0n July 1, 2012, the central African republics of Burundi and Rwanda marked the 50th anniversary of their independence from Belgium. The last 50 years have seen these two small countries defined by the outside world in terms of ethnic strife, military coups and mass displacement of the population.
It has not been a happy and peaceful 50 years for the most part. However, the general picture of ethnic conflicts has tended to drown out certain details. For example, both Burundi and Rwanda have for decades practiced community work, which explains why they generally tend to be clean places.
Also, a lot of rich history and tradition has gone unnoticed by the outside world. Western country studies and reports on these two countries often emphasize the headline political, military and economic story and leave unsaid the societal story beyond the historic ethnic tensions between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi in both countries.
Kinyarwanda and Kirundi culture are rich in proverbs, sayings and a sense of history, elegant traditional dances and other traditions that come with cattle-keeping and farming communities in Africa.
However, there is no denying the fact that 50 years since independence, there are still a lot of problems. For this article, let us concentrate on Rwanda which because of history is much better known in Uganda than Burundi. However, because of their Belgian colonial history and ethnic composition, what is true of Rwanda is generally true of Burundi.
Geography, history and economics are the fixed facts of Rwandan history. Among the critical problems still lingering from independence is the fact that there is just not enough physical room for everybody. Rwanda is the most densely-populated country in Africa.
The buying and selling of land that is a casual matter in Uganda does not exist in Rwanda. An ordinary person cannot just wake up and buy an acre of land in the capital Kigali. It is simply too expensive.
On top of its heavy population density, it is also landlocked, like Uganda. In that way, its international trade is totally dependent on neighbours both as a transit route for trade within the region and access to the sea.
In a forecast for various economies of the world in 2012, the U.S. credit ratings agency Standard & Poors in a December 29, 2011 assessment of Rwanda’s economy reported that exports account for only 4.5 percent of Rwanda’s total Gross Domestic Product. Which means Rwanda imports 95.5 percent of all its GDP.
As of 2010 according to the World Bank, Rwanda’s GDP stands at $5.63 billion, less than a third of Uganda’s. (Uganda’s GDP is at $17.01 billion).
The economic story, then, is now uppermost on the minds of most Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike. Secondly, despite the tendency by the Ugandan and western world media to focus a lot on Rwanda’s post-1994 recovery, it remains a poor country.
All these historical, geographical and economic conditions have shaped Rwanda’s foreign policy, much more so after 1994. They are some of the factors that explain the exceptional sensitivity to criticism among the RPF government leadership.
There is logic to this paranoia. If the RPF, a military force for the 15 percent Tutsi could in four years overthrow the well-established Hutu army, how much more can it be if a Hutu military force were to rise up and attempt to seize power from the RPF?
This is partly why Rwanda cannot take any chance with the FDLR militia of former Rwandan army troops, now based in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
All efforts are made to label the FDLR a terrorist organization, in the hope that the word “terrorist” after September 2001 will draw the United States into any spot in the world that terrorists are said to be based.
It also explains why Rwanda makes frequent incursions into eastern Congo and is reported to support from time to time anti-Kinshasa rebel groups there. Because its economic base is so weak, Rwanda also is reported to exploit the unstable situation in eastern Congo to trade in timber, gold, diamonds and other natural resources.
The Tutsi returnees to Rwanda were led by English-speaking exiles from Uganda. By this alone, they were always going to receive a hostile or at the very least a lukewarm response from the Rwandans in the country. The Hutu, for historical reasons, resented the invading RPF force.
The French-speaking elite, both Hutu and Tutsi, did not take to the idea of being ruled by English-speaking invaders.
The RPF’s Tutsi, therefore, were faced by a combination of factors that rendered them insecure. They were Tutsi, a minority of only 15 percent. They spoke English, which made them even more a minority.
A Ugandan diplomat based in Kigali in 1987 at Uganda’s mission at the Kagera Basin Organisation remarked that he could feel a “time bomb” in Rwanda.
One of the moves the RPF government has made to try and escape the restrictions imposed by geography and economic underdevelopment and yet it still has political uncertainty to deal with, has been to embark on an aggressive international media campaign, directed mainly at Uganda and the English-speaking western world.
This effort at projecting Rwanda as recovered from the genocide and as an efficient, well-governed, technologically ambitious place to do business is intended to create a momentum that in turn spurs its own economic growth.
Rwanda since 1994 has also been at pains to take part in various United Nations peace-keeping missions in various parts of Africa and is an active member of the expanded East African Community.
In the first 28 years of independence, the majority Hutu controlled political, military and economic power in Rwanda. The Hutu were comfortable in their shoes. Like most sub-Saharan African countries, rival factions within the ruling elite were to lead to a military coup in 1973. But even then, the Hutu took it for granted that they were still the overwhelming majority.
Because of the 1994 genocide that was blamed on the Hutu government and elite, subsequent analysis of Rwanda’s history by western academics and the media has tended to say nothing about the period between 1962 and 1994.
From 1962 to about 1963, the recently exiled Tutsi made several attempts from bases in Uganda to return to Rwanda. They carried out cross border raids into Rwanda but were beaten back by the Hutu army.
From 1963 and until about 1989, Rwanda was at peace, at least in the sense of all-out military conflict and civil war. It remained a clean, orderly society. It was the host of the powerful Radio Deutsche Welle transmitters in Central Africa.
Many of the infrastructure projects and public works that Rwanda is now praised for were started in the late 1970s and 1980s.
In 1979, the exiled Tutsi in Uganda started the forerunner to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, as part of their effort to address the question of their continued exile. The RPF was formed in Kampala in the late 1980s.
In 1989, Tutsi soldiers in the Ugandan army the NRA started to quietly enter Rwanda and conduct reconnaissance missions, gathering information on the country’s terrain and who was who at the local village and district level.
The story of the October 1990 invasion by the RPF and the four-year civil war that resulted in the Tutsi rise to power in July 1994 is too long and complicated for an article, but it returned Rwanda to where it was in 1959 when Tutsi were first exiled to Uganda.
Meaning that the truth about that 1990-1994 civil war has sown such seeds of bitterness among the Hutu that can only render Rwanda at least uncertain for years to come.
The Tutsi believe the genocide was masterminded by the late President Juvenal Habyarimana and his inner circle, while the Hutu believe the genocide was masterminded by the RPF and more Hutu died than Tutsi.
The conviction (regardless of the facts) by both sides that the genocide was masterminded by the other side poses a threat to Rwanda’s future.
The arrest and jailing of Pasteur Bizimungu, the Hutu president for several years after 1994, the continued detention of the opposition Hutu leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza and the exiling and mysterious killings of several prominent Hutu politicians and military officers since 1994, has deepened the bitterness among the Hutu.
What makes matters more complicated now is the appearance of a significant section of once-prominent Tutsi who formed the core of the original RPF political and military leadership, who have steadily been falling out with President Paul Kagame.
The widespread suspicion that the June 2010 assassination attempt on the exiled Lt. Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa was by the Rwandan government, has reinforced the image that even among the Tutsi elite it is not all unity and harmony.
This is part of the reason the most recent presidential election was a crucial national event. For the sake of dealing with this pressure cooker that is Rwanda, it had to be demonstrated that huge crowds were turning out at Kagame’s campaign rallies and that he won over 93 percent of the vote.
Such appearances and posturing in Rwanda are not just political theatre but a national security issue.
The line between stability and sudden descent into all-out ethnic clashes is always thin.
This is what keeps Rwanda tense even in the best of times.
by Timothy Kalyegira