50.50: Opinion

It’s time for Rwanda to give non-violence a chance

A long history of using violence to win and retain power has left Rwanda trapped in an impossible cycle

Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza
5 October 2022, 10.45am

Demonstrators from Rwanda protest in Brussels, Belgium in 2010, demanding the release of opposition politician Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, the author

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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

I have experienced political violence in Rwanda first-hand. When I returned to the country in 2010, intending to run for the presidency, I was imprisoned. I spent eight years in prison, including five in solitary confinement. Today, eight of my supporters are still in prison after acquiring a book and attending an online training session about the philosophy of non-violence.

According to human rights organisations, the government of Rwanda routinely deploys physical and structural violence. Reports include assassinations of political opponents both inside and outside the country. Government critics, YouTubers, independent journalists and contenders for political power have been forcibly disappeared or imprisoned.

Using violence to gain and retain political power is not new in Rwanda. A violent streak runs throughout Rwanda’s history, from monarchy to republic.

A long history of violence

King Rwabugiri Kigeri VI arguably started the tradition of bloodletting for power, in the 18th century, with an expansionist policy that saw him attack neighbouring countries at least 20 times during his 40-year reign. In the 19th century, in what came to be called the ‘Rucunshu coup d’état’, King Rutarindwa was ousted and killed, along with his entire family and entourage.

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The period leading up to independence from Belgian colonial rule was also marked by violence. It culminated in the 1959 revolution, which forced the king and many other Rwandans into exile. In 1961, Rwanda became a republic. In 1962, it became an independent country.

Until the late 1960s, the first republican government, which failed to secure the voluntary and safe return of those Rwandans who had been forced into exile during the 1959 revolution, was beleaguered by attacks from armed groups of Rwandan refugees. It was eventually removed from power and its leaders killed, in a 1973 coup d’état. More Rwandans were forced into exile.

The second republican regime installed a single-party political system and ruled the country for more than two decades, during which human rights were violated and structural violence in the social, political and economic management of Rwanda was entrenched.

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Protesters are making a last-ditch effort to halt the first deportation flight to Rwanda

That regime also failed to solve the issue of Rwandan refugees. Between 1990 and 1994, Rwandan refugees coordinated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) waged war against the Kigali regime, in part to push for their return to their motherland.

An initial peace agreement was signed between the RPF and the Kigali government in 1993. A few months later, the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was killed when the aeroplane he was travelling in was shot down on the evening of 6 April 1994. The civil war resumed, culminating in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. More Rwandans went into exile.

Over the past 28 years, following the genocide and the war that the RPF ultimately won, Rwandans have continued to rely on political violence. The RPF attempted to forcefully repatriate Rwandans from the Democratic Republic of Congo by invading DRC in the late 1990s. Thousands of these refugees and local people lost their lives in this process. The RPF succeeded in returning some refugees, but not all.

Today, new armed groups of Rwandan refugees want to oust the incumbent leadership through violence, a situation that is a source of constant tension between Rwanda and its neighbours, who are hosting these refugees. It’s certainly contributing to the instability of East Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Moving towards non-violence

As the United Nations marked the International Day of Non-Violence on Sunday (2 October, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday), I was reflecting on how Rwanda could adopt a non-violent system of governance, and turn away from this long-running trajectory of violence.

At the heart of this violence is the failure of consensus within the country – we don’t agree on common values and goals as a nation, or how to guarantee good governance.

Therefore, the first step towards non-violence would be for Rwanda to seek a new consensus on governance that is based on a common telling of our history and a culture of tolerance and mutual respect for diverse and diversifying views.

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Mahatma Gandhi on a Rwandan postage stamp

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Peregrine / Alamy Stock Photo

In the 1990s, shortly after the RPF first came to power, it led a national consultation to decide how Rwanda would be governed, eventually settling on what came to be called ‘consensual democracy’. But that system gradually transformed into one where the ruling RPF dictates terms to other political parties while dominating executive, legislative and judicial power.

Meanwhile, the political environment is evolving. Dissenting voices, offering new and different perspectives on how Rwanda should be governed, are on the increase – even though any voices that dare to stand out are quickly and aggressively silenced.

Rwanda’s ‘consensual democracy’ system needs to be reset. We need a new intra-Rwandan dialogue of non-violence that includes dissenting voices and civil society organisations from both in and outside Rwanda.

As Mahatma Gandhi, the pioneer of the philosophy and strategy of non-violence, said in an interview almost 100 years ago, “nothing enduring can be built on violence”.

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