Reminder lessons from Rwanda
How does a country shake off the horrors and trauma of systematic genocide, and reset itself on a course of renewal and progress? At the World Bank Meeting last April in Washington DC, I met with my colleague from Rwanda, Professor Omar Munyaneza MP; he said Rwanda is on course and united. I also spoke extensively with Dr Uzziel Ndagijimana, Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, who told me the ideas and plans the country has laid out for its development. It is a testament to Rwandan determination to forget their horrendous past.
For three months in 1994, while the rest of the world looked away, Rwanda descended into chaos that became the signature genocide of the closing decade of the 20th Century. A visit to the Genocide Museum, or interaction with survivors, is a painful and sobering experience. Claude Andrea, a survivor, told me how her two brothers, sister and parents were killed while she was watching from the ceiling of the guest toilet close to the living room. At the Genocide Memorial Museum, I spoke to Freddy Mutanguha, Director of Aegis Trust, a UK NGO that campaigns to prevent genocide worldwide and they have documented testimonies of survivors. I read testimonies from survivors told to Aegis by Anne-Marie: “When the killings began, they came and took my husband away. Shortly after, I could hear those who took him away singing that they had killed a ‘cockroach’, and I knew he was dead.”
“One soldier came up to the house. I was sitting with my baby boy on my lap. He grabbed the child and threw him against the wall. It died from the impact. I ran to pick up my baby’s body, but the soldier threatened me and told me to lie down, and then he raped me. I don’t really have the words to explain all that he did to me.”
In enlightened circles, there have been, from time to time, dire warnings about Nigeria drifting to the precincts of Rwanda in 1994. The warnings are no exaggeration. Ethnic profiling, hate speech, fake news, deadly voter suppression and the needless fatalities as well as destruction that manifested in the 2023 general elections are only the latest incidents of the exacerbation of the country’s notorious fault-lines of religion and ethnicity.
Indeed, in recent years, Nigeria has resembled a mass killing field that reeks of ethnic and religious animosities. In Benue State, communities have buried thousands of their number, as armed militias have sacked village after village, expropriating land in the process. Similarly, the tears never dry from the eyes and cheeks of families in Southern Kaduna where thousands have been killed also by armed militias. In Niger, Katsina, and Zamfara states, bandits and kidnappers-for-ransom have plied their trade with a ruthlessness never before witnessed in Nigeria. Add to this unsavoury mix the Boko Haram atrocities in the North-East, and the wanton killings and self-immolation by so-called unknown gunmen in the South-East.
I admit that all these are, in a sense, mini-pogroms and not industrial-scale genocide as unfolded for three months in Rwanda nearly 30 years ago. But we must not be misled. The mini-pogroms and mindless bloodletting that have gone on unchecked in Nigeria may well be a dress rehearsal, which is why the dire warnings referred to earlier should not be ignored.
In Rwanda nearly three decades ago, the government of the day lifted moral restraints and made killing an obligation, mobilising the majority Hutu population to destroy Tutsis, and any Hutus who did not share the genocide idea. Although evidence shows that the government was actually planning the extermination of Tutsis long before it happened, the trigger for the genocide was the downing of the aircraft of Burundi’s President Habyarimana, himself a Hutu, on April 6, 1994 at 8:30 p.m. Kigali time.
How the genocide was perpetrated comes from the confession of the Prime Minister of Rwanda’s Interim Government, Jean Kambanda, who enters the history book as the first person in an international court to plead guilty to the crime of genocide. His 1,800-page interrogation describes how Rwanda’s full State apparatus was used to carry out the killing. Kambanda told his interrogators how Cabinet meetings were devoted to the progress of the genocide, and how visits to local areas were made by Ministers to drum up support for the killing. In the book, Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, Linda Melvern gave an account of the combination of revelations about the scale and intensity of the genocide, the complicity of Western nations, the failure to intervene and the suppression of information about what was actually happening.
A bizarre colonial legacy was at the root of the genocide. Rwanda became a German colony in 1895 and remained so until the First World War. The Germans retreated in 1916, leaving Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi under Belgian control. The relative harmony that had existed between Hutus and Tutsis was soon eroded after the European colonialists arrived. The early explorers and anthropologists developed the quirky ideas in Rwanda that would promote racism and discrimination. Because the Tutsis were generally taller and thinner than the Hutus, they suggested that the Tutsis originated from the superior race in the Nile Valley, who were more like the European whites compared to the ‘Bantu’ Hutu majority.
The Tutsis were considered more intelligent and hardworking. It served the colonisers’ purpose to maintain a Tutsi King and create a ruling class. It was generally the Tutsis, not the Hutus, who were given privileged positions. The Belgian authorities formalised division between the ethnic groups, introducing identity cards to Rwanda in 1932. When the cards were issued, 15 per cent were identified as Tutsis, 84 per cent as Hutus and one per cent Twa. In years to come, this ethnic identity determined much of an individual’s opportunity in Belgian-run Rwanda. By 1975, most of the school places, the posts in the country’s civil service, and nearly all chiefs and sub-chiefs were Tutsis.
After the unspeakable carnage, today, Rwanda is safe and clean and is a leading destination for international conferences and meetings in Africa. The country is going through a green revolution. On my visits to Kigali, I have heard and seen the progress, the development, the sense of togetherness, the unity of purpose and the abundant love for their President. Just like Lee Kwan Yew did in Singapore, Paul Kagame is changing the economic status of Rwanda by engineering rapid development.
This is my third visit to Rwanda, the first was in 2015 and the second visit was in 2017. Today, Kigali, the capital, is probably the cleanest city in Africa, peaceful and bustling with energy and international presence. President Kagame, a refugee from Gitarama, who left Rwanda as a child and grew up in Uganda had at a time rescued the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from collapse. Kagame, who was described then as a secretive, sober, intelligent and determined man, took over the struggling remnants of the army.
He was an experienced guerrilla fighter and had fought alongside the future Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, to oust Milton Obote. My first encounter with President Kagame was during one of the African Union meetings in Abuja. Navy Captain Caleb Olubolade (rtd), then Minister of Police Affairs, was assigned to be with President Kagame. Unfortunately, the Minister was caught up in an engagement with President Goodluck Jonathan. The Minister asked me, as his Senior Special Adviser, to stand in for him. In the few minutes of our interaction and engagement, I saw a leader who is educated, strategic, futuristic, engaging, involved, listening, pragmatic, realistic, strong, courageous and determined. I saw in him a man carrying the burden of a country and a responsibility to make a difference.
The government of Rwanda has a strategic development agenda and matching policies. A strong focus on homegrown policies and initiatives has contributed to significant improvement in access to services and human development indicators. The government is developing two major rail lines in a bid to link the country to the major seaports of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The Rwandan transport sector has greatly improved, with a network of roads fanning out from the capital into other parts of the country. Maintenance of the national paved road network is a high priority. Roads in Kigali are well paved and marked out, with not a single pot-hole.
The country has a population of 14,482,000. Its official languages are French, English, Swahili and Kinyarwanda. There is a functional airport at Kigali serving both domestic and international destinations. The country’s flagship is the RwandAir, which is gradually becoming a major player in the African air transportation industry. The government is building a second airport, probably one of the biggest on the continent.
Professor Azaiki is a member of the Nigerian House of Representatives.
One of its attractive foreign policies on African integration is the no visa or visa free policy for Africans, a policy that has encouraged tourism, trade and investment. Rwanda is one of Africa’s attractive places to do business. Over the last decade, Rwanda’s economy has been growing steadily at an average of eight per cent, per annum. Between 2006 and 2011, one million citizens climbed out of poverty and the country moved closer to its goal of eradicating poverty.
In fact, the 10 areas of improvements in Rwanda include declining poverty; increase in life expectancy; leading country in gender equality; unemployment on the decrease despite the COVID-19 Pandemic; falling maternal mortality rates; land restoration; progress in the fight against malaria; and universal health insurance coverage.
I agree with President Kagame that Rwanda’s rebirth has relied on the implementation of sound policies and the success recorded is not solely technocratic but driven by values of good governance, justice, and freedom in the Rwandan context. It is my hope that the new Nigerian government from May 29 this year will learn to domesticate Rwanda’s development story and renew a vigorous African symbiotic African Foreign Policy that will give Nigeria the respect and the visibility it rightly deserves.
Professor Azaiki is a Member of the Nigerian House of Representatives.