Is All Forgiven? Democracy and Memory in Post-Genocide Rwanda

J.J. Carney on Timothy Longman

Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda
Timothy Longman. Memory and Justice in Post-genocide Rwanda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 339 pp. $29.99

In 2018, my family enjoyed a lovely Christmas in Rwanda. Although I had conducted research in Rwanda on multiple occasions, this was my family’s first visit to the land of 1,000 hills. After four months living in Uganda, my wife and kids marveled at the contrasts across the border: Clean streets. Lush forests. Street signs. Motorcycle drivers with helmets. Enforced noise ordinances. After just a few days in Kigali, my wife was ready to move there, despite  my own cautions about Rwanda’s repressive political culture. “Maybe enlightened authoritarianism can be a good thing for Africa,” she mused.

My wife’s initial reaction to Rwanda captures one side of a dichotomy in Western commentaries on post-genocide Rwanda, a group I call the “Cheerleaders.” These include journalists like Philip Gourevitch and Stephen Kinzer, who wrote about  the “Rwandan miracle” of post-genocide reconstruction and praised President Paul Kagame as a visionary leader of Mandelan proportions. Their glowing assessments of peace and development are reinforced by the anecdotal experiences of Western CEOs, NGO workers, and pastors (including Rick Warren), who have invested heavily in a country consistently ranked among the least corrupt on the continent. Documentary films such as As We Forgive (2009) and an array of survivor memoirs highlight Rwandans’ remarkable success in rebuilding their lives and their country in the generation following the 1994 genocide. For the Cheerleaders, Rwanda is a shining beacon in 21st-century Africa, drawing outsiders to “Visit Rwanda,” as English football club Arsenal proudly displays on every player’s armband.

If the Cheerleaders see Rwanda as an emerging African utopia, the other side – what I term the “Naysayers” – sees it in almost dystopian terms. In an array of articles and monographs, Western scholars such as Gérard Prunier, Susan Thomson, and Filip Reyntjens have explored the darker dimensions of post-genocide Rwanda, from the army’s violent meddling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the culture of silence and fear that has arisen inside Rwanda. They are joined by a growing number of political exiles and human rights activists who have butted heads with the Rwandan state. In her Whispering Truth to Power (2013), Thomson captures the Naysayer consensus, claiming that the Rwandan state’s purported efforts to build unity and reconciliation are a thinly-concealed effort “to control the population by using the language of ethnic unity and social inclusion while working to consolidate the political and economic power of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).” For the Naysayers, Westerners are welcome to “Visit Rwanda,” but do not imagine that your visit will reveal the full reality of what is actually happening.

Timothy Longman enters into this polemical conversation with a magisterial new book, Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Professor of political science and director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, Longman is one of the world’s leading Rwanda specialists. His book draws  from a quarter-century of professional engagement in Rwanda, including his doctoral research in pre-genocide Rwanda, a 1995-96 tenure as country director of Human Rights Watch, and two decades of social science field work. The results do not disappoint. Memory and Justice is Longman’s magnum opus, a carefully-researched and eloquently-written book that is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the complex trajectories of Rwanda’s recent political development. It is the single best study of transitional justice in Rwanda, and Longman’s overarching argument that such  justice can reinforce the power of an authoritarian state – and not just undergird democratic transition – is sure to have a major impact in this field.

In terms of the dichotomy discussed above, Longman argues that Rwanda is a “Janus-faced” regime that embodies both the virtues of its admirers and the vices of its critics. But overall, he is a Naysayer. Although he recognizes Rwanda’s progress in areas of women’s political empowerment, anti-corruption, and economic development, his book focuses far more on revealing the darker dimensions of Rwanda’s post-genocide history. In the first half of the book, he analyzes how the RPF government has tried to refashion Rwandan social identity and collective memory through a wide variety of methods, including “commemorations, memorials, judicial processes, historical revision, re-education camps, curricular reform, popular mobilization, political restructuring, electoral activity, [and] land reform.” In the second half, he evaluates the extent to which the Rwandan population has imbibed, refashioned, or resisted these efforts. Each chapter begins with a personal anecdote from Longman’s research, lending a human face to the extensive empirical research that underpins his study.

Longman begins his book by analyzing the revision of history in post-genocide Rwanda. History matters dearly in Rwanda; in fact, many Rwandans argue that the genocide happened in part because teachers wrongly taught generations of school children that precolonial Tutsi were militaristic foreigners who had conquered peaceable Hutu. Not surprisingly, the RPF government has invested heavily in retelling history in a way that builds national unity and underlines their own authority. In this new, official historiography, precolonial Rwanda was a place of inter-ethnic harmony united around shared language, religion, and clans; Belgian colonialists and Catholic missionaries bear responsibility for dividing and codifying this unified Rwanda into opposing ethnic groups of “Hutu” and “Tutsi.” Finally, radical Hutu leaders in the postcolonial First Republic (1962-73) and Second Republic (1973-94) exacerbated ethnic division to propagate their own political authority, overseeing a decades-long “genocide in slow motion” (to quote Paul Kagame).

All of this culminated with the 1994 “genocide against the Tutsi,” an event and year that has become the new fulcrum of modern Rwandan history. In their analysis of the genocide, RPF historiography emphasizes high death rates (over one million Tutsi dead), mass Hutu participation, the abject failure of the international community, and the liberating role of their own army. For Longman, not only does this narrative overestimate the numbers of both victims and perpetrators, but it fails to hold the RPF accountable for its own (admittedly non-genocidal) crimes. As a result, there is no room for critical historical debate in Rwanda. Those who dare to question RPF motives, the necessity of their 1990 invasion of northern Rwanda, or RPF human rights abuses are accused of “genocide denial,” a crime that can result in public castigation, imprisonment, or forced exile.

The state’s concern with memory is not left to classrooms or books. Rather, the government has invested in an extensive memorialization effort designed to ensure that the nation “never again” falls into genocide. Here Longman analyzes such prominent memorial sites as the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, the Catholic churches at Nyamana and Ntarama, and the Bisesero “hill of resistance,” where thousands of Tutsi made a desperate last stand against heavily-armed Hutu militia in the final weeks of the genocide. Longman also juxtaposes these “sites of memory” with “sites of forgetting,” such as the decaying home of Gregoire Kayibanda, Rwanda’s first (Hutu) president. For Longman, Rwanda’s memorialization efforts serve a salutary purpose, but they fail to name the whole contested history of Rwanda. Or as one Rwandan interlocutor put it to me during a past research project, reconciliation will not happen until “everyone can tell their stories freely.”

In addition to history and memory, Longman focuses on Rwanda’s usage of transitional justice mechanisms to reinforce state authority. Arguing  that “the Rwandan genocide has become the most heavily adjudicated mass atrocity in history,” Longman analyzes the impact and legacies of the Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the mass imprisonment of Hutu suspects in the mid-1990s, and the government’s implementation of gacaca courts in the 2000s. He offers particularly perceptive analysis of gacaca, the government’s ten-year effort to arbitrate over one million lower-level genocide cases in thousands of village tribunals. Here Longman argues that although gacaca offered genuine contributions by revealing what happened to victims during the genocide, justice was ultimately undermined by false accusations and the lack of accountability for RPF crimes.

Another strength of Longman’s narrative is his careful reading and periodization of post-genocide political history. Here the years 1995 and 2000 stand out: During the first year following the genocide, Rwanda had a genuinely pan-ethnic, multi-party transitional government. But beginning in late 1995, the military used widespread arrests, detention and targeted killings to bolster RPF power,  and especially Kagame as Minister of Defense and Vice-President.

The year 2000 represented another crucial turning point as Kagame assumed formal control of both the party and the presidency. With their borders secured and Hutu rebel violence suppressed, the RPF engaged in less violent forms of building power and legitimacy via managed elections, symbol replacement, and popular mobilization. These efforts included changing the Rwandan flag, reorganizing and renaming the nation’s districts, putting Hutu prisoners through ingando reeducation camps, and mobilizing the entire population for monthly umuganda community labor days. Following what Longman calls the “Singapore model” of competitive or technocratic authoritarianism, the RPF has restricted political freedom while simultaneously encouraging private sector development, cracking down on corruption, building infrastructure, and instituting an array of regulatory laws (such as their much-vaunted ban on plastic bags). Here Longman acknowledges Rwanda’s impressive 21st century gains in healthcare, poverty reduction, and education, but also argues that many of these elitist initiatives lacked popular input and are “enforced in a draconian fashion.”

The final part of Longman’s book considers local community reactions to the RPF’s massive project of post-genocide social engineering. Between 2001 and 2015, Longman and his research teams conducted interviews and focus groups with local communes in Butare (southern Rwanda), Kibuye (western Rwanda), and Byumba (northern Rwanda). Here Longman reveals a negative trajectory of popular attitudes toward transitional justice and political reform. The initial hopes of the 2001-03 electoral period gave way, by 2015, to cynicism, silence, and fear to speak freely, even as participants credited the Rwandan government with significant advances in development and good governance. Longman also concludes that communities were more likely to accept the official version of history if it “resonated with their own lived experience.” Ultimately, however, Rwanda’s political culture of fear and intimidation limits the development of what he terms a “common understanding of the past.”

Despite the government’s relentless preaching of Ndiumunyarwanda (“I am Rwandan”) discourse and its ban on ethnic labeling, Longman’s field research in these three communities also reveals a rising salience of ethnic identity over the past fifteen years. This stems in part from the ethnicization of gacaca trials through “defining Hutu as perpetrators and Tutsi as victims, witnesses, and judges.” At the same time, one of the virtues of Longman’s analysis is the way in which he complicates a binary Hutu-Tutsi narrative. For example, he brings class back into the evaluation of transitional justice, showing how the poor “foot soldiers of the genocide” were often imprisoned while the wealthy bribed or lobbied their way out of trouble (or successfully sought exile abroad). Thus, he shows that the real division in post-genocide Rwanda is not so much ethnic or regional, but rather between those who were in Rwanda in 1994 and those who were outside of the country. It is these Anglophone, “repatriated Tutsi” who have come to dominate post-genocide civil service, military, and business, with even Tutsi survivors of the “genocide against the Tutsi” suffering from marginalization and suspicion.

Ultimately, Longman argues that Westerners and especially transitional justice experts “want Rwanda to work.” Their paeans are not without merit when it comes to measures of development, order, and efficiency. But when it comes to promoting democracy, Rwanda’s transitional justice mechanisms have been woefully deficient. For Longman, the reason for this is simple – democracy was never the government’s intended goal; there was no anticipated “transition” and little in the way of justice. Rather, the telos of “transitional justice” was consolidating the power of an authoritarian government. In that regard, Rwanda’s post-genocide social reconstruction has been incredibly successful. As Memory and Justice was released in 2017, Kagame and the RPF changed the constitution to eliminate term limits. The president embarked on a third term in office and looks likely to join the ranks of Africa’s “life presidents.”

Memory and Justice is richly deserving of the accolades it has earned at venues such as the African Studies Association. Yet, although I am sympathetic to Longman’s overall political critiques, I do wonder if he should grant more credit to the RPF government for its achievements (rather than immediately qualifying any commendations). My wife’s observations were not mere hallucinations; Rwanda has made impressive gains in areas such as national healthcare, IT, infrastructure, and environmental protection. (Or as my Ugandan friends put it, “that country is really coming up.”) Likewise, it is not insignificant that “since 1999, the RPF has experienced no organized armed resistance, and the RPF has engaged in no large-scale attacks on civilians within Rwanda.” When one looks at the comparable histories in neighboring Burundi, DRC, and even Uganda, Rwanda fares pretty well. Finally, as a political scientist, Longman is appropriately focused on the state and state actors. But as an equally respected scholar of public religion in Africa, he knows that the scope of African politics extends well beyond the nation-state. As Longman himself admits, “yet further conversation revealed that much of the reconciliation he discussed in fact occurred outside the formal gacaca process.” One could wish for more attention to these “unofficial” processes of memorialization and transitional justice happening in post-genocide Rwanda, especially under the aegis of churches and NGOs. But given the already significant length of the book, this broader scope may not have been feasible.

In light of the polemical scholarly atmosphere inside and outside Rwanda, Longman rightfully anticipated that Memory and Justice would be controversial. In fact, it may well be his last major work on Rwanda, at least for the near future. This would be a real pity. But we can be grateful that before shifting his lens to other parts of Africa, Longman left us with a landmark work that significantly advances our understanding of both modern Rwandan politics and transitional justice. If my wife reads this before we next “Visit Rwanda,” she will likely see not just the radiances but also the shadows of enlightened authoritarianism.

 J.J. Carney is Associate Professor of Theology at Creighton University and a 2018-19 U.S. Fulbright Scholar based at Uganda Martyrs University. He is the author of Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era (Oxford, 2014). Check out his and his kids’ reflections on East Africa at his blog,