July is a special month in the history of our country. We mark both the independence and celebrate the liberation of Rwanda. That sounds strange – marking separately two events that should really be one. But that is our unique history.
On July 1 1962 Rwanda got formal independence from Belgian colonial rule. It was more symbolic than real; even a sham.
No other country got independence in circumstances that were specifically designed to negate the very notion of freedom and nationhood. Yet that is what it was here and for the next thirty two years everything possible was done to reaffirm that negation.
First, the independence struggle was hijacked and then directed by the very forces that we were trying to free ourselves from.
The colonial government became an active participant, throwing its enormous political, administrative, logistical and military weight behind openly sectarian political factions. In turn, leaders of those factions actively sought the backing of colonial authorities. It was a strange arrangement but one that suited both very well.
Both could exclude the troublesome nationalist elements from power and even get rid of them altogether. The colonial authority could retain control through its protégé who was clearly beholden to them for his coming to power. He in turn would be assured of power (sort of) provided, of course, he continued to do their bidding.
The colonial church lent the same sectarian political faction its widespread grassroots organisation and considerable authority, as well as an effective propaganda platform. The church and the colonial government were both the architects and guarantors of the ideology of exclusion and extermination that characterised the post-colonial governments.
Over time, the local political and military elite and intelligentsia, with the support of foreign intellectuals refined this ideology and took it to the next logical level – the genocide of the Tutsi.
Second, independence coincided with what might be called the de-nationalisation of a large part of the population. In fact independence became synonymous with denying some Rwandans their citizenship and even their right to life.
And so when independence came, it found a large part of Rwandans excluded and driven from their country. Those that remained were denied full participation in national life and the enjoyment of the privileges of citizens. Thousands were killed in periodic pogroms.
During the thirty two years following independence, a lot of energy, resources and thought were expended in entrenching division, institutionalising exclusion and keeping out of the country hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, effectively making them stateless. Much effort was directed at keeping Rwandans backward and therefore captive to the benevolence of the leaders and their foreign backers. The outcome of this twisted logic was that destruction became a national aspiration, and as the world knows, the culmination of the ideology of annihilation was the genocide of the Tutsi in 1994.
One cannot help but imagine what would have happened had all these misdirected efforts been focussed on nation-building and development. Most likely Rwanda would be up there with the Asian Tigers instead of trying to break into the ranks of middle income states.
On July 4 we celebrate another important day in July. It is Liberation Day.
Finally Rwandans were able to put an end to the endless and senseless destruction, arrest the downward trend and redirect the country towards nation-building and real progress.
Since 1994 Rwandans have been doing several things at once.
They have been undoing the harm of the first three decades of independence, and before that, of colonial rule.
They have been dismantling the intellectual and ideological foundations and framework of that sort of thinking, and replacing it with the thinking that promotes unity and self belief.
They have been reconstructing what was destroyed while at the same time building what should have been done during those three decades.
Finally, they are doing what should have been done were the country where it should have been in the first place.
Again the temptation to imagine where Rwanda would be if all the efforts were directed at the last point above and not expended on putting past mistakes right and playing catch up is irresistible. Take where the country is today, multiply that by multiple and concurrent efforts and the result would be real paradise, not the wishful one of that song sang at various rallies.
Still, Rwanda has made significant strides in the last twenty three years.
We are now a nation proud of ourselves and our achievements. We are a nation respected and trusted on the international stage. Above all, we are a united nation and a country on the move. There is certainly cause to celebrate liberation.
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