20 Years after the genocide: Ethnicity and democracy in Rwanda


“Why would you choose to keep basing your politics on a concept which is as destructive as ethnicity?…….Twenty years is a landmark. We should rethink Rwandan post-genocide politics and how we start to implement a democracy which is more inclusive”.

This is the second of our podcasts to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in which Rwandan academic and genocide survivor, Dr Richard Benda is in conversation with Pod Academy’s Alex Burd.

In this interview Dr Benda explores current issues around ethnicity and the role of the state, and in particular the role of the President Paul Kagame, in developing alternatives to the narrative of Hutu and Tutsi identity in Rwanda

Dr Benda began by explaining the state of ethnicity in Rwanda today.

Richard Benda: I think the issue is still there. The government came out and said outright that ethnicity is abolished. As a political discourse that works; you can’t pretend to be a government and say: ‘Fine, carry on’ But in reality the problem is there. And I don’t think it’s softening just because it is no longer talked about. I see danger in that.

Alex Burd: You think because it’s not talked about?

RB: Because people don’t come to that realisation alone, by a process of rediscovery of another identity, they come to that position because again the state or the government is telling them so. I think it is one of the dangers of successive regimes in Rwanda – that you tell people what to do as if people can’t come to the same conclusion by a process of democratisation, of dialogue. When you listen the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ are very key to the dialogue so it means that it is in the subconscious of the Rwandan people and they have to come out. If they are constructs you can only expose them and then deconstruct them and show how dangerous they are. Rwandans are smart people. Why would you choose to keep basing your politics on a concept which is as destructive as ethnicity. By opening the debate people can actually challenge themselves and find a better solidarity which is Rwandaness. We don’t know what that it is yet,  but Ndi Umunyarwanda is supposed to help people find out what it is.

AB: For so much of Rwanda’s history it’s been governed along those lines of Hutu and Tutsi, so to all of a sudden decide that there’s no such thing as ethnicity is hard for the people who still remember that time before and change tack.

RB: What I’m trying to say is that Rwandans have never had a healthy relationship with ethnicity because of the way ethnicity appeared, at least as a political component. I believe, as many people do, that the Belgians or the Germans or the missionaries did not coin the words because they are Rwandan concepts. So they are a Kinyarwanda concept and they existed in the culture and in the society. People disagree and agree, and agree to disagree about what it meant to be a Hutu, or a Tutsi before colonialism but certainly they were not as associated with political violence as they became in the 1950s. When they started being imposed on Rwandans in the 1930s Rwandans didn’t really have much of a choice –‘You are a Hutu, you are a Tutsi.’ Sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. In the 1950s ethnicity was recuperated as a tool to overthrow monarchy and install democracy; democracy was wasn’t a national goal, it was almost the rule of the majority who happened to be Hutu. And then ’73 and ’90 and ’94, which is why I don’t think Rwandan people have had any time to sit and think about what is this thing called ethnicity which seems to govern our lives.

We need to give people time to look ethnicity in the face and say ‘we don’t like what it’s doing to us’ and governments can’t just decide and say you are this today and you are not this tomorrow because people will always subvert those decisions.

AB: So since 1994 Rwanda has been hailed as a success story I guess, in terms of economic progress under the leadership of Paul Kagame, and recently he’s said that he wants to overtake Nigeria as the economic centre of Africa. Has that progress come at the cost of other things?

RB: I think everyone should salute what Rwanda has done. Kagame is a controversial figure and inevitably so – you either like him or you don’t like him. But whether you like him or don’t like him you can’t deny what he has done in Rwanda. As you said, it is under the leadership of Kagame but it is an achievement of Rwandans, not an achievement of Kagame. I don’t like the fact that we see ourselves though one single person no matter how strong they are or how charismatic they are. At what cost?

I think we read about the cost in the media. The idea of human rights and the respect of the citizen in the process in decision making is not the greatest. And I suppose the progress of democratisation hasn’t really emerged. The political space has been dominated tremendously by the RPF for obvious reason and practical reasons. So democracy hasn’t emerged yet in my opinion. Do we need to be economically stable and by that create conditions where democracy can happen? It is a possibility. I like to think that if we reach a position or a place or a state of affairs where we have a stable economy where we all share in that economy then we become more keen to protect what we have achieved together rather than destroy it.

AB: Rather than certain groups profiting and other groups not?

RB: If it became apparent that the RPF or, as some people say, the Tutsis benefitted from the profits – which I don’t think is founded – then that would be  adangerous thing because the dividends would not be equally shared and that would create resentment. But if it is something we share in, then maybe, maybe, democracy can happen. I might sound more pro-government than I would like to, but I don’t think that practically you could have both.

AB: You said that you either love or you hate Kagame, where do you stand?

RB: I like him. He disappoints me sometimes.

AB: How do you mean?

RB: By closing the political debate and the political space. I voted for him twice I think but I don’t like the idea of having political opponents in prison – I don’t think it reflects well – but I can confidently say that he can open the space and remain quite successful as a political person because that creates negative criticism for the leader. So he frustrates me in that regard because I don’t want somebody you admire as a politician to come out as an authoritarian.

AB: There’s not much to admire.

RB:  Yes, not much to admire, but we’re going through the same route that we’ve been before. The country has made giant steps. I do wish after 20 years we can give more space to diversity of voices.

AB: Rather than exiling them?

RB: Yes, rather than exiling them.

AB: There are political opponents who’ve left Rwanda or turned up dead.

RB: Oh yeah, certainly they have. I don’t think that the government has been straightforward in terms of clarifying their position with those either assignations or eliminations which fuel again controversy and debate but I’d like to see less of that. But there is no need for that either.

AB: Because he enjoys such a strong position anyway?

RB: He does and he did, not just in Rwanda but in the wider international community as well. Whether he can associate different members of the political…

AB: Whether he can integrate opponents?

RB: Certainly I would like to see a more vibrant, better organised opposition. The thing is, sometimes you get opposition parties who have no idea of the challenges we face and are causing more disruption than coming with an alternative so if nobody can come with a real alternative than I’m afraid we are with Kagame and the RPF for the foreseeable future.

AB: But the opposition parties must be allowed to be vocal in their criticism and if that criticism is unfounded or unhelpful then surely the people and the voters will ignore them.

RB: There’s no doubt that we need to open up democracy, there’s no doubt about that whatsoever. There is a sense in which we say ‘we’re not ready yet,’ but I think twenty years is a landmark, an important landmark, where we should rethink Rwandan post-genocide politics and how we start to implement a democracy which is more inclusive.

AB: You say that following the genocide a strong government was needed to create a platform but now you that feel that the government you could relinquish?

RB: That’s the challenge isn’t it? It still is true that power has a corrupting and corrosive effect and that absolute power will corrupt in an absolute way. When you have become used to speaking and being obeyed it becomes very difficult to relinquish that position so a) it’s going to be a matter of internal decision within the RPF to create mechanisms to relinquish or b) then the civil society will have to be more aggressive, not in a negative way, more assertive, more challenging.

AB: So currently Kagame is in his final term of presidency. Do you think he’ll step aside when the end of his seven year term comes?

RB: What I feel and what I hope for is that he will step down in 2017. I believe he will, I can’t imagine for the sake of me having to change the constitution for him to stay in power. There could be other mechanisms for him to stay. Is it desirable? Twenty years is a political nightmare.

AB: Do you think he’s very much a military man in the way that he’s created a much regimented, very strong, disciplined country; his continued involvements in other countries, do you think that he’s still lead by his military background?

RB: I think that he’s an ambitious person and at the level of Rwanda he’s achieved all he’s going to achieve in terms of a political career.  I don’t think that our history of involvement in the Congo is a good chapter and I think that it’s tragic that a country that welcomed more than 3 million refugees in 1994, we went back to cause more harm than good. I think maybe there will be room to make an apology to the Congolese people at some point and actually to thank them for helping us. But other than that Kagame has been trying to influence regional politics in a positive way by putting a strong emphasis on opening borders in East Africa. The drive to increase technological input in the country. But the way he impresses me by associating young people to the running of the country; so whether he is only a military mind or he’s a kind of visionary as well in realising that you can go far with your comrades in arms but you have to recognise that they can’t take the country forward in the current era so hopefully the military discipline will contribute to the safe running of the country rather than a fist of steel kind of politics. But I suppose that Africa could need a bit of discipline in our economies and in our finances.

AB: But there’s sadly no shortage of military men becoming politics and becoming the fist of steel.

RB: Africa is still a baby in terms of democracy. I think independences haven’t sunk in yet so we’ll go through, it’s only been 40 or 50 years, that’s a very short period. The destiny of African leaders is not always in their hands so you can’t always blame unilaterally the military. But I think the era of military men is hopefully coming to an end and hopefully we’ll have a more political elite which is guided clear political philosophy other than just coming in all guns blazing and after everyone is terrorised into silence and trying to govern as much as they want. I think there is a new political elite emerging in Africa hopefully and the military people are a dying breed I hope.

The first part of this conversation on Faith and Reconciliation can be found here. The third conversation will look at Richard’s own memories of the genocide.

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 Photo: Never Again – Courtyard of Genocide Memorial Church – Karongi-Kibuye – Western Rwanda by Adam Jones Phd

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