Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rwanda Celebrates 50 Years of Independence

With an area of just 26,338 square kilometers accommodating a population of just over 10.7 million by 2011 estimate, Rwanda is the smallest country with a population exceeding 10 million. The population density is 407 people per square kilometer. The population has increased by a staggering 2.6 million, or over 30% from 2002 figure of 8.1 million.

This explosion of the population was a key factor in the escalation of racial rivalry. From 1934 to 1989, the population had increased from 1.6 million to 7.1 million. The rivalry between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis culminated in 1994 with the Rwandan Genocide, which was an unbridled massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutus.

From 1884, the area now belonging to Rwanda was ruled by the Germans as a part of their most valued colony, the German East Africa. In 1916, during the First World War, it was occupied by the Belgians. From early 1920s, it was part of the Belgian mandate, Rwanda-Urundi. The Belgians were much more involved in the affairs of Rwanda than the Germans were. It was they who identified the identity card system in 1935 which later cost many Tutsis their lives. Before 1935, there was not much difference between the two groups and the well off Hutus could become Tutsis. Not anymore.

Tutsis were less numerous but relatively more wealthy and Hutus were generally poorer. Tensions between the two groups were escalated in 1959 when Hutus attacked Tutsis killing thousands during the 'Rwandan Revolution'. Three years later, Rwanda was separated from Burundi and on July 1, 1962, Rwanda became an independent Republic.

Ethnic rivalry continued with a cycle of violence which saw exiled Tutsis attacking from neighboring countries and Hutus attacking the Tutsis at home. Many Tutsis who were exiled found themselves in Uganda where the Milton Obote regime resented their presence. Things improved somewhat for them after the 1971 coup by Idi Amin. Meanwhile, attacks on Tutsis in Rwanda were also reduced after Juvenal Habyarimana took power in a military coup in 1973. A main reason for this was the improving economy.

The exiles organized the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU) in 1979. The Rwandese exiles became an important component in the Ugandan Bush War between Milton Obote and Yoveri Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA). After the victory of the NRA in 1986, an exiled Rwandan Fred Rwigema became Uganda's deputy minister of defense and deputy army commander in chief while Paul Kagame became the acting chief of military intelligence. In 1987, the RANU became the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

In 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda from Uganda, commencing Rwandan Civil War. Neither party could gain the upper hand but it helped to lessen the power of Habyarimana. Rwanda was forced to come to the negotiation table and the two belligerents signed the Arusha Accords in August 1993.

However, this accord was resented by the extremist Hutus. These organizations were becoming extremely active and militant by early 1994. On April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana and the President of Burundi Cyprien Ntariyamira was shot down in Kigali, the Hutu extremists initiated a genocide which claimed nearly a million lives of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Although the RPF was accused of the attack on the plane, the more likely explanation is that the plane was shot down by Hutu extremists, possibly within the Rwandan Armed Forces.

While the genocide was at full intensity and the international community doing practically nothing to curb the violence, the RPF once again launched an attack on Rwanda. This time, there was no stopping them. The Hutu dominated government was swept out of power as the RPF took Kigali on July 4, 1994.

From July 1994, the RPF has been governing the country. Even before he became president in 2000, Paul Kagame was seen as the man wielding power in Rwanda. He has been accused of curtailing press freedom and human rights violations. In 2006, the French indicted him for the alleged involvement in the assassination of Habyarimana and Ntariyamira in 1994. Generally, the relations with France has been on the decline under the RPF and it has approached more towards the English speaking world. Rwanda became one of the few non-English speaking members of the British Commonwealth and is also improving its relations with the East African Community.

The challenge of balancing its foreign affairs will be on their minds. There are a considerable Hutu exile community, mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the differences with them and the governments in Kinshasa made the Rwandans involve in the First and Second Congo Wars. Relations with the DRC are however improving.

The quality of life in Rwanda has improved from where it was in 1994 but there is a lot more to be done. The increasing population will be a challenge facing the government. Rwandan government is spending more for health and education than 15 years ago. Literacy rate has passed the 70% mark but only 5% enroll for tertiary education. Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS is also an issue of concern but not as much as some of the other African countries. Rwandan economy is based on subsistence farming with around 90% involved in it. Rwanda's main foreign income is through tourism, mineral exports and cash crops such as coffee. Mineral exports have gone down recently due to the world economic downturn. The main challenge of the Rwandan governments in the future will be to ensure economic stability in the face of increasing population.

Image: Map of Rwanda from CIA World Factbook.

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