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Études et essais

Rwanda, Twenty Years On

Assessing the RPF’s Legacy through the Views of the Great Lakes Region’s New Generation
Rwanda, vingt ans plus tard.  L’héritage du FPR vu par les jeunes générations de l’Afrique des Grands Lacs
Denise Bentrovato
p. 231-254


Vingt ans après l’arrivée au pouvoir du FPR au Rwanda, le bilan des autorités en place est un sujet qui divise l’opinion publique. Le but de cet article est de compléter les méthodes d’évaluations existantes en attirant l’attention sur les opinions, marginalisées, des jeunes générations de l’Afrique des Grands Lacs. L’analyse est basée sur les résultats d’une enquête qualitative récemment menée auprès de centaines d’élèves de l’enseignement secondaire dans la région qui vise à explorer la façon dont cette nouvelle génération considère la trajectoire historique du Rwanda et les changements depuis la fin du génocide en 1994. L’analyse démontre le succès du gouvernement rwandais à inculquer une mémoire officielle et une vision de l’avenir auprès des citoyens. En même temps, elle expose la profusion des versions alternatives de « la vérité » au-delà des frontières rwandaises. Exalté dans le pays même pour ses mérites et ses réussites, le Rwanda sous le FPR était fréquemment critiqué au Burundi et en République démocratique du Congo tant pour avoir échoué à résoudre ses problèmes internes que pour avoir exporté ses ennuis à l’étranger, causant de grandes souffrances à ses voisins. Les résultats de la recherche soulèvent finalement des espoirs ainsi que des questions quant à l’héritage de la gouvernance du FPR au Rwanda et dans la région.

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1Rwanda is a country with a turbulent recent history punctuated by recurrent identity-based violence with harrowing and notorious effects.  Political turmoil in Rwanda reached its peak during the 1990-1994 civil war that was launched by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (rpf) and which, in April 1994, set the context for a 100-day genocide during which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were systematically murdered under the leadership of Hutu extremists then in power following the obscure assassination of Hutu President Habyarimana.

2Twenty years have now passed since the genocide and the military victory of the rpf.  During this period, a new generation has been born and raised under the leadership of the former rebellion.  This generation, which has little or no direct recollection of the genocide and of the events and circumstances that led to it, is being brought up with the expectation of moving towards a better future based on the harsh lessons of the past.  “They are the new Rwanda”, President Paul Kagame (2014) affirmed during his speech at Amahoro Stadium on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the genocide this year.

3In Rwanda, young people under 25 represent approximately two-thirds of the country’s population (Republic of Rwanda 2012).  Historically, this social category has been largely deprived of opportunities to fulfil its promise and potential to act as a driving force for peace and development.  According to the Rwandan National Youth Policy, in the past “the youth were exploited and manipulated by politicians to carry out destruction” (Republic of Rwanda, undated: 10).  Today, young people are recognised as “a cornerstone sector” (ibid.: 11), expected to play a pivotal role in society as responsible and productive citizens.  These expectations were reiterated by Rwanda’s First Lady, Jeanette Kagame, in an address to over 800 young Rwandans who gathered in Kigali last year during an event entitled “The Promise of a Post Genocide Generation”:

“Our country has had a tormenting history but it’s up to you to turn that history around.  We stand against parents who continue to teach divisi[ve] ideology to their children.  Let us build on peace, development and a culture of unity [...] that is the future we wish for you [...].  The Rwanda you stand in today is yours, building it is your responsibility”(Republic of Rwanda 2013).

4(Re-)educating the young generation has been a priority of the post-genocide government in its attempt to build a “new Rwanda”.  The authorities have intensely pursued the aim of changing people’s mindsets based on the understanding that these had been corrupted by an ideology of ethnic division which had made the genocide possible.  The government’s endeavours have strongly relied on instructing the new generation about “the truth” of past events and on instilling commitment towards, and pride and confidence in, the nation and the authorities which lead it.

  • 1 Details on the findings of this study can be found in Bentrovato (2013).

5The intent of this article is to assess the rpf’s intensive efforts to build a “new Rwanda” by giving a voice to the young generation upon which all hopes are laid for the future.  It seeks, in so doing, to understand the legacy built by the rpf for the next generation.  The article commences by outlining the “official truth” that has been propagated through various channels, including schools.  It subsequently presents the findings of a qualitative survey conducted by the author among one thousand Rwandan school students between 2008 and 2011 and complemented by interviews carried out with young people in April 2014.  A core aim of the research was to investigate how young people today frame and understand the Rwandan nation and its historical trajectory, and to evaluate how their perceptions and representations of the periods both before and after the rpf’s rise to power relate to the official narrative.  The views held by young Rwandans are then compared to those collected from approximately 1,500 young people from neighbouring Burundi and eastern Congo, whose history and destiny are intimately connected with those of their peers in Rwanda.  The comparison examines the extent to which “the truth” propagated in Rwanda about the antecedents and the legacy of rpf rule is either echoed or openly challenged by young Africans from across the border1.  Ultimately, the article intends to complement and supplement existing assessments of the overall record of the rpf by drawing attention to perspectives that have largely remained on the margins of mainstream discussions on post-genocide Rwanda.

Teaching the Nation: Official Narratives in Post-Genocide Rwanda

6A famous dictum states that history is written by the victors.  Across time and space, those who have come to hold the reins of power have commonly taken great care to “provide their citizens with official accounts of the past” (Wertsch 2004: 50).  By imposing “grand narratives” or “mythico-histories” (Malkki 1995) which claim to objectively recount the past, dominant groups have recurrently sought to promote preferred orders, identities, worldviews, and belief and value systems.  Such narratives have thus been central to the construction of “imagined communities” (Anderson 1991).

7History has been a particularly central concern during periods of political transition.  According to Ruti Teitel (2000: 70), such temporal junctures typically represent “vivid instances of conscious historical production”.  Post-genocide Rwanda is no exception.  Immediately after the genocide, one of the goals of the new political leadership was to build a new society based on critical lessons from the past and on an ambitious vision for the future.  Its ambition, as stated in official documents, has been to eradicate ethnic consciousness in the population in favour of an inclusive civic and national identity (Republic of Rwanda 2006: 282).  The government’s efforts to rebuild the nation have relied on the propagation of an official and largely unquestioned truth about its past and present; a truth which claims to replace the false ethnicist history written by the former regimes (Bentrovato 2013, forthcoming).

  • 2 See also the “History” section which appears on the official website of the RPF, <http://rpfinkotanyi. org/en/?-history>.

8Before the genocide, the elites in power had promulgated a version of history focused on the ancient existence of ethnic divisions and on a history of victimisation of an autochthonous Bantu Hutu majority by a tyrannical Hamitic Tutsi minority, which had been overthrown in 1959 through a democratic “revolution”.  This version of history exalted the two subsequently established Hutu-dominated republics as “naturally” legitimate entities, whose existence had been challenged by power-thirsty Tutsi “terrorists” and “aggressors” (Chrétien et al. 1995).  In stark contrast to the old discourse, the new, post-genocide dominant discourse propagates the myth of Rwanda as a “country of milk and honey”, resurrected in 1994 after having been destroyed by evil forces.  The current official history underscores the ancient unity and harmony which had characterised the old Rwandan nation and traces the roots of division and conflict in Rwandan society back to the colonial imposition of alien ethnic differences and to their perpetuation by racist post-colonial regimes which since 1959 had presided over three decades of discrimination, persecution and ultimately genocide against the Tutsis.  In the words of President Kagame (2003: 114), “[o]nce terror and mass murder were introduced in 1959 under the auspices of the Belgian Administration, subsequent regimes tried genocide in their exercise of power”.  In this narrative, blame for past violence is apportioned to the colonisers, the former Hutu regimes and their followers, as well as to a passive and even complicit international community.  Praise is given to the former rebel movement rpf, now in power; the state narrative extols it as Rwanda’s liberator and saviour, an image on which the ruling party has founded its legitimacy.  The rpf is commended for its heroic “liberation war” against the murderous regime and for its subsequent achievements in rebuilding the country and in ensuring a return to peace and normalcy (Republic of Rwanda 1999, 2000, 2006, 2010; Shyaka 2005)2.

9This narrative is omnipresent in post-genocide Rwanda.  A wide array of channels has been employed by the government to disseminate the official discourse as part of a social engineering project which relies heavily on mass (re-)education.  The public has been educated about Rwanda’s past, present and future through official communications, government-controlled media, schools and academic institutions, commemorative activities and genocide memorials, gacaca community trials, ingando “solidarity camps”, and itorero civic education training sessions.  Concerned observers have asserted that the broad propagation of this particular narrative, considered by many to be biased and one-sided, has been accompanied by an “ideological control over the discourse” (Ingelaere 2010a: 50) and by “censorship of alternative accounts” (Buckley-Zistel 2009: 31).  Critical voices have been raised in particular against existing laws on “divisionism”, “revisionism”, “negationism” and “genocide ideology”, which are viewed as having been used to maintain a “monopoly on knowledge construction” (Pottier 2002: 202) and to criminalise all deviation from the official line (Beswick 2010; Buckley-Zistel 2006a, b, 2009; Hrw 2008; Icg 2002; Lemarchand 2007; Longman 2004; Waldorf 2007, 2011).  Critics have suggested that the government has additionally guaranteed its monopoly on the public truth through a “state of surveillance” and an “increasing permeation of the state into all aspects of life”, which “diminishes open dissent and tightens the reproduction and reproducibility of the official script” (Purdekova 2011: 493-494).  Alternative “truths”, which have been recorded by various scholars (Eltringham 2004; Freedman et al. 2011; Gourevitch 2009; Ingelaere 2009, 2010a, b; King 2010; Longman & Rutagengwa 2004; McLean Hilker 2011; Newbury & Newbury 1999; Pottier 2002; Straus 2006; Thomson 2010b, 2013), are believed to have been consequently forced into clandestinity in Rwanda, where they appear to have survived in the form of “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990; Zorbas 2009).  In his reflection on the construction of knowledge in and on Rwanda, Ingelaere (2010a: 41) points to “a discrepancy between image and reality”; a distinction which, he argues, is difficult to realise in Rwanda due to the government’s effective practices of “active censorship and coercion” (ibid.: 51) and dissimulation and stage-setting, through which it has crafted “a preferred image of the country” (ibid.: 54).  Ingelaere concludes that, “[a]s Pottier observed (2002: 207), ‘reality is what Rwanda’s political leaders, as moral guardians[,] tell the world [...] [that] it is’”. “In Rwanda”, he continues, “there is a second world lying beyond political control or correctness, beyond ‘rehearsed consensus’ and the ‘mise-en-scène’.  This second world comes to the surface only during ‘rare moments of political electricity when [...] the hidden transcript is spoken directly and publicly in the teeth of power’ (Scott 1990: 14)” (ibid.).

10Largely silenced within the country, counter-narratives have circulated more openly and more aggressively abroad (Eltringham 2004).  The most vocal dissent has appeared among foreign observers and especially among the members of the Rwandan diaspora living in the western hemisphere, notably in Europe, the United States and Canada.  Their critique finds expression in copious scholarly and non-scholarly literature denouncing the democratic shortcomings of the rpf’s governance, the failure and unfairness of some of its policies, and the crimes and abuses it has reportedly committed in Rwanda as well as in neighbouring drc.  Among other things, critics have accused the Rwandan authorities of silencing Hutu memories of violence and of concealing ongoing “ethnic” inequality by manipulating history and identity for the purpose of retaining power (Brauman et al. 2000; Buckley-Zistel 2009; Burnet 2005, 2009; De Lame 2004; Dorsey 2000; Icg 2002; Irdp 2010; Lemarchand 2000, 2007, 2008, 2009; Lemarchand & Niwese 2007; Longman 2006; Pottier 2002, 2005; Reyntjens 2004, 2009; Thomson 2010a, b; Vidal 1999, 2001, 2004).

Young People’s Narratives in Post-Genocide Rwanda

  • 3 A pilot survey was conducted in August and September 2008.  The exercise was repeated with some adj (...)

11It is with the pervasiveness of the government’s official discourse in society that Rwanda’s young generation has grown up in the past two decades.  As part of a project investigating the politics of history, identity and education in Central Africa, this research explored patterns of historical representation and interpretation among young people in post-genocide Rwanda, thus juxtaposing the official accounts of the leadership with the accounts of ordinary Rwandans.  For this purpose, an extensive qualitative survey, conducted between 2008 and 2011, recorded hundreds of narratives in order “to examine what is taken to be the truth [...], and why” (Malkki 1995: 104) and to assess the extent to which Rwanda’s youth have adhered to the tenets of the official discourse as a result of the government’s intensive educative efforts towards reshaping society3.  Importantly, the research was undertaken with the awareness of the complexity of such questions in a context where “historical reconstruction is itself highly contested” (Newbury 1998: 9) and where people barely “whisper their truth” (Thomson 2013), and of the imperative need to be mindful of “the levels of silence, the depth of fiction and elisions and, as Ingelaere says, also the games of truth and falsehood; the presence of the invisible in the visible, and the dialectic of transparency and conspiracy (Ingelaere 2010: 42)” (Fusaschi 2013: 32).

  • 4 The survey instrument was designed in the language of instruction.  A bilingual questionnaire was p (...)

12The key method of data collection used in this research was an anonymous written questionnaire comprising a series of predominantly open-ended questions.  At its core was an essay question inviting respondents to recount the history of their country from its origins to the present day.  This broad manner of eliciting information was intended to allow respondents sufficient flexibility to express personal views on what they regarded as being significant and thus to enable us to access their thoughts in as direct a manner as possible4.

13Schools, considered here as both a principal source of state-sanctioned knowledge in post-genocide Rwanda and a microcosm reflecting the country’s complex social reality, were the primary locus of the investigation.  A purposive sample was chosen to include a cross-section of pupils that could reflect a diversity of experiences and of personal and familial historical trajectories.  Care was taken to include respondents from a mixture of geographical locations and residential areas, types of schools, ages and educational levels, socio-economic backgrounds, and from a range of different identity groups determined, for instance, by gender, religion, language (English or French), and personal experiences during the recent turmoil.

14The respondents were drawn from educational institutions of various reputations, located in “the centre” and “the periphery” of the country (Ingelaere 2010a: 41-59), in the interior and in border towns, in urban and semi-urban areas, in more prosperous and in poorer neighbourhoods, as well as in regions with differing local dynamics and different levels of historical exposure to violence and insecurity.  The sample included government schools managed by state authorities, government schools run by religious denominations (namely Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic schools), and private schools.  It further included boarding schools hosting pupils from around the country and day schools, generally attended by youngsters living in the surrounding area.  In each school, a pre-determined number of volunteers were chosen from each of the six year groups characterising the secondary school system in present-day Rwanda.

  • 5 Participants included 495 boys and 474 girls.  32 respondents did not specify their gender.

15The final sample comprised a heterogeneous group of approximately one thousand teenagers, half of whom were girls5.  814 respondents were drawn from nine secondary schools located in the country’s five provinces.  An additional 187 young people were drawn from a group of recent school leavers from various areas of Rwanda who, at the time of the survey in 2009, were participating in a government-sponsored ingando “solidarity camp” prior to entering university.  Respondents were sampled in the areas of Kigali, Butare, Gisenyi, Ruhengeri, Cyangugu, Byumba and Rwamagana.  Most were born between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s; their ages ranged between 12 and 25.  A large number among them reported that they or their family had experienced forced displacement, either before, during or after the genocide.  Approximately one in every six respondents was born in neighbouring Uganda, Burundi or DR Congo as a result of displacement.

16Despite the varied experiences of the respondents and the heterogeneity of memories and histories presumed to clandestinely circulate in society, the narratives collected across Rwanda revealed the existence of rather homogeneous views of the country’s past and present among Rwanda’s young generation.  Public perceptions and understandings of the antecedents and the legacy of rpf rule among Rwanda’s youth, as we will see in the following passages, were found to be strikingly consistent with the official account of the nation’s historical trajectory.

Rwanda Before the RPF: Young Rwandans’ Views on the Antecedents of the RPF’s Post-Genocide Governance

17In line with the official discourse, Rwandan respondents romanticised traditional society and culture by emphasising the unity and harmony depicted in this discourse as having characterised ancient Rwanda and by rejecting societal diversity as an evil fabrication of the white colonisers.  The prevailing historical version recounted by the surveyed students reproduced the government’s idea of a pre-colonial golden age during which, they argued, “Rwandans were all the same” and “were united” and “helped each other without division and conflict”.  The nation’s strong social cohesion and patriotism was deemed to have best been displayed during wars against external enemies.  One respondent stated that “Rwandans were one people working together for a common objective: to defend and enlarge the kingdom”.  Rwandan students suggested that it was thanks to their sense of a common purpose and their patriotic spirit that Rwandans, led by valiant kings, had managed to turn what was originally a small kingdom into a large, powerful, and well-organised state.  The occurrence of internal conflict or war was rarely acknowledged: where these were mentioned, their existence and gravity were typically downplayed by presenting them as anomalies.  A few students added that, in the event of a conflict within the community, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, notably the gacaca courts, were in place to restore friendly relations.

18The arrival of the “whites” was widely believed to have marked a dramatic turning point in the country’s historical trajectory.  Young people’s narratives revealed a firm belief in the primary responsibility of the colonisers for sowing the seeds of conflict among Rwandans.  The Belgians, in particular, were accused of having spread “false teachings” and “lies” about ancient ethnic differences and conflict, thereby causing a “change of mentality” that had eventually resulted in mass violence.  In the words of one student, “[t]hanks to the ancient organisation, unity and military strength [of the old Rwandan kingdom], no one could separate Rwandans, but little by little the Belgians divided us and destroyed our primitive unity and solidarity and our good culture and positive values by convincing them that they were not the same.  [...] This is when Rwandans began to hate each other and to fight and kill their brothers and sisters.  This is the source of the genocide”.  Another respondent similarly explained that “[i]t is the colonisers who implanted the conflict between those whom they called Hutu and Tutsi.  They taught divisionism and hatred to the Rwandan people by saying that the Tutsi came from somewhere else and that they had ruled the country and enslaved the Hutu for a long time although the Hutu were the majority”.

19The year 1959 was often presented as a key date, the point at which the externally imposed conflict had turned violent for the first time.  In several narratives, this period was depicted as marking the beginning of a genocide which eventually culminated in the events of 1994.  According to one pupil, “in 1959 the Hutu, encouraged by the whites to fight against the Tutsi to rule themselves and to have their wealth, decided to hunt and kill the Tutsi.  [...] Killings happened since 1959, again in 1973, and up until 1994, when there were more than one million people killed in the genocidal violence due to this [divisive] ideology”.  The violence after independence was widely blamed on “bad leaders who followed the bad doctrine of the whites” and “who taught Hutu and Twa to hate the Tutsi”.  Set against this backdrop, the war that the rpf had waged against the Habyarimana regime was generally characterised as a righteous “liberation war”.  The refugees’ invasion of Rwanda was justified with their wish to “return to their native country and to develop it after 30 years of forced exile due to bad politics by Hutu[s]”.  It was also explained by stating the rpf’s desire to “fight against the politics of divisionism and the genocide ideology”, “to defend Rwandans and to stop the genocide”, and, finally, “to restore good relations” and “to bring equality, democracy, and unity and reconciliation”.  Across Rwanda, the young people surveyed showed no doubt about the heroic role of the rpf in the country’s recent history.  One student, among many, thanked the former rebels and current president Kagame “because they are the ones who by arriving stopped the genocide in Rwanda and won the war against the state, and in so doing saved the Tutsi and the Rwandans in general”.

Rwanda Under the RPF: Young Rwandans’ Views on the Legacy of the RPF’s Post-Genocide Governance

20Young Rwandans widely celebrated the present under the leadership of the ruling rpf.  Young people’s references to the post-genocide era were dominated by the paying of tribute and expression of gratitude towards the new authorities, especially towards President Kagame.  Respondents overwhelmingly lauded the government’s achievements in promoting peace and security, unity and reconciliation, democracy and social justice, and development and prosperity.  In so doing, the government was deemed to have drastically broken with the “bad past”.  One pupil observed that “[i]n the past Rwandans had been bad, but now they [are] chang[ing] slowly because our government is making a big effort”.

21A widespread appreciation of the radical changes introduced by Kagame’s government emerges in the respondents’ exceptionally optimistic depictions of the country’s current situation.  Present-day Rwanda was widely portrayed as a peaceful country.  According to two respondents, “[t]oday, peace is everywhere in Rwanda”; today, in contrast to the situation in the past, “people live together without any problems”.  Rwanda was also described as a united and reconciled country where there is “no division or discrimination”.  One student underscored the perceived return to a primordial unity by observing that “[t]oday, there are no Hutu, Tutsi and Twa.  We are one people, we are all Rwandans again”.  Students additionally referred to the successful promotion of human rights, equal opportunities, anti-corruption measures and transparency.  They furthermore commended the government’s heavy investment in the fields of technology, the economy, infrastructure and social services, asserting that, thanks to the efforts made for instance in poverty reduction and job creation and in revamping housing, education, and health provision, the lives of ordinary people in Rwanda had considerably improved.

22Expressions of satisfaction with the current state of affairs were commonly coupled with a show of tremendous confidence in the future and with a display of profound patriotic pride and commitment towards the wellbeing of the nation.  Respondents regarded the years under the leadership of the rpf as a “new beginning” founded on a rediscovered spirit of solidarity.  Strikingly optimistic views emerged in the responses of two students in particular.  One affirmed that “[n]ow things are better than ever.  [...] Rwanda is becoming a great nation.  [...] Rwanda is new; even if we had a bad history now everything has changed and Rwandans are ready to be world changers”.  Her peer added that, “[t]oday Rwandans are reconciled and united towards a fantastic 2020 Vision of development.  [...] Rwanda has become a wonderful and exemplary country in Africa and in the world”.  Moved by a concern to restore the tarnished image of the country abroad, another student invited “all people of the world to come and see the progress of Rwanda”.  Such statements echo the claims made by President Kagame himself, according to whom “[t]en million people now in this country have never been happier in the history of this country.  It’s better, Rwanda, far better than it has ever been” (Gourevitch 2009: 38).  They are also resonant of Kagame’s appeal to foreign visitors “to look around, go around” and “see the sense of hope in [people’s] eyes” (ibid.).

23The government’s discourse on Rwanda’s past and present was rarely challenged by young Rwandans responding to the survey.  Alternative versions of “the truth” were mostly absent from the essays that were collected.  Only a few exceptions were encountered.  A handful of respondents, for instance, reproduced theories, now widely rejected by extant scholarship, on the different origins and the successive settlement of Twa, Hutu and Tutsi on Rwanda’s territory.  According to one of them, “Rwanda has been occupied by inhabitants of different origins: history begins with the Twa potters and hunters, secondly the Hutu farmers and thirdly the Tutsi herders”.  With regard to more recent times, only one response was found to challenge the overly positive views of the “new Rwanda”.  This singular narrative hinted at the persistence of internal conflict due to a perpetual situation of identity-based injustice and inequality.  This respondent explained that, “[b]efore independence, most of the kings were Tutsi; after independence, the country was ruled by Mbonyumutwa, Kayibanda, Habyarimana who were all Hutu and who favoured the development of the Hutu, but until now the[se] stories are hidden.  Everyone who has taken power does not tell the real stories and promotes his personal interest.  When one analyses the situation, one can see that there is economic change but politically there is no great difference between the past and the present, which still causes internal conflicts”.

Young People’s Narratives in Neighbouring Burundi and DR Congo

24One year after the start of the survey in Rwanda, a similar exercise was conducted in neighbouring Burundi and DR Congo.  Young Burundians and Congolese people were invited to recount what they knew about Rwanda’s past and present based on what they had heard, learned and seen in their lifetime.  In Burundi, the sample comprised approximately 500 respondents.  They were drawn from seven schools located in Bujumbura, Gitega, Rumonge, Kirundo and Ntega.  In the drc, approximately one thousand respondents participated in the survey.  They were drawn from sixteen schools in the two eastern provinces of North and South Kivu.  Schools were sampled in Goma, Rutshuru, Kiwanja, Sake, Kirotche and Bukavu.  The analysis of the additional data collected in the two countries revealed interesting similarities as well as stark differences in points of view.  In the spirit of comparison, this section will outline some of the shared views and the strong disagreements that were found among young people in the Great Lakes region.

Rwanda Before the RPF: Regional Views on the Antecedents of the RPF’s Post-Genocide Governance

25The cross-border analysis of students’ narratives on the history of Rwanda prior to the rpf victory revealed a similarity between Burundian accounts and the dominant Rwandan version of the national past.  It also revealed a stark divergence of Congolese narratives from Rwandan and Burundian mainstream views.

26In Burundi, a country with a similar history of cyclical violence involving Hutu and Tutsi but where the official narrative has long been one of unity (Lemarchand 1996, 2009), young people tended to emphasise Rwanda’s pre-colonial unity and to ascribe much of the responsibility for the Hutu-Tutsi divide to the colonial powers.  Only one essay was found to recount a history of successive migratory waves of Twa, Hutu and Tutsi “herders of Nilotic origin”.  In contrast to their Rwandan and Burundian counterparts, Congolese respondents exhibited a considerable degree of adherence to what the current Rwandan government has condemned as “genocide ideology”, a rhetoric which has circulated widely in the Congo, especially following the massive displacement of Rwandan Hutu to eastern Congo after the rpf military victory and the subsequent wars that have seen the Rwandan and Congolese governments in opposition to each other since the mid-1990s (Lemarchand 2009; Prunier 2008, 2009; Reyntjens 2009; Turner 2007).  In Congolese accounts, distinctions and divisions within Rwandan society were viewed as having preceded the arrival of the whites.  Internecine violence was traced back to a longstanding power struggle between “autochthonous” “Bantu” Hutu, occasionally depicted as “the natives” and “the owners” of Rwanda, and foreign “Nilotic” or “Hamitic” Tutsi, often portrayed as “invaders” and “aggressors”.  According to one narrative that was collected in the Kivu, “Rwanda is a country that was once occupied by the Hutu, but, with the arrival of the Tutsi, the situation turned disastrous: it was as if the devil had appeared.  The Tutsi people are problematic people because they want to gain the property of others”.  Another pupil stated that, “Rwanda is the country of the Great Lakes which God has prepared for the true Rwandans, who are the Hutu”.

27Considerable differences were also found in accounts of the turbulent period between 1990 and 1994.  Once again, Burundian responses tended to reflect the dominant Rwandan version of events.  Congolese narratives, by contrast, differed greatly from the views generally held by their eastern neighbours.  In Burundi, as in Rwanda, students frequently highlighted a situation of Tutsi victimhood, Hutu responsibility and rpf heroism.  Burundian accounts of the war often presented the rpf as saviours of the Tutsi and as liberators of a country that had been thrown into chaos and despair by a murderous regime and by Hutu mobs.  Few Burundian narratives diverged from this dominant discourse; some of these, in particular, undermined the image of the rpf by tracing the outbreak of the violence to the rebels’ invasion of the country in 1990.  One respondent recounted that “Rwanda was invaded by the Tutsi [...], which created a bloody war between Hutu and Tutsi”.

28Respondents in the drc presented views starkly contrasting with the dominant narratives recounted in Rwanda and Burundi.  The discrimination and persecution inflicted upon the Tutsi to which numerous Rwandan and Burundian respondents had referred was largely neglected in Congolese accounts.  Rather, the Tutsi, and the rpf in particular, were frequently regarded as bearing the primary responsibility for the conflict and the genocide in Rwanda.  Several pupils in the Kivu accused Kagame’s rpf of having provoked and exploited the genocide for the sole purpose of gaining power.  According to one student, “[t]he Tutsi, who didn’t like the way of ruling of the Hutu, made a coup d’état, which provoked the genocide on 07/04/1994.  After the assassination of President Habyarimana, the Hutu, those of the president’s tribe, wanted to avenge his death, triggering the genocide”.  An image of subsequent Hutu victimhood clearly emerged in a number of Congolese accounts.  “The Tutsi”, led by Kagame, were portrayed as having eventually succeeded in taking over the country, thereby forcing the Hutu to flee their land and to find refuge abroad, especially in the drc.  Two comments from Congolese students stated that “[t]he Tutsi defeated the Hutu and confiscated their country” and that they “used the massacre to take possession of the country and to expel its real owners”.  Another respondent recounted how “[t]he Tutsi power-holders sought to drive the Hutu out of the country” and how “the defenceless Hutu therefore forcefully looked for a place in the Congo”.

Rwanda Under the RPF: Regional Views on the Legacy of the RPF’s Post-Genocide Governance

29Perceptions collected from Burundian and especially Congolese respondents on Rwanda’s present were not as homogenous as those found among their Rwandan counterparts.  In contrast to the overwhelmingly positive accounts collected in Rwanda, students in the surrounding region appeared to be rather divided when assessing the legacy of rpf rule in Rwanda and abroad.

30One group of respondents, especially in Burundi, concurred with the dominant Rwandan discourse.  They perceived Rwanda to have successfully moved towards a better future, “developing at great speed”.  President Kagame and his party were given much credit for the visible positive change in the country; they were believed to have demonstrated strong leadership in having managed to turn Rwanda into a peaceful and developed country.  One Burundian student summarised this perceived success thus: “Kagame has lifted the country out of the crisis by developing it in all domains, political, economic and social.”  In the political sphere, the new leadership was commended for having promoted peace and security, as well as good governance, democracy and the rule of law.  In relation to the economic domain, students widely admired the country’s impressive development, and its technological progress and modernisation.  With regard to the social sphere, respondents applauded the state’s successful promotion of national unity and reconciliation.  In Burundi in particular, the leadership’s success in uniting the nation was recognised as the source of positive change in Rwanda.  One respondent succinctly encapsulated this belief: “President Kagame brought a remarkable and exemplary change to Rwanda.  This has been possible thanks to a president who has managed to unite the nation by ignoring ethnic differences and by focusing on the future of the nation.”  Under Kagame’s leadership, Rwandans were considered to have developed exceptional feelings of patriotism, nationalism and solidarity, feelings that were seen as the driving force behind Rwanda’s leap forward.  Several students expressed astonishment and admiration towards their neighbours’ resilience and tenacity, and towards their consequent impressive progress in spite of the difficult past they had experienced.  For this reason, some Burundian respondents eulogised Rwanda as a model and an example for their country and the entire region.  According to one pupil, “Rwanda and its people can teach Burundi how they proceeded to reach this apogee.  We must learn from them”.

31A different group of Burundian and Congolese students presented a more negative view of the current situation in neighbouring Rwanda.  While these respondents widely recognised the remarkable accomplishments of the new government in reorganising and developing the country, criticism was raised with regard to the reportedly undemocratic and dictatorial nature of the regime.  According to these critical voices, “[today], the country is ruled with an iron fist” and “there isn’t total freedom”.  One Burundian student believed that, due to the severity of the country’s authorities, “Rwandans have no freedom to proclaim and show what they really have in their heart”.  Concerns were likewise expressed about the existence of simmering ethnic tensions which could potentially result in a new civil war.  These accounts warned of enduring feelings of mistrust, animosity and hatred within society, as well as of a situation of inequality between the two main ethnic groups.  The perceived unfairness was formulated by two Burundian pupils according to whom “the country is ruled by a dictatorial regime that does not favour all Rwandans” and “Kagame simply repressed the Hutu ethnie”.  In the drc in particular, students denounced the existence of a Tutsi oligarchy now in control of the government.  A Congolese pupil asserted that “today, power belongs to the Tutsi, who still treat the Hutu in a demeaning way”.  In recognition of the risks posed by this situation, another Congolese respondent suggested that “the government should be composed of all races so that the people who find themselves abroad [having fled the country] can return to Rwanda”.  An additional recommendation advanced by another Congolese student was for Rwanda to pursue a fairer system of justice.  The respondent called for President Kagame to be prosecuted for the crimes he had allegedly committed.  Numerous Congolese students viewed him and his allies as having perpetrated such crimes not only in Rwanda, but also abroad, most notably in the Congo itself.

32In eastern Congo, Rwanda under the rpf was commonly seen as the main disrupter of the region’s fragile peace and as the primary cause of people’s suffering in the Kivu (Bentrovato 2014).  Students first of all pointed to the devastating effects of the mismanagement of the Rwandan refugee crisis in the wake of the genocide.  They highlighted the security problems caused by the unresolved legacy of the influx of militant Rwandan Hutu refugees, now organised in the fdlr, following the “Tutsi take-over of Rwanda” in 1994.  The persistent threat posed by the fdlr in the Congo was largely blamed on the failure of the Rwandan government to successfully and responsibly deal with this group.  One student decried the decision of the Rwandan government to continue “its” war against its Hutu opponents on Congolese soil.  He stated that, “[a]fter having chased them, they continued to look for them here in our place and they made us suffer too”.  Another pupil further exposed the negative effects of Rwanda’s cross-border military campaigns against the fdlr.  In this respondent’s words, “[t]oday, we are bothered by Rwanda, which says it is looking for the fdlr while they are in fact mistreating the Congolese”.

33Young Congolese widely denounced Rwanda’s militant activities in the drc.  In their relations with their western neighbours, the Rwandan “aggressors” and “invaders” were viewed as having shown a “spirit of conquest, expansion and domination” and as having “evolve[ed] and enrich[ed] themselves thanks to Congo’s wealth at our expense”.  One respondent, accusing Rwanda of expansionist and rapacious purposes, asserted that “[o]ur province of North Kivu has known several wars because we live next to countries that want to expand, especially Rwanda.  These foreigners tirelessly try to occupy us and to drive us, the owners, away”.  In various Congolese narratives, the Rwandan government was accused of waging a “hidden war” in the Congo.  One pupil suggested that “[i]n the province of North Kivu [...], people suffer a lot because of Rwanda, which is hidden there [i.e. covertly but actively advancing its interests in this region]”.  Kagame was considered to have relied in his campaign on proxy rebel movements “originally from Rwanda”.  At the time of the survey’s conduction in 2009, Congolese respondents referred in particular to Nkunda’s cndp, viewed as Kagame’s “brutal” ally and pawn and denounced as a criminal organisation that had committed “horrible” abuses against civilians.  One respondent underscored the perception of connivance between Rwanda and this rebel group by affirming that “[the Rwandans] like to invade our country under a false name.  But I know that it’s Rwanda that is the main actor of everything that has been taking place here in the Congo”.  Another student suggested that “[i]t’s the Rwandans who threaten us through their cndp rebels, killing the population, stealing and smuggling the rich resources of the Congo into Rwanda, looking for fertile lands for their cows, wanting to dominate us and to annex the Congo to Rwanda”.

34In light of the perceived “criminal” involvement of Rwandans in the Congo, several young Congolese revealed hostile and vengeful dispositions towards their eastern neighbours.  Some articulated a readiness to take up arms in order to avenge the suffering they considered to have been caused by these “enemies” and defend their homeland from the threat of Rwandan domination and occupation.  One pupil stated that “[t]he Rwandese are my enemies because they want to take my Congo, and I will fight them if I need to”.  One of his peers echoed this attitude by affirming that, “[i]f there is a way to revolt against the Rwandans, and if they tell people to go there, I think I will go also”.  A strikingly alarming belief was expressed by another Congolese student who suggested that “if we could have the Tutsi return to Egypt, and the Hutu fdlr to Rwanda, we would finally have peace.  In the end, the Tutsi in Rwanda should recognize that the Hutu are originaires and that the country belongs to them”.


36Twenty years after the rpf came to power, evaluating the overall record of Rwanda’s incumbent authorities continues to be a matter that deeply divides public opinion.  To some, the rpf government, headed by a visionary and enlightened leader, has been exemplary in its determination to learn from past mistakes and to move the country forward, eventually enabling Rwanda’s miraculous rebirth out of the ashes of the genocide.  To others, the current holders of power have exploited Rwanda’s grievous past in order to silence critical voices that might challenge the decisions and actions of an increasingly authoritarian and repressive government.  The progress seen as astonishing by some is considered illusory by others, who have warned against the risk of a vicious cycle of violence being perpetuated.

37Basing its observations on the results of a survey recently conducted by the author, this paper has aimed to complement existing assessments of the rpf’s two decades of governance by considering the views and experiences of the Great Lakes Region’s young generation and thereby to give a voice on this highly contested matter to those whose opinions have often been marginalised in discussions and reflections on issues that are bound to profoundly affect their lives.  The views the survey respondents expressed with regard to the antecedents and the legacy of rpf rule in Rwanda brought to light the wide and profound impact of the Rwandan government’s policies and actions on the perceptions and attitudes of the new generation in the wider region.  Such perceptions are of great significance, as they are likely to impact the behaviour of this region’s next leaders, and hence the future of this part of the world.  In this respect, the findings presented in this paper raise both hopes and concerns.

38In Rwanda, the survey found most student narratives to strictly adhere to the discourse propagated by the government, thus demonstrating young people’s apparent internalisation of state-sanctioned knowledge and the discursive constraints it imposes upon them.  The survey exposed students’ almost unanimous reproduction of canonical and politically approved public representations of the past, and their almost blanket omission or dismissal of alternative versions of “the truth’”; it demonstrated the government’s success in eradicating the narrative of the former regimes from people’s consciousness and in consolidating the hegemony of the official discourse within society while effectively forcing contradictory accounts into obscurity.  In particular, we were able to observe an apparent success on the part of the government in educating the young generation to abandon old ethnocentric views and to embrace a proud national identity and a commitment to carrying forward the government’s agenda of unity, reconciliation and development.

  • 6 See also Porat (2004), Wertsch & Rozin (1998).

39The government’s apparent achievements in building a new united and patriotic society by instilling common lessons on the past and shared understandings of the present and the path forward are astonishing.  That said, the remarkable unanimity and homogeneity of young people’s views and the great predominance of socially desirable answers collected in Rwanda raise questions about the genuineness of the beliefs expressed and about the possibility for young Rwandans to be critical thinkers in a context in which little tolerance has been shown towards accounts that diverge from the official line.  The apparent existence of generalised agreement about the past—what Bert Ingelaere (2010a: 52-53) describes as a “rehearsed consensus”—inevitably creates suspicion about the level of self-censorship present here “with regard to elements that do not fit into the official public transcript”, and the likely “underground” existence of unavoidable counter-narratives which may have been precluded from coming to the surface.  The consistency of the narratives collected might be explained as a function of a general awareness among young people concerning what is, or is not, considered to be legitimate knowledge, and of an expedient enactment of self-imposed silence, or “chosen amnesia” (Buckley-Zistel 2006b), dictated by a fear of crossing the boundaries of the permissible.  As Ingelaere (2010a: 53) warns, “this ‘rehearsed consensus’ is the dominant and dominating discourse in postgenocide Rwanda, but it is not necessarily what Rwandans experience as reality”.  In a context of strict control over assertions about history, Wertsch’s hypothesis (2000: 39) of “a pattern of ‘knowing but not believing’” official versions of the past may thus apply in present-day Rwanda.  The “mastery of historical narratives” clearly demonstrated by young Rwandans might not necessarily indicate an “appropriation” of the same (ibid.: 41)6.

40Justified by the government as a necessity for preventing renewed violence, the propagation of a definite truth about the nation’s past and present risks countering the attainment of the government’s stated objectives.  In failing to allow sufficient space to express disagreement and raise questions about fundamental “truths”, the current leadership might be putting the country at risk of a violent resurgence of repressed sentiment in the future.  This article warns in particular against what Susanne Buckley-Zistel (2006b: 145) refers to as a common practice of “[p]retending peace”, a practice which she views as potentially hazardous in that “it leaves social antagonisms untouched” (ibid.: 147).  Furthermore, this article warns against the risk that, through its current practices, the government might also reduce the chances of building a “new Rwanda” on solid foundations by potentially forging an uncritical citizenry vulnerable to manipulation and indoctrination and willing to embrace yet another “truth” propagated by those who will be the next leaders.

41Narratives on Rwanda that were gathered in neighbouring Burundi and eastern Congo were found to be more diverse.  The survey carried out among young Burundians and Congolese revealed the public circulation of alternative versions of “the truth” across the border.  The accounts given here brought to light a wider spectrum of arguments and beliefs about the antecedents and the legacy of rpf rule than had been found in Rwanda.  To a considerable extent, their different representations and opinions reflected the contestations and sentiments that tend to characterise the typically intense and heated debates on Rwanda.  Among the alternative “truths” that were collected in the region were beliefs which in Rwanda have been outlawed as “genocide ideology”.  While zealously fought within Rwanda, such views seem to remain largely unchallenged outside its borders, especially in the Congo.  Here, extremist and revisionist beliefs that have increasingly been propagated by political entrepreneurs seem to have continued to exert their influence on the young generation.  Responses collected in the region also encompassed narratives that were critical of the Rwandan government.  Believed by some to have brought positive change and hope to the Rwandan people, the rpf was accused by others of having failed to lay the foundations for sustainable peace and democracy in the country.  In addition, under the leadership of the rpf Rwanda was deemed in some accounts to have consistently destabilised the wider region, causing unprecedented suffering beyond its borders.  In the Kivu in particular, numerous accounts brought to light the negative impact of Rwanda’s foreign policies on young people’s perceptions of their eastern neighbours.  The many vehement expressions of mistrust and hostility that emerged in the Congolese survey raise concerns around the risk of conflict escalation and violent mobilisation of an exasperated youth against those who are seen as “great enemies” and “evil tormentors”.

42Legitimate or not, the views and assessments offered by the Great Lakes Region’s young generation should not be neglected.  They should instead find a more prominent place in reflections on the past, present and future of this complex region.  The findings presented in this article demonstrate the significance of monitoring young people’s perceptions and sentiments as indicators of the success or failure of past and present practices.  This generation will serve as a litmus test for Rwanda’s dominant political organisation, which marks its twentieth year in power this year: it is ultimately today’s youth that will determine whether the “new Rwanda”, as imagined and built by the rpf, has truly learned from the past for the sake of a better tomorrow.

43Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Braunschweig, Germany.

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1 Details on the findings of this study can be found in Bentrovato (2013).

2 See also the “History” section which appears on the official website of the RPF, <http://rpfinkotanyi. org/en/?-history>.

3 A pilot survey was conducted in August and September 2008.  The exercise was repeated with some adjustments in December 2009, and in May and June 2011.

4 The survey instrument was designed in the language of instruction.  A bilingual questionnaire was prepared in English and French, with the additional option of responding in Kinyarwanda.  Based on local advice and on lessons learned during the pilot phase, the initial questionnaire was refined in order to improve its relevance and clarity.

5 Participants included 495 boys and 474 girls.  32 respondents did not specify their gender.

6 See also Porat (2004), Wertsch & Rozin (1998).

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