This year’s 7th of April marks the 28th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, a genocide that saw some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The landscape of its aftermath was distressing: over one million citizens had been killed, and two million more became refugees, mainly in neighbouring countries. About three hundred thousand children were orphaned, with most of them finding themselves thrown into the role of parents for their younger siblings. Around 250,000 women were widowed, many of them having endured unspeakable sexual violence at the hands of the killers of their loved ones.
State coffers had been emptied by the fleeing genocidal regime, and 92% of the country’s budget had to depend on international aid. Inflation was soaring, reaching 60% in 1995, while the country’s infrastructure was practically non-existent. There was virtually no running water, electricity, working telephone lines, schools, hospitals, or health centres.
The task of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and the economy seemed gargantuan. But even more daunting was the task of re-threading its broken social fabric. How does one rebuild trust in a society where so many were killed, not just by some abstract state machinery, but also by spouses, parents, relatives, co-workers, neighbours, priests, and pastors? And yet, this was imperative, for as much as some preconized a “two-nation” solution, we understood that the only way Rwandans would be able to rise from its ashes was by doing it as one.
One episode was to provide the first clue towards a solution. Towards the end of 1996, after the massive return of refugees who had fled during the 1994 campaign to stop the genocide, a number of groups whose lived experiences were susceptible
to putting them at odds found themselves in the Kibungo region of Eastern Rwanda. They included Genocide survivors, 1959 refugees who had just returned from thirty-five year long exile in Burundi and Tanzania, people who had never left the region, as well as recently repatriated 1994 refugees. Before long, tensions revolving around land surfaced, with different families making conflicting claims to the same land. In the immediate post-genocide context, the tensions became deadly, and authorities could not find the culprits, with contentious groups preferring to settle scores in silence. When sensitisation campaigns proved futile in bringing back peace, it was decided to try to resolve differences through community dialogues. The solution that eventually prevailed was the sharing of land according to the needs of different families, with the distribution negotiated in community assemblies.
These community fora turned the tide, a birthing collaboration between unlikely allies. Noting this, authorities scaled up these community consultations countrywide, asking the population to go beyond local problems and discuss the causes of the conflict that had plagued Rwanda and its possible solutions. They generated rich insights and identified five main causes of conflict in Rwanda: bad leadership, poverty, ignorance, impunity, and exclusion.
The government decided to take a page out of this book by organising in-depth deliberations at the national level, which was dubbed the “Urugwiro Village Discussions.” The government brought together about 164 personalities from a wide range of backgrounds (political party leaders, public servants, the private sector, civil society, religious and academic institutions) who met every Saturday from May 1998 to March 1999 to reflect on the root causes of the country’s collapse, design the architecture of the new Rwanda and lay the foundations for a radical transformation of the country at all levels.
The Discussions served as a basis for two major political directions that have guided the nation to this day: Strengthening national unity became the ultimate goal towards which all policies must converge, and putting citizens at the centre of development strategies became an imperative. To achieve this, Rwandans made three strategic choices that have been at the core of every policy, strategy and initiative implemented in the nation since then: To be United, to be Accountable to ourselves, to Think Big.
Central to making these choices materialise was the understanding that Rwandans needed to devise innovative initiatives that could respond to the unique challenges the country was facing. The im- pact of this approach has been felt across areas such as governance, social welfare, and justice in the service of unity.
Addressing post-Genocide justice challenges
The Genocide against the Tutsi was unique in many ways. First, it was a fratricidal endeavour that saw a segment of Rwandans turn on another with whom they share a language, a history, customs, traditions, and so much more, on the basis of supposed differences that had been invented and imposed on us by colonial masters, and had been upheld by a political elite intent on exploiting the divisions to maintain its power.
Secondly, it was a “popular” genocide, a genocide of unprecedented proximity which had been planned by the state, but was widely carried out by ordinary citizens following years of not just hate indoctrination, but repression, discrimination, dehumanisation and “trial” massacres that had gone unpunished, but rather encouraged.
By 1998, with the national justice system being rebuilt from scratch and over 120,000 genocide suspects waiting for trial in prisons, it became clear that the orthodox judicial system would take more than 100 years to try all genocide-related cases. As a result, it became necessary to devise an innovative mechanism to meet the challenge of (timely) justice.
Once again, the Kibungo community discussions provided a roadmap, giving rise to one of Rwanda’s most impactful Home- Grown Initiatives: the “Gacaca Courts”. These community courts put an emphasis on restorative justice, cognizant of the fact that victims and perpetrators had to co-exist. The suspects were encouraged to confess their crimes in exchange for reduced sentences or, in some cases, acquittal.
This approach freed up speech and many perpetrators confessed their crimes, gave full accounts of their criminal activities during the genocide against the Tutsi, revealed the locations of their victims’ remains and asked for forgiveness from the victims and the society, thus relieving to some extent the pain of thousands of survivors and allowing them to lay their loved ones to rest while gradually rebuilding their lives.
Most offenders also had their prison sentences commuted to public works of general interest to the community, such as the building of schools, health centres, roads, anti-erosion systems, contributing not only to community development but also speeding the reintegration of former prisoners back into society.
In a period of 10 years, more than 12,000 Gacaca courts were established across Rwanda, with about 1.9 million cases tried. They also laid the foundation for reconciliation and unity, the eradication of a culture of impunity, and contributed greatly to shedding light on the scale of the killings that had occurred during the genocide.
The pursuit of equitable and fair justice continues to be paramount for Rwanda. It is why the country has invested in efforts to improve citizens’ access to justice through Home-Grown Initiatives such as “Abunzi”, a system of community mediators who have proven themselves indispensable auxiliaries of justice, settling land disputes, breach of contracts, family conflicts, and more, thereby reducing the congestion of cases in civil courts while preserving social cohesion in communities.
The same pursuit is also what inspired the adoption of the Integrated Electronic Case Management System (IECMS) in 2014, a platform that connects all institutions belonging to the Justice, and Law and Order Sector, being the single point of entry for recording and securing case information and efficiently sharing information among sector institutions. The IECMS has greatly reduced delays and costs associated with judicial case processing, deliver- ing timely, quality, accessible, and affordable justice for all.
Institutionalising Good Governance
The fight against corruption, misappropriation of public funds, abuse of power and injustice is also at the heart of Rwanda’s post-genocide governance, and has been characterized by two major approaches. Firstly, Rwanda has sought to build an inclusive and corruption-free society by creating more effective institutions to combat the scourge, which include the Rwanda Public Procurement Authority, the Rwanda Revenue Authority, the Office of the Auditor-General, and the Office of the Ombudsman.
Secondly, Rwanda has undertaken a massive digitization programme of public services. Notable among these are the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS), which automates planning, budgeting, accounting and financial reporting processes nationwide, and has led to better fund allocation and management, as well as “Irembo” (meaning “Gateway”), a digital portal for public service delivery which has digitized 98 government services, making them easily accessible from computers or mobile devices (phones, etc.) via the Internet or a USSD code.
It is a given, of course, that citizen-centred governance cannot be achieved if power is centralised at the very top of the executive hierarchy. As such, reforms aimed at strengthening the power of citizens, improving transparency and accountability, and establishing local governance have been implemented since 2000, with the adoption of the National Decentralization Policy. Since the adoption of the 2003 Constitution, elections have been organized at all levels of local government and at parliamentary and presidential levels, allowing Rwandan citizens to elect their representatives, who are fully accountable to them.
This process has been undertaken with a particular focus on gender equity.
Social welfare as a constitutional right
The principles of social protection have been enshrined in Rwanda’s 2003 Constitution in order to ensure the wellbeing of Rwandan citizens across the socioeconomic and health sectors. These include the establishment of a community-based health insurance programme or “Mutu- elles de Santé” in 2005, a solidarity programme specifically designed to provide medical coverage to poor Rwandans and those in the informal sector. Combined with other forms of insurance available in the country, it has contributed to near-universal health coverage, with about 90% of the population insured. The increased access to quality health services has led to life expectancy going from 26 years in 1995 to 68.7 years in 2020.
Gender Equity and women empowerment
Rwanda has made major strides in the quest to create a gender-equal society. Various policies have been designed to close significant gaps in access to finance between men and women, such as the Women’s Guarantee Fund which helps women entrepreneurs without collateral to obtain loans from banking institutions. Such programmes have contributed to a drop in women’s financial exclusion from 22% in 2012 to 8% in 2020.
Rwanda has also invested massively in the education of young girls so that they could take their rightful place in the socioeconomic life of the country. Women are also today the majority owners of land in Rwanda, thanks to a 1999 land law that upheld their right to own and inherit land, which they had been denied prior to that law.
A major positive impact of this reformist impulse is the level of representation women hold in decision-making bodies of the executive and legislative branches.
A final reflection
The profound transformation project that Rwanda embarked on over the last two decades is underpinned by well-designed and formulated policies, laws, programmes, plans of actions, and an overall robust vision for development.
But more than all the above, it is the unwavering devotion of Rwandans to this transformation project and to this vision of a united, equal and prosperous Rwanda that has allowed Rwan- da(ns) to change their mindset and make bold choices, difficult decisions, and to have the courage to follow their own path with discipline and a sense of urgency.
Challenges do remain, of course. Poverty has been significantly reduced, but it continues to afflict many Rwandans. Economic growth has had considerable positive effects, but there is still room for improvement in terms of narrowing the inequality gap. These challenges are taking place in an ever-changing regional and international environment where opportunities, as well as risks, abound. Nevertheless, Rwandans are confident in the(ir) ability to build on the current gains and continue to affect positive change in the nation, inspired by the optimistic, ambitious and inclusive vision of the future that is integral to the fabric of today’s Rwanda. The recent successes in combatting the Covid-19 pandemic – and the lessons learnt from this fight– are an additional motivating factor.
Clearly, Africa and the Global South will be important stake- holders in the next steps of this transformation process. The sharing of knowledge and experiences, and cooperation between countries with a common history, similar challenges, and identical aspirations for peace, dignity, and prosperity are a powerful lever that Rwanda is already using as it continues its transformation journey.