Kwibuka 28. A time of grief for the survivors, of tears for the orphans, of the anguishing confrontation with a past that continues to haunt the present. A time to reaffirm “Never Again”. “Never again,” of course. As the forces that promote revisionism, negationism, and the restoration of a harmful political order continue to threaten Rwanda’s post-liberation political consensus, it becomes even more important to evaluate the meaning and scope of “Never again”.
The risk is that “Never again” might become one of that hollow, trite slogans that are repeated without thinking about it, out of habit or even duty. One of those ready-made expressions that say nothing, commit to nothing, and prevent nothing. “Never again” is a legacy of the 1914 World War I. It translated the shock and trauma of a war that had wiped out millions of lives and disrupted entire societies, and the hope that such a horror would never happen again. And yet, 1939-45 World War II did happen. It happened because, as the events surrounding the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war show us, history is tragic. It has its own laws and its own logic. It laughs at our emotions, our moods, our hopes, our slogans. It is often cruel to the naive, unfair to the weak, and merciless to the nonchalant.
From 1959 until 1994, politics and a dubious, colonial interpretation of Rwandan history were intertwined in Rwanda. The fusion of the two corrupted both. Politics was hostage to historical misrepresentations, and this altered history was weaponised to serve amoral political purposes. From this point of view, the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis was the terrible apotheosis of this paradigm. It also constituted, in fact, a repudiation of this very paradigm. And so, upon Rwanda’s liberation, one of the central questions for the country was the link between politics and history. Should Rwanda remain a prisoner of its tragic history, or could it exist, or even prosper, on the basis of a new social contract that would reconfigure the political space so that it would serve the objective of eco-nomic and social modernization of the country?
The second option prevailed. This new consensus, which could only be brought about and consolidated by a leader with the character and personality of Paul Kagame, has had a lot to do with the re-birth and stabilization of – and the undeniable progress made by Rwanda since 1994. But 28 years later, this consensus is perhaps a victim of its own success. It may have fostered a misunderstanding of the role of history in Rwanda’s destiny. Indeed, each commemoration of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis is the occasion for debates on the responsibility of youth with regard to the country’s recent history. These debates do not hide the concerns of generations shaped by the experience of exile, the memory of persecution and the genocide against the Tutsis. Understandably, the debates centre the capacity of Rwandan youth as a whole to take up the torch of a history that is complicated. Buoyed by the rebirth of the country, drunk with the successes achieved over time, and eager to take their place in modernity, some of these young people are convinced that history has come to an end. For them, politics should not only be decoupled from history; it should be expurgated, limited to more prosaic considerations. And so “Never again” would be for the new generation a wish, an aspiration, an incantation. The reality is probably more complicated.
Nevertheless, this concern for a future that may appear uncertain is a challenge at a time when reactionary forces are working hard to restore the old political paradigm, to merge politics and revisionist history, making historical revenge the unassailable horizon of Rwandan politics.
The reality is that history, especially the recent history of the genocide against the Tutsis and its causes, has never been divorced from politics in Rwanda. First, because, by its nature, it is inevitable. Second, the presence of survivors, the frequent discovery of mass graves, and the obsessive revisionism of certain groups have imposed it on people’s consciences. Finally, the RPF itself is a political movement forged by the tragic history of Rwanda, and whose existence is justified in light of this history. But perhaps more than any of the above, the fact that the genocidal movement that was militarily de- feated in 1994 has chosen history, through the many organizations it has formed over time, as the basis of its political project effectively establishes history as one of the major issues in Rwandan politics for the decades to come.
There are two options: the first, embodied by the reactionary movement, consists in subjecting politics to historical passions and resentments, whereas the second proposes to examine history without complacency and without dogmatism. This comes with the firm will, not to restore it, but to transcend it and build a radically inclusive Rwanda, free of divisive obsessions, antagonisms and resentments of the past: stable and prosperous.
These two approaches are irreconcilable. One wants to restore the past; the other wants to build a future in which “Never Again” stands against the restoration of the past. One wants to weaponize history to conquer political power; the other wants to rely on history to pave the way for a better future; one wants to lock up and reduce Rwandans to their tragic history; the other wants to free them from it. And so, one must impose itself on the other. To do so, it is, therefore, necessary to roll up one’s sleeves and resolutely wage the ideological, media and intellectual battle to consolidate the gains of the Liberation and ensure Rwanda’s sustainability. This implies thinking of “Never again” as neither more nor less than an invitation to action: “Never (let it happen) again.”