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Rwanda 20 years on. Can reconciliation be ordained?

May 13, 2014

Reconciliation is a voluntary process which cannot be mandated from above. Reconciliation among people is best enabled in an environment where citizen and state enjoy functional, trusting and reconciled relationships. This raises an important question for Rwanda, where the desire of the state to remain strong for security reasons, may impede reconciliation.

In 1994, the terrible genocide in Rwanda took place, an episode which tests anyone’s ability to describe, much less understand, the awfulness people committed against their neighbours. A tenth of the people were brutally killed, tens of thousands were raped and otherwise tortured. Well over a million fled into exile. I still vividly recall traveling through eerily deserted “liberated areas” of northern and eastern Rwanda at that time, on empty roads through burgeoning fields of beans and maize, ready for harvest but destined to die and dry on the stem. Wole Soyinka said at the time that the Rwandan nation was ‘clinically dead’, and questioned whether it could ever be restored to life.

Twenty years on, it is a tribute to the people and government of Rwanda (perhaps to the inherent resilience of humanity), that they have made such progress in recovery. Despite its few advantages in terms of natural resources, this landlocked country is a star development performer – e.g. the World Bank reports that “the poverty rate dropped from 59% in 2001 to 45% in 2011 while inequality reduced from 0.52 in 2005 to 0.49 in 2011”, while real GDP growth averaged over 8% annually between 2001 and 2012. It has also found a way – through its gacaca alternative justice system – to deal with tens of thousands of cases against people suspected of involvement in the genocide. There are moving examples of person-to-person reconciliation, wherein perpetrators and victims from 1994 have found ways to live and work together, despite the terrible combination of hurt, sorrow, guilt and shame.

Plenty of problems persist. Poverty remains a major problem despite the progress made. The rump of the genocidaires remains at large in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the form of the FDLR movement, and the Rwandan government has persistently found itself intervening in the DRC – often through paramilitary proxies – as part of its approach to national security. Unresolved conflicts over land – one of the underlying causes of the genocide in this small, crowded country – persist. The integration of returning refugees (exiles and the children of exiles from earlier episodes of blood-letting, as well as from 1994) is a work in progress. And the number of people still traumatised by the events of 1994 remains a major problem for them as individuals and for the recovery of their communities and the nation, despite some extraordinary stories of reconciliation.

The culture of governance

Of the many notable characteristics of Rwanda today, one feature which cannot fail to escape notice is the strength and dominance of the state. As compared with others around it, the Rwandan state is powerful, with what other governments likely see as an enviable ability to execute its intentions and plans. International donors who have supported Rwanda’s recovery – no doubt at least partly out of a sense of shame and guilt at having failed to protect Rwandans in 1994 – have become increasingly concerned at the government’s intolerance of, and reputed willingness to silence, opposition voices. While they may have understood the need for firm control in the years following the genocide, they are now becoming uncomfortable that progress towards open, democratic rule and free speech has not matched the improved performance in service delivery and other aspects of development.

Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order, explains how hard it is to shift the political culture of a nation. For example he describes the resilience of the Russian governance system towards Peter the Great’s reforms – few of which persisted long after Peter’s death. Given the decimation of the population, the wholesale disruption of the economy, the return of tens of thousands of long-term exiles, and the coming to power of a victorious liberating army, one might imagine that the political culture in Rwanda would have changed markedly in the past few years. And in some respects it has, with virtual male:female parity in elected office, a zero-tolerance approach to petty corruption, and a marked improvement in service delivery compared to the Habyarimana government of the 1980s and early 1990s.

But one thing which does not seem to have radically changed is the top down-ness. When asked in 1994 why he had participated in the genocide, one man answered that he had done what he was told, and explained that “in Rwanda an order is heavier than a stone”.  While this is likely partly an excuse, it does reflect a very real truth about the top-down nature of the political culture at that time. International NGO projects in Rwanda in the 1980s were able to achieve unheard of and enviable rates of popular participation in water, health and agriculture development projects. But this was not because of their special methods and skills, but because they only needed to convince the bourgmestre – the local mayor – of their need for numbers, and he would mobilise the people to participate. A few years ago the EU required all of its country aid programmes to work with their host government counterparts to implement a governance review, i.e. to assess the level of “good governance” in the country. Each had a different experience. Some found it difficult to get their counterparts to co-operate at all, and most found it even harder to persuade their counterparts to agree a plan for “governance improvements”, much less implement it. Meanwhile, the person responsible in the Rwanda EU delegation simply shared the checklist with his counterparts, they completed it rapidly, identified around a hundred necessary improvements, and had implemented most of them within a year. Rwanda remains, it seems, a place where an order is heavier than a stone, and a place where the state keeps a tight rein.

Those who expect Rwanda to somehow morph rapidly into a fully-fledged liberal democracy are surely guilty of unrealistic expectations. After all, the rapid introduction of a multi-party democratic system in the early 1990s was one of the factors behind the genocide. A victorious mostly Tutsi rebel army which has taken control of a country where Hutus had massacred nearly a million mostly Tutsis is hardly likely to feel that liberal democracy is the best political system through which to ensure security, going forward: on the contrary, it is likely to prefer a more controlling and less open approach to governance, to minimise the risk of further episodes of violence. But some Rwandans do have expectations of political liberalisation, and so do Rwanda’s international partners. There is no law of politics which mandates the evolution of every country towards liberal democracy. Far from it, in fact. But if one assumes for the sake of argument that liberal democracy is the direction in which Rwanda will go – it already has many of the trappings thereof: elections, councils, parliaments, and so on – then some of the big questions are about how this might happen, and how long it will take. Given what Rwanda and Rwandans are still recovering from, and the complexity inherent in democratic political systems, it seems pretty reasonable from an objective, external perspective that the process will take many years, yet.

Horizontal and vertical reconciliation: each enables the other

If so, this will be frustrating to some Rwandans, and thus may generate instability in a place which least needs it. Much has been written and said about this. But there is another problem, linked to the recovery process. If many Rwandans remain unreconciled, that must surely be a slow-burning coal damaging or preventing the restoration of the weave of society – a weave which Rwandans need to be strong and resilient, to enable them to realise their potential and meet their ambitious development aims. The difficulty is that reconciliation has to happen in both the vertical and horizontal planes. That is to say, on the vertical plane citizen and state need to be reconciled and enjoy open and functional relationships, even as the same is true between citizen and citizen (the horizontal plane). The vertical and horizontal then feed each other in a mutually enabling process. Ultimately it is hard to see how the reconciliation process between Rwandans can be complete, until their relationship with the state becomes more open and relaxed. While a genocide can tragically be mandated and implemented top-down, the same is not true of reconciliation, which depends completely on the willingness of people, and is hence a voluntary affair.

Many people have argued for a loosening of the reins in Rwanda from a human rights perspective. Others have argued back, that loosened reins will undermine the security of citizens, who have a human right to be safe. These are difficult trade-offs without a doubt, and I intend no contribution in this article, to that debate. What I do suggest is that, as those steering the political process in Rwanda consider the best way forward, and how much openness they are willing to risk, it is important that they consider how reconciliation is best enabled, and in particular the need for this to be a vertical as well as a horizontal process.

NB this blogpost represents the author’s personal view, not that of International Alert.

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