Rwanda 20 years later: A model for progress and reconciliation

The progress Rwanda has achieved since its genocide may be the most significant example of human development of the past 20 years. Its governance should not be the subject of criticism, but should stand as a model for other nations seeking reconciliation.

Ben Curtis/AP
Rwandan children listen and pray during a Sunday morning service at the Saint-Famille Catholic church, the scene of many killings during the 1994 genocide, in the capital Kigali, Rwanda, April 6. Rwanda commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the genocide Rwanda estimates left one million people dead.

Imagine a country where life expectancy has more than doubled in twenty years, where a million people have been lifted out of poverty, where women are the majority of legislators, where 95 percent of the population has health insurance, and which is ranked as one of the safest places in the world to live in Gallup’s Global States of Mind poll.

Now imagine this is the same country where close to a million people were slaughtered in a genocide just 20 years ago: Rwanda. There are many ways to measure the progress that defines the past 20 years in Rwanda. Instead of death by machete, Rwandans, unlike many of their neighbors, are living longer, are better educated and healthier, and are participating actively in local and national politics. Most of those who committed the genocide have been held responsible.

And yet, often Rwanda does not always get good press and has been the subject of Western criticism over issues of governance. For those of us who work in Rwanda or who are engaged in serious academic research, this can be perplexing and frustrating. Because in spite of challenges still to meet, Rwanda has staged one of the most impressive comebacks of the 21st century. Period.

What the liberators discovered in the aftermath of the genocide was a nation all but destroyed. Society itself had imploded. Major institutions had failed in their mission to provide protection and comfort, including the government, Army, and police force – but also the church and even the family unit. Any observer at the time would not have been wrong to think it likely Rwanda would become a permanent failed state, a UN protectorate in perpetuity. 

But Rwandans chose a different path. They found within themselves the resilience and courage necessary to reject the politics of hate and division, and rebuild from the ashes.

At the end of the genocide, close to a million were dead and another million implicated in the killings. Has any society has ever faced this challenge – reconstructing individual lives, rebuilding an economy and political structures, while necessarily involving and including many of the murderers?

To deal with the aftermath of the slaughter, Rwandans reached back to a traditional conflict resolution process of community trials, called gacaca. The international community, having failed to respond to the slaughter as it took place, set up an expensive and essentially ineffective tribunal.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda tried 58 cases – at a cost of more than $2 billion. On the other hand, the community courts tried over one million people implicated in the killings, at a cost of only $25 million. The community-based trials delivered justice to the perpetrators of the genocide and have brought a measure of reconciliation to the survivors. The aim was closure and, ultimately, reconciliation, not vengeance.

According to scholar Zachary Kaufman, gacaca and the other transitional justice initiatives have “helped to transform Rwanda’s culture of impunity into one of accountability.” 

Nowhere is the international criticism of Rwanda greater than in the area of democracy and governance. In fact, innovations in citizen participation and accountability at the local level have contributed to peace, reconciliation, and development. Amid criticisms of what they say is the Kagame government’s authoritarianism and problematic involvement in conflicts in the greater region, too many Western observers have missed this vibrancy and innovativeness of Rwanda’s emerging democracy. And they fail to see how it has contributed to undeniable progress in education, health, gender equity, and economic growth in the country.

Dr. Ensign has spent the past fifteen years researching, attending meetings, evaluating, and documenting the rise of good governance and accountability in Rwanda – especially at the local level. Local governance programs such as ubudehe, where the poor decide the priorities for public spending in their community and imihigo, a performance contract between leaders and citizens, are involving the poor in decisions that directly affect their lives, and holding leaders accountable.

Her research documents these findings: Development progress is accelerating, and citizens, especially at the local level, are shaping their own futures. Local governance structures are in place that encourage and facilitate collective action for the common good.

Despite the many challenges facing Rwanda, it is not too early to conclude that ubudehe and imihigo could be models for countries trying to enhance the role of the poor in decisionmaking, to improve trust, tolerance, and peace, to identify and build collective goals, and ultimately to improve development performance.

Though President Paul Kagame continues to face criticism from the West, the progress the people of Rwanda have achieved over the last 20 years under his leadership cannot be denied. Under Mr. Kagame, Rwandans have become agents of their own destiny, and their narrative is one of ascent. Alongside visionary women and men, many of whom fought to stop the genocide, Kagame has led the country through what may be the most significant example of human development of the past twenty 20 years.

That is a triumph no critic can ignore or take away from the people of Rwanda. And it should stand as a model for other nations seeking progress and reconciliation.

Professor Margee M. Ensign is the president of the American University of Nigeria and co-author of “Rwanda: History and Hope” and co-editor of “Confronting Genocide in Rwanda.” Mathilde Mukantabana is the ambassador of Rwanda to the United States.

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