In 1994, 800,000 Rwandans, predominantly the Tutsi ethnic community, were killed in the span of 100 days. The genocide was conducted by Rwanda’s majority Hutu population, as anti-Tutsi racism was systematically embedded in the country’s public structure. The atrocity caused Rwanda to acquire the status of a failed state. As a result, the post-genocide Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) government focused on the process of reconciliation as well as the political and economic reconstruction of the nation.
Reconciliation and Political/Economic Reconstruction:
Reconciliation is an indispensable tool in the aftermath of conflict. Rwanda’s constitution defines it as a practice where all of its citizens are “characterised by trust, tolerance, mutual respect, equality, complementarity, truth, and healing of one another’s wounds inflicted by their dark history” (Sentama 2022, p.9). Although the government recognized the urgency to enact these values, overcoming such structural violence - engrained since the 16th century - was expected to be a challenging process. While certain policies can promote unification, inequalities remain embedded in ways that politicians and citizens do not even recognize. This is concerning because such behaviours are a barrier to achieving the sense of an integrated community.
Throughout the years following the genocide, Rwanda succeeded in generating sustained economic growth. In fact, it has become one of the fastest growing economies in Central/East Africa with an 8% growth rate between 2001 and 2014 (Dennehy 2020, p.36). Despite this remarkable achievement, qualitative in-depth research brings to light that reconciliation has not been all that successful. This is because socio-economic inequality remains a prevailing issue affecting vulnerable people such as genocide survivors, returnees, minorities and marginalised people (Sentama 2022, p.14). Such disparities are a barrier to the process of reconciliation because, as scholar Peter Uvin pointed out, “poverty and inequality fed into the dynamics of genocide” (1997). Unsurprisingly, this stark disparity has resulted in a lack of community cohesion for the citizens of Rwanda, as inequality is a reminder of the structural discrimination that many continue to face.
The RFP recognized that promoting equality is essential in order to achieve reconciliation. Due to this, Rwanda’s government developed the Under the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP). This allowed vulnerable people including genocide survivors, marginalised people and the poor to receive financial support, access to public work and credit packages (Sentama 2022, p.14). Despite the implementation of such a platform, the affected groups continue to express a lack of belonging. One of the reasons for this is because, according to the Rwandan constitution, “minorities and indigenous people are not recognized as separate ethnic entities” (Carter 2018, p.11). Although this legislative approach aimed to promote unity, “it has precluded recognition and representation of their specific needs required to achieve meaningful poverty alleviation” (Dawson 2018, p.12). This causes Rwanda’s minority ethnic groups to feel unrepresented by their own government, which is a hindrance to the reconciliation process.
Policies Enabling Socio-Economic Inequality:
Regardless of the proactive approach towards addressing inequality, Rwanda remains the most unequal country in East Africa. This is a result of certain policies that continue to sustain discriminative behaviours, which have created a notorious socio-economic divide between urban and rural areas in the country. For instance, chronic malnutrition remains a prevailing concern in rural areas, which is perpetuated by inequality in commercial markets. As scholar Muller highlights, “the price index in rural Rwanda is negatively related to the real living standards,” creating price discrimination against the poor (2001, p.201). With this said, such policies create dissimilar lifestyles between the urban and rural areas as they experience different realities, making it more difficult to achieve a sense of community.
Another factor enabling socio-economic inequality is the lack of consideration of ethnic groups’ cultural practices. The experience of the Batwa, who make up less than 1% of the population, is a case in point. This community relied on forest resources to gain labour opportunities. Despite this, hunting and other forest uses have been outlawed for years. As one male Batwa expressed: “the forest was our source of livelihood, where we got everything and we do not find any alternative…our culture is starting to disappear” (Dawson 2018 p.7). Such prohibition forced Batwa people to find alternative jobs, mainly as agricultural laborers. However, they continue to express resentment at not being considered for other work with higher salaries,“even unskilled jobs such as cleaners or security guards” (Dawson 2018, p.8). With this said, many citizens continue to feel a lack of acceptance and belonging in their own country, as they are prohibited from practicing their cultural values and face discrimination when attempting to integrate in the community. This only proves that the national policy of reconciliation still faces backlash in Rwanda.
Young Tutsi citizens have also expressed dissatisfaction over marginalisation and inequality. Despite the improvement of basic services such as education, health and water, socio-economic inequalities also stem from non-material values and the quality of governance (Dawson 2018, p.11). For instance, while crop intensification programmes were easily accessible, there were substantial restrictions towards how the land could be used. This lack of autonomy caused increasing trends of inequality in land ownership, depriving many from being able to meet their basic needs (Dawson 2018, p.6). This example demonstrates that achieving unity and socio-economic equality is not only about tangible materials and measures. Multiple citizens in rural areas still struggle with lack of freedoms, and this only increases polarization between those who have it and those who do not.
Radical Educational Reform:
Another vital factor in the process of reconciliation was the need for a radical change in Rwanda’s educational system. Before the genocide, education was used as a tool to spread racial and ethnic discrimination against minority groups. With this said, the reformed schooling system focuses on prioritizing fairness, efficiency and equality (Sentama 2022, p.15). While access to schooling has improved throughout the years, those in rural areas still receive less of an education in comparison to people in urban areas. In fact, policy reports and interviews from 2015 highlight that there was “a gap between the government’s developmental aims and the persistently low educational quality for children from the poorest families” (Carter 2018, p.9). This has an obstructive effect on the process of reconciliation, because, as scholar Finoff explains, “education has become a more important factor to limiting other inequalities” (2015). Therefore, it is crucial for Rwanda to continue the development of education, as it promotes socio-economic opportunities and fosters community values, which are key to the process of integration and unity.
Rwanda is an impressive example of a post-conflict nation that has successfully reconstructed a system with sustained economic growth. Despite this, socio-economic inequalities have acted as a barrier to the process of reconciliation. While the RFP has proactively developed support programmes, many Rwandans still feel unrepresented as they are not recognized as separate ethnicities in the Constitution. Besides this, discriminatory policies create different realities between urban and rural areas, making it more difficult to achieve a sense of community. Ethnic minority groups are prohibited from practicing certain cultural values, which is why they feel a lack of acceptance. Rwanda’s post-conflict experience also proves that equality is not only about material measures, as many Tutsi citizens express a lack of autonomy when participating in support programmes. Another pronounced concern is the continued disparity in schooling access between rural and urban areas, as it reduces labour opportunities and the educational spread of community values. All of these factors have perpetuated a stark divide between the country’s citizens. On that account, in order to achieve a sense of unity and reconciliation, it is indispensable to continue addressing the pervasive socio-economic inequalities that prevail in Rwanda.
Carter, B. (2018) Linkages between poverty, inequality and exclusion in Rwanda. K4D, pp.2-16.
Dawson, N.M. (2018) “Leaving no-one behind? social inequalities and contrasting development impacts in rural Rwanda,” Development Studies Research, 5(1), pp. 1–14.
Dennehy, E. (2020) “Fighting for Equality: Analyzing Inequality in Rwanda and South Africa.” Global Majority E-Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 34–46.
Finnoff, K. (2015) “Decomposing inequality and poverty in post-war Rwanda: The roles of gender, education, wealth and location,” Development Southern Africa, 32(2), pp. 209–228.
Muller, C. (2002) “Prices and living standards: Evidence for Rwanda,” Journal of Development Economics, 68(1), pp. 187–203.
Sentama, E. (1997) National Reconciliation in Rwanda: Experiences and Lessons Learnt. 2022.
Uvin, P. (1997) “Prejudice, crisis, and genocide in Rwanda,” African Studies Review, 40(2), p. 91.
l Michelle is a second year International Relations student at War Studies Department, King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.