I am Rwandan

The international community spent last week reflecting on its failure to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, thrusting Rwanda back into the spotlight at a time when praise for the country’s remarkable economic progress is increasingly tempered by concerns over less progress in the political space. To discuss the country’s achievements and the controversy that often accompanies them, the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center hosted a presentation by Anastase Shyaka, CEO of the Rwandan Governance Board, with a response by Gretchen Birkle, the International Republican Institute’s Africa regional director. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center, moderated the discussion.

Shyaka began his remarks with an overview of Rwanda’s transformation, focusing on the professionalism and unity of its armed forces and the government’s robust anti-corruption efforts. He spoke at length on the country’s reconciliation efforts, offering as evidence of its success a youth-led initiative called “I am Rwandan,” which attempts to foster a national identity that supersedes tribal loyalties. It is especially challenging to include all Rwandans in such programs, Shyaka argued, because of the massive gender inequalities that existed in pre-genocide Rwanda in addition to ethnic discrimination. As evidence of the inclusiveness of the reconciliation process, Shyaka highlighted the number of women currently serving in Rwanda’s parliament, noting that at 64 percent, it is the highest proportion worldwide in any national legislature.

Birkle also commended Rwanda’s successes, noting specifically President Paul Kagame’s “Vision 2020” initiative, a development program which aims to transform Rwanda into a middle-income, knowledge-based nation. She said the initiative should be lauded as it balances plans to improve infrastructure and education systems with accountable and transparent governance.

But Rwanda’s great progress has not been without its challenges. Birkle specifically noted Rwanda’s improved, but still-high debt-to-GDP ratio, currently around 25 percent, and the challenge of transitioning from international development aid to self-sufficiency. She also highlighted rising concerns about a lack of media and political freedom in Rwanda, calling the current moment a critical juncture in managing reconciliation, development, and democracy.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, participants delved into some of the criticisms of the current Rwandan government. One asked whether sacrifices made for the sake of stability took too large a toll on democracy in Rwanda. Shyaka responded that Rwanda has chosen a different type of democracy, choosing to eliminate the confrontational identity politics that sparked the genocide. He admitted that there are democratic challenges in Rwanda, but disagreed with critics on their causes: while critics contend that shrinking political space is due to President Kagame’s restrictive policies, the government asserts that Rwanda’s media lacks the technical capacity to accurately portray complex political and development issues, while unethical elites still attempt to mobilize political support by appealing to ethnicity.

The event was co-hosted by the International Republican Institute.

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham