How reconciled is Rwanda’s ethnic divide?


Despite relative cohesion on the surface, deep ethnic animosity, bitter memories and hatred lie beneath, writes Didas Gasana

How reconciled are we?Testifying before the packed audience at Telecom House in the capital Kigali about Rwanda’s successful reconciliation story, on Sunday, January 29 2012, Louise Uwamungu from Rweru Sector in Bugesera District, noted thus: “Unity and reconciliation can never exist unless people tell the truth. Today, we are in cooperatives that include members who killed our families, like this man, Matabaro, who is seated here. He killed my family, but we are now living together, working together and I forgave him.” she testified.

Reported Rwanda’s only daily The New Times, this was in a function to make public a new report by the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission-The Rwanda Reconcillition Barometer, which indicated that reconciliation in the country increased by 80 percent, the highest level of national harmony since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

According to John Rucyahana, president of the NURC, unity and reconciliation has greatly grown. “We are now embarking on the remaining 20 percent to ensure that they are also at the same level with others”, said the retired Rt Rev.

While Uwamungu’s confession (plus many others) and the percentage of reconciliation the research indicates are welcome developments that offer a ray of hope for a unified society after more than half a century of ethnic rivalry that culminated into the 1994 genocide, many herculean challenges to genuine reconciliation remain.

In fact, the very day the report was released, a story was told of a Hutu mother who refused to attend her daughter’s wedding in the very district Uwamungu hails from, simply because the daughter was getting married to a Tutsi Rwanda Police Constable. But while such a case can be classified in the yet-to-be reconciled 20%, it is worth understanding how even the 80% the report mentions doesn’t wholly reflect the reality on the ground. It is again worth noting that while some impediments to genuine reconciliation cut across the ethnic divide, others are peculiar to a particular group.

Historical memory

While some in the minority Tutsis have decided to live and let live, others are still held hostage of their bitter historical memories dating far back in the late 1950s and early 60s when the Tutsi monarchy was deposed, and the succeeding upheavals.

And such is the age bracket that forms the bulk of Rwanda’s present top leadership. Interviewed by a NURC staff, such a person won’t admit that his actions, thoughts and probably his feelings are influenced by his historical memories but beneath the surface, they do, so much so that mistrust of the ‘other’ remains abundant in their psyche.

While I was still practicing journalism in Rwanda, it was common for relatives and friends to approach me asking me to “stop washing our dirty linen in public”. By that, they meant that as a Tutsi, it was not right for me to expose whatever was going wrong in the RPF administration. In fact, a senior government employee bluntly told me in 2009: “You are playing into the gallery of the Hutus, and suppose they get in power, you will be the first one to die or run into exile.” Such a statement or a caution is an understandable error, but still an error- an error because Rwanda cannot transform itself into a sustainable political entity with such a kind of reasoning. Instead of looking at how genuinely the Rwandan society can reconcile, some Tutsi elites see this inter-ethnic hatred as a curse to be endured, not a problem to be solved.

Think Africa Press put this question to Rwanda’s former Inspector general of Government, now a senator, Tito Rutaremara, and he replied thus: “You can’t expect people to be at the same wavelength in forgetting the past but what is important is that it is not our national policy.”

Severity of the crimes

Some Tutsis have managed to shed off their traumatic memories of 1994 genocide and decided to face the future, but not all. To some Tutsis, the level of cruelty meted against the group in the 1994 genocide is too traumatizing to simply fade in memory in a decade or two, and understandably so.

If healing, forgiving and reconciliation are gradual processes, then it is accurate to deduct that with time, such impediments will recede in memory. But what are more worrying are the impediments that are peculiar to a Hutu group, and which are in fact products of policies of Rwanda’s current Tutsi-dominated leadership.

Divided opinion on history, guilt and degree

If there is one thing that sparks serious disagreements about the Rwandan genocide and war crimes that took place in Rwanda, and which poses a serious roadblock to genuine reconciliation and healng, is the correct version of history. This entails coming to a common understanding of who did what and to what degree. Most Rwandan officials tend to assign the status of perpetrators to the majority Hutu; and that of victims to the Tutsi, thus ignoring the considerable number of Hutu killed by other Hutu during the genocide, Hutus who were killed to create a climate of terror in the country, Hutus who risked their lives to save helpless Tutsis and Tutsis who killed their fellow Tutsis. More importantly, Hutus who were killed by the RPA during the war happen to have no historical reference.

A 2006 report by the Rwandan Senate, as well as Rwanda’s genocide laws, define a victim as ”every person killed during the period of 1st October 1990 to 31st December 1994 because he/she is Tutsi or looks like one, has family relationships with Tutsi, is a friend of a Tutsi or has close relationships with a Tutsi, has political thinking or is related to people with political thinking opposed to that of the ideology of divisive politics before 1994.

And, according to the report by the UN office of Human Rights, the Rwandan armed forces committed war crimes and probable acts of genocide against the Hutus in the DRC. While all this combine to form a brigade of ’grey areas’ that need systematic investigation and truth telling as a pre-requisite for genuine reconciliation, the present leadership in Kigali, instead, devised a way to supress any debate of such a kind through legislation.

Ambiguous legal regime

It is through genocide ideology, divisionism, and secretarian laws that the RPF-led government has effectively blocked any kind of coming to a compromise regarding the nation’s history.

When Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza, a former presidential aspirant, visited Gisozi memorial site and remarked that the Hutu victims who were killed during the war and genocide should as well be remembered, she perhaps expected to open a debate on the country’s past contrary to the official narrative forwarded by Kigali. Little did she know that there are laws in place that suppress such questions. Todate, she is detained in Kigali on charges which include genocide ideology and divisionism, as is bernard Ntaganda-also a former presidential aspirant.

While these laws, which have been severely criticized by international human rights watchdogs like Human Rights Watch and amnesty International, give Kagame a passport to prosecute Hutu opponents and the courts extraordinary latitude to indict suspects on the flimsiest grounds, they remain a stumbling block to Rwanda’s genuine settlement.

Intriguingly, behind this repressive legislation coloured with ethnic connotations emerges Kagame’s determination to ban all references to ethnic identities. Accordingly, in today’s Rwanda there are no Hutu or Tutsi or Twa, only Banyarwanda. The official rationale behind this prohibition is very precise but profoundly disingenuous: given that the genocide was the result of ethnic divisions, doing away with such divisions is the best guarantee of peace. But by suppressing dissent and debate using the very divisionism laws, the result might be the precise opposite of what was intended.

In the earlier mentioned confession on January 29th, Uwamungu remarked that Rwandans should engage each other and debate about what caused the 1994 genocide but, at any rate, one thing is clear: under the present circumstances, any attempt to re-examine the roots of the genocide becomes extremely problematic. Any slightest deviation from the official narrative warrants indictment on grounds of divisionism, discrimination or sectarianism.

Dictated memory

”The experience of others has taught us that nations that do not deal with their past are haunted by it for generations”, remarked Nelson Mandela, in “After Such Crimes, What Forgiveness?”.

Mandela’s reasoning finds an echo in Valérie Rosoux’s observation on ”the work of memory” as a central aspect of post-conflict strategies: ”The question raised in the aftermath of conflict is not only ‘how are we going to handle the future?’, but ‘how are going to handle the past?”. She notes three possible options – one can either emphasize the memory of past conflict, conceal it, or, engage in the work of memory.

The attitude of Rwandan officials is perhaps best described as a combination of the first two, but with the first looming decidedly larger: there is, on the one hand, a conscious effort to obliterate the past by erasing ethnic identities, while at the same time leaving no doubt that the roles of perpetrators and victims are assigned respectively to Hutu and Tutsi, and are by no means interchangeable.

At another level, concealing one’s feelings about past conflict is sometimes seen as a rational option. Such is the price Rwandans have to pay in order to live in peace with each other.

Since the memory of the genocide is not a unifying factor, as disagreement prevails over the clear demarcation of victim and perpetrator, majority of the majority Hutus choose to forget their feelings. The cumulative pressures of government coercion, fear of the other, pragmatism combine to make amnesia the preferred option. Pretending peace has become the norm.

None put it better than a Rwandan Hutu Member of Parliament (names withheld for security reasons) in a heated private discussion between him, my former Editor Charles Kabonero and I, far back in early 2009. ”What do you expect me to do my friends? I have a wife studying at Kigali Independent University, I have young children. I better keep quite and pretend everything is alright than talk and loose all I have”, he remarked. Such pretense, as a matter of fact, is the major factor that informs the 80% reconciliation scorecard. And behind this pretence, this chosen amnesia lies something more fundamental; a ’thwarted memory’

At the center of the problem is that the exclusion of Hutu memory for the sake of a dictated unifying official memory can never bring the people of Rwanda any closer to national reconciliation, or, at the very least, peaceful co-habitation.

The imposition of an official memory, purged of ethnic references, institutionalizes a mode of thought control profoundly antithetical to any kind of inter-ethnic dialogue aimed at recognition and forgiveness. This is hardly the way to bring Hutu and Tutsi closer together in a common understanding of their tragic past, and as Nelson Mandela argued, this is a ticking time bomb

Denial of justice

Dettered by ambiguous legislation whose interpretation is subject to state’s will, fearful of state’s coercive instruments, a majority of the Hutus who lost their beloved ones during the war and the genocide lost hope for any justice. While the current government prosecuted and sentenced some former RPA soldiers who carried war crimes, a majority remain scot free- so much so with the exposure of war crimes and ’probable acts’ of genocide against the Hutus in the DRC.

It is worth to note that this denial of justice cuts across both ethnic divide. Cases of genocide suspects who have been shielded from the long arm of the law by the RPF government for political reasons abound- an act that constitutes a crime of genocide trivialisation but for which no RPF leader is yet to be held accounatble for. Speaking to Think Africa Press with satiated fury, Leah Nyinawagaga, a genocide survivor, asked: ”How do you want the people to reconcile when the one preaching you to reconcile is the one who killed your family and he has not been held accountable for his crimes? Genocide has become basically a political tool, reconciliation a political rhetoric, both for selfish political gains.”

In a nutshell, these impediments are products of the nature of governance in Rwanda today. Had Rwanda been democratic, with respect for human rights, rule of law and institutional independence, issues of public debate and free speech about the disagreements over the nation’s history wouldn’t be a taboo, neither would victor’s justice have taken root. Smillarly, laws that are aimed at promoting reconciliation and combatting genocide ideology wouldn’t be used to crush dissent instead.

Going as far back as 1959, Jean Baptsite Mberabahizi, a United Democratic Forces opposition politician based in Europe, summarises his views on reconciliation in Rwanda thus:

”My opinion is that there’s no reconciliation taking place in Rwanda since 1959 because we have none to conduct such a process. Our post-colonial governments are all sectarian. For a true reconciliation process, we first need to have a national and democratic government. We need a national defense apparatus to guarantee the safety of every citizen regardless of their origin and we need a free media that can provide space to all citizens to take part in the process and to reflect collectively on the past and propose a way forward. Lastly, the judiciary must be independent and impartial just in case some cases must be brought to courts if victims deem it necessary.”

Didas Gasana is a career journalist and former Managing editor of the Kigali- based Rwanda Independent Media Group, now working as an independent freelance writer with special emphasis on Rwanda and The Great Lakes Region. He can be reached by email at

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