Reimagining the nation after the Genocide against the Tutsi

In July 1994, after one hundred days of a systematically planned killing frenzy shaped by at least three decades of an ideology of divisionism, one million Tutsi had been killed. 

Millions of Rwandans, including most of those who had committed the genocide, had fled to neighbouring countries.

Rwanda was a wasteland with traumatized survivors wounded physically and emotionally. The values and institutions that had held Rwandans together had been shattered.  Rwanda as a nation was all but dead. Its social fabric had been destroyed.  Many observers predicted a doomed and failed state.

With this apocalyptic landscape, the post-July 1994 government spearheaded by the Rwandan Patriotic Front faced the gargantuan task of reinventing the nation and its institutions. Two instruments, among others, were used in rebuilding a new sense of nationhood: the 2003 constitution and homegrown solutions (mandated by Article 11 of the same), several of which were later institutionalized by organic laws.

The 2003 Constitution redefined inclusive citizenship. The preamble contributed to reimagining the nation by foregrounding the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and vowing to “fight the ideology of genocide and all its manifestations and to eradicate ethnic, regional and any other form of divisions” and to “strengthen and promote national unity and reconciliation which were seriously shaken by the genocide and its consequences.”

Unlike previous constitutions (in 1962, 1978, and 1991), shaped by the 1959 Hutu Revolution and its logic of exclusion, the 2003 Constitution refers to “our centuries-old history” and the “positive values which characterized our ancestors […] as the basis for the existence and flourishing of our Nation.” The 2003 Constitution removed ideologies and practices of exclusion such as equating one ethnic group with the nation, mentioning ethnic groups on identity cards, and barring Rwandans scattered around the world from entering their homeland.

In a far-reaching move, article 76 mandates 24 of the 80-member Chamber of Deputies to be women. As a result, Rwanda has the highest level of female representation in parliament in the world today (61%) and has become an international case study in gender promotion.  Article 185 institutes a “gender monitoring office” charged with ensuring compliance with gender equality, equal opportunity, and fairness at all levels and in various institutions of national life.

National symbols such as the flag, the coat of arms, and the anthem were also changed after 1994. For example, the current anthem “Rwanda Nziza” (“Beautiful Rwanda”) exalts the country’s beauty, culture, and linguistic heritage as values that unite Rwandans.

Another example of reimagining the nation is seen in the Gacaca Courts.  These were institutionalized by article 152 of the 2003 Constitution to judge individuals accused of genocide and crimes against humanity between 1 October 1990 and 31 December 1994. They helped to try thousands of inmates and deal with overcrowded prisons. They also supported survivors’ healing, as these were allowed to tell their stories, and their suffering was acknowledged by their communities. Ultimately, truth and forgiveness contributed to mending the social fabric.

Another strategy used to mend the social fabric has consisted of revalorizing and leveraging other homegrown solutions, including but not limited to AbunziUmuganda, and Itorero.

Institutionalized by Article 159 of the Constitution of 2003 and  Organic Law No. 02/2010/OL regarding the jurisdiction of the Abunzi mediation Committees, the Abunzi mediation process promotes social harmony by avoiding the antagonistic procedures of the formal court room and saving costs associated with litigation.

Umuganda  is a community service done the last Saturday of every month. The population comes together to do work that benefits the community. Cleaning neighborhood, planting trees, building schools, and constructing houses for the needy are some examples of umuganda.  At the end of each umuganda, there is a community meeting that allows participants to engage in dialogue about issues in their communities and discuss solutions together, thus providing a venue for community building.

Itorerowas a more or less formal traditional education through which Rwandan males learned about military art, rhetoric, sports, and patriotism. In post-1994 Rwanda, the institution of Itorero was revived as a gender inclusive civic organization. It supports national unity and reconciliation and promotes national identity (Ndi Umunyarwanda-- Rwandanness), agaciro (dignity), integrity, and patriotism. It reaches out to the youth between the age of 16 and 35 (more than 60 percent of the Rwandan population) mostly in Rwanda but also in the Rwandan Communities abroad.

In 2013 the “Ndi Umunyarwanda” program was initiated to build national identity and cohesion and contribute to national unity and reconciliation through truth, trust, and dialogue.

Faced with the ditch of death and desolation after the genocide against the Tutsi and no comparable model to follow, Rwanda’s leadership opted for new thinking as well as resolute, resilient and purposeful leadership anchored in bold choices and homegrown solutions.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.