25 years on, Rwandan genocide still reverberates throughout the region | Africa | DW | 01.04.2019
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Rwanda

25 years on, Rwandan genocide still reverberates throughout the region

The mass slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi by the Hutu majority in 1994 has had far-reaching consequences not only for Rwanda itself but also for the country’s relationship with its neighbors.

A quarter of a century after the April 1994 genocide, Rwanda is prospering. The tiny, landlocked land with a population of little more than 12 million offers the world an image of stability and contentment.

The success story is largely seen as the handiwork of President Paul Kagame, says Patrick Hajayandi, a researcher with the South African-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

"He did a tremendous job in restoring the country in terms of development, in terms of leadership," Hajyandi told DW.

Rwanda is also a country whose domestic and external policies are shaped by the horrendous experience in a very significant way.

"We can't overstate just how important the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi remains in the mind of Kagame. This Rwandan government is the first to try to address socio-economic inequality across the Hutu-Tutsi divide," says researcher Phil Clark from SOAS at the University of London.

Protector of the Tutsi

This mindset is at least partly at the root of the regime's authoritarianism. In Kagame's view, political dissidence breeds unrest. The media, which played a sinister role as enabler of the genocide, have to be curbed. Human rights do not figure prominently on Kagame's political agenda.

He is, above all, set on not allowing violence to ever happen again. "That extends to Rwanda's desire to protect the Tutsi right across the region," particularly in Burundi, Eastern Congo and Uganda, Clark explains. These are countries "where the Tutsi have been systematically targeted by various factions."

People carrying luggage across the border between Uganda and Rwanda (DW/A. Gitta)

Rwanda closed the border with Uganda in a show of force

Accusations and counter-accusations of support for the opposition and arming of rebel groups have been flung back and forth across the borders of these countries for some time now.

Recently, tensions reached a new peak when Kigali closed down a busy border crossing with Uganda. Ugandan political analyst Mwambutsya Ndebesa, from Kampala's Makerere University, detects a regional struggle for power.

"They probably have issues as to political hegemony in the region," he says, adding that there are also issues of personal animosity.

No protégé

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Kagame go back a long way. They used to be allies.

Kagame was once a key figure in the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) group that helped Museveni take power in 1986. RPF, now the ruling party in Rwanda, grew out of Museveni's own National Resistance Movement (NRM), and was actively supported by Kampala when it invaded Rwanda and put Kagame in the leadership position in 1994.

Since then, relations between the former friends have soured. "President Museveni and his generals think that Rwandan leaders owe them something, because they helped them in overthrowing the Habyarimana regime and stopping genocide," says Christopher Kayumba, from the University of Rwanda.

Refugees from the RDC carrying their belongings on the way to a Rwandan camp (Reuters/J. Bizimana)

The refugee crisis caused by conflict in eastern RDC is ongoing

Kagame chafes at being treated like a protégé when his ambitions run to more power in the region. But Museveni is not the only African leader with whom Kagame is at loggerheads.

Tensions with Burundi have also risen in the last couple of years. Personal animosity between Kagame and the Hutu president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, plays a role here, too.

Burundian researcher Patrick Hajayandi feels there are other, more compelling reasons for Kagame's hostility.

"While in Rwanda they talk about being Rwandans only; when you discuss this with people, they will tell you that there is a certain level of exclusion of the Hutu," he says. 

The toll on eastern Congo

According to Hajayandi, in Rwanda the Hutus are seen as the authors of the genocide and are still regarded as not to be trusted. Burundi's greater success in integration represents a threat to Kagame, he believes.

Hajayandi rejects Kigali's accusations that Nkurunziza, beset by a slew of problems at home, might have been aiding anti-Kagame rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): "Because of the porous borders, there may be some smuggling of weapons. But I don't think there is something like a policy of the government of Burundi aiming to destabilize Rwanda by arming rebel groups in DRC."

The DRC to this day bears the brunt of events not necessarily of its own making.

"There is no doubt that what continues to happen in Congo is linked to what happened in Rwanda in 1994. And we've seen eastern Congo in the last twenty years suffer the constant invasion of both the Rwandan and the Ugandan militaries, and Uganda's and Rwanda's use of proxy rebel forces," Phil Clark told DW.

'International donors are in a bind'

Rwandan President Paul Kagame being greeted in Berlin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Imago/Zumapress/E. Contini)

Relations between Rwanda and western donors like Germany are untroubled by a perceived lack of democratization

Some fear that an increasingly volatile situation in the region could explode into violence. But it is unlikely that Western donors, reluctant even to demand more democratization from Kigali, will put pressure on Rwanda to get along with its neighbors.

While Rwanda is still dependent to a large extent on western aid to finance its budget, Kagame is an expert at playing on the West's weaknesses, Clark says.

Increasingly, governments in the rich countries have a hard time explaining to their citizens why they should continue to aid poor countries at all: "The international donors are in a real bind. Governments that wish to continue using aid as a tool of soft power hold up countries like Rwanda as models of the kind of positive changes that aid can make on the ground."

Turning Rwanda into the story's villain would put paid to this strategy. The African Union has also proved unable to help end the tensions. The East African Community (EAC) appears doomed, considering that Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda make up half its member states.

Analyst Christopher Kayumba calls on Western media outlets not to focus only on political leaders. "Make sure that you bring the voices of the ordinary person to bear so that the media can put pressure on leaders to take a pro-active interest in solving these conflicts peacefully," he says.

 

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