“Not dealing with the truth per se on Rwanda”

Recently, Susan Thomson wrote in The East African that “Rwanda peasantry is defying ‘reconciliation’”. She asserts that they resist the national unity and reconciliation programme while acknowledging that “so many people –donors, journalists, policy-makers and civil society representatives alike – see Rwanda as a peaceful, stable, development oriented country.” She states that Rwandan peasants consider the programme unjust as it works against their interests and that it disallows open discussions of how ethnicity shaped the violence of the genocide and that the government does not “allow for public acknowledgement of the existence or experience of Tutsi and Twa perpetrators; Hutu and Twa rescuers; Tutsi, Hutu and Twa resisters; or Hutu and Twa survivors.”

Recently, Susan Thomson wrote in The East African that “Rwanda peasantry is defying ‘reconciliation’”. She asserts that they resist the national unity and reconciliation programme while acknowledging that “so many people –donors, journalists, policy-makers and civil society representatives alike – see Rwanda as a peaceful, stable, development oriented country.” She states that Rwandan peasants consider the programme unjust as it works against their interests and that it disallows open discussions of how ethnicity shaped the violence of the genocide and that the government does not “allow for public acknowledgement of the existence or experience of Tutsi and Twa perpetrators; Hutu and Twa rescuers; Tutsi, Hutu and Twa resisters; or Hutu and Twa survivors.”

Before discussing Thompson’s assertions, one needs to understand her approach to the 1994 Rwanda genocide and ensuing reconstruction. 

She has written on website of the International Development Research Centre that gave her research funding: “I don’t deal with the truth per se in the research [on post-genocide Rwanda].

I think everyone’s truth is different. You have your story, and I have my story (…).” When she lived in Rwanda in 2006, a self-confessed killer of six lived in her backyard. “He was just a regular guy.

Killing was a survival strategy for him. When I realized this, it had a big impact on my research.”Beyond this, Thomson’s approach to post-genocide Rwanda is influenced by the post-modernist school of thought that sees reality as a discourse, a set of competing subjective narratives establishing a moral equivalence between victims and their oppressors with no place for objective or even socially constructed reality, nor for judicial individual responsibility.

She claims that overburdening national unity and reconciliation policy prevents peasants from attending to their socio-economic struggles while ignoring that “so many people” find that living conditions of Rwandans have never been better. 

It is one of the very few African countries likely to achieve most of the MDGs by 2015.  The vast majority of Rwandans, especially the poorest, are thus seeing their access to food, health and education substantially improve.

Progress should be assessed not only in relation to the destruction caused in 1994, but also in relation to the extreme poverty that saw Rwanda reach breaking point prior to the 1990 liberation war - reflected in the 1990 Human Development Report ranking Rwanda 2nd worst in access to health, 5th from the bottom in calories intake, and 2nd last in percentage of rural population living in poverty.

In the late 1980s, thousands died from hunger while ethnic differentiation was the order of the day through national ethnic identity cards and ethnic and regio
nal quotas for access to public services.

Thomson is right in identifying the cooling off of ethnic identification and sentiment as an important reconstruction strategy of the country. This is not only a matter of ideological choice but also of necessity.

Where mostly ethnically defined victims and oppressors had to live together intermingled after a radical genocide only an alternative, bonding, national system of identification could appease the destructive passions stemming from all sides, including from those charged with implementing the reconciliatory policy.

The consequences of the genocide were dealt with by fighting against impunity on an individual basis, categorizing levels of responsibilities and meting out effective punishments such as community works for non-leading killers.

While the first week of the commemoration of the genocide is every year dedicated to the direct victims of the genocide, the closing day of the commemorative period remembers those who stood up against of genocidal politics and had to be killed first for the genocide to succeed.

Some of them, like the late Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, have been declared national heroes of highest category. IBUKA, the umbrella of organizations of survivors of genocide, worked to identify admirable rescuers and resisters who were not among those being hunted down.

A first group of 28 unequivocal heroes has been honored so far, including a Croatian priest and a German doctor. IBUKA has since widened its research and has identified 372 potential Righteous and each year honors new ones.

Rwanda’s reconstruction strategy entailed a fundamental change of mindset to respond to the depth of the national bankruptcy dating back into 1980s, making the civil war and genocide of 1994 more of an outcome of the Great Rwandan Crisis rather than its cause.

Instead of focusing inwards on divisive issues and bickering in the sharing of poverty, Rwanda, thanks to remarkable leadership, chose to look outward and developing opportunities for all.

The strategy has included fostering public probity, effective public service delivery, agriculture modernization, private sector development, ICT, turning refugees into investing Diasporas and integration into the EAC.

Rwanda’s reunification started as a top down process led by the state in a context of deep interpersonal distrust but the situation is evolving rapidly.

The 2009 World Value Survey (2007 data) showed that only 5% of Rwandans believed that ‘most people can be trusted’ - 3rd to last of 50 countries on level of social trust- [the same low level of interpersonal trust, was repeatedly reported by surveys carried out by the Unity and Reconciliation Commission until 2008].

However, in this World Value Survey, Rwandans were the 1st in proportion of people expressing “strong defence forces as top priority” and the 3rd in the number of people having ‘a great deal of confidence’ in the police.

Reflecting strong progress made by the country in the last five years, a survey by Gallup Poll across 117 countries in 2009 shows Rwandans as the 6th most optimistic population about the economic conditions in their local communities.

This time, 30.1% of Rwandan respondents found others trustworthy, placing Rwanda in the middle of
the global ranking on this. 92.6% believed society is meritocratic, confidence in the military and the judiciary stood at 98% and 84% respectively, and 56% of Rwandans were satisfied with their country’s efforts to address poverty - “an extremely high rate” according to Legatum Prosperity Index 2011 analyzing the results.

Yet, even in the face of overwhelming amounts of data, reports, testimonies and field visits made by “so many people”, a number of western academics refuse to see that Rwanda has made tremendous progress in spite of some continuing challenges.

Some belong to a kind of sect of “non-believers” as they call themselves while others, like Susan Thomson, prefer not to “deal with the truth per se” when it comes to Rwanda. The question is why.

The author is the Head of the Strategy and Policy Unit
Office of the President.

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