“Never again” turns 30 in Rwanda

Photographs of genocide victims. Genocide Memorial, in Kigali (Rwanda).
Photographs of genocide victims. Genocide Memorial, in Kigali (Rwanda). Author: Adam Jones @ Flickr
Rwanda, the small Pays des Mille Collines in the heart of the Great Lakes region of Africa, with a little over 26,000 km2 and some 14 million inhabitants, marks 30 years since its 1994 genocide. That event marked recent African and world history and became one of the most important failures of the international community in terms of the responsibility to guarantee international peace and security, to which the II World War victorious powers pledged themselves.

For little more than 100 days, from 7 April to 15 July 1994, nearly one million people—the official figure established by the Rwandan constitution, although the academy and the UN put it at between 500,000 and 800,000 people—most of whom were members of the minority Tutsi community and of moderate sectors of the majority Hutu community, who opposed the regime, were killed in a state-planned and sponsored genocide, executed by the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), the Interahamwe militias (‘Those who work together’, in Kinyarwanda), and thousands of civilians who joined in the extermination, organized by the most extremist sectors of the government, the so-called Hutu Power. The UN mission, despite knowing this, left the country after its troops were attacked. Its commander, Roméo Dallaire, warned of the violence before the genocide began. Some 250,000 women were also raped, leaving the country’s population traumatized and its infrastructure decimated.

The current president, Paul Kagame, led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebellion from Uganda that overthrew the genocidal regime in 1994. Kagame became a successful leader in the fight against poverty who has enjoyed the support of the international community, thanks to the aid he has received, and in these 30 years he has managed to build an image of good management, which adds to the climate of guilt that grips the international community for not having intervened to stop the genocide.

These two issues—the image of good management and the climate of guilt—have helped to conceal the crimes committed by Kagame at the head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front to overthrow the genocidal government, crimes that have not been investigated and which, according to several analysts, caused thousands of deaths. They have also contributed to allowing Rwanda to establish an authoritarian regime that oppresses its own people and violates their human rights. Rwanda continues to set the political agenda in the region in defence of its national interests, which directly affect the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since the genocide, Rwanda has been immersed in an ambitious process of justice and reconciliation with limits, lights and shadows. In the years following the genocide, more than 120,000 people were arrested and charged with responsibility for involvement in the massacres. Thousands remained in prisons for years, awaiting trial. To deal with this overwhelming number of perpetrators, a three-tiered judicial response was sought: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Rwandan national judicial system, and the Gacaca courts.

Classroom at the Kabgayi Hospital, one of the sites where the genocide was perpetrated. In 2021, the remains of hundreds of victims were still being discovered there. / Photo: Adam Jones @ Flickr

First, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was mandated to prosecute those individuals who bore the greatest responsibility for the genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda in 1994. During two decades of work in Arusha (Tanzania), the tribunal convicted 61 people, including one with life imprisonment, for their involvement in the massacres. 14 defendants were acquitted and another 10 were referred to national courts. Despite its tremendous work, Rwanda criticized the tribunal for slow trials, among others.

Second, Rwanda’s domestic courts tried those accused of planning genocide or committing atrocities, including rape. By mid-2006, national courts had tried some 10,000 genocide suspects.

And third, to address the fact that thousands of defendants were still awaiting trial in the national justice system and to achieve justice and reconciliation at the grassroots, the government re-established the traditional community justice system called Gacaca (pronounced ’ga-cha-cha’). Under the Gacaca system, communities elected judges to try genocide suspects accused of all crimes except genocide planning. These local courts imposed less severe sentences if the person repented and tried to reconcile with the community. Since 2005, more than 12,000 community courts prosecuted more than 1.2 million cases nationwide. While considered a success in terms of the size of the trial backlog, the promotion of large-scale reconciliation, and the non-punitive nature of the transitional justice implemented, the system was also criticized for its indiscriminate use, arbitrariness against innocents, and the emergence of false accusations. It also gave perpetrators the opportunity to confess to their crimes, show remorse, and apologize to their fellow citizens. The Gacaca courts ended in 2012.

1994 genocide’s multiple impacts are present in the country’s collective imagination. They have haunted Rwanda for 30 years and will continue to leave their mark permanently. Mass graves containing the remains of thousands of genocide victims are still being discovered as of today, as Ibuka, the umbrella association of victims’ organizations, points out. Kwibuka, the genocide commemoration day, is marked every 7 April.

The roots of the conflict: from German and Belgian colonialism to the present day

The traditional Rwandan monarchy (1) was conquered by Germany and incorporated into German East Africa at the end of the 19th century. At the end of World War I, Belgium accepted a League of Nations mandate to rule Rwanda as one of two kingdoms forming the territory of Ruanda-Urundi, along with its colony of Congo in the west, formerly King Leopold II’s private property. Through his private companies, Leopold II had already begun the plundering of natural resources, enslaving the Congolese population and massacring populations that resisted his intervention, which continued under Belgian rule, as recounted by Joseph Conrad, Adam Hostchild and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others, or as we see today through the paintings of Tshibumba Kanda Matulu.

The arrival of Belgian colonialism in 1916 exacerbated ethnic differences between the majority Hutu community and the Tutsi minority. The latter was considered superior by the Belgian colonial power and occupied political, economic and social power in the country, to the detriment of the majority population. This situation led to strong resentment. As early as 1959 the first outbreaks of ethnopolitical violence against the Tutsi community occurred.

After independence in 1962, the Hutu community seized power. In 1990, an armed conflict began between the RPF armed group—led by the Ugandan Tutsi community, which fled Rwanda in 1959—and the Hutu government. The two sides reached an agreement in 1993 to end the conflict. However, the agreement was not respected. The architect of the pact, President Juvénal Habyarimana, was assassinated when the plane in which he was travelling with Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down in unclear circumstances.

Habyarimana’s death was the excuse and the trigger for Hutu extremists to start the genocide the next day, in the face of the international community’s inaction. Three months later, the RPF overthrew and expelled the genocidal government, committing serious human rights violations and massacres that remained unpunished. These massacres included that of the Kibeho IDP camp in 1995, where around 5,000 people were killed.

The crisis continued across the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), then known as Zaire. Two million Rwandan refugees, including those responsible for the killings, sought refuge there under Operation Turquoise. Rwanda’s new government supported a rebel force led by Laurent Kabila, who pursued the génocidaires in Congo before marching on the capital, Kinshasa, and overthrowing the country’s kleptocratic leader, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Kabila soon fell out with his Rwandan allies, sparking another Rwandan-backed rebellion in 1998, which engulfed several African countries in the so-called "African World War". The war ended in 2002 and foreign troops withdrew from the Congo, mainly those of Rwanda, which justified their presence by the existence of groups on Congolese territory that they intended to eliminate, given the lack of will of the Congolese armed forces to dismantle them, while Rwanda and its allies exercised control and plundered the country’s natural resources.

On the verge of the third war?

Since then, President Kagame has ruled in an authoritarian manner. He has established a climate of persecution and repression of dissent on the grounds that political and social opposition promotes a genocidal discourse, he has eliminated opponents within and outside the country’s borders, and he has intervened in Congolese affairs on the grounds that the country continues to harbour those responsible for the genocide, the renamed Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which have also been instrumentalized by successive Congolese governments to hold Rwanda back.

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. / Photo: Munich Security Conference

Civil liberties and political rights are not respected in Rwanda. Human rights organizations have often shown how the Rwandan government violates the rights of those who challenge or contradict its narrative. In addition to the 250,000 Rwandan refugees and armed groups operating in eastern DRC, other Rwandan refugees are scattered in the neighbouring states of Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. Rwandan groups opposed to the ruling party in Rwanda demand a voluntary and safe return to their homeland to exercise their political rights without restriction, as well as the diaspora in Europe, America and Africa. Relations between Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the DRC have been permanently marked by accusations of complicity with rebel groups seeking to overthrow the Rwandan leadership; Rwanda, in turn, mobilizes and arms the Rwandan population in eastern DRC, which is under constant threat. Although Rwanda has been singled out by the UN from 2001 to the present for its direct and indirect involvement in the systematic and systemic plundering of Congolese natural resources and for having armed and organized rebellions to protect the Banyarwanda and Banyamulenge community and their interests in the Kivus, it has still not been sanctioned by the UN itself or by other actors in the international community.

The latest episode of the conflict began in 2022, with clashes between Rwandan and DRC security forces in the border area. In addition, Rwanda has been accused—as noted and evidenced by the UN—of providing military and logistical support to the March 23 Movement (M23) armed group’s offensive in North Kivu. The M23 is Rwanda’s main armed proxy group in the DRC, which under various names (the RCD-Goma during the “African World War” in the 1990s, Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP and, since 2012, the M23) has fought for the rights of the Rwandan population in the Congo, is under Rwandan tutelage, and contributes to the plundering of Congolese natural resources for its own benefit and that of Rwanda. In recent months, the situation has deteriorated to the point where a conflagration between the two countries, supported by a hundred or so local groups, cannot be ruled out.

Despite the legacy that weighs on Rwanda, and the wounds that remain open, a deeper analysis is needed to understand the local, regional, and international dynamics that lie at the genesis of the DRC-Rwanda conflict, in order to try to promote its genuine transformation: only then will the populations of the two countries be able to turn the page on the past—not forget it—and build a peaceful coexistence.

(1) Rwanda was a confederation of clans, structured into some 20 units made up of herders (Tutsi), farmers (Hutu) and artisans (Twa). Each clan had a head, the Mwami. One of the clans, led by a Tutsi lineage, dominated the region and was considered king of Rwanda. This feudal, clientelistic system was based on the possession of herds or land. As Gerard Prunier and Itziar Ruiz-Giménez, among others, point out, the Tutsi and Hutu categories are flexible and contain elements of ethnicity, lineage, clan, social status, and economic activity. Belgian colonialism established the myth that the Tutsis—between 10% and 15% of the population—who originated in Nubia and Ethiopia and arrived in migrations between the 12th and 13th centuries, were a superior race, more civilized and closer to Europe. This race had dominated the local population: the Hutu and Twa. This myth, of scanty scientific rigour, was the basis for Tutsi-dominated indirect rule in Rwanda and Burundi. This stereotypical myth and discriminatory colonial policies fed an aggressive Hutu inferiority complex, which led to successive waves of violence in the 1950s and 1960s that brought to power the Hutu majority, who had nurtured a discourse against the Tutsi, considering them foreign invaders as opposed to the Hutu, the legitimate inhabitants of the country. For further details, see Ruiz-Gimémez (2003) and Prunier (1995).