The official slogan for the commemoration of 50 years of independence from Belgian colonial rule is ‘Rwanda: A Journey of Resilience’. In the weeks leading up to July 1 2012, activities took place all over the country that aimed at reflecting on our journey towards self-determination; drawing lessons from the country’s failings; celebrating the country’s achievements; and strengthening Rwanda’s resolve to attain a vision of a united, prosperous and dignified nation. Indeed Rwanda has been on a continuous journey ever since 1962. A journey marked with tragedy and triumph, disaster and determination, horror and hope.
When Rwandans speak of their history, there is an emphasis on the fact that Rwanda was an independent and unified nation with a central administration for centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the Great Lakes Region, and the subsequent scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century. The colonial era, under Belgian rule, notoriously brought with it exploitation, divisionism, and a loss of Rwandan identity fuelled by contemporary European racial theory. Indeed colonial rule served to entrench divisionism among Rwandans that would last for generations, and that would ultimately change the landscape and legacy of the country forever.
Toward the end of colonial rule, progressive Rwandans joined the powerful movement that swept the continent, demanding independence and democracy. In retaliation, Belgian colonialists actively supported the birth of extremism led by a section of the Rwandan political leadership that embraced the ideology of divisionism in order to gain and maintain power. In fact, for the majority of Rwandans, independence from colonial rule brought along with it little freedom and greater dependency that ultimately devalued the self-worth of Rwandans as a people. A succession of extremist administration within the first thirty-two years of Rwanda’s independence was characterized by bad governance, poverty, divisionism, a culture of impunity, and lack of opportunity for ordinary citizens.
The liberation struggle launched in 1990 aimed to restore the right to citizenship for all Rwandans, regain real independence, and establish a nation defined by the Rwandan people as a whole. Over the last 18 years, Rwandans have made a purposeful and definitive break from its past to embark on a path of unity, reconciliation, self-sufficiency, and prosperity. The journey along this path is admittedly long and we have only just begun. Rwanda has made incredible strides, but we do have a long and steady climb ahead. The processes and systems being put in place at all levels (from the smallest community level to the national level) are facilitating this climb.
This year, Rwanda marks its independence not only by reflecting on the past, but by planning and building for the future. On June 30 2012, an International Conference on Governance and Democracy was held in Kigali that examined Africa’s, and in particular, Rwanda’s achievements and challenges in instituting governance and democracy. On July 1, celebrations were held at the Amahoro (Peace) Stadium in Kigali while, across the city, a group of young Rwandans were holding the first gathering of Kigali Shapers: a part of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community whose vision is to “create a platform that engages with youth in Rwanda to inspire innovation and change.”
For Rwandans, therefore, independence is not just about being free from colonial rule. It is about being free from the chains of divisionism that have haunted us for generations. It is about being free to build a country for future generations that is full of opportunity. The journey of resilience is fuelled by self-worth, dignity, and hope and it would not be possible without the unified vision of a people determined to change the narrative of the country’s dark legacy and to work together to shape its future.
Image: Rwandan president Kagame with Kikwete (Tanzania) at Rwanda's independence celebrations in Amahoro national stadium, Kigali.