Rwanda country profile: two different views

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Rwanda country profile: two different views

Ben Shepherd writes about two very different views of Rwanda 20 years after the genocide.


Women working with coffee beans. (Photos by Sven Torfinn/Panos)

Kigali is an amazing city, across low hills with trees. Nairobi and Kampala are much busier, so it seems calm, safe and very clean. There are not many street children and no street sellers, the traffic lights work and motorbike taxi-drivers wear helmets. There are new towns built up the hillsides, and tall new office blocks, shopping centres and Ministry buildings in the city. The government says the people of Rwanda are united and the people live in peace. The change from the terrible days of 1994 is amazing.

But it also feels a little unreal. And people do not agree about Rwanda. Some people think it is a great success story, after the terrible genocide. Other people think it is an authoritarian government, that controls people strictly at home and sends their military to fight in other countries.

Rwanda’s progress has been led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This is a group of rebels made up of Rwandan exiles who left the country because of anti-Tutsi violence around independence in the late 1950s. The RPF invaded from neighbouring Uganda in 1990. They pushed out the government four years later, at the time of the genocide. The RPF forced the military who had committed genocide to leave, and took power.

Rwanda became a multiparty democracy in 2003, but there has been no real challenge to RPF control; President Kagame won the last two Presidential elections with more than 90 per cent of the vote. And the RPF controls three-quarters of the seats in the National Assembly. Opposition parties are weak. People who say they do not agree with the government are arrested or have to leave the country. They say some people have been killed, most recently former RPF man Patrick Karageya, assassinated in South Africa in January 2014.

They control more than formal politics. There is almost no independent media or civil society, and very little space for discussion of history or politics, eg. ethnic identities. They now say everyone is simply Rwandan, not Hutu and Tutsi. They say the tribal names were racist ideas that the colonial authorities wanted them to believe. They teach this at re-education camps (called “Ingando”), for many Rwandans, eg. schoolchildren and former soldiers. All citizens have to go on community work days, farming has been brought together into collective groups and new villages have been made to bring people together in the countryside.

And there are a lot of successes. There have been big improvements in rural poverty and access to education, healthcare and services. Rwanda’s economy has grown quickly. And Kigali is a great, modern city.

But it’s difficult to know if most Rwandans agree to this plan. Most people outside the city do not have a voice. Political security is strict, maybe because there is still the possibility of ethnic violence. But it is very difficult for outsiders to know. It is difficult to understand the control as part of the RPF story of a unified, developing country.

So there are two very different ideas of Rwanda. People who trust President Kagame think that the way he has changed Rwandan identity and society is a brave solution to the impossible problem of genocide. People who don’t trust him think it could be a way to cover up his autocratic control. It is difficult to find a middle point between these two.

Rwanda country profile Fact File

Leader President Paul Kagame.

Economy GNI per person $560 (Burundi $240. France $41,750).

Money Rwandan franc.

Main exports Coffee, tea, animal skin, tin ore. The country has been growing at 7-8% per year since 2003 and inflation is under control; it has also been helped by HIPC debt relief. Rwanda has very good soil but they do not produce enough food for all the people, so they need to import food too. In 2013 a Special Economic Zone opened in Kigali looking for foreign investment.

People 11.5 million. Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated nation, with 435 people per square kilometre (UK 253). Annual population growth rate 1990-2012: 2.1%.

Health Infant mortality rate 39 per 1,000 live births – a great improvement since the last profile (118 per 1,000). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 54 (France 1 in 6,200). HIV rate 2.9%.

Environment Agricultural deforestation, soil erosion and wildlife hunting are very big problems.

Culture After the genocide they say everyone must be Rwandan, not than Hutu, Tutsi or Twa.

Religion Christian 93% (50% Catholic, 39% Protestant, 4% other), Muslim 2%, others 5%.

Language Everyone speaks Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language, but French and English are also official languages.

Human development index 0.434, 167th of 187 countries (Burundi 0.355, France 0.893).


Rwanda country profile ratings in detail

Income distribution Rwanda has cut poverty rates, but there is still a big gap between rich and poor – the “GINI coefficient” shows it is one of the world’s 20 most unequal countries.

Life expectancy Much more money spent on health means that life expectancy in Rwanda has improved to 63, (from 53, 10 years ago). Now, it is just above the sub-Saharan average.

Freedom The government controls political expression, media and civil society, and people have said there is serious abuse of human rights. Economic and religious freedoms are quite good.

Literacy More children now go to school. Literacy is now just under 80%, now much more than the sub-Saharan average (it was 56% in 1990).

Position of women Rwanda has the world’s highest percentage of females in parliament in the world (64%), good education rates for girls, and has improved legal protection for women, including the right to inherit land when their parents die. Domestic violence is still a problem.

Sexual minorities There are no discriminatory laws against sexual minorities, and not many reported attacks on LGBT people. But there is no legal positive protection.

NI Assessment (Politics) People have said the RPF government is good because of its discipline and good policies for development and poverty reduction. This has really improved the lives of the poorest people. But this progress might not continue because of the authoritarian control of politics and society, because people are not allowed to disagree, and because of abuse of human rights. All these problems mean the international community are divided in their support, many former government supporters no longer support them, and, Rwanda’s unity might not continue.

Previously reviewed 2005

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