The Past is Past
The earliest known inhabitants of Rwanda were pygmoid hunter-gatherers, ancestral to the modern Twa people who today comprise only 0.25% of the national population. Some 2,000 years ago, agricultural and pastoralist migrants from the west settled in the area. Oral traditions recall that prior to the 15th century a ruler named Gihanga forged a centralised Rwandan state with similar roots to the Buganda and Bunyoro Empires in neighbouring Uganda.
Comprised of a cattle-owning nobility and agriculturist serfdom majority – the precursors respectively of the modern-day Tutsi and Hutu – this powerful state was able to repel all early attempts at European penetration.
Rwanda became a German colony following the 1885 Berlin Conference, although it would be full decade before a permanent German presence was established there. In 1918, Rwanda was mandated to Belgium, which implemented a system of indirect rule that exploited and intensified the existing divisions between Tutsi and Hum. In 1962, under Prime Minister Gregoire Kayibanda, Rwanda became an independent republic, an attainment marred by frequent clashes between the newly dominant Hutu majority and historically more powerful Tutsi minority, culminating in the slaughter of an estimated 10,000 Tutsi civilians in late 1963.
In 1973, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana ousted the repressive Kayibanda regime, and over the next 20 years, the country’s political situation became ever more complicated due to simmering ethnic tensions exacerbated by events in neighbouring states, several of which harboured significant numbers of Rwandan refugees. On 6 April 1994, Habyarimana died in a mysterious plane crash, sparking an already planned genocide.
Two days later, in an effort to prevent the genocide, the exiled Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded the country, capturing Kigali on 4 July and forming a Government of National Unity under President Pasteur Bizimungu a fortnight later. Within three months, the genocide was all but over. An estimated one million Rwandans had died over that period, and twice as many had fled into exile.
The Future Starts Today
Rwanda today is a nation renascent, a country in an advanced stage of rehabilitation, and one looking to a brighter future. The high level of political stability and peace since 1995 has encouraged the repatriation of millions of refugees, while the main instigators of the genocide are being tried at the Arusha Tribunal in Tanzania and in the Gacaca courts in Rwanda.
The victims of the genocide have been laid to rest in mass graves whose frank austerity affirms the government’s ability to openly confront the recent past without extracting undue political mileage from its role in ending the genocide.
During its tenure in power, the RPF has placed strong emphasis on reconciliation, and has largely succeeded in forging a sense of national, rather than ethnic, identity in Rwanda.
The autocratic and divisive political structures that formerly denied minorities a meaningful political voice have been replaced, for instance with the implementation of cellular councils that involve local communities in important decisions at grassroots level. Furthermore, although poverty remains endemic to Rwanda as it does to most other Africa countries, economic liberalisation and civil stability have stimulated a consistently high annual economic growth rate since 1995, and today there is a tangible economic buzz about Rwanda that bodes well for its long term future. Tourism will play a pivotal role in fostering the economic infrastructure and prosperity that nurture future political stability.