In front of Saint Famille Catholic Church in Kigali, a Mass was held, led by Monsignor André Perraudin, to begin ceremonies marking Rwanda’s Independence. That was on July 1, 1962, when Rwanda got its independence.
Then, the actual celebration continued to the city centre, where the current Kigali City Hall is built.
Various dignitaries that included Rwandan leaders of the time and foreign guests were present to witness the ceremonies.
The Belgian flag was lowered, while the then Rwandan flag was hoisted. That was a signal of the end of the Belgian rule.
That was how Antoine Mugesera narrated to The New Times his memory of July 1, 1962, exactly 55 years ago today.
Mugesera, was a 20-year-old high school student then.
“A banquet was held to receive the invited guests at the grounds where Kigali Marriott Hotel stands today,” former Senator Mugesera reminisced.
However, while the day’s event was characterised by pomp and colour, Mugesera says the true meaning of independence was never achieved.
The so-called independence was misused by the regimes that received power from the colonialists, Mugesera says.
“The Belgians played Rwandans. They created identities and divisions with the labels the Hutu, Tutsi adn Twa. When the now defunct political organisation, Rwandese National Union wanted independence, its members were expelled and then dissolved in 1963. The Belgians then supported PARMEHUTU (Hutu Emancipation Movement) to gain control,” he says.
“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 we lost because of doing wrong things instead of developing the country.”
Divisions, Mugesera said, developed into hatred in schools and workplaces.
“This is what culminated into the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994,” he added.
The regimes were characterised by bad leadership.
“Those in power made their people suffer. The number of people killed after the independence was way more than those killed before the independence uder the Belgian period.”
MP Fortunée Nyiramadirida, a member of the Foreign Affairs standing committee, is conversant with the history of Rwanda.
“The time when we say we got independence is when people started being deprived of their rights to education, others got expelled from their country and others got fired from work.
“The ethnic group-based national identity cards, the cars that had number plates based on regions such that, for instance, one from Southern part of the country would head to North and easily be identified making them an easy target for assault.
“All that took place when we attained independence. Is that really independence?” Nyiramadirida asked.
“The kind of independence where citizens are denied their rights by the same people who are supposed to protect them is no independence at all,” she added.
While July 1 is a public holiday in Rwanda, there are no official ceremonies on that day.
Nyiramadirida says it is only worth celebrating when something is valuable and meaningful.
“Like Liberation day [July 4]. It is after July 4, 1994, that we began to see respect for human rights; all children getting same access to school and all citizens vying for job markets with equal opportunities,” she says.
“Good leadership is one that promotes unity of all citizens, and strives for the welfare and development of people,” Nyiramadirida added.
On his part, Raphael Nkaka PhD, a lecturer at the University of Rwanda, says all independence meant was that Rwanda was no longer directly governed by Belgium.
“We were no longer being governed by laws from the Belgian parliament, which is something important,” he said.
Nkaka added that history has bad and good facts.
For Senator Tito Rutaremara, when discussing independence, context is key. He said, in Rwanda, independence was given to those who did not need it.
Rutaremara explained that it is UNAR members who had requested and advocated for independence of all Rwandans. However, it was given to PARMEHUTU, the party that was defending the interests of Hutu ethnic group.
“What PARMEHUTU wanted was to expel the Tutsi and it was comfortable to rule alongside Belgians,” Rutaremara adds.
“Everyone knows that independence took place when some people were crying, others in exile, others imprisoned, others being killed. It was not given to all Rwandans. However, it is national liberation which gave us a flag and governance and therefore worth marking.”
Rutaremara says since in Rwanda independence and liberation days are close to each another, Rwandans chose to celebrate them on the same day (July 4, which is the Liberation Day.)
Senator Mugesera says what is most important today is to have a leadership that is trusted and cares for all Rwandans such that they live in harmony.