Rwanda, 20 years on: how a country is rebuilding itself

To mark 20 years since Rwanda's 100-day massacre, in which 800,000 people were killed, we look at the key ways the country has dealt with its challenges

On 6 April 1994, with the world's media focused on the election of Nelson Mandela, a plane was shot down in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It had been carrying Rwanda's president, Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi. The double assassination triggered the state-sponsored genocide of approximately 800,000 of Rwanda's minority Tutsi population and moderate Hutus. The mass slaughter was carried out in 100 days by government-backed perpetrators in the army, police, militias and by thousands of Hutu civilians across the country.

It is obvious that the challenge of rebuilding a country in the aftermath would be phenomenal. Here are just some of the remarkable ways Rwanda has faced up to this challenge and continues to do so today.

Tell us what we've missed in the comments below and we'll move a selection above the line.


In a case concerning 150,000 perpetrators, it would seem that the continuing challenge is to bring about justice and reconciliation to a population in which it is estimated up to one fifth were killed during the genocide.

The vast majority of perpetrators were not dealt with by the criminal justice system. In the past 20 years, only 71 people – generally the most severe offenders – have been convicted by the UN's international criminal tribunal for Rwanda. The majority (who were mostly living in rural areas, among those they killed) confessed and pleaded their case at special village courts called gacacas. With strong encouragement from the government, survivors across the country then accepted the perpetrators back into their communities.


With two-thirds of Rwanda’s population under 25 and life expectancy just 55, many have placed their hopes in the country’s youth. As a result, stringent efforts have been made to improve access to education; the country can boast that 97% of its children attend primary school – the highest rate in Africa. Unesco noted this by naming it as one of the top three countries globally for improving access to education.

Born in the years since the genocide, children are educated in schools that are strongly encouraged to desist from using potentially divisive labels. Pupils are discouraged from identifying themselves as Hutu or Tutsi and are instead asked to focus on building the future of a common Rwanda. To this end, in 2001, the government unveiled a new flag and national anthem.

Yet with the youth unemployment rate persisting above 40%, there is clearly much to be done to support the people who will drive the country's economic growth – there is, in particular, a skills gap to tackle.


Residents in Kigali take part in a march for women before an international conference on the role of women in Rwanda's society.
Residents in Kigali take part in a march for women before an international conference on the role of women in Rwanda's society. Photograph: Jason Straziuso/AP Photograph: Jason Straziuso/AP

Although women complain of cultural barriers, Rwanda has a great track record for female emancipation in the political sphere. In the parliamentary elections last September, women won a majority of 51 out of 80 seats, beating its own world record from the previous parliament for the highest proportion of women in government. This is arguably down to the law, which imposes a mandate on national and local government to ensure a minimum of 30% of seats are held by women.

The figures do not seem to be superficial, however. Laws have been introduced that have given women a host of rights: they are now free to own their own property, keep an equal inheritance upon divorce and easily access contraception.


Rwanda's drive to rebuild its economy since the genocide has been driven by three main sources: the export of tea and coffee; foreign aid, which constituted 20% of gross annual income in 2011; and the tourism trade. Most of this plays out in the rainforests, which are home to a 1,000-strong population of mountain gorillas, some of the last surviving on the planet.

Although 7 million people, close to two-thirds of the country's population, live below the poverty line, more than 1 million have crossed this threshold in recent years. With economic growth hitting an average eight per cent since 2001, the World Bank chose to name the country as its top reformer for business in 2010.


Rwanda's President Paul Kagame at the United Nations headquarters in New York, September 24, 2010.
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame at the United Nations headquarters in New York, September 24, 2010. Photograph: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Since the genocide, Rwanda's government has been led by Paul Kagame. A Tutsi growing up as a refugee in neighbouring Uganda, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic army in its resistance against the Hutu militias wreaking carnage on the country. After the genocide ended in July 1994, he became vice-president and in 2000 was elected president.

Although he remains very popular within Rwanda and has received acclaim for his economic record, Kagame's method of government, state-sponsored media and human rights record has provoked criticism from outsiders. Kagame's consistent retort has been that he will not be lectured by Western countries that comprehensively failed to intervene during the genocide.

The role of the west

In the years since the genocide, western leaders, including Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, have apologised to the Rwandan people and government for the international community's failure to act during the genocide. Over the 100 days of the tragedy, the UN and US persistently failed to recognise it as genocide, avoiding an admission that would have obligated them to intervene.

Since 2000, the cost per head in foreign aid to Rwanda has almost trebled to £68 a person annually. In 2012, its government launched a fund to attract investments from the international disapora; they called it Agaciro, which means "dignity" in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.


Emma Howard

The GuardianTramp

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