/ 19 July 2012

Deep Read: Trust in Rwanda’s future

A woman charged with committing acts of murder during the Rwandan genocide of 1994
A woman charged with committing acts of murder during the Rwandan genocide of 1994

Rwanda could very well be the poster child for the new wave of positive sentiment about sub-Saharan Africa's economic future. By any measure its vital statistics are impressive. An emerging jagged skyline of high-rise glass buildings in Kigali, its capital city, testifies to the windfalls that have come with an economy that has expanded by an annual average of 7% over the past decade. 

Although this growth has come from a low base, and it continues to be classified by the World Bank as a low income country, Rwanda aims to shed this tag and achieve middle-income status by 2020. Because it is not endowed with valuable natural resources, the country plans to leapfrog industrialisation and become a hub for services in the mould of Singapore, which its president, Paul Kagame, seeks to emulate. Towards this end, many kilometres of fibre optic cables have been laid across the small, densely populated country, and a concerted effort has been made to cut red tape for prospective investors. 

Judging by its current developmental trajectory, it is well on its way to achieve its goals. In 10 years, GDP per capita nearly doubled from US$682 per person in 2000 to $1 163 in 2010. Over the same period, the percentage of Rwandans living on less than $2 a day shrunk from 89% to 82%, and, measured in terms of the country's own poverty line, those living below it have decreased from 60% to 45%.  Adult literacy has improved significantly, and today almost all Rwandans have access to health insurance. As a consequence, life expectancy today is 54 years, compared to 46 in 2000. Even if it remains a poor country for now, life for most Rwandans is getting better, and progressively longer. 

These glowing statistics do, however, obscure another less comforting Rwandan reality. Apart from the large number of construction projects, its cleanliness, and the ever-expanding network of well-constructed roads, interspersed with traffic islands featuring immaculately trimmed shrubs, another apparent feature that strikes first-time visitors to Kigali is the presence of heavily armed soldiers at most big intersections. Those who reside in the country observe that in recent years both the number of soldiers and the calibre of their rifles have increased. For a state that has experienced the amount of progress that Rwanda has during this period, such an observation seems to be counter-intuitive. Instead of greater force, one would have expected an inverse relationship between growing prosperity and the need for guns to protect the peace. 

It takes a visit to Kigali's Genocide Memorial Centre, where the bodies of 250 000 victims of the country's 1994 genocide lie buried in a mass graves, to grasp why this society, despite its admirable achievements, will remain fragile for many years to come. In this darkest period of Rwanda's history, one million people – mainly Tutsi –  out of a population of eight million, were massacred when Hutu nationalists unleashed a wave of death on their fellow citizens. It not only obliterated physical infrastructure, but also destroyed its social fibre. The need for post-conflict justice was obvious, and even more urgent was the need to reconcile a shattered society to avoid a repeat of this ghastly episode.

Justice left in the community's hands
The belated response of the United Nations, which was severely criticised for turning a blind eye as the tragedy unfolded, was to set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1995 to preside over cases involving the genocide's key architects. The task of dealing with the foot soldiers was left to Rwanda's courts. 

In 2001, upon realising that its depleted system was incapable of handling the sheer volume of cases before it, Rwanda opted for a formalised version of a centuries-old indigenous communal court system, the Gacaca. Chaired by lay-judges and relying heavily on the participation of community members in the hearings, it became the Rwandan state's official response to the need for post-genocide justice and reconciliation. Hearings were held in villages and towns where atrocities were perpetrated, and hence justice, and the opportunities for reconciliation, was largely left in the hands of communities themselves. 

While the system was widely criticised by judicial purists suspicious of the quality of its judgments, few of its internal and international critics have been able to propose an alternative system to deal with the scale of the challenge that Rwanda faced. At the conclusion of its mandate in June this year, the system had dispensed justice in close to two million cases over a period of ten years. For its part, the ICTR, which will also wind up its activities in 2012, has only been able to complete 50 cases. 

But a focus on numbers cannot be the sole yardstick for success. Ultimately it must be asked whether the Gacaca system also succeeded, qualitatively, in building a Rwanda that is at peace with itself. 

At a conference, hosted in Kigali, one day before the final closing ceremony of the Gacaca court system on June 17, it was resolved that, on balance, this was indeed the case. Such a judgment may, however, be premature. Given the scale of the atrocities and their relatively recent nature, every citizen remains inescapably linked, directly or indirectly, to the trauma of those fateful 100 days in 1994. The real test may be to see if and how this trauma will be passed on to future generations, as the genocide moment becomes more distant in history. 

What more will the government do?
What is certain is that present-day Rwanda remains ethnically polarised. And while the Kagame government actively suppresses any notion of Hutu and Tutsi identities in favour of a broader Rwandan identity, ordinary citizens, when free to speak, point to deep latent ethnic schisms that pervade society. And even if it is assumed that the status quo is a reflection of Gacaca's successes, then the residual tension in society must bear testimony to the great challenge that still lies ahead. While formal courts will henceforth preside over the remaining cases against alleged genocidaires, it must be asked what more the government will do to defuse the pressures that the post-genocide legacy continues to exert on the social fabric. Ignoring or suppressing them would be short-sighted. 

Social cohesion cannot be decreed by law, nor can it be imposed by force. It has to grow organically out of the trust that ordinary citizens voluntarily extend to the state.  Whether real or not, the impression created by large contingents of heavily armed men in Kigali, is that citizens are being coerced into submission. They represent a state that can by no stretch of the imagination be described as fully democratic. Credible opposition and free media are being stifled with the same vigour as those that dare to ask questions about the country's ethnic tensions. Kigali's streets are orderly, at least in part, due to a practice of rounding up vagrants – some still children – that are sent to notorious "re-education camps". Against this backdrop it becomes difficult to gauge the extent to which acquiescence by citizens, also as it relates to the official narrative of the country's brutal past, is the product of a true national consensus or fear.

Regrettably it appears as if the latter continues to be the motive force. In recent years the Rwandan government's penchant for authoritarian measures has been on the rise. Ironically, its consequence, stability and strict adherence to the rule of law, has also been credited for the extent of growth, investment and development that the country has experienced. It makes the policy environment predictable and very little official corruption exists. In 2012 the country was ranked 45th on the World Bank's ease of doing business index. Mauritius (23rd) and South Africa (35th) were the only African states ranked above it. Also donors of aid and development assistance, which still constitute close to 40% of the country's GDP, have found that few states are as able to put their support to efficient use as Rwanda has been.

The sustainability of this development model, nevertheless, remains open to challenge. An over-reliance on coercive measure to maintain the status quo does render the country vulnerable to shifts in power and influence, both internally and externally. 

At home, speculation is rife about what a post-Kagame dispensation would look like. The president, who is widely regarded as the glue that holds the present dispensation together, has indicated that this will be his last term in office. Will his successor be able to assert the same degree of authority, backed up by the loyalty that Kagame enjoyed as the liberator figure? And what implications will a leadership transition have for domestic, and indeed, regional stability? Just across its eastern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a ragtag formation of Hutu nationalists that are suspected of genocide crimes, continues to destabilise the DRC's Kivu provinces. Their threat to Rwandan security also remains real, as a spate of grenade attacks across the country earlier this year suggests.

Turning down the heat
Although complex, these domestic and regional dynamics can, in theory at least, still be managed to varying degrees. The country has far less control over a shaky global economic environment which, if it unravels, will leave Rwanda more exposed than most. With its high dependency on donor assistance, especially from Europe, the country will have to consider what impact a substantial drop in foreign assistance might have on the tightly balanced equilibrium within the country.  

Faced with several uncertainties, Rwanda is compelled to seek systemic solutions that not only put a lid on potential threats, but actually turn down the heat on them. Its problems are too complex to be reduced to single solutions, and it raises critical questions about the sequencing of political and economic reform in the wake of a rupture of the magnitude of the 1994 genocide. A fragile region adds further complexity. As such, Rwanda does not need prescriptive "pundits".  

But, as it moves moves further away from its genocide experience, it will become increasingly important for the country to consider the effects of the intergenerational transfer of memory. Despite its pervasive control of society, it is impossible to completely suppress the private and frequently polarising views that people on different sides of the ethnic divide exchange within their households and other private spaces. 

It must therefore be encouraged to continue its pursuit of national healing, but it needs to do so in an open-ended fashion, which allows for the creation of an inclusive national narrative of its past and its future. It is a long-term investment, but if successful, trust, more than fear, will become the cohesive force that holds this country, with its immense potential, together.