De-ethnicising power and decentralising it saved Rwanda, it can save Africa

Monday May 6 2019


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To commemorate 25 years after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and the end of apartheid in South Africa, I was invited to give “an assessment of the post-genocide institutions” and “discuss the impact of the genocide and apartheid on the image of Africa in the world” at a conference at Arrupe Jesuit University in Zimbabwe last week.

The discussion touched on why the genocide and apartheid were possible; how Rwanda recovered to reconstruct a nation committed to never again; the power of restorative as opposed to retributive justice and whether South Africa will “go the way of Zimbabwe” or sustain Nelson’s Mandela’s dream of a Rainbow Nation.

The most surprising thing for me was that, from the questions asked and discussions held after the conference, there are some individuals who not only believe that South Africa is likely to go “the Zimbabwe way” but that even Rwanda’s Never Again is based on shakey grounds to put it mildly.


Of course, this pessimism is in part based on what’s happening in many other African countries and South Africa where corruption, xenophobia and failure of land reform is threatening to derail achievements; but it is also based on misinformation or misunderstanding of Rwanda since the end of the genocide.

For example, in Rwanda’s case, some still hold the erroneous view that after the genocide the country pursued “victors’ justice” rather than restorative justice that combined gacaca (community justice) and classical justice where genocide masterminds were tried.


In broad terms, I argued that while Rwanda still has many structural challenges like poverty, the type of justice it delivered in the aftermath of the genocide and its reform of the state; including how power is accessed provide the basis for Never Again if purposively watered into the future.

Institutionally, for example, Juvenal Habyarimana’s army was an ethnic army just as local government was with each commune (now district) having an ethnic communal police that enforced the will of Burgomaster (mayor) appointed by the president.

Political parties were also largely ethnic (or based on region and religion) as was power and education as well other state institutions and access to services, opportunities and jobs.

As I argued, this state of affairs, which isn’t unlike in other postcolonial states in Africa had to be dismantled after the genocide if Rwandans were to live side-by-side again.

As Jean Paul Kimonyo argued in his 2018 book, Reforming Rwanda, the first institution to be reformed was the military.

For example, to build a national rather than an ethnic army, a year after the genocide, in January 1995, a total of 1011 ex-FAR, including senior officers, were integrated into the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and in 1998, 1,200 were integrated.

Institutional reconstruction

Between 1997 and 2001, a total of 18,690 RPA were demobilised and 15,000 ex-FAR integrated and by 2004, a total of 23,000 ex-FAR had been integrated in the newly created RDF and 70,000 demobilised and reintegrated in society.

It’s this national army that decisively defeated the genocidal regime and set the terms of institutional reconstruction that anchors unity and reconciliation today.

Never Again is based on several institutional and structural reforms. The first is gacaca courts, which tried a total 1,958,634 suspects of genocide.

This facilitated fighting of impunity and advancing forgiveness and reconciliation that was and remains critical for national survival.

The second was reforming local government in 2002 such that the mayor no longer has the power he/she used to have due to democratising and decentralising power away from the individual appointed by the centre.

Today, the mayor’s power is constrained by the district council; which is also somewhat accountable to the electorate. The third and most important was criminalising claims to access power on the basis of ethnicity.

This was especially done through the law on divisionism and punishing promotion of genocide ideology. It’s through this prism that political parties formally identified based on ethnicity like MDR were banned and others required to reform away from ethnic or region and religion affiliations.

The criminalisation of ethnic party formations and politics is critical because, for the nation to survive, ethnicity must die, as a clever thinker once said.

Finally, consensual power-sharing under the 2003 Constitution where Cabinet positions are shared 50-50 by the winning party and other parties in proportion to seats held in parliament has been key to retrenching politics of confrontation and violence.

While Rwanda still has many challenges, it has shown that politics can be creative and that the state can be reformed to serve broader rather than narrow ethnic interests.

This also means that other countries on the continent where violence is cyclical can be reformed.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, e-mail: ckayumba@; twitter account: @Ckayumba