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Is there no reconciliation in Rwanda?

By Pascal Gahamanyi

There is a lot of debate about Rwanda in Uganda, conducted in Ugandan newspapers and radio stations and the participants are Ugandan citizens. Those involved – whether as critics of the government in Kigali or as sympathisers are largely Ugandans. Rwandans wonder why this is so. Possibly it is just a debate. But there could also be more than mere debate, a subject I will reserve for another day.

The problem with part of the Ugandan debate on Rwanda is that it is largely informed by ignorance and prejudice. Take Timothy Kalyegira’s article in The Independent of July 9-15, 2010. Unlike journalists such as Andrew Mwenda and Charles Onyango-Obbo whose opinions on Rwanda (however much one may disagree with them) are based on real life examples, Kalyegira makes no reference to what is happening in Rwanda. Instead he relies entirely on his personal prejudices of the country.

In the article, Kalyegira argues that there is no effort at reconciliation in Rwanda. Yet the government of Rwanda has since 1994 instituted a number of programmes, mechanisms, processes and institutions to handle reconciliation. One institutional example is the Unity and Reconciliation Commission that has existed for over a dozen years now.

The commission conducts many activities like seminars and conferences around the country where people discuss the history of Rwanda and how ethnicity was used politically to promote hatred among the people. It also organises debates and community discussions among people in churches and villages to bring about understanding.

The commission also conducts education programmes in schools. It takes people to solidarity camps where both Hutu and Tutsi live and work together on joint tasks as part of team building efforts and promoting a national consciousness. In these solidarity camps, they hold dialogues to discuss matters of mutual interest and also to discuss the history of Rwanda.

Every year, the commission assess the impact of reconciliation programmes and at end of every year, they hold seminars countrywide attended by the president where they talk about these issues. The commission also does research on causes of ethnic conflict in Rwanda. This research helps in the design of civic education syllabus for schools. There is a lot of effort to keep this research free of partisan bias. They also look at other things like laws and practices of government and other institutions that can create ethnic conflict and how to avert them.

More immediately, through the Gacaca courts, government has been bringing together victims and killers to meet and talk about their experience. Killers are allowed to return to their villages where they visit those whose families they killed. They shake hands and share a meal and declare that they all have put the past behind them. Anyone who is genuinely seeking to understand post genocide Rwanda would be impressed by how much Rwandans are trying to put their ugly past behind them and live together in tolerance and mutual accommodation.

Because of how ethnicity was used previously, the new constitution of Rwanda adopted through consensus that no political party can have more than 50% of cabinet. The government promotes sports as a key avenue through which Rwandans meet and share excitement. Omuganda (community work) every last Saturday of the month also brings people together to promote the good of their neighbourhoods.

In recruitment into government employment, awarding of scholarships to study at home and abroad, in delivery of healthcare services, in urban housing development“ in almost every endeavour“ the government of Rwanda has been trying to create a system where one is judged purely on their merit, not ethnicity as was the case before. The aim is to show Rwandans that they share a common destiny.

It is possible to argue that all these efforts are not working to bring about their desired goal of reconciliation. I would have expected Kalyegira to show us how unsatisfactory these programmes are. However, the entire tone and flow of his article is that there is no attempt at reconciliation in post genocide Rwanda. One then asks: What is driving Kalyegira to be so negative as to even ignore basic information especially for someone who prides himself to do research before he writes?

Kalyegira dismisses economic growth in promoting reconciliation because he ignores the role of poverty in Rwanda’s genocide. Instead, he argues that government economic programmes amount to nothing. A large body of research shows that countries with high levels of poverty suffer an equally high risk of armed conflict.

It would be prudent if Kalyegira’s argument was that economic reconstruction is a necessary but certainly not a sufficient condition for reconciliation. Instead, he refers to economic growth rates, health and education provision as adding nothing to reconciliation.

He even dismisses the spread of laptops and internet connectivity around the country as meaningless. For a journalist who keeps arguing that Rwanda lacks press freedom to turn around and dismiss such efforts “ a key pillar in promoting freedom of expression“ is absurd. One then wonders why a professionally run newspaper like The Independent gives space to ignorance and prejudice dressed as debate.

Kalyegira quotes widely the experiences of Eastern Europe without any single reference to the unique way ethnic identity in Rwanda has evolved and been politicised. He ignores that in former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, different nationalities that were previously autonomous were militarily brought to form one state in the 1940s. This unity enforced through military conquest was not durable.

Rwandans have lived together for over six centuries. There is nothing in the pre-colonial history of Rwanda “ whether as myth, legend, proverb or custom that shows that Hutu and Tutsi had an antagonistic relationship. Do all these centuries of peaceful co-existence mean anything to Kalyegira? Can ethnic hatred that became part of the social fabric of Rwanda in the last 70 years erase the history of centuries of cooperation, intermarriage and unity? Is there something in that history that is important for Rwandans to build on a lasting peace?

There is no doubt that some of the Rwandan Patriotic Front efforts at reconciliation may have weaknesses. What one expects of journalists is to point them out and suggest ways to improve on them. That is constructive criticism. But to rely entirely on ignorance and prejudice and claim there is no effort at reconciliation in post genocide Rwanda is simply absurd.

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