The remembrance ceremonies were deeply solemn both publicly and privately as the nation faced its past, came to terms with its present and pledged to forge a bright new world for its future. But these two decades have also been remarkable in the progress that this small, landlocked country has already made. In this Special Country Focus, we review the achievements of Rwanda so far and look to what promises to become a shining future. This report was written by Jenny Clover from Kigali.
It was just 20 short years ago that Rwanda’s devastating genocide started, on 7th April 1994, with the shooting down of the plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, then Rwandan President. Murder, violence and terror then ripped through the streets and hills of Rwanda in 100 days of madness, which took the lives of more than 800,000 people.
Twenty years later, on that fateful date, the streets of the capital are quiet. Bars are closed, little music is played, shops and businesses have reduced opening hours out of respect, while people quietly mourn lost loved ones in their homes or at community events organised by local leaders.
An event held at the national stadium and attended by 30,000 people was deeply emotional. Guttural wails and screams came from the audience as a survivor gave testimony of what he had been through in 1994. Even the minute’s silence held in honour of the victims was punctuated with the screams and crying of those reliving the events of 20 years ago. Those suffering too much, or unable to listen to any more, were carried from their seats over the heads of others and given medical and psychological treatment.
But there is time for remembrance, for mourning and for getting on with life. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame spoke to the crowd about the incredible transformation the country has seen in these 20 years.
“Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state,” he said. “Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up. We could have become a permanent UN protectorate with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood. But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.”
To cheers from the crowd – made up of world leaders, dignitaries and ordinary Rwandans – President Kagame set out the three choices that he says have guided Rwanda since the terrible days of 1994. “One – we chose to stay together. Two – we chose to be accountable to ourselves. Three – we chose to think big.”
Rwanda is virtually unique in Africa with its immaculate streets, pothole-free roads and relatively ordered traffic system. Perfectly manicured lawns and hedges line the main roads and citizens know that the grass isn’t for walking or sitting on.
Sparkling new buildings are being constructed across the city at great speed. A national library, new banks and a shopping mall featuring Rwanda’s first proper cinema have been completed in recent years, while new hotels, including a Marriott and a Radisson, and more office blocks and shopping centres are in process at the moment.
A new convention centre is midway through construction and is being built using the proceeds of Rwanda’s successful debut Eurobond, which was launched last year for $400m and was heavily oversubscribed.
Plastic bags are famously banned as an environmental measure, although the use of plastic water bottles remains prolific. Visitors can’t help but comment on how clean and calm the city is; how unlike other African cities it is. And while these things are impressive, there are a lot more than mere cosmetic changes going on.
The Rwandan government very quickly set about transforming the country after the events of 1994. The country had been completely shattered – virtually all infrastructure and institutions were destroyed, large numbers of professionals had been killed, and the population was deeply traumatised.
After the killing was stopped and some order had been regained, the country had to start again from scratch. Everything from clearing the streets of decomposing bodies, restarting the electricity and water supply, building a new justice system, to making a plan for the economic growth of the country.
Today, just 20 years later, the Rwanda Bureau of Standards closes down unhygienic yoghurt manufacturers, and, nearly 2m genocide suspects have been tried through a traditional Rwandan justice system, called Gacaca.
Rwanda is not only a functioning state that is making a serious attempt at reducing its chronic levels of poverty, but it was also averaging an economic growth rate of 8.2% between 2006 and 2012. All this from a country that could have destroyed itself just two decades ago.
A universal health insurance scheme, called Mutuelles de Santé was launched in 2004. It costs around $6 per person per year, with a 10% service fee paid for each health centre visit. By 2010, 91% of the population was enrolled, according to government figures.
The government says it lifted a million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2011. An aspirational document called Vision 2020 was published in 2000 outlining how Rwanda planned to elevate itself in to a knowledge-based economy capable of competing in the global marketplace, from its current agrarian subsistence-based farming economy, in just 20 years.
Two subsequent Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategies (EDPRS) have laid out the detail of how this vision is to be achieved. The central aim of Vision 2020 is to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country with a healthy, educated, united population. The goals are highly ambitious and while not all are likely to be achieved in time, government officials are working hard to ensure as much progress as possible.
Rwanda is aiming to become a regional financial hub, a feat that few would have thought possible a few years ago. The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) was established, in part, to help make Rwanda more attractive to investors and business.
Rwanda has since leapt up the World Bank’s Doing Business index to number 32 globally, up from 54th in 2013, and the organisation says Rwanda is the easiest place to do business in continental Africa.
Rwanda is proud of the fact that a business can be registered in six hours, and officials are doing what they can to make Rwanda an attractive place to invest. But while starting a business is relatively easy, some investors complain that actually running a business in Rwanda can be much harder. Issues with bureaucracy, strict immigration rules and possible favouritism towards companies owned by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party have all been cited as problems for business owners and investors in Rwanda. These issues are understandable in a country still shaping its identity and way of outside influences but these are neither fundamental nor insurmountable problems.