994 period. Indeed, there are quite a number of parallels. In both instances we see a ultra-polarized regime that is increasingly dependent on the near cultic power of the leader. Both scenarios are devoid of an independent media, and the other arms of the state have been personalized. Still in both cases the leader is seen as a transformational dictator, and the state is celebrated by donors as a model for Africa. While ethnic tensions simmer, an exhausted opposition is willing to bury ethnic differences in order to overthrow the dictator. In 1990s Hutu generals allied to Habyarimana switched sides to support the Tutsi RPF. We see a reversal today as Tutsi generals abandon Kagame.
To be sure, there are quite a number of differences as well. No regime can be a duplicate of another. Kagame has been the most ambitious leader that Rwanda has ever had. He appears as a master deal-maker and has been able to negotiate for a wave of international good-will. While his global reputation does not much the reality, it nonetheless produces the positive effect that could help drive Rwanda’s growth. But even more significant: no Rwandan leader has had as much military zeal. While the Rwandan state in the past coexisted peacefully with its neighbors, Kagame’s invasion and occupation of the DRC is a unique chapter in Rwanda’s history.
How can we move forward? As Francis Fukuyama says in his latest book The Origins of the Political Order, “no country is condemned to its past”. Yet, as Fukuyama argues, tribalism is now the greatest threat to liberalism. This is very true for much of the world, but even more so for a small country like Rwanda with a not too distant, ethnic fueled, bloody past.
Yes, the monsters of tribal politics need to be tamed. As Rwandan researcher Susan Thomson points out the future of Rwanda will depend on our capability to create a modern, all inclusive state. While ethnic-hatred was the major smokescreen that legitimized the 1994 massacres, the real problem was the politics. 18 years later, we have to get the politics right. Here, exclusivity is not just ethnic balancing in positions of power (although that would help), it goes beyond. The challenge is whether we can accept to live in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and compassion. In many ways, we do not have that much of a choice.
These changes will need to happen very quickly. Otherwise, it just takes seconds to lose the gains that we’ve achieved in the last 18 years. If there is one thing that I am convinced of, it is that Rwandans, despite their political orientation, are fed up of violence. Every Rwandan alive today has either lost a friend, a neighbor or a relative during the genocide and its aftermath. We are a wounded society that needs healing. The healing process must be fostered in a more peaceful way.
However, as years elapse, this new generation of young Rwanda who never lived through the 1994 horrors will be more adamant in demanding their rights. There will be a shift from the docile public to a more confrontational one. Of course, this doesn’t have to be that way. While the challenges are enormous, there is a lot that we can do to foster the culture of democracy. In tangible terms the struggle is about the right to free expression, equal opportunity and access, and a government that is committed to serving all Rwandans.
We owe it to the young generation (and those that we lost) to build a more cohesive country.