How Rwanda’s Paul Kagame uses the country’s genocide memorials as a political instrument.
This week marks the twenty-first anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, one of most rapid and violent genocides in recorded history, in which the extremist Hutu government mobilized the murder of at least 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu between April 7 and July 15, 1994. All week long, the Rwandan government will commemorate the tragic event by uniting communities around the country’s complex system of genocide memorials. Diplomats will visit, politicians will give speeches, survivors will mourn, and all will receive a grizzly reminder of how a population conducted a killing spree to massacre an innocent civilian population of Tutsi.
Although the country is still best known for its violent past, Rwanda has experienced relative stability for the past twenty years alongside an economic boom that led to its being dubbed the “Singapore of Africa.” Much of this success has been attributed to President Paul Kagame, former leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel group that defeated the extremist Hutu regime and ended the genocide in 1994. World leaders have lauded Kagame, and President Bill Clinton went so far as to call him one of “the greatest leaders of our time.”
Yet much of this optimism ignores the deep divisions that remain between the Tutsi and Hutu populations. Post-conflict reconciliation has not eased tensions between the two ethnic groups. Although genocide memorials dot “the land of a thousand hills,” they lack inclusivity and focus solely on Tutsi victims. In fact, the government’s official title for the massacres is “the genocide against the Tutsi”, which excludes moderate Hutu who were killed by extremist militias. This specific focus on Tutsi victimization appears in direct opposition to the government’s emphasis on national unity and dissolving ethnic differences. Today, even the mere mention of ethnic identity is banned. This dichotomy between ethnic reconciliation and perpetuating Tutsi victimization appears puzzling at first glance, but the government’s emphasis on the Tutsi is deliberate.
The Rwandan government has effectively used the genocide as an instrument to construct a narrative of Tutsi victimization that legitimizes the current government and justifies its consolidation of power among the Tutsi elite. The genocide memorial has been a particularly effective tool in service of this narrative.
Two types of genocide memorials exist in Rwanda: the professionally constructed museum-memorial and the emotionally evocative mass grave. The grand Kigali Genocide Memorial resides in the first category; the crown jewel of the country’s memorial system sits on a tranquil hill in the capital and includes reflection gardens, a dignified mass grave, and a museum highlighting the history of Rwanda’s genocide. The museum tells the familiar story of Hutu radicalization, an apathetic international community, and a tortured Tutsi past. One room offers vignettes of children killed in the genocide, including personal information such as favorite foods, best friends, and how the victim was murdered.
In direct contrast to the dignified Kigali Memorial, the genocide memorial at Murambi is the ultimate example of emotional evocation; the memorial sits on the site of a polytechnic school in which nearly 50,000 Tutsi sought refuge before their deaths at the hands of a local Hutu militia. Today, hundreds of these bodies are preserved in lime powder and lay in classrooms as they were murdered: a baby’s mouth wide open, screaming; a mother extending her arms for mercy; two lovers embracing each other. The stench of death overtakes the senses as one wanders through this macabre memorial. Beyond Murambi, massacre sites at over fifty Catholic churches have been converted to genocide memorials, including Ntarama and Nyamata, where church pews are still covered with victims’ clothing and basements filled with victims’ bones.1
Memorials such as these do not foster reconciliation. They assure that the fear of death remains omnipresent in Rwandan society, thus allowing the government to continue an alarming trend of authoritarian behavior.
In 2008, the Rwandan government instituted a “genocide ideology” law that prohibits any denial of the genocide. Questioning or criticizing the official history of the genocide is considered illegal. Prior to the 2010 presidential election, a Hutu candidate named Victoire Ingabire began her campaign at the Kigali Genocide Memorial by declaring:
“We are honoring at this memorial the Tutsi victims of genocide. There are also Hutu who were victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes, not remembered or honored here… we must be fair and compassionate towards every Rwandan’s suffering.”
She was promptly arrested and accused of “genocide ideology.” She never had the opportunity to promote reconciliation from public office; instead, she is currently serving fifteen years in a Rwandan prison.
President Paul Kagame’s regime is not afraid of directly combating foreign criticism from journalists or academics. In October 2014, the Rwandan government suspended all BBC radio broadcasts in retaliation for the BBC documentary “Untold Story”, which questions the official history and has been accused of historical revisionism. The documentary is centered around the research of Christian Davenport and Allan Stam, professors at Notre Dame and University of Michigan, respectively. They suggest the number of Tutsi deaths was wildly exaggerated and the number of Hutu deaths drastically underrepresented. They estimate that only 600,000 Tutsi lived in Rwanda at the outbreak of the genocide, making the total of 800,000 Tutsi killed utterly impossible. However, their questioning of the government’s official narrative led to both researchers being banned from ever returning to the country.
For over twenty years, the current Rwandan government, led by former RPF leadership, has received the benefit of the doubt from the international community. This is attributed to several factors—sympathy for inaction during the genocide, praise for delivering stability, and the practical necessity to cooperate with RPF leadership during the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire. Nonetheless, it is time for foreign powers to become more critical of the Rwandan government. Unquestioning praise of President Kagame empowers him to pursue the consolidation of Tutsi power and alienate the Hutu population. With the 2017 election looming, many fear President Kagame will abolish a constitutional term-limit to run for a third term. Such a move may be a tipping point for frustrated Hutu, who make up a vast majority of the country’s population. Continued oppression of Hutu identity and politicizing Tutsi victimization increases the chance of ethnic violence erupting again in the future.
As Rwandans and the international community commemorate the twenty-first anniversary of one of the most horrific genocides in history, it is important to remember all of the victims who died in the spring of 1994. As a rural woman in Nyamata explains:
“To remember is good but it should be inclusive. For instance, my parents have been killed in the genocide. But when they [the government] remember they remember only Tutsi, so I am frustrated because they don’t remember my family.”2
As the week of mourning begins, those who feel alienated can only hope that the Rwandan government begins to be more inclusive and to foster authentic ethnic reconciliation. Unfortunately, prior events suggest that such a radical shift in policy is unlikely. The duty rests on the international community to properly remember all victims of ethnic violence in Rwanda so that the hundreds of thousands who died do not become a political prop for authoritarian leadership.
1. Observations made by the author while visiting Murambi, Ntarama, and Nyamata in July 2013.
2. Buckley-Zistel, Susanne. “Remembering to Forget: Chosen Amnesia as Strategy for Local Coexistence in Post-Genocide Rwanda.” Africa: Journal of the International Africa Institute Vol. 76 No. 2.2006 131–150. Web.
Greg Zitelli is a first-year graduate student in the International Affairs program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He completed a BA in Political Science and International Studies at Elon University in 2014. Concentrating on African affairs, he studied abroad in Senegal in the fall of 2012 and held an internship with the State Department in Rwanda in the summer of 2013. He is now focusing on transnational security issues in Africa, particularly how humanitarian aid is diverted by warlords and can prolong conflict.
Photo of Nyamata Memorial taken by author. Image cropped.