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Despite traumatic past, Rwanda continues to progress

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There comes a point in time when a country has to bury the past and move in a direction that advances its people, says Benedict Lopez.

Prior to 1994, Rwanda was perhaps one of the lesser-known countries in Africa. Whenever West Africa was mentioned, the familiar names were Nigeria and Ghana; in East Africa, it was usually Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

South Africa and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) were internationally recognised for the wrong reasons. Both counties were ostracised by the international community and sanctions imposed as a result of being governed by white-minority regimes against the will of the majority. South Africa, in particular, gained international notoriety for its apartheid regime.

Rwanda, like Zimbabwe, is a land-locked country and former colony of Belgium, which gained its independence in 1962. South of the equator in Central-Eastern Africa, Rwanda is ringed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west, Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east and Burundi to the south. Spanning 26,000 sq km, Rwanda has a population of slightly less than 12 million.

On 6 April 1994 an aircraft transporting Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it was about to land in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. All passengers on board were killed.

The incident sparked a civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis, which lasted for about 100 days from April to June 1994. The ensuing genocide claimed the lives of some 800,000 people, catapulting Rwanda into the international spotlight. This was the darkest chapter in the history of Rwanda.

Ironically, there are parallels between both ethnic groups: they speak the same dialect, live in the same areas and adhere to similar customs and rituals.

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So horrific was the spite and venom then prevailing that in many instances neighbours butchered neighbours. Some husbands even killed their wives-claiming it was mandatory for them, failing which they themselves would have been killed.

After the genocide, western leaders, including then President Bill Clinton and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan apologised to the Rwandan people and government for the international community’s colossal failure to intervene when these massacres were taking place. Over the 100 days of the massacres, the UN and the US persistently failed to recognise it as genocide, evading the acknowledgement that would have required them to intercede.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up in 1995, has sentenced more than 60 people for their complicity in the genocide: politicians, media personnel, military officers and religious officials. The pursuit of those who committed these ghastly crimes continues.

Fast forward a quarter of a century later, Rwanda today stands as a shining example of economic development in Africa. It was a phenomenal task to reconstruct the country in the aftermath of the slayings. But Rwandans did not let self-pity get the better of them; instead, they worked diligently towards rebuilding their country.

Rwanda put its gruesome past behind and refocused itself with drive and willpower – and their efforts have borne fruit. With steely determination and courage, the country faced up to the formidable challenges in inconceivable ways and the work-in-progress still continues. Rwanda is now, perhaps, the envy of many African and developing nations.

The country’s swift development was supported in 2000 by the launch of Vision 2020. It was connected to an international network of global wireless networks, in a campaign that aimed to transform the country into a knowledge-based middle-income country by 2035.

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Rwanda introduced two, five-year Economic Development and Poverty Reduction strategies—EDPRS (2008-12) and EDPRS-2 (2013-18), under which the country experienced robust economic and social performances.

It has since come up with another seven-year government programme, National Strategies for Transformation (NST 1), which focuses on sectoral strategies. Covering the period from 2017 to 2024, NST 1 will take the country past its Vision 2020 towards its new Vision 2050, by which time Rwanda hopes to become a high-income nation.

Based on a Rwanda Economic Update released in March 2019 by the World Bank, Rwanda’s economy grew by 8.6% in 2018 while inflation remained low at 1.2%. The report presents a favourable economic outlook for the country, with growth expected to be in the range of 7.5-8% annually.

The country’s strong economic growth was accompanied by substantial improvements in the standard of living of the people, with a two-thirds drop in child mortality and near-universal primary school enrolment. A strong focus on domestic policies and plans has led to significant improvement as shown by services and human development indicators. Poverty also fell from 59% to 39% between 2001 and 2014 but was almost stagnant between 2014 and 2017.

Gender equality, too, is an important focus of the nation’s transformation process. Women won 61% of the parliamentary seats in the September 2018 general elections: winning 49 out of the 80 seats parliamentary seats. Women also comprise 50% of the 26-member cabinet. Based on the findings by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, only a handful of countries can match Rwanda in this accomplishment.

The country has also not lagged behind in technology, with an inspiring track record which other developing countries can emulate. It has extensive internet infrastructure, which covers over 95% of the country.

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Any country’s excruciating past should never be an impediment for it to move forward with tenacity and fortitude if there is commitment and will on the part of the government, its leaders and people. Why should any country and its people cling on to a past that may no longer be relevant to the present and the future?

True, it may be difficult at times to stop pondering about the harrowing experience of history – a tumultuous past that caused so much pain and anguish. But a nation must always move forward. There comes a point in time when a country has to bury the past and move in a direction that advances its people, failing which the country will regress.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Once considered a basket case, Rwanda today has emerged as a model for other African and developing countries. It aims to become the Singapore of Africa.

But major concerns linger over the country’s authoritarian rule and its lack of democratic space for opposition parties, activists and the media. These have to be quickly resolved. See video below:

That said, the country continues to progress with passion and fervour looking forward to a promising future for its people. Definitely not a country where its people are dwelling in despondency or perpetually blaming others for its ruinous period 25 years ago when they were being forgotten by the international community at a time when they needed help the most.

Rwandans deserve a break in life and an optimistic future after its unfortunate past.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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