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Rwanda’s surprising split personality

30 August 20230 comments

Rwanda’s involvement in the UK’s controversial asylum seeker processing plans has shone a light on the African nation’s own approach to refugees and migration.

And the picture is complicated one. Rwanda is a nation that is in the grip of a dictatorial leader in Paul Kagame, who has been in power since the end of the 1994 genocide, and who oversees a repressive political atmosphere.

But Rwanda has also implemented a revolutionary and progressive welfare system and a restorative and transformational justice system.

A recent seminar held in Melbourne explored these disparate stands of Rwanda’s political system.

University of London researcher professor Phil Clark told the seminar of Rwanda’s Gacaca community courts in post-Genocide Rwanda.

Between April and July 1994 during the Rwandan Civil war around 500,000 minority Tutsi people were killed by armed Hutu militias. Some moderate Hutus and Twa people were also killed.

The Gacaca courts, which have no professional lawyers or judges, are characterised by community meetings and dialogue.

“Gacaca had an innovative sentencing scheme. It was impossible to put hundreds of thousands of perpetrators in jail. So it focused on acknowledgement and punishment but with the needs of the nation in mind.

“Community service was widely used a sentence. So perpetrators were building roads and fixing houses. Initially, there was criticism and there were lots of problems but the benefits were enormous.

“Gacaca was the only way communities which included both Hutu and Tutsi could live and work together.

“And it a reason why violence hasn’t erupted again.

Prof Clark said the Rwanda genocide and the Gacaca courts highlighted the importance of socio-economic inequality as a driver of conflict.

“Restiveness and anger led to mass violence,” he said.

Another reason Rwanda has been able to achieve a level of reconciliation has been its revolutionary ‘Umurenge’ welfare system which provides direct support to extremely poor and labour constrained households.

The Umurenge system stems from the concept of ‘Ubudehe’, which refers to the long-standing Rwandan cultural practice of collective action and mutual support to solve problems within the community. 

“The Umurenge system has had a profound impact on education and health care and was crucial to Rwanda’s recovery,” Prof Clark said.

“It halved child mortality in five years and had significant socio-economic provision across the ethnic divide,” he said.

Prof Clark said that Rwanda’s authoritarian government and small and established bureaucracy made it easier to get things done.

“There was a government message of Rwandan nationalism and identity which was backed up by material provision,” he said.

“In many ways Rwanda has tackled structural inequality. The country has made massive strides since 1994 but this has been forgotten in the context of the UK debate.”

But under international pressure from international donors, most notably the World Bank, Umurenge is being dismantled.

“The system will be replaced by one off cash transfers and it seems this neo-liberal agenda resonates with sections of the ruling party,” Prof Clark said.

The UK Government has announced in plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing.

The asylum seekers may be granted refugee status to stay in Rwanda. If not, they can apply to settle there on other grounds, or seek asylum in another safe third country.

The government says the plan will deter people arriving in the UK on small boats which cross the English Channel.

The initiative has been blocked by court which ruled Rwanda was not a “safe third country”. The government is appealing the decision.

Fellow UK academic Dr Nicola Palmer told the seminar the UK’s Rwanda agreement was an example of a growing global power imbalance in migration.

“Rwanda is becoming increasingly embroiled in the UK’s immigration debate and we are seeing a racialized inequality of global migration,” Dr Palmer said.

“For instance in the US Rwandan nationals have been convicted of immigration fraud based on their alleged involvement in genocide,” she said.

Dr Palmer said the UK Government’s claims of wanting to address a migration crisis did not stack up.

“This is not a crisis. In 2014, 70 per cent of asylum decisions were made within six months. Now that figure is 30 per cent,” she said.