In July 1994 Rwanda was a shell of a nation. Some 800,000 people had been killed, over 300 lives lost every hour for the 100 days of the genocide, and millions more displaced from their homes. Its institutions, systems of government, and trust among its people were destroyed. There was no precedent for the situation it found itself in: desperately poor, without skilled labour and resources, and the people demoralised and divided.
Very few expected the country to achieve more than high levels of sympathy. But under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda decided to start afresh; to begin a unique experiment in post-conflict nation building, which would steer it away from intractable cycles of killing. This year, as Rwanda marks the 20th commemoration of the genocide, it is remarkable to see the progress the country has made.
For the last five years, my foundation – the Africa Governance Initiative – which provides countries with the capacity to deliver practical change, has been operating in Rwanda. Though there have been criticisms of the government over several issues, not least in respect of the fighting in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the progress has been extraordinary.
There was no grand theory when the new government took power in 1994; the primary concern was to guarantee that the extreme ethnic divisions which caused the genocide would never resurface. Security and stability came first, alongside basic humanitarian relief, and, slowly at first, then with greater speed, improvements in health, education and incomes. There was a belief that by uniting its people behind the common cause of progress, they could construct a new national identity: Rwandan, rather than Hutu or Tutsi.
Over the last decade economic growth has exceeded 8% per annum. Investment is flowing into Rwanda – it has nearly tripled since 2005 – and investors are made welcome. Even without many natural resources, the country is economically vibrant.
In little over five years more than a million Rwandans have lifted themselves out of poverty. The proportion of children dying before their fifth birthday has more than halved, and when they reach seven years old, they can nearly all go to school. Most of the population is covered by health insurance, and malaria deaths have fallen more than 85% since 2005. Crime is very low. Women can walk the street at night safe.
Some international observers underplay these achievements, emphasising the role of foreign aid in the country’s success. It is clear that aid has significantly contributed to its development. But it is because the government has deployed it effectively that we can point to the achievements the country has made. It does a disservice to Rwandans to suggest otherwise – and at a time when many in western nations are questioning the use of aid budgets, we should look at Rwanda as an example of how to use aid well.
The government has also faced criticism for some of the policy choices it has taken. For instance, the Gacaca system of community justice was introduced to try the perpetrators of the genocide. It has been attacked for not meeting international standards. But with limited resources, nearly 2 million people potentially faced with court proceedings and a need for the population to heal its wounds, Gacaca was the only practical solution to the transitional justice the country so badly needed.
And the population needed this. Because 20 years on, the social effects of the genocide are still being felt. Communities are still trying to build a liveable peace, in unimaginable circumstances – with murderers and their victims families living side by side. No wonder that trust is fragile. And building trust is made all the harder as the country’s quest for justice is not over; many of those who committedthe genocide are still at large. It was only this year that France tried the first suspect living on its soil. Pascal Simbikangwa, a former Rwandan intelligence chief, was sentenced to 25 years for his role in the slaughter.
It means that hard choices still need to be made. The country has ambitious economic targets – Rwanda aims to become a middle-income nation by 2020 – while political and social transformation continues. Last year, media and access to information laws were passed, while the genocide ideology law was loosened. A law criminalising gay people was rejected. And in 2017, the presidential elections will take place.
Rwandans are increasingly united. There is a strong patriotism and belief in the government – almost nine in 10 say they “trust in the leadership of their country”. They can never forget their tragic past but do not want to be defined by it. The older generation already know all too well the cost of failure, but a majority of the population, born post-genocide, has inherited the possibility of a different future.
We should remember the lives that were lost. We should recognise that this government undertook, and continues to undertake, a historic exercise in nation-building, and seek to understand the choices the country has made. And we should stand with them as they write the next chapter in their history.