Rwanda at 50: Reflections, Reconstruction and Recovery.

Margee Ensign (*)



margee_ensign.jpgThe man grabbed her purse and started to run. She reacted strongly — pulling it back and kicking the predator. A purse snatching in Kigali, Rwanda? No, a play reenacted today, June 30th, in Amahoro stadium to mark Rwanda's 50th year of independence! Why such an unusual display? It is to show that in Rwanda, women are strong and capable of self-protection.

Rwanda is celebrating 50 years of independence from colonialism and 18 years of liberation. What is the difference? Fifty years ago, the Belgians left a country with a foundation of racism, division and hate.

Colonial and religious structures and policies helped lay the foundation for the genocide of 1994, when close to one million people were killed. In 1994, while the international community turned away, the Rwandan Patriotic Front stopped the genocide. Here is what the country looked like in 1994:

  • Over one million people — primarily Tutsi — has been massacred
  • The infrastructure was decimated.
  • Social cohesion was destroyed
  • All the country's key sectors — education, agriculture, health, justice and the economy — were obliterated.

In the 18 years since the genocide, Rwanda has experienced remarkable growth and development. Here are a few examples:

Reconciliation: During the past decade, drawing on a cultural practice called Gacaca, close to 2 million genocide and genocide-related cases were tried in these traditional courts. In contrast, during the same time, the UN's International Criminal Court for Rwanda (ICTR) heard only 60 cases at a cost of over $1.5 billion.

Gender Equity: Rwanda's constitution ensures that women have at least 30% representation in Parliament. Rwanda has gone far beyond this — at 56% Rwanda has the highest proportion of women in Parliament of any country in the world.

Information Technology: Much of the country, including schools and health centers, has access to the Internet.

Business and Anti-Corruption: Rwanda is consistently ranked as one of the top performers on the continent for reducing corruption and for ease of doing business.

Health: 90% of the population is covered by health insurance. In the past five years the infant mortality rate has declined by 19.6%, the under-five mortality rate fell by 22.4% and the maternal mortality rate decreased by 29.9%.

Educational attainment at the primary and secondary levels is now among the highest in East Africa.

The latest reports on poverty reduction show that close to one million have been lifted out of poverty. According to the UNDP: "the poverty rate has dropped almost 12% in five years, from 56.7% in 2006 to 44.9% in 2011."

The evidence is very clear on all of this progress. What is contentious to some is how it was accomplished. Some human rights activists claim that Rwanda has a centralized, controlling government where dissent is stifled. My twelve years of academic research shows the opposite: that using a traditional process called ubudehe — all citizens, including the poor, set their own development priorities and using another cultural practice called IMIHIGO hold their leaders accountable through a contract for reaching the goals set during ubudehe. The UNDP has said "Progress has been attainable partly because the government empowers every citizen to take the lead in his or her own community's development. "

The international community turned a blind eye when the genocide erupted, and allowed the innocent million to be killed. Then, from the beginning of independence, some in the international community have been skeptical of Rwanda's programs and progress. When Gacaca was proposed, Western advisors were critical. I was outside the office of the then Minister of Justice, Jean de Dieu Muyco in 2000 when the head of a major international human rights group said in a very loud voice: "You cannot start this Gacaca. It is not right that every defendant does not have a lawyer." Minister Muyco said simply, "Then please send us lawyers."

Three years ago I sat through a Gacaca trial with a former student named Bonaventure Nyibizi. He faced the murderers of his mother and many nieces and nephews. At the conclusion of the trial when the killers had been sentenced, I asked him how he felt. He said: "I feel free now. The killers have been held responsible." The world's largest experiment in reconciliation ended two weeks ago. With close to two million cases tried, it laid the foundation for forgiveness, reconciliation and responsibility.

The East Asian model of development led to rapid poverty reduction but without voice and accountability — freedom and democracy. The Rwandan model has resulted in very rapid advances in all sectors of development BY giving citizens voice and holding leaders and citizens accountable.

The faces in the stadium today are full of smiles and hope. The world needs to celebrate the progress that has occurred and honor those who have taken this country that was broken and devastated only 18 years ago, to the top of the development charts in human progress.


(*) Margee Ensign is currently the President of the American University of Nigeria, the only American-style university on the continent. AUN is located in Northeast Nigeria in Yola.

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