Sunday, February 14, 2010

Representing the 1994 Genocide

My last post on Rwanda's Ethnic Card raised some important questions, made to me via email and on the comment board. In this post, I want to share my thoughts on the ways in which the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) represents the 1994 genocide in ways that reinforce its political power.

At the heart of the RPF's post-genocide reconstruction effort is the policy of national unity and reconciliation. On paper, the programme is a set of mechanisms that aims to promote ethnic unity between Tutsi and Hutu in creating one Rwanda for all Rwandans. In practice, it disguises the government’s efforts to control its population by using the language of ethnic unity and social inclusion while working to consolidate the political power of the ruling RPF.

The government’s programme of national unity and reconciliation is grounded in a specific interpretation of more than a century of history. According to “historical” documents produced by the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), Rwandan society was essentially unified before the arrival of colonial powers and the Catholic Church. A direct cause of the 1994 genocide is the ethnic divisions imposed on Rwanda by colonial rule. According to the policy of national unity and reconciliation, the post-colonial Hutu-led governments of Kayibanda (1962-1973) and Habyarimana (1973-1994) used ethnicity strategically to divide Rwandans.

Significant state resources are dedicated to ensuring the population understands the importance of ethnic unity. The post-genocide government has established mandatory solidarity camps known as ingando to “re-educate” the population on the root causes of the genocide. The government also encourages a collective memory of the genocide through memorial sites and mass graves that double as genocide museums to show the end-result of ethnic divisionism. In many sites across the country, the bodies of victims are on display, exposed on shelves, in semi-open tombs, or in the rooms where the killing took place. Every year, annual commemorations are held during national mourning week (7 to 14 April) to remind Rwandans of the pernicious effects of ethnic divisionism.

The RPF-led government has introduced new national holidays – Heroes Day (1 February), Day of Hope (April 7), Independence Day (1 July), Liberation Day (4 July), and Patriotism Day (1 October) – to accord with the vision of ethnic unity and act as platforms for leaders to remind Rwandans of the need to fight the ideology of genocide. The 2003 revised Constitution made illegal public references to ethnic identity (article 33) and criminalised ‘ethnic divisionism’ and ‘trivializing the genocide’ (article 13). The RPF also changed place names at all administrative levels, from villages to provinces, in 2006 as part of Rwanda’s administrative re-structuring to protect genocide survivors from remembering where their relatives died.

All of these mechanism of ethnic unity and memory work to consolidate the power of the RPF by spreading its loyalists throughout the bureaucratic apparatus. There is virtually no room for ordinary Rwandans to shape their everyday lives, let alone sincerely reconcile with one another. As a Tutsi widower said, "I can hardly support this notion of national unity when I know it is meant to keep us [Hutu and Tutsi] apart. If they [the government] left us alone, we could find our own ways to reconcile. Now, we have to do it publicly, and when we are told to do so. The RPF doesn’t care about if we truly reconcile, they only care about their own positions...".

In other words, anyone, including opposition politicians, journalists and human rights defenders, who challenge or question the RPF’s interpretation of the historical record will suffer the wrath of the government.


  1. Dear Thompson,
    I read your researches and this is my opinion as a Rwandan and student. There are few people who analyze fairly our problem, maybe because it has more emotional aspect, or because of self interest.
    So why the RPF exploit fears, emotions, guiltiness, shame to set it power. It is because it cannot afford an open democratic system, the population claims about crimes committed… all people who tried to comment on the latter are no longer in Rwanda or have been killed. Our government has a sophisticated intelligence, very decentralized till cells. It knows well how people feel, think, what they desire, and it knows that if democratic space was open, it cannot afford claims. So, it has an advantage to set its power on maintaining fears among population, and it is easy because most of us are traumatized. It has also a competitive advantage because it has managed to enhance the International community guilty feelings. Who is able to tell something to RPF now as France brought Habyarimana’s regime to open democracy in 1990? However that is dangerous for our future.
    One said the today’s human rights abuses are the causes of the tomorrow’s conflicts: In other words the mistakes committed by our politicians contribute to perpetuation of our conflict. One of the causes of our conflict is the lack of debate, dialogue, the exclusion and this from longtime ago. The first republic failed to maintain the democracy, the multiparty system; it has promoted in the early years of its power, and failed to dialogue with monarchists who will form the RPF later on.

  2. What are the failures of RPF, or Rwanda Government today?
    Its failures are in its political choices, unfair and sided reconciliation policy. Most of Rwandan, Hutu or Tutsi, are traumatized of genocide and wars (from Rwanda and Congo). The government exploit that situation to dismiss any debate and takes advantage to increase fears among population and play a card of guiltiness, shame, culpability of one party of Rwandans and the international community. It does that because the International community feels guilty and needs to clean its conscience by closing eyes on crimes committed by current rulers who have a political advantage to silence everybody. By doing so that International community betrays Rwanda people again.
    The traditional means of reconciliation, it claims that it is using now, are unfortunately applied in manipulated way whereas they could contribute to real reconciliation. For instance, in every conflict like ours, there is what we call narratives. Each side has its narratives on the other. For our intractable conflict (even if government says it is not conflict, which is a lie), for long times both sides, Hutu and Tutsi have constructed narratives which became like a culture). “I know that because I grew up in both communities”. What they call genocide ideology, is sometimes about narratives of one side to conflict. Is the ideology on one side? Saying that there are no ethnic group in Rwanda, is like an opening position one party to negotiation could take to protect his interests, to avoid dialogue (to deny the existence of ethnic groups in Rwanda is to deny the existence of conflict and subsequently, to deny any possibility of debate). If in ordinary life if people have an advantage, they say that there is no problem, we don’t need meetings, debate, mediators….But that is dangerous especially when you have the monopole of speech. You cannot impose a way of behavior, a culture to the entire population. If this could be a solution, at least the government could have allowed communal discussion before concluding on that? That could have been the outcome of National dialogue, inclusive truth and reconciliation commission, not a one side decision?!

  3. Gacaca, highly manipulated
    Traditionally, Gacaca role was to hear both sides and to define what the dispute is. How to explain that one is asked to list people killed by the HUTU militia or peasants without being to tell anything about his relatives killed by the RPF in the same area or to tell that his relatives perished in revenge acts by soldiers? Is that conflict resolution? How that person does feel frustrated, morally tortured, humiliated? Is it reconciliation? What is regrettable is that the Gacaca was used as a political marketing in the west as it sounds well in west that the government is using local solutions and applying modern approaches of conflicts resolution, as there are promoted by academics and scholars. The Gacaca was one of possible solutions if it has not been manipulated. Instead of focusing on Rwandans’ interest of reconciliation, they emphasized on political marketing, on seducing theirs financial supporters. The future will tell us what is wrong. The problem is that it is done deliberately; knowing what could be the real solution. The Gacaca didn’t contribute to Rwanda conflict solution, instead it enhanced divisions, and bad emotions and undermined the opportunities for reconciliation.
    What Rwandans do need really?
    There is no phenomenon solution. We need to accept that we have a conflict between Hutu and Tutsi and a regionalism based conflict between hutus. “The conflict is not only confrontation”. We need to accept our differences, discuss them, and not make them a taboo. We need to accept mutual responsibility from the past till now, not make politics of rendering other guiltier, ashamed and make us innocent.
    There is something that will not be reached even by ICTR or current national judicial system: It is truth and reconciliation, where everyone has to accept its responsibilities, apologizes and other side accept to give pardon. This is a possible solution, not only for simple peasants manipulated by politicians but also and mostly by politicians, a political reconciliation. This could not be achieved without an open political space, where genocide is not eternal exoneration to ban liberties of political opponents. The government might create conditions of debate, allow more researches on Rwanda conflicts.
    It is possible to silence people on killings committed by RPF because they have fears, or you want to maintain them in fears but it is not possible to suppress it in their minds or to avoid them and to tell it to their children, and that is dangerous as it is about people emotion. It is better to exhibit people emotion than inhibit them.

  4. Creating a one national Identity?
    That is a big lie, unworkable. I say that because in Burundi, reconciliation in succeeding whereas they opted for opposing way. I Rwanda, you cannot even know what succeeded and what failed because no real and neutral research is allowed, and nobody has right to express his opinion contrary to RPF will. You can create national Identity only by applying justice, equity to everybody; by sharing resources among all citizens, by at least apologize to you bad deeds. In Burundi, the president accepted his movement/party killed people and apologized, that is positive. How you can prevent people to talk about their problems they faced us a group and allow other to mourn their relatives as a group and claiming you rare promoting a national identity? Is the responsibility of a government to teach people how to think?
    Again, I say we have first understood and accept our differences as in every nation there are different groups? For instance we have divergence on our history, on choosing our national heroes, days of holidays, national symbols….. How can you impose your version on all those issues? How can government decide the culture of population? Even, we don’t agree on our independence day? Our history divided us and we have to accept that as facts. For instance, one will remember that in 1994 his family was killed by Hutu militia, another we remember that RPF killed his family, another will say it was a time to be repatriated from exile, the other the time to flee to Congo…..what we need is to discuss together all those differences.
    Pretending to construct a national identity by put a stop to people to exercise their basic liberties is a lie, a manipulation. It is a way to obstruct the chance of debate, reconciliation and so on. We can only rely on those who have power to influence change in Rwanda, to achieve the real reconciliation.

  5. The second republic restored multiparty –system in 1990 under the pressure of France government and at the same time RPF attacked Rwanda. This restoration was an opportunity for many Rwanda to express their feelings after many years of frustration. It was also an opportunity to Rwandans to debate on our problems. The Arusha Accord was a beginning of a solution and unfortunately one side downed the President airplane (controversial issue about who is responsible. For me whoever did it the fact is that he wanted to dismiss the Arusha Accord implementation. If it is RPF it is because it has fears to lose elections. If it is the former government, it was because it wanted to maintain itself on power, fearing also to lose elections). Who will bring RPF to open political free space?

  6. thanks for your important analysis.

    I am writing a paper on the similiarities between the RPF and Parmehutu now. I hope you will get in touch with me privately as I would love to have you read the draft paper and provide your comments.

    Best wishes,

  7. Thanks

  8. Je vous ecris en francais car je sais qu'en tant que Canadien vous comprenez aussi le francais, sinon faites une traduction:

    "Vous les europeens pour qui vous vous prenez??? vous passez votre temps sur notre politique, occupez vous de vos oignons et de ce qui vous regarde. ce qui est sure ce que Kagame ce qu'il fait est mieux de loin que ce que ses predecesseurs ont fait.... Pendant le genocide, vous avez dis klk chose??? vous prenez tjrs vos bagages et quitter le pays comme si vous etiez important plus que les autres rwandais qui restent et perissent, vous abandonnez et ne faite rien tandis que c'est vous qui allumez le feu...Merde a vous! bande d'inconscients!! Apres vous venez nous parlez de la democratie...occupez vous de votre politique et laissez nous tranquille! quelle democratie vous nous parlez??!! allez jouer ailleurs (DR Congo, Soudan, Cote d'Ivoire...) pas chez nous! bandes d'idiots!! Si vous croyez que vous allez ramener le desordre chez nous, eh ben vous vous trompez, car les rwandais on vit mieux maintenant qu'autrefois, restez avec votre democratie a la con!"

    De la part d'un Africain