Book Club: How to Write about Post-Genocide Rwanda

Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace/Credit: Aubrey Graham
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How effective has the process of nation, state and peace-building been in Rwanda under President Paul Kagame? And what is the best way to understand it? As part of our popular Book Club feature, which brings you the very best in new research, Susan Thomson reflects on the key lessons of her new volume, Rwanda: From Genocide To Precarious Peace.

My experiences studying political life in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide—when at least 500,000 people died in just 100 days at the world watched in horror—usually results in two reactions. Friends, family and other non-academics in my life sometimes reply with an “Oh, wow! They had a genocide there, right?” More often than not, the response is “Where’s that?” quickly followed by a sincere “Why?”

Among my academic peers, particularly from those who also study the tiny central African country, I am either praised for my focus on understanding and explaining rural life before and since 1994; or I am pilloried, accused of denying the genocide as my findings question the current government’s efforts to rebuild and reconcile. The logic of my detractors unfortunately mirrors that of the incumbent Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF): to question how the RPF governs is the same as denying the genocide. This is a worrying trend, for those who do not understand the past are condemned to repeat it.

I had these different audiences in mind when I sat down in late 2012 to start writing my most recent book, Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace (Yale UP, 2018). I also remembered the many hours I spent listening to rural Rwandans. Their experiences of surviving the genocide and trying to rebuild heart and home after was the subject of my first book, Whispering Truth to Power: Everyday Resistance to Post-Genocide Reconciliation (Wisconsin UP, 2013).

In that text, I argued that Rwanda’s poorest citizens distrust the local officials charged with implementing the RPF’s reconstruction and reconciliation policies. More worryingly, my ethnographic research found that Rwanda’s internationally celebrated reconciliation policies have failed to gain the grassroots support needed to sustain peace.

Understanding genocide

The Rwandan genocide was far from a spontaneous event.  It was the result of a series of structural crises which drove Hutu elites to choose genocide as a strategy to hold onto power. The now-ruling, then rebel RPF launched a civil war that fundamentally changed the political and military climate in Rwanda. Their invasion from Uganda in October 1990 ended a period of relative calm and prosperity that many Rwandans—Tutsi and Hutu, rural peasant and urban elite—had enjoyed since the 1973 coup, when Juvenal Habyarimana took power from Rwanda’s first postcolonial president, Gregoire Kayibanda (1962-1973).

For many observers, the 1994 genocide began on 6 April 1994, when then-President Habyarimana was assassinated when his aircraft was shot out of the sky on its approach to Kigali International Airport. The president was returning from peace talks with the RPF in neighbouring Tanzania. Habyarimana’s supporters blamed the assassination on the RPF, which was led by minority Tutsi rebels. By 7 April 1994, Hutu hardliners within the presidential camp had moved to eliminate the leadership of the more moderate and largely Hutu political opposition, and within three days they had outmaneuvered Hutu moderates within their party to install a new government of hardliners.

As the sociologist Andre Guichaoua makes clear in his research on the causes of the genocide, there was no sophisticated preplan to methodically kill Tutsi. Instead, he documents the gradual emergence of a genocidal policy instituted by Hutu hardliners around April 12, 1994. By this time, just one week after Habyarimana’s death, it was clear that Hutu hardliners, led by a handful of senior politicians and military officers from Habyarimana’s own political party, would be unable to end the civil war and stake their claim to State House. The rebel RPF, under Paul Kagame’s military leadership, was simply too strong to be quickly and easily defeated. Genocide, as a political and military solution, became the strategy chosen in response to this reality with civilians having long been primed to enact nationalist goals of Hutu nationhood at the expense of Tutsi lives.

In just 100 days, from April to July 1994, Hutu militias fanned out across the country to impel their Hutu brethren to kill Tutsi neighbours, friends and family. As I explain in my book, many ordinary people did indeed kill; but many more did not. And, when killings occurred, they usually took place in public places: churches and stadiums, in broad daylight, with everyday farm tools like hoes and machetes, often in full view of eyewitnesses.

I also address the role of the rebel RPF is assuring its military victory on the path to capturing State House. RPF soldiers sometimes disrupted the killers and Human Rights Watch estimates that overall the RPF saved tens of thousands of Tutsi lives. However, it also sacrificed Tutsi lives in its own drive to capture political power. The RPF leadership, under General Kagame’s careful tutelage, knew that its military challenge to Hutu power could provoke a dramatic loss of Tutsi life, but felt that such losses were the human cost of attaining political power.

Among those who killed Tutsi, many perpetrators said that they killed under duress from militia leaders, or to secure property or jobs from the deceased. Who killed and why is an important issue to get right, so that justice can be done, not denied. By 2003, the RPF made it illegal to talk about the crimes against humanity and war crimes it committed before, during and after the genocide. The Rwandans I consulted are aware of this hidden history but they remain silent, fearful of reprisals from local officials who deny a long history of RPF human rights abuses and reprisal killings.

The question of who killed and why has long animated my research. It frames the answers I give when asked why I study Rwanda. The country’s 1994 genocide is not a product of ethnic hatred but rather a result of a power politics, and of difficult individual choices in extraordinary circumstances – it is not simply a story of Hutu hatred for Tutsi kith and kin as the current government contends.

In framing the genocide as a product of political choices made under pressure, I am able to address one of the most pervasive stereotypes of Africans as ethnically violent by nature. For those keen on a deeper conversation, I also speak about the ways ordinary people suffer at the hands of capricious political elites as part of a longer history of state-led violence in Rwanda. The 1994 genocide is no exception in this broader arc of state-led, ethnically motivated violence. When the power of political and military elites—whether Hutu or Tutsi—is threatened, ordinary people know to expect the worst. 

Researching Rwanda

My own approach, as an ethnographer has been to try to sit and listen to as many Rwandans as possible, to learn from them about their experiences of remaking their lives after genocide, in their own voice and in their own way.  My task is to put their life experiences into social, political and cultural context, to mediate the official version with lived realities. To do so means that I have spent many years learning the Rwandan national language, Kinyarwanda, while also working to build trust-based relationships with people. And to recognize that these are relationships to which I am accountable long after I have left “the field,” a topic that informs both my teaching and research.

My aim in writing a second book on Rwanda was to assess some 20 years of RPF rule, and to analyse the country’s transition from war to reconciliation from the perspective of ordinary people, ethnic Tutsi, Hutu and Twa alike. I found that Rwanda’s current peace is precarious because of the methods and motivations of the ruling party, its authoritarian tendencies and the overall climate of general fear and insecurity that characterizes its approach to governance.

My goal was to write a social history of two decades of RPF rule, to make it available to a curious general audience, including policy makers in Western capitals. Addressing foreign donors, notably the USA, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, was a priority for me, as they have widely hailed the Rwandan model of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation as one that should be deployed elsewhere in Africa. I offer a more cautionary tale about Rwanda’s post-genocide developmental “success” that donors are quick to praise as a product of their generous aid – amounting to, on average, some 20 percent of the country’s annual budget.

The Rwanda development model is unlikely to deliver the promised products of economic growth and national ethnic unity. If foreign donors and policy-makers took a longer view of Rwandan history, they would also know that post-colonial governments also promised development as the basis of national peace and security.

The donor community continues to provide little oversight of the excesses of RPF rule, even as it has occasionally cut aid in response to specific human rights abuses. For example, in 2013, after another UN report alleged Kigali was sustaining militia activity in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States cut just 200,000 dollars from of an annual military support budget of 170 million dollars.

Most remain unfamiliar with cultural intricacies, and the local, national, regional and international dynamics that drove the security and governance choices of the RPF. In particular, donors failed to appreciate Rwanda’s longstanding culture of an excessively centralized state, which uses its muscle to monitor the daily activities, mundane and otherwise, of Rwandans.

Despite twenty-five years in power, the RPF’s approach remains deceptively simple: in exchange for the provision of goods and services— education, health care, technocratic governance and so on—the state requires unquestioning loyalty from its people. Instead of castigation, this approach has garnered the praise of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and several other key bi- and multi-lateral donors. Not unlike in 1994, the international community is again funding violence in Rwanda. Under the RPF, violence is not derived from a policy of mass extermination but fanned from the embers of exclusion and resentment.

Unfortunately, the donor enterprise continues to rest on the feeble idea that its work is strictly technocratic and is thus apolitical.  But a declaration of being apolitical is itself a political stance of, it seems to me, non-intervention.  As donors continue to turn a blind eye to the RPF’s domestic human rights abuses and repressive political climate, as well as its ongoing military involvement in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, they too must reckon with the dirtier aspects of the Rwandan “miracle.”

Susan Thomson is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University. 

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