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Rwanda’s self-emancipation

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why it has been important that Rwandans and not the international community ended the genocide

On Monday, Rwanda commemorated 20 years since the genocide against the Tutsi. It was an inspiring event because Rwanda has astounded admirers and critics alike. In little less than two decades, it has moved from a failed state with a collapsed economy and a broken society to one of the most successful countries in economic growth-rates, state reconstruction endeavors and social and political reconciliation.

However, this story has been a sub theme in the international (read western) media. For here, a section of journalists, pundits, experts and “experts” have been arguing that Rwanda is a failed or failing experiment. Rwanda, they argue, is a “police state” that is suppressing freedom of speech and hunting and killing political enemies abroad. While bemoaning their failure to intervene militarily to stop the carnage in 1994, they now think they should intervene diplomatically to save Rwanda from its accomplishments and impose their own version of success.


Yet the “world” actually intervened in Rwanda in 1994; the UN having deployed a multinational peacekeeping force called the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) drawn from 21 countries. If you visited Rwanda in the first months of 1994, there was not a single piece of ground in that country not occupied by UN peacekeepers. People used to joke that you cannot spit without spitting at a UN soldier or their APC. The UN Peace Keeping Operations intervened in January to stop a planned attack on ammunition stores for genocide. The Security Council intervened again in April 1994 to withdraw its troops.

The story of genocide in Rwanda is not one of failure to intervene, but the failure of the intervention. Indeed, this massive presence of UN troops explains to a considerable degree why the genocide enjoyed such stunning success. Endangered Tutsi civilians, seeing UN troops everywhere and trusting in the promises of the international community stayed put thinking they were secure. When the genocide started and the UN forces pulled out, it was too late for them to escape.

Many Rwandans including senior leaders of the RPF feel the world let them down in their hour of need, believing – and naively so – that had Western powers intervened, they could have helped stop the carnage. I belong to a minority that believes the best thing to have happened to Rwanda was the failure of the intervention. While the genocide was tragic, a successful international intervention would have made a bad situation worse.

Let us assume that the self-appointed savior of mankind, the USA, had decided to intervene to stop the killings as its former President, Bill Clinton has always regretted. The mass killings in Rwanda began on April 7th. The international community did not “realize” that what was happening was genocide until after at least ten days. Most of the victims of genocide died within the first forty days of the beginning of mass killings.

In a 2002 article in Foreign Affairs titled Rwanda in Retrospect, Alan J. Kuperman presents the logistical requirements for the US to deploy a military force in a country 10,000 kilometers away. He estimates that airlifting the desired US personnel (13,000 troops) with their kit (26,000 tons) would not have taken less than 40 days. When one adds the interval between receipt of deployment orders and initiation of airlifting, an extra seven days would have been lost. Therefore at the earliest, a US force would have arrived in Rwanda at the beginning of June: too late to prevent, slow down or stop the genocide.

Kuperman also shows that the US lacked basic intelligence information on where the killers were and how many they were – meaning that they would have deployed “blindly in a troubled country,” a factor that would have vitiated against success. Most intervention planning was focused on Kigali, which had only 4 percent of the country’s population. Yet most massacres were in rural areas. Kuperman calculates that in the best case scenario a US intervention would only have been able to save only 125,000 out of the 800,000 killed.

Before the international humanitarian community jumps on this possibility, Kuperman actually simplified the complexity of the situation. Although the killings were organised through the state, they were carried out by millions of ordinary Rwandan civilians. For their scare, shock and awe to work, US troops would have had to be deployed in every commune and village. Unable to separate civilian from combatant, US troops would only have been effective if they killed indiscriminately. And what would have been the result of such an American massacre?

The “international community” (read the West) always has one solution for every problem regardless of circumstances. First they would have secured a ceasefire between the extremist Hutu regime and the Tutsi-led rebels. This would have saved the extremist regime from collapse. Second, they would have called for a “government of national unity” i.e. composed of killer and victim. Such an arrangement could never have provided a foundation for a stable peace. Third they would have called for elections, in an extremely volatile situation. Fourth, they would have insisted on “press freedom”, in circumstances where the mass media and its journalists were the ones promoting ethnic hatred and mobilizing for mass murder.

Effectively, the pursuit of a theoretical ideal would have negated the evolution of a more realistic solution for a problem that was local and unique. For example, the ceasefire and the resultant government of national unity would not have contained the forces of genocide that had gained ascendance in the politics of Rwanda. Instead it would have preserved the ideology of genocide as an instrument of political action.

The failure of intervention was a victory for Rwanda, albeit a pyrrhic one. Although Rwanda lost over 800,000 people, in the long term, the resolution of the problem by Rwandans themselves laid the foundation for the emergence of a more stable political dispensation. It also paved way not only for the military but also the moral defeat of the ideology of genocide as an instrument of political action in the country.

Inadvertently, the genocide destroyed old centers of power and therefore left the society conducive to far reaching reforms. Political parties, the church, the professional class, the business community, even the mass media all actively aided and abated the genocide and emerged from the conflict discredited and weakened. The international intervention failed to stop the slaughter and therefore lost its claim to save Rwanda. These circumstances gave RPF the necessary legitimacy to reconstruct the country relying on its vision. Therefore, Rwanda is successful because Rwandans saved themselves.

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