AnalysisNdi Umunyarwanda, “I am Rwandan”, but the fear of a resurgence of...

Ndi Umunyarwanda, “I am Rwandan”, but the fear of a resurgence of ethnic tensions remains alive.

Koert Lindijer has been a correspondent in Africa for the Dutch newspaper NRC since 1983. He is the author of four books on African affairs.

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It’s 30 years since a genocide ripped through Rwandan society, leaving up to a million Tutsi and non-extremist Hutu dead. Every year in early April, the country enters a 100-day period of commemoration during which Rwandans are asked to remember and reflect on historical divisions between the country’s main ethnic groups: Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. This is done under the banner of Ndi Umunyarwanda, loosely translated as “I am Rwandan”.

This post-genocide unified ideology follows the governing Rwandan Patriotic Front’s interpretation of the country’s history. It views Tutsi, Hutu and Twa as a form of socio-economic division rather than being rooted in ethnic differences.

Some western scholars, such as Filip ReyntjensAlison Des Forges and Catharine Newbury, dismiss this interpretation of history. They argue that ethnicity was always an important aspect of Rwandan society and not a colonial construct.

In my view, based on 16 years of research on Rwanda and its public policies post-genocide, they miss an essential aspect of why Ndi Umunyarwanda exists. It was designed as a mechanism for the country to move on from its past divisions and prevent a repeat of the genocide.

During recent fieldwork in Rwanda (December 2022 to March 2023 and August to September 2023), I paid particular attention to whether Ndi Umunyarwanda had taken hold in the new generation of Kigali’s residents. I attended multiple social gatherings with Kigali’s growing middle class of Rwandans between the ages of 24 and 35.

During conversations with 50 millennials and Gen Zs, it appeared that the government’s wish for the youth to accept Ndi Umunyarwanda had been effective. Attendees had little desire to bring up what they classified as their parents’ divisions and instead saw each other as fellow Rwandans.

In my view these conversations illustrate the success of Ndi Umunyarwanda and, more broadly, the Rwandan government’s desire for post-genocide social reconstruction. But among Rwanda’s older generation, the fear of a resurgence of ethnic tensions remains alive. Many within the Rwandan government are concerned that not enough time has passed to foster a unified identity that can fully expel an ideology that wrought so much carnage.

In particular, the government is acutely sensitive to the activities of the militia group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, based in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The 2,000-strong armed force includes people known to have been perpetrators in the genocide.

The war on the border

In Kigali, there’s been growing nervousness about the wave of violence in eastern DRC. The Congolese army has been accused of cooperating with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which is made up of remnants of Rwanda’s past genocide forces.

This has driven Rwandan concerns about increased military supplies to the group, and it being given political legitimacy. However, the threat it poses doesn’t stem from its military capability – the group has little strategic, operational or tactical capabilities to defeat the Rwandan army and seize control from Paul Kagame’s government. Rather, its perceived threat stems from the views held by the people who make up the force.

These fears have been further stoked by the actions and language being used by officials in Felix Tshisekedi’s government against the Banyamulenge population. This group historically originated from Rwanda but has lived in the DRC for generations.

Over the past two years, violence against them – often from the DRC’s army and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – has escalated.

The language coming from the Congolese government is worrying Rwandan policymakers. Congolese minister of higher education Muhindo Nzangi and government spokesman Patrick Katembwe, for instance, have openly called for the persecution of the Banyamulenge. Rwandan foreign minister Vincent Biruta has said the language of ethnic hatred against the Banyamulenge that’s coming from Congolese officials reminds him of the language used by perpetrators just before the 1994 genocide.

The language coming from the DRC is worrisome for Rwandan policymakers as it not only threatens the Banyamulenge, but also follows patterns that afflicted Rwandan society. But how serious is the threat to Rwanda’s post-genocide social reconstruction of Ndi Umunyarwanda?

Rwandans hold confidence in their government and military to protect them from security threats, including from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. Nevertheless, the ideology these threats contain is seen as the primary risk of returning Rwanda to its past divisions. In my view, this risk is rather low. But concern still remains within the government, as well as among those who experienced the genocide. Their memories of divisionism and ethnic-based hatred still influence their concerns of Rwandan security and its future.

Deep-rooted scars

Many within the Rwandan government, especially in the inner circles of power, either fought to end the genocide or were victims of it. The deep-rooted scars of their experience influence their desire for national social re-engineering.

Many are still nervous that the past Hutu extremist ideology that promoted divisions and hatred, which the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda promotes, could override the progress made by Ndi Umunyarwanda. The comfort of scapegoating others for one’s problems is often tempting.

With the 30th commemoration, Rwandan embassies and high commissions will engage with the Rwandan diaspora. There will be national events in Kigali, but most will be held in local villages and towns to remember the past and help foster a united future.

They need not look far to see the warning signs of how society can slip into scapegoating and how this can lead to violence. The increased violence and ethnic-based language in eastern DRC are a steadfast reminder. While the physical threats from across the border cannot be dismissed, internally Rwanda is closer to Ndi Umunyarwanda unity than genocide divisions.

This article was first published on the Converation:

Koert Lindijer
Koert Lindijer
Koert Lindijer has been a correspondent in Africa for the Dutch newspaper NRC since 1983. He is the author of four books on African affairs.

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