Rwanda’s Lessons to the World

Posted: December 28, 2010 in Evidence Material
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By Rose Gasibirege for ISN Insights 19 September 2008

In the last amendment of the May 2008 Rwandan Constitution, the correct designation of the 1994 tragedy of Rwanda is now called the “Tutsi’s Genocide.” This was done to confirm the historical truth for those who would deny the genocide, one of the worst crimes against humanity.

Fourteen years after the genocide, how should one evaluate Rwanda’s social, political and economic efforts to regenerate itself? In July 1994, Rwanda was in tatters. “No people, no nation,” was a common call. There were only survivors: widows and orphans were in a terrible, traumatic state; repatriates and refugees were all disorientated; there was were no market, no food, no hospitals, and no schools, markets, food, hospitals or schools. All had to be recreated by a shattered, vulnerable society.

The record shows that the transitional government established in July 1994 lacked a foundation on which to rebuild the country, suffering from a lack of public and private professionals to help form the new government. National security became an immediate priority for the government of unity and reconciliation.

In fact, at the internal level, the genocide’s perpetrators had taken over the three provinces: Cyangugu, Gikongoro (South) and Kibuye (East) with the help of foreign governments. Indeed, the Kibeho district’s internally displaced person’s camp was home to genocide perpetrators (the Interahamwe militia and the ex-Forces Armees Rwandaises). The French-led “Operation Turquoise,” intended to establish a safe zone in the southwest of the country, also allowed several criminals to hide from justice.

Genocide perpetrators were also found in the camps on or around Rwanda’s borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The training and arming of troops continued in the camps of Mugunga, Kibunga and Katale without any intervention. The new government had to address internal and external security challenges so that a sustainable development program could be put in place, thus sparking the DRC wars of 1996-1997 and 1998-2000.

Vision 2020: The solution to Rwanda’s future

To consolidate the country’s precarious security, the national government began to define Rwanda’s future. To do so, they adopted leadership concepts developed by the scholar Marie-France Perrin-Jassy, who argues that leadership does not arise in vacuum but in meeting a situation. Perrin-Jassy argues that:

“An apparent lack of leadership often comes from a lack of consensus and results in repeated complaints that there is no leadership or strong direction given to the government’s policy. But if a crisis arises which is felt as a situation or a threat to national survival, a consensus will be easily formed and a strong leader will take things in hand. Therefore, the success of a leader will depend on his/ her ability to recognize a consensus and to help formulate it” (See Marie-France Perrin-Jassy, Leadership, AMECEA Gaba Publication, 2001).

The country’s leaders set out to gather the people’s thoughts on their future. Between 1998 and 1999, the presidency held several meetings on the future of Rwanda and its people, with individuals from across the country and diaspora submitting their opinions on what could be done to improve their lives.

These gatherings, together with contributions from civil society, the private sector, religious congregations, academics and the support of international experts, led to the drafting of a new development plan, Vision 2020. With its six pillars, four cross cutting domains and multiple objectives, Vision 2020 has become the guiding document of every Rwandan and the challenge for the country’s leadership.

The publication of this document was an important step in helping Rwanda’s people become more responsible for their own lives. In this sense, Kä Mana talks about the capacity to anticipate and plan for today’s big challenges and the means to respond to them.

Here, Rwanda’s leaders played an important role in defining the relationship between what Mana calls the “triple imagination” of historic values, present challenges and circumstances and future plans. One can observe here a real communion between Rwanda’s leaders and population. Even if there remains a deep and unsatisfactory social and economic situation, the ideals expressed by Vision 2020 with regard to economic development and poverty reduction are being confirmed. Almost seven years after the launch of the vision, Rwanda finds itself at a crossroads, moving from humanitarian assistance to the road of sustainable development.

The will of Rwanda’s leaders to vanquish hunger and poverty, and the decision that growth must be pro-poor, has been positively received by the people. Efforts here are coupled with aspirations to make Rwanda a modern, strong and united nation, proud of its fundamental values, politically stable and without discrimination among its citizens.

Conscious of the people’s confidence, the government is attempting to reach the major goal of Vision 2020: the transformation of Rwanda’s economy from low income to middle income with a per capita income of about US$900 per year, up from US$220 in 2000). To realize this objective, the government has begun to transform Rwanda from an agricultural-subsistence economy to a knowledge-based society.

But this objective is meeting enormous challenges, chief of which is a severe shortage of professional staff to help develop all sectors, including agriculture. Illiteracy is still rampant in both the urban and rural population with 48 percent of Rwandans unable to read or write. Comprehensive human resources development programs, encompassing education, health and ICT skills aimed at both the public and private sector, and civil society have been initiated to combat this challenge.

Encouragement is given to nongovernmental organizations and associations to help fight illiteracy. Government policy, together with support from internal and external agencies, has improved access to primary school education for 92 percent of the country’s children. Since 2003, primary education has been free for every child.

Interestingly, the issue of human resources is now central to efforts by the country’s leaders to rehabilitate the country. Previously, the Rwandan people were little more than a political problem. Former president Habyarimana Juvenal said, “When a glass is full, you can’t add one drop.” His regime believed there was no place for Rwandan refugees. After the 1994 genocide, the international community saw Rwandans as killers. The country’s leaders should consider subsequent efforts to humanize Rwanda’s people a success (See Rwanda Vision 2020, Year 47 nº special of 25 February 2008, p.4).

One of the six pillars of Vision 2020 is “human resource development and a knowledge based on economy.” To this end, Rwanda’s government decided forgo involvement in providing services and products that could be delivered more efficiently by the private sector. This approach is best seen in the field of education where three-quarters of secondary schools are private. Further, about 10 private institutions of higher learning have been created since 1994 and are now fully operational.

This policy has allowed those who would not have had access to higher education to continue studying while working and also serves as an example to the wider region.

Good governance and the power of culture

With the emphasis given to innovation and technical training, Rwanda is cultivating the fields of technology and culture at the same time. This is the same philosophical strategy that, according to Perrin-Jassy, allowed the Japanese to “modernize themselves without losing their soul, to develop themselves without disowning their culture.”

The other reason for Rwanda’s success can be read in Perrin-Jassy’s assertion that “the establishment of leadership relation involves the existence of a two-way stream of communication between the leader and the followers. When they belong to the same cultural context, a lot of information is passed on at a subconscious level because it is known by both parties without being formally expressed (See Perrin Jassy, p. 9). “

By returning to their traditions, Rwanda’s leaders are able to find practical ideas that can be used to solve socio-economic problems. Together with new concepts like Ubudehe (local collective action); Umuganda (contribution or community service); Imihigo (performance contracts); and Gacaca (community justice) are bringing changes to Rwanda’s agriculture and economy and fostering good governance.

Rwanda’s stance on gender equality, which is also a part of Vision 2020, serves as an example of good governance to the international community. Rwanda’s government has decided to continuously update and adapt its laws on gender. During the first parliamentary elections in 2003, women, who constitute 53 percent of the population, were elected to 30 percent of the seats. That figure has since climbed to 48 percent. Moreover, 34 percent of the cabinet is made up of women.

What accounts for such high percentages? One could point to various incentives, the role of the country’s leadership, or the will of individuals. However, the sustainability of these reasons finds its real justification in Rwanda’s culture. Unlike other cultures, the country’s women are recognized for their right to deal personally with matters of great importance. Their authority and power are real. This is the reason why dignity and respect are still afforded to, which is reflected in their personal style and appearance. Where other women have had to keep their faces veiled, Rwanda’s women have kept their stature straight and faces uncovered.

It is well known that proverbs convey short messages that distill the instruction and wisdom of a nation’s traditions. In our culture, even though some proverbs are insulting to women, others are as glorifying as this one: “Ukurusha umugore akurusha urugo,” or “Better wife, better house.”

Looking forward

Rwanda’s future is difficult to discern. The country has made a qualitative leap forward and must retain the gains it has achieved in the 14 years since the genocide.

The country’s leaders should maintain their self-confidence so as to inspire continued faith among the people, and all Rwandan men and women need to become experts in their national business.

In quoting the researcher Baenga Bolya, Kä Mana recalls those values that gave rise to Japan’s success that need to be borrowed by Rwanda on its march to development and modernization.

There is the “ethic-culture,” in which we identify those morals that are indispensable to modernization and economic growth; “the culture of innovation,” which takes place in different areas of Rwanda’s sectors today; the “intelligence culture,” which requires a critical spirit in all; the “culture of perfection and excellence,” in which professionalism and rigour might be found; and the “culture of culture,” which is the expression of effort, discipline, heroism, and so on.

Close to one million people were killed during the genocide. Although the tragedy was almost insurmountable, Rwandans have chosen to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past, forgiving in order to build a nation, seek a brighter future and recover their hope.

Rwanda’s leaders have given valuable lessons to the world with regard to social development, education, gender equality and justice. Did they have a choice? Could they change the past or the politics of their country? The answer to this question is that they could only transform their future. Miraculously, they did.

Recommended resources:

Brown, David G. Leadership Vitality. American Council on Education, 1979.

Caroselli, Marlene. Leadership Skills for Managers, New York, 2002. McGraw-Hill.

Compendium of African Governance Programmes: Good Governance and Conflict Management for Durable Peace and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, (June 1999).

Gahama, Joseph et al. Démocratie Bonne Gouvernance et Développement dans la Région des Grands, Lacs, Avec l’appui financier du PNUD.

Harwood, F Merrill. The Responsibilities of Business Leadership, Cambridge, 1948. Harvard University Press.

Perrin-Jassy, Marie-France. Leadership. AMECEA Gaba Publication, 2001.

Rwanda Cision 2020. Official Gazette of the Republic of Rwanda, 25 February 2008.

Rwifamba, Balinda. The Rwandan Culture and Civic Education: Post Genocide Period, (04/07/1994), Independent University of Kigali, 2008.

*Dr Rose Gasibirege is Academic Vice Rector of the Kigali Independent University, and President of the Rwandese National Commission for UNESCO.


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