Why Rwanda offers vital lessons on ethnic animosity

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and first lady Jeannette Kagame lit a flame of remembrance at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, on April 7, 2022. [Xinhua]

This month marks exactly 30 years since the start of the three-month-long genocide in Rwanda that saw the mass murder of well over one million people as the world watched. 

The genocide, which came on the heels of the downing of a plane carrying then President Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, on April 6, 1994, led to killing of mainly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, including then Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. 

Since then, however, the country’s story has been one of commitment to relational reconstruction, psychological renewal and the pursuit of economic prosperity. However, there has been a sting of occasional flak and counterflak, as Kigali under President Paul Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi in power since 2000, is faulted by watchers for alleged human rights violations, suppression of political dissent and muzzling of the press. But Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front has replied with its own charge of “an international community that stood idly by as Rwanda was being swallowed up in the maw of civil strife 30 years ago.”

Today, 30 years since the start of the genocide, and nearly as long since the establishment of the former Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) that convicted 61 suspects for their alleged roles in the genocide, Rwanda stands accused by neighbouring DR Congo of supporting the Tutsi-led M23 rebel movement that operates within the latter’s territory and Kigali counter-accuses Kinshasa of backing the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an insurrectionary movement founded by ethnic Hutus who fled Rwanda at the height of the 1994 genocide. 

Here’s why Rwanda’s story leading up to and since its dark episode 30 years ago offers vital lessons for us, though. One, ethnic animosity is the departure point for national atomisation that characterised the sanguinary clash between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Two, national renewal and rebuilding are goals within reach for a people whose collective desire and effort are genuine. Three, justice – even though its wheels tend to turn more slowly – is undeniably one of any peoples’ societal pillars. 

Rwanda’s journey towards full recovery from the horrors of the 1994 genocide has been a long and tortuous one partly because of the “artificially elusive” nature of justice. Take the case of Felicien Kabuga, for example. In May of 2020, more than a quarter century after the genocide, the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) announced his arrest near Paris, France. In a statement, the IRMCT revealed that the French authorities, working with law enforcement agencies and prosecution services from around the world, including in Rwanda, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the US, had arrested Kabuga in “a sophisticated, coordinated operation with simultaneous searches across a number of locations.” 

According to documents filed in Kenyan courts, Kabuga, an influential businessman, was president of the National Defence Fund-Rwanda, and close to former president Juvénal Habyarimana, an army man under whose rule (1973-94) political and financial power in Rwanda was consolidated within a tight circle, the core of which was his own extended family. It’s said that Kabuga was a prominent member of this group as two of his daughters were married to sons of President Habyarimana. He’s also said to have been the main financier and a silent partner of Habyarimana’s party. 

When the regime fell, President Habyarimana died together with others, including then-leader of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Kabuga fled to Switzerland, where he was ordered to leave, before settling, first in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then in Kenya. 

First indicted in 1997 on seven counts of genocide, Kenya was thereafter requested to assist in his arrest for trial. But when, on July 19, 1997, the police arrested several other Rwandan suspects of genocide in Nairobi in an operation codenamed Operation NAKI (Operation Nairobi-Kigali), Kabuga evaded capture. In December 2008, he escaped yet another dragnet in Nairobi’s Runda estate.

Not long ago, though, the case against Kabuga was dropped on medical grounds. And now his victims have to live with the hard-to-accept knowledge that justice is, sometimes, one of the long-hoped-for unrealities of this world.