A laboratory for the new citizen: Rwanda’s Itorero ry’Igihugu program and the challenges to nation-building after the genocide

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Continuing our series on Rwanda, Andrea Purdekova explores the Itorero re’Igihugu program that seeks to provide ‘civic education’ to Rwandans across the country. She argues that we need to understand the political rationale behind such projects, and explores the repercussions of the government’s desire to pursue unity over liberty as a means to social transformation. Andrea is a Departmental Lecturer in African Politics at the African Studies Centre in the University of Oxford.

The gacaca courts or ‘justice on the grass’ has become emblematic of Rwanda’s resolve to deal with the genocide in its past. The courts have captured the attention of the world and inspired academic debates. The project of building a unified community after the genocide, however, has been much broader and wide-ranging than this. More importantly, that which has been left out of mainstream debates is crucial for our understanding of the post-genocide social project and deserves closer attention.

Since 1994, the Rwandan government has taken up the building of unity among its population as one of its primary objectives and, as a result, multiple official activities, besides the gacaca courts, have been established— initiatives that operate at a very local level, lay claims to tradition and authenticity (the ‘made in Rwanda’ brand), and promote participation and interaction across social divides. Among them are ubusabane community ‘festivals,’ ubudehe development schemes and umuganda works, abunzi mediation committees, ingando camps and itorero schools, among others. The sheer amount of activity has been impressive, especially compared to neighbouring Burundi where, amidst a stalled transitional justice process, it is activity’s absence instead that is noticeable.

Most of the mentioned initiatives hope to build unity as social togetherness by ‘bringing people together’ in learning, leisure, or work. But there is more: They all form part of (i.e. are platforms for) a nation-building project comprising new identity politics, new official history, and more generally yet, the creation of a ‘new Rwandan citizen’ – Umunyarwanda– fitted with a set of desirable values, attitudes, and knowledge. This broader context is indeed key—the search for a new form of citizenship and political subjectivity is what really ties these activities together.

In its attempt to shape a new Rwandan citizen, the government has invested heavily in so-called ‘civic education.’ In fact, the most important department in the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) is the Department of Civic Education. The most recent and most prominent initiative in this respect has without doubt been the Itorero ry’igihugu program. Launched as recently as 2009, it has already targeted hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. Itorero is a unique window both into the intensive and wholesale social transformation attempted by the government in the name of ‘Rwandanicity’ as well as the challenges that still face this project twenty years after the genocide.

Itorero or ‘The National Academy,’ like many other recently instituted activities in Rwanda, claims to build on a pre-colonial tradition, here specifically training of the same name (military and cultural) offered to select young men during dynastic times. Despite its very recent inception, itorero builds on another prominent civic education initiative called ingando camps, which have been in place since shortly after the genocide.

Like ingando, itorero involves weeks of physical exercise, military training, cultural learning and long lessons on the policies and visions of the government. But unlike ingando, the structure of itorero schools is decentralised to the lowest of administrative levels and its intention is to reach Rwandans of all walks of life. Though it draws on the same principles and stock of knowledge as ingando, this is a far more systematic and large-scale project of mass education. Each itorero cohort adopts a name upon graduation (mimicking a pre-colonial practice) and pledges to be the yeast of change, to achieve key development targets in their communities or workplaces (this is a related program of performance contracts known as imihigo).

Itorero betrays a project of unity as ‘common vision,’ as rallying around a common purpose (‘progress’) and operating on a common set of precepts, a shared stock of knowledge. The themes that emerge are unity for and through development, unity as convergence and consent for the broader goal of achieving an exigent vision of the future set out in documents such as the Vision 2020 Umurenge. Civic education is thus about educating, sensitizing and re-educating people on the roles and expectations of the new Rwanda.

But the goal of alignment often requires an active rupture with the past. ‘Mindset change’ is a key term in the discourses surrounding itorero (as well as civic education and development more broadly). In the phrasing of the 2009-2012 Itorero Strategic Plan, ‘itorero provides a culturally-based channel that helps to mentor Rwandans, including re-educating them in the good practices and behaviour that should characterise the Rwandan citizen.’ In the words of President Kagame himself, itorero has a mission to teach Rwandans ‘to actively participate in mindset change about the economic and social revolution.’

The question of whether this is doable – whether can one indeed change the mindset of a generation— is not one to be analysed here. Neither is the purpose here to dismiss the transformative zeal as senseless social engineering or a simple story of oppression. But the manner in which citizenship and unity is being built in today’s Rwanda does betray challenges, and these are, at their core, political.

By speaking of mentalities, mindsets, ideas and ideologies, the civic education and social transformation project in Rwanda shifts the burden to the individual. The promises of progress pin unity on hope and materiality. This acts to obscure the fact that structural and political dynamics are the key drivers of social change, both peaceful and violent. Minding such dynamics means asking questions not only about contents or ‘effectiveness’ of activities, but rather about how such social projects are envisioned, framed and implemented in the first place.

Unity building in today’s Rwanda is not only a modernist project par excellence, showing strong faith in state-led social transformation, it is also implemented by a specific political system, which, among other things, values consent and discourages dissent (which is interpreted as ‘division’). It is essentially a top-down process with little space for disagreement. These political values resurface in the very shape and performance of unity and reconciliation activities such as ingando and itorero, both of which cultivate the adoption of a pre-set consensus.

It is certainly no easy task to build unity and new citizenship in a society recovering from mass violence. But the consent-for-development strategy of unity building has its limitations. Neither coexistence (kubana) nor surface-level alignment is sufficient; neither education, re-education nor ‘being together’ can in itself foster the desired social transformation. Ultimately, the opening of political space, and fostering of inclusion—of sensitive themes, topics, and of disagreement and discordant voices – will be key in building a more cohesive society, even though the government says it fears the exact opposite. This fear, after all, has dictated its decision to unify before it liberalizes. Now it is time to think this equation anew. Political opening might provide a more genuine basis for citizenship, one based on trust and conviction, rather than prescription or proscription.

Rwanda has come a long way since 1994. But the year 2014 should be a time to take stock not only of the laudable achievements but also the remaining challenges, and to tackle these with the same resolve and energy with which the government pursues its development vision. Though the gacaca and the ICTR have now finalized their work, the past is hardly past, and much work remains to be done. As we move forward, the political and the social question cannot be treated as separate or sequential.

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