Antoine Mugesera was a 20-year-old student in 1962.
He is among those who, on July 1, 1962, witnessed the Belgian flag being lowered and the Rwandan flag hoisted as a signal of the end to the Belgian rule.
The day has since been known as Independence Day to mark the end of the Belgian colonial rule and Rwanda became a sovereign nation.
On Sunday, July 1, 2018, it will be 56 years. But did Rwanda really become independent?
In a previous interview with The New Times, Mugesera, who has since played various public service roles in senior capacity, shared his memory of the day.
It was an event largely characterised by pomp and colour, he said. A banquet was held to receive invited guests at the grounds where Kigali Marriott Hotel stands today, Mugesera reminisced.
While there were all sorts of symbolism to show that the colonialists had ceded power, many researchers, politicians and historians argue that there was nothing to show that Rwandans were actually in charge.
Mugesera, who is also a former Senator, said that the true meaning of independence was never achieved.
“When the now-defunct political organisation, Rwandese National Union (UNAR) demanded independence from the Belgians, its members were expelled and then dissolved in 1963.
The Belgians then supported PARMEHUTU (Hutu Emancipation Movement) to gain control.
“We had thought that the independence was a good thing, but what happened was a paradox. Rwandans were deceived. Many years were lost, many opportunities lost,” he said.
The divisions that developed into hatred in schools and workplaces, Mugesera added, are what culminated in the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
“Those in power made their people suffer. The number of people killed after independence was way more than those killed before during the Belgian period.”
Genocide researcher Tom Ndahiro agrees with the former Senator and calls Rwanda’s July 1, 1962 event as the ‘fake independence’.
Ndahiro said: “Rwandans don’t have to celebrate independence because of several reasons: One, Belgians handed flag independence to a bunch of racists and fascists called PARMEHUTU. This party didn’t even want that independence because it was created to serve the interests of colonial masters.”
The Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement, also known as the Republican-Democratic Movement – PARMEHUTU, was a political party in Rwanda founded by Grégoire Kayibanda in June 1957.
It emphasized the right of the ‘majority’ ethnicity to rule and asserted the supremacy of the Hutu over the Tutsi.
Secondly, Ndahiro adds, there is a direct link between the Genocide against the Tutsi and the so-called independence. The ideology dependence on racial theories brought by colonialism became a precursor to the post-independence development of genocide ideology.
“Thirdly, it is a historical fact that at the time most Africans were fighting colonizers, Rwandan politicians were in partnership with colonisers.
Ndahiro is not the only one with the view that on July 1, 1962, Rwanda got formal independence from Belgian colonial rule but it was more symbolic than real.
Lonzen Rugira, an independent researcher, acknowledges that Independence Day is marked but not celebrated, the main reason being that much of the pre-genocide independence lacked the real content of citizenship.
“Those in power used the tool of independence to subjugate the people in general and targeted a part of them in particular. Basically, there’s not much to celebrate. What has independence brought? While the question can be applied to all post-colonial states in Africa, it took a particular turn when it came to Rwanda,’ Rugira said.
“Basically the meaninglessness of independence was more pronounced in Rwanda than elsewhere and the Genocide is evidence of that. Genocide is an indictment of the utter contempt for citizenship. And without citizenship, there cannot be meaningful independence”.
A 2017 presidential order – which applies to all employees and employers in the public and private sector – determining official public holidays, in its Article 3, lists 15 official public holidays including July 1, Independence Day.
Paul Mbaraga, a veteran journalist, argues that the fact the July 1 is a public holiday shows that Rwandans do mark the day.
“There could be valid economic reasons why we combine the grand celebrations with the Liberation Day on July 4. It would only be bad if Independence Day was totally ignored, and this is not the case at all,” he says.