Yesterday President Paul Kagame took part in a flag raising ceremony that will see Rwanda join the Commonwealth of Nations. The raising of our flag alongside those of 54 other nations is symbolic of the opening up of Rwanda to the world, a new step in radically changing the nature of our country.
But why is substantive change so important to Rwanda? Some reasons are well known, including the legacy of genocide.
Less well known is the fact that beyond the tragic event itself, the genocide was also symptomatic of a long-term economic, social and political bankruptcy.
In the UNDP Human Development Report of 1990, Rwanda had the second-highest proportion of its rural population living in extreme poverty.
Rwandans suffered repeated famines and faced constant hunger. Rwanda’s subsistence agriculture was in disarray; coffee and tea, its two largest exports were in crisis.
The fast-growing population was relegated to the steep hills, scratching out a living on ever-fragmenting and exhausted plots of land. Prior to the 1990 civil war, these factors were responsible for inter-family violence related to land disputes.
What was at fault was the entire development model based on ruralism, unchecked high birth rates, cultural backwardness and regional isolation. The country’s only hope was in charity; NGOs and missionaries social services featured strongly.
Rwanda joining the Commonwealth is part of a journey that has been characterized by an average economic growth of 10% per capita between 2000 and 2008, and the ambition to accelerate and sustain this rate.
On the political front, change has been as dramatic but daunting challenges remain. How to reconcile the need for establishing a thriving democracy with a total genocide executed primarily by the population itself and the fact that the two short periods of plural politics, between 1957-1963 and 1991-1994 have both led to mass killings with political parties and independent media playing a big role in that violence.
This is further complicated by the fact that just across the border in the DRC, an armed group formed out of the genocide, the FDLR, is dedicated to ‘completing the work’.
Chris McGreal, writing in The Guardian showed how the FDLR teaches its young recruits that they should ‘kill Tutsis wherever they are’; in December 2009, the report of UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo exposed widespread FDLR support network in Europe which ramifications, according the report, reach the FDU-Inkingi political party, whose leaders are now in Rwanda preparing to contest the next presidential elections.
In responding to these problems Rwanda has opted to both permit political pluralism and ensure stability through a system of power-sharing and political cooperation - and through legal instruments that ban expression of the ideology of genocide.
The population has supported this path. In 2003, 93% of the population voted for the constitution and overwhelmingly elected Paul Kagame President.
Rwandans validated their vote with their feet. From 2003 to 2009, despite the huge societal shock of the Gacaca courts that were trying more than a million genocide suspects, 134,000 refugees returned from exile leaving behind less than 80,000 out of the 2.7 million that had left Rwanda in 1994. It is the first time since 1959 that the Rwandan nation is reunited on its land.
Rwanda is criticized for its political system of consensus democracy even by a country like the Netherlands which invented and practiced the system from 1917 to 1967.
However, the comparison with Western countries which practiced consensual democracy like the Netherlands, Switzerland and, to a lesser extend Belgium, may be misleading because most of these countries were stable before adopting this system of politics.
The issue here is how do you ensure political cooperation when confrontational politics will almost certainly lead to renewed violence? For current day Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Ireland and Iraq, peaceful politics is maintained by outside intervention.
Under President Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has persistently ensured ownership of its nation building process by its citizens. It is much more challenging but certainly more promising.
Dr Jean Paul Kimonyo is a policy advisor in Office of the President of Rwanda and author of forthcoming book Rwanda: The Popular Genocide.