As Rwandans celebrate 25 years of liberation today, there’s no way to gloss over the desperate situation Rwanda found itself in 25 years ago, in the aftermath of the Genocide against the Tutsi, one of the most extensive and thorough genocides ever committed in history.
More than a million Rwandans lay dead, and two million more had fled to neighbouring countries, taken hostage by the very forces that had carried out the slaughter.
Inside the country, the economy was at a complete standstill, and virtually public infrastructure and funds had been looted or destroyed.
Remnants of the genocidal forces continued to target and kill survivors and those who stayed behind, in an effort to make the country ungovernable and to prevent justice and accountability for crimes.
Our country was profoundly divided, and our people lacked the basic necessities for safe and dignified lives. To any outside observer, and even to some Rwandans, it must have seemed like our country was destined to remain a hopeless basket case forever.
But that is not what happened. We came together, we persevered, and we worked to rebuild our society, better than it had ever been before.
To achieve this, we drew on two important resources, which made all the difference. The first, was our own values and culture, which had been assaulted by the colonialists and the divisive post-independence governments, but never extinguished or forgotten.
Let me highlight just two among those values that served us well. One, our tradition of bringing all Rwandans together to share their experiences and find consensus-based solutions to our problems, which led to important home-grown solutions for nation-building such as Umuganda, Girinka, Ubudehe, and even our bottom-up constitution-making process. Two, our long-held notions of justice and forgiveness, which informed the approach to trying Genocide crimes through community courts, known as Gacaca courts.
The second main factor we benefitted from was the extraordinary cadre of leadership, led by President Paul Kagame, which is firmly committed to accountability, national unity, and measurable service-delivery for all Rwandans, without exception.
Through the example he sets and lives by, Rwandans have learned to expect high standards from their leaders and public servants, and to speak up when things are not being handled as they should.
Guided by our values and our leadership, Rwandans have made some impressive gains since 1994. We are a global leader in rankings of ease of doing business and lack of corruption.
Our economy has grown at a rapid pace, and, importantly, those gains in wealth and well-being are enjoyed throughout our population. Among other key milestones, we have the world’s highest representation of women in parliament, having been the first country to have a female majority legislature.
However, our country still has a long way to go, to reach the future that we want and deserve. Rwandans want the same things for themselves and their families that anyone else in the world would want. The difference is that we now know for sure that we have what it takes to do it, in terms of resources and talent.
Getting to the next stage is really up to us, the youth, and we have to be worthy of the sacrifices and hard work of those who came before us by using what we have been given to do even more and better.
Jolly Mutesi was Miss Rwanda 2016.