The Rhyming of History: Rwanda and Afghanistan

For roughly a year between 2013-2014, I resided in the neighbourhood of Kanombe in eastern Kigali. After nearly every day of work, I would walked home. The twelve kilometer journey allowed me to clear my mind. It allowed me to think of the work I was doing at the time, but also of grander questions of how Rwanda had and was continuing to influence my beliefs and opinions. 

Walking this route, I would travel around much of Kigali’s [at the time of writing this] only airport, the Kigali International Airport. As the airport stood on top of a hill, much of my walk would be around it. At one particular area, the arriving and departing airplanes were so close to the ground that if one threw a ball up, it would likely hit the plane! But it wasn’t until the near end of the walk, when I was in the new housing suburbs of Kanombe, that I would come across perhaps the most interesting part of the walk. 

Perhaps less than a kilometre from the end of my walk was the former Presidential Palace of Juvénal Habyarimana. During his Presidential reign from 1973 to 1994, his house was one of the most secure places in the whole country. Few would live nearby beyond his inner circle of political, economic and social power called the akazu. As guard towers surround the complex, I could not help but think of the horrific policies that originated from within the property walls. While Habyarimana’s predecessor Gregoire Kayibanda (1962-1973) was just as guilty of horrific atrocities against Rwanda’s Tutsi population, it was here that a quota system was created to establish a system of institutional racism within Rwanda. Additionally, it was here where a master plan to exterminate Rwanda’s Tutsi population would come to be in 1994. 

Around the corner, I would continue to walk on the dirt road. This area was largely empty during the time of Habyarimana in order to protect the privacy of the President. Now, it is filled with houses of a new middle class within Rwandan society. An old woman who lives nearby told me stories of what the neighbourhood was like back during Habyarimana’s regime. Still to my right, the old guard walls bare down on me with an abandoned service station to my left. From this angle, the house, largely left as a museum and a wedding venue, seems eerily abandoned. But I had yet to reach the true curiosity of the site.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_3379-1.jpg
A corner of the wall from the Presidential Palace.

I would always stop at the same spot and just stare out at one of the most notable aspects of this house: the remains of the Presidential plane. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis was ignited after the assassination of President Habyarimana. While there is great debate on who killed the President as he returned from Arusha, Tanzania one fateful night, the outcome was clear. After decades of anti-Tutsi propaganda and a failing Rwandan state, a genocide would erupt and kill an estimated one million Rwandan Tutsis and non-extremists Hutus. Unlike other genocides, this one’s primary weapon of choice was the machete and other farming equipment.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_0199.jpg
A 2013 photograph [quickly taken] of the plane crash site from the street.

A strange yellow light would shine on the little remnants of the Falcon 50 plane during the night. Its tail wing was still upright with some engine parts, landing gear and fuselage still present. Much of the remains of the plane are in lands far away from here. Seemingly within minutes to a few hours after Habyarimana’s assassination, French, Zairian and Rwandan National Guard soldiers surrounded the crash site, preventing General Romero Dallaire, the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) from reaching it. They collected much of the debris, seemingly being prepared for this event. Based on testimonies I’ve collected, within 45 minutes of the assassination, roadblocks were established in much of Kigali beginning a genocide that would continue until the 19th of July. 

At the time, there was little to stop me from just walking to the crashed plane site, a moment in history. While there were security guards at an outpost nearby, many had grown to know me as the smiling muzungu (foreigner) who would wave to them each morning and evening. For travellers now, there is a brick wall which prevents you from even seeing the crash site. You have to visit inside the museum to gain access to the crash. But for those twelve months, I would pass by this site and think of the ramifications everyday. It was this moment which triggered not only one of the most horrific genocides but also a pressing example of international abandonment. Some of those who sing, ‘Never Again’ turned their backs here and are doing so in Afghanistan.

For the last week, I have been talking to a close colleague of mine about the events unfolding in Afghanistan. Close to twenty years after the United States sent soldiers into the central Asian country to capture and kill Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, the Taliban have returned to power. They gained their victory through the use of their weapons against a leader-less Afghan government on the graves of over 66,000 Afghan soldiers who tried to stop the Taliban.

The stories from around the country, with new videos and testimonies coming from Kabul remind me of the horror stories from Rwanda. While some researchers, focusing on Rwanda, are not particularly interested in conducting research in Rwanda with Rwandans, I have always felt it necessary as it brings a human element that often departs from narratives and experiences found within the Global North. Many in the Global North (thankfully) will never have to know the horrors and worst of humanity even if they claim to be ‘experts’ on them. But listening to Rwandans in Rwanda is a necessary experience to listen and perhaps try to understand the greatest horrors of humanity. They can be beacons for us to be aware of when chaos begins in another society so we can assist and prevent the loss of humanity. While two conflicts are never the same, there is always one similarity, the blood of innocent victims. The scenes at Kabul’s airport are some of the most graphic being displayed in news media outlets. 

The chaos at Kabul’s airport is filled with images of seemingly thousands of people desperate to try to flee the brutality of the incoming Taliban regime. With stories [and now video evidence] of Taliban forces torturing and killing any Afghan that engaged with not only foreign actors but anything that is seen as beyond their strict interpretation of Islam, people are growing desperate. Horrific scenes of people falling off of US military planes; families giving up their small children hoping that at least their children could escape; and the pleas for international help as the Taliban cut off roads to the airport. Rwanda didn’t exactly have a similar situation as during the genocide, Kigali International Airport was mostly under the control of the French during the early weeks of the genocide. People couldn’t flee for safety and escape. Rather, they would either try to reach UNAMIR locations or the incoming Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army. This prevented any mass evacuation of Rwandans until the RPF took control over the airport and worked with UNAMIR to help people escape. 

However, there are multiple stories that follow closely with the scenes at the airport. In particular I remember some testimonies from the École Technique Officielle (ETO) school in Kicukiro, Kigali. It was here were Belgium UNAMIR troops protected over 2000 Rwandans. All were frightened that if the Belgium troops departed, they would all be killed. Interahamwe [genocidal murders] militias were known for shouting at the scared refugees that once the Belgiums left, they would all be killed. Their prediction came true with the removal of Belgium forces from UNAMIR shortly after the brutal murders of 10 Belgium forces. As news entered the ETO of the pending removal of Belgium forces, many refugees went to news media outlets begging for help. Similar to what we are now witnessing in Afghanistan, the news media seemingly took their pictures and videos and left. And like back then, the extremists, whether the Interahamwe or Taliban, moved right in.

The plane crash currently dominates my thoughts as I watch through news media as well as through social media sites of the hell engulfing Afghanistan. Despite not being a researcher on Afghanistan, as I focus on the African Great Lakes, I do feel some connection. Perhaps it is Mark Twain’s famous comment, History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. While staring at the Falcon 50 tail wing all those years ago, I would contemplate how the genocide would be different if the Global North, particularly the United States, sent some of its military might to help those who were going to suffer. If the Global North actually cared about one of their favourite slogans, Never Again, to go beyond their narratives to help their fellow human beings. 

We are now facing a similar situation and continuing to do nothing.  

While Afghans are being attacked by Taliban forces and pleading for help, President Biden is fumbling around the failures of the Afghan withdrawal. Very similar to his tweets during the collapse of Kabul, in a recent ABC News interview, he seemed to expose the reality of the situation. The Global North just simply doesn’t care despite all the window dressing that depicts it does. They don’t care about failing states like Afghanistan or Rwanda during the early days of the genocide. It is even more infuriating as President Biden campaigned as a foreign policy expert who would reintroduce humanitarianism in US foreign policy. 

While former President Trump acted in disgrace when he called some Global South nations as ‘sh-thole nations’, I find it even more disgraceful when President Biden claimed to promote humanitarianism within American foreign policy while completely abandoning Afghans. History does rhyme as President Biden held a similar position after the fall of Saigon. Even more disgraceful is what I am seeing from people who want to promote social justice but are applauding the horrors in Afghanistan. While I do not want to dive too much into the political dynamics within the Global North, especially in the USA, the hypocrisy of arm chaired ‘experts’ and ‘fighters for social good’ is even more disgraceful. Is fighting against what they perceive as Imperialism justified with the countless loss of life, massive curtailing of human rights, especially for women?

Are they so naive to ignore that everything they believe in will and currently is being violated by the Taliban? Or do they only claim these beliefs in the comfort of their safe and stable neighbourhoods thousands of miles away from the worst of humanity? Perhaps promoting their beliefs, in what some might call cultural Orietenlism or Neo-colonialism, is not that important when it comes to committing oneself beyond a few hashtags or protests thousands of miles away. Perhaps protesting for universal human rights is not worth it when the situation becomes more complicated than just a street protest or hashtags on social media? On the other side of the American political spectrum, why are many Republicans and Conservatives now fighting for Afghan refugees when they were so quick to turn a blind eye and even condemn the ones that were fleeing from nations just south of the US border?

I don’t want to be on a soapbox preaching my personal political opinions as very few people are interested in them. However, as someone who, while looking at the destroyed wreckage of the Presidential Plane, would speculate so much about humanitarian responses, I plead to anyone who will listen: the Global North and the world must not let Afghans fall into the worst of humanity. We cannot allow history to rhyme again. The United States alone has 5000 soldiers stationed at the Kabul airport. It has the largest military in the world with abilities that any historical empire would envy. It has the ability to save people. Let it use the military might for a humanitarian good and help evacuate as many people as we can. Unfortunately, there will be people left behind but saving as many as we can must be our goal. As the Jewish Talmud says: [paraphrasing] Save One Life, Save the Entire World. Let’s save as many worlds as we can. Let the detailed analysis, geopolitical consequences and so on be pushed to a later date as we cannot fail in Afghanistan as they did in Rwanda. Let’s stop the rhyming of history now so people won’t visit Kabul’s airport in the future and ask what could have been. 


Rwanda genocide: Macron forgiveness plea resets historic ties

French president Emmanuel Macron lays a wreath on a mass grave at the Kigali Genocide Memorial on 27 May 2021. EPA-EFE/Eugene Uwimana

Jonathan Beloff, King’s College London

French president Emmanuel Macron has just paid his first state visit to Rwanda. While many world leaders have visited the central African nation of 13 million, including past French presidents, such as President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, this trip was going to be different.

Sure enough president Macron would come the closest to apologising for France’s involvement during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Macron asked for forgiveness for France’s involvement in the genocide. He also expressed his desire to combat genocide ideology and denial in order to foster stronger relations with Rwanda.

The long-term impact of this trip will be based on building on this commitment. France’s tangible foreign policy mechanism will be committing itself to helping Rwanda through foreign aid development funding and COVID-19 vaccines. However, for France to gain the trust of Rwandans, the country has to commit itself to combatting genocide ideology and denial. A great start would be the arrest and extradition of Rwandans who participated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

The history

Prior to the genocide, France was Rwanda’s closest European ally. It was never the colonising power. Rwanda was colonised by Germany (1884-1919) and later transferred to Belgium. It was during the Belgian colonial period (1919-1962) that socio-economic divisions of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa become immovable ethnic divisions. To justify Belgium’s colonial atrocities, the colonial government elevated some Tutsi elites into positions of power to illustrate local rule.

In a 1973 coup, Juvénal Habyarimana took the presidency. He developed a close personal relationship with French president François Mitterrand (1981-1995).

France under Mitterrand provided the Habyarimana regime with considerable financial and military support. Mitterrand’s backing helped create a sense of legitimacy for his Rwandan counterpart. This in turn aided the policies of ethnic divisionism, hatred and pogroms that would eventually result in the 1994 genocide.

Since then, Rwandan-French relations have been poor at best. Many within the Rwandan government, led by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, denounced France’s closeness to Habyarimana as unacceptable. Rwanda also demanded an acknowledgement of French involvement in the 1994 genocide. Unfortunately, this did not happen under the next French president Jacques Chirac.

Subsequently, president Sarkozy attempted to foster greater relations with Rwanda. He came close to admitting France’s role during the genocide, but blamed “political errors” for the country’s actions. Relations deteriorated again under president François Hollande who minimised France’s involvement prior to and during the genocide.

Now, however, Macron has gone beyond Sarkozy’s tentative steps.

How relations went south

As Cold War declined in the early 1990s, France began to apply pressure on its African allies – such as Habyarimana – to democratise. In Rwanda, however, the transition from dictatorship to open political competition did not go well. Rather than peaceful mobilisation, the opening of political space helped Hutu ideological extremists loyal to Habyarimana to propagate the ideology of genocide against the Tutsis.

At the same time, Rwandan exiles — mostly Tutsis – formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front signalling the start of the Rwandan Civil War (1990-1994) between government and well-organised rebels.

France backed Habyarimana’s regime by fighting back the first invasion by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (1990-1991). After this campaign, the French government provided its military assistance to rebuild Rwanda’s military against the party. They also secretly supported a government-backed militia, the Interahamwe (Those who fight together).

The genocide began hours after the assassination of Habyarimana. The presidential plane he was in was shot down by unknown assailants.

France remained steadfastly behind the new genocide government. While not providing military equipment or troops, it pressured for the removal of the United Nation’s peacekeeping force in Rwanda. It also moved the Rwandan government’s inner circle of power out of Rwanda in the early days of the genocide.

Later France was to send military troops under the UN-sanctioned Opération Turquoise. The French government publicly stated their substantial contribution of nearly 2,500 soldiers would help stop the genocidal killings. However, it became a safe zone for genocide perpetrators to continue the massacres as well as to flee into neighbouring Zaire.

Goodwill gestures

The political fallout from the 1994 genocide will remain at the heart of relations between Rwanda and France for some time to come. But the signs are promising. A great first step was made in 2019 with the creation of the Duclert Commission to investigate France’s role in the genocide.

The commission report expressed reasonable doubt as to whether the French government was fully aware of how its relationship with the Habyarimana regime and training of Interahamwe forces would lead to the genocide. It nevertheless acknowledged France’s involvement in the events leading to the mass killings.

The Rwandan government accepted the report’s findings and commented on how important this was to help restore trust between the two nations.

Macron and current Rwandan president Paul Kagame recently met in France. Macron publicly showed his desire for a friendship with his Rwandan counterpart.

During Macron’s Rwanda state visit some significant agreements were made between the two countries – for example a bilateral cooperation agreement between the two nations’ foreign ministers, financial support for development and for combating Covid-19.

But the highlight for Rwandans was Macron’s visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. While this might not appear to be a tangible benefit in foreign policy, it holds significant influence in Rwandan perceptions of France amid hesitation, scepticism and open hatred for France.

For many Rwandans, France represents a period in their country’s history that was filled with ethnic hatreds, instability and Habyarimana’s dictatorship. Many still hold France responsible for aiding the destructive ideology of the genocide.

It will take time for Rwandans, especially those who suffered or witnessed the genocide, to trust France again. Macron will be aware of these challenges and how French-Rwandan relations will require time, gestures of goodwill and actions addressing the past.

Jonathan Beloff, , SOAS, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Existing Narratives with their Pitfalls: Do Not Disturb

Wrong, Michela, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad. New York: PublicAffairs, 2021.

For the last few months, I have debated whether I wanted to read Wrong’s new book, Do Not Disturb. In one aspect, the book advertises how it examines the dark underbelly of Rwanda’s political institutions and exposes the ‘evils’ of President Paul Kagame. This might seem like an interesting read for the non-Rwandan researcher at their local bookshop. After all, Michela Wrong is an African novelist and journalist who is from the Global North -a term I use instead of the more common ‘West’-. While few would openly admit, there is something of comfort for readers when they read a book written by someone from the Global North criticising or exposing a nation within the Global South.

And that is where I encountered my greatest problem with the book. Dr Phil Clark provided a balanced review providing the book’s contents and deficits. The book focuses on former Rwandan elites, mostly within the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), who had fallen from grace. Why they fell from grace is never mentioned but assumed because the RPF’s and Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, has done something evil which the defectors and their families couldn’t accept any more, so they left.

The two main defectors, but not only, which Wrong interviews are Patrick Karegeya and Kayumba Nyamwasa. Both were dominant figures within the RPF and the post-genocide Rwandan government. Wrong’s affection for these two figures often was not confined within their histories or personalities as the description of their physical characteristics seemed to go beyond what I would expect from a political book -take that as you want-. These two along with their families and a few others such as Seth Sendashonga are elevated as holy characters while Rwandans, especially President Kagame, are often described through derogatory stereotypes.

Beginning the book, I knew I would hold some issues with it. Such as with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Rwanda, especially its politics, is often divisive with little middle ground. My research on Rwandan foreign policy tries to divert from this divide by focusing on what Rwandan, whether elites, bureaucrats or those within the civil society, perceive and how these perceptions and beliefs influence their engagement with the international community. So, I began reading this book knowing that there will be things I disagree with but such as when I read anything by Belgium scholar Filip Reyntjens – who I often disagree with-, with an open mind. But similar to what Clark writes, the Orientalism just threw me.

A wave of decolonising education has gripped many universities as of late. They are attempting, akin to many of the liberal ‘woke’ movements in much of the United States and other Global North countries, to try to diversify opinions and attempt to depart from the monopoly of knowledge held by Caucasian and typically male scholars. My own engagement with the movement can be seen in my desire not to condemn or praise within my writings Rwanda’s engagement with the international community, but instead, just illustrate and analyse what Rwandans think themselves.

Unlike some scholars, I don’t feel I know what is best for a society in which I have an American passport that can get me out of any trouble such as when expatriates departed Rwanda during the first few days of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. But Wrong’s book illustrates how much more needs to be done in the Global North.

Reading the book, I not just felt tones of Orientalism but of what I am struggling to describe as other than racism against Rwandans and Tutsis -except for the blessed few she interviewed-. There are too many quotes I could show but to generalise, Rwandans are described as ‘sneaky’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘bloodthirsty’ and so on. Tutsis, while they are given a positive physical description, are described in even more of a negative light. I, who resides with Rwandans rather than expatriates when in Rwanda, felt angry on behalf of my Rwandan family. While I am sure that Wrong and her supporters -another issue of this book I will get to later- will dismiss notions of racism and instead chalk it up to words from others, there is an underlying tone that reads as racist. At one point in the book, perhaps a quarter of the way in, I gave myself a challenge.

I changed the word ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Rwandan’ with the word ‘Jew’. As someone who is proud of their ethnoreligious identity and experienced anti-Semitism in the past, I challenged myself in re-reading the book with the change of actor. I quickly became uncomfortable. It became such a disturbing feeling that I had to stop. I can’t stress enough how I am not accusing Wrong of being racist as I don’t know her personally but the writing in this book of Rwandans was to me, racist. The lack of nuance or analysis of Ugandan informants, who often had the most derogatory description of Rwandans, or even of her own positionality reinforced my notion of how this book contains racist undertones. When one looks down upon Rwandans -except for the chosen few- then it becomes easy to dismiss any positives of today’s Rwanda. Hard to say you are showing the proper respect for your subjects when you describe one -after previously establishing them as: “the bug-eyed, bucktoothed”.[1]

Maybe I am reading this book incorrectly. Its intended audience really isn’t for researchers trying to better understand Rwanda and its political complexities. Instead, it is just to reinforce existing critical narratives without listening to Rwandans inside the country. If this was a true attempt to provide new research and analysis on Rwanda’s political systems and defectors, there would have been a bit more self-study within the context of methodology and positionality of the author. This whole thing reminded me of an experience from a fellow colleague.

A colleague[2] once criticised my research as being problematic as it relied on the perceptions and beliefs of Rwandan elites and bureaucrats within the government as well as the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) and those within the civil society. But as one can read themselves, the research focused on the perceptions and beliefs of those who crafted and enacted foreign policy. Of course, I was going to listen to these informants. However, the colleague told me, how Rwandans within the government will lie through their smiles. While I respected this colleague -so much so I am keeping his identity hidden-, what politician doesn’t lie or mislead to some extent? And more importantly, does this colleague think so little of me that they assume I won’t use different methodologies such as Discourse Analysis, Triangulation and so on to try to uncover the truth? I review my own inherent biases and positionality when interviewing Rwandans and analysing my collected data. Something I suspect this colleague won’t be saying to Wrong as it suits their existing narrative.

Perhaps one of the largest deficits of this book is how there is no, or at least it was minimal, examination of the biases and positionality of any of its informants. While this book had unique access to actors within the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), it never would believe that anyone within the RNC would have a less than stellar agenda. As I mentioned earlier, Wrong seemingly assumes that all defectors left Rwanda because of their high moral character. Embezzlement, corruption and personal -whether financial or political- reasons for leaving Rwanda does not factor within this book. No, it ignores a serious review of its informants. After all, the book is attempting to characterise post-genocide Rwandan development and President Kagame as evil -a strong word but I can’t think of anything better at the moment-. [False] claims of the assassination of former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana are repeated with such certainty with no actually analyse of the claims and logistics.

To be a bit flippant, why do that when you can just unquestionably trust actors despite their questionable motives? They are telling you exactly what you want to hear. They are helping you to say that President Kagame is all the problems facing Rwanda when that is at the very least reductionist and problematic to claim. As I write in the next paragraph, Rwanda isn’t perfect. But these reductionist claims ignore real issues facing Rwandans that many other nations experience as well. My previous colleague should ask Wrong whether she is just being lied to through smiles by people with their own motives and desires. As Clark writes, her access to the RNC is a great strength but also a weakness.

Above all else, why is this book problematic? I can say the inherent racism, the bias sources or how it seeks to justify its own conclusions rather than have a well-structured, well-analysed and well-developed argument. But I think what is most problematic is how Rwandans will respond. Rwandans often complain to me about the demonisation they experience by Global North researchers. Many feel that Global North researchers come to Rwanda -often for relatively short periods- to justify their existing conclusions within a simple narrative -something I try not to do-.

Within Rwanda, the simple narratives are often incorrect. Rwanda is a complex nation that is only twenty-seven years removed from a horrific genocide. I write this not to use the [outdated and problematic] guilt card narrative but how books like Wrong and others just turn away Rwandans from the Global North. It isn’t only President Kagame who will snap when confronted by overly critical or repetitive criticism from the Global North of their country. Rwandans have pride and are rather pragmatic. Engage with that and you will receive a much more constructive response.

Some might call this naïve, but I honestly do believe that if Wrong went to Rwanda -she has been there several times since the genocide but not over the last number of years- with an open mind and asked Rwandans their opinions, she would receive something she wouldn’t expect. She would receive the truth of how Rwandans have their problems with their government. But life is generally better now than before, whether that is during the past regimes, the 1994 genocide or even just ten years ago. I first visited Rwanda in 2008 where I had the privilege to travel across the country. Since that first trip, I have gone back many more times -perhaps seven or eight times for periods ranging from one to six months- and lots have changed with social infrastructure being one of those things. Even Rwanda’s political dynamics have changed which I hope I have a chance to write on [within academic writings] in the near future.

Rwandans, once they trust you, will share their opinions. That engagement of trust involves us within the Global North to understand our positionality and biases. A great first step is for us to provide assistance but not lecture to Rwandans on how they should proceed in their nation’s development. If those within the Global North engage with respect rather than just condemn, they will find it easier to reach their desired outcomes for Rwanda. Maybe that is just too much of a fantasy at the moment with all the divisions in Rwandan studies. Those within the Global North who are critical of President Kagame and Rwanda as a whole will enjoy this book. It reinforces their existing narrative with little to add. However, I don’t think many in Rwanda will care to read it. These are just my thoughts from my first read-through of Wrong’s book, Do Not Disturb.

It’s not all bad, at least she spelt President Paul Kagame’s name correctly.

[1] The person Wrong is describing here is General Jack Nziza, a man who I had met with a few times during my own research, (Wrong, 2021, 56).

[2] Despite not traveling to Rwanda for over a decade, that does not stop them from writing on Rwanda’s politics and society.


Magufuli’s Impact on Rwanda

On the 17th of March 2021, news came out from Tanzania that their fifth President, John Magufuli had died at the age of 61. It was his Vice President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, who delivered the announcement on national news broadcast. For Rwandans, they lost a great friend and supporter of their nation who not only helped repair diplomatic relations but more importantly, fostered new trust.

In March 2013, while residing in Rwanda, I was approached by members of a genocide survivors organisation. They expressed concern of President Magufuli’s predecessor, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete who seemingly was a supporter of the beliefs and actors who inflicted the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. At the time, this was of serious concern. President Kikwete held several meetings with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) which are considered a terrorist group within Rwanda. While the rebel force is not a considerable threat to overthrow the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s political control of the state, they nevertheless posed a security threat back in 2013 and 2014 (and even still now).

The FDLR’s uniqueness as a security threat was not just confined in terrorist attacks against Rwandan civilians but they wished to disrupt Rwanda’s social norms and identity. At the core of the FDLR is an ideology originating from Rwanda’s pre-genocide period believing in Hutu ethnic supremacy, ethnic divisions and a return to violence akin to the genocide itself. For genocide survivors, President Kikwete’s engagement and support of this rebel force was unacceptable. The President’s open call for unconditional talks between the Rwandan government with the FDLR was perceived at the time as a dangerous proposition. Additionally, it was an insult to the 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and non-extremist Hutus killed by the same ideology held by the FDLR.

President Kikwete’s engagement with critical voices against Rwanda did not stop with the FDLR but included the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). This political group has ties to various rebel groups and Hutu extremists contain former members of the Juvénal Habyarimana regime (1973-1994) and even some disgraced past RPF members. Once again, President Kikwete provided support to this political group which continues to call for an end to the current Rwandan government. He even invited RNC and FDLR leaders to visit his home, which was a clear indication to Rwandans of his support for not only these groups, but their ideology.

Fundamentally, Rwandans did not trust Tanzania under the leadership of President Kikwete. During my interviews with Rwandan government, civil and military officials, many expressed concerns of the level of support Tanzania would be providing these antagonistic forces. What made the situation even more troubling was Tanzania’s contribution to the United Nations Foreign Intervention Brigade (FIB) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The FIB’s intended purpose was to fight against the former Congolese rebel group March 23 Movement (M23). However, some within the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) wondered whether Tanzanian forces, which contributed to the FIB, would use this opportunity to provide military aid to the FDLR.

However, tensions calmed with Magufuli’s Presidential election in October 2015. He began a new wave of political and economic relations between the two nations. However, at the time of his election, not many knew how to react in Rwanda. Some Rwandan officials were worried of a continuation of President Kikwete’s antagonism against Rwanda. But others were hopeful with one laughingly responding, “it can’t be worse than Kikwete!”

President Magufuli would act quickly to help restore ties with Rwanda. In April 2016, months after being sworn in, he met with President Kagame at the Rusumo Bridge, a primary border crossing between the two countries. He would later visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the primary genocide memorial and museum in Kigali. Typically, most visiting dignitaries pay a quick visit to the Memorial by placing flowers on one of the many mass graves containing over 250,000 genocide victims. President Magufuli’s visit was different. He expressed regret of how Tanzania truly did not understand what had happened in Rwanda during the genocide. His genuine concern and interest even shocked some of those working at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

One guide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial describes:

“We know that Magufuli didn’t plan to visit the museum and caught everyone off guard when he asked [President] Kagame for them to visit. He even surprised Kagame. But I think Kagame was happy that John [Magufuli] wanted to visit the museum and learn about the genocide and history to better foster unity between the two nations. There was such a sense of happiness and relief by the Rwandans who were there,”

-(page 175 from, Foreign Policy in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Elite Perceptions of Global Engagement published by Routledge, 2021).

Relations between Tanzania and Rwanda continued to improve under President Magufuli’s watch. But it was this moment, while at the Kigali Genocide Memorial which I believe speaks volumes about the impact he had not only on re-establishing diplomatic ties but restoring trust. President Magufuli could have just placed the flowers on the mass graves and simply departed from the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Rather, he differed from the expected schedule as he wished to visit inside the museum to learn about the genocide. Perhaps his true intent for visiting inside the museum was for the Tanzanian news media, which were covering his visit to Rwanda, to come with him and show to his countrymen the horrors of the genocide. We maybe able to speculate how President Magufuli understood an element within Rwanda’s consciousness when it engages with the outside world.

Rwandan foreign relations are built upon many intersubjective beliefs that influence how Rwandan official within the government, military, civil society and the economic sphere perceive and engage with the international community. While some journalists and amateur researchers reduce Rwanda’s foreign policy to just the genocide guilt card, this is a reductionist argument for simplicity over reality. Within the complex web of Rwanda’s perception is the concept of abandonment. Rwanda has been abandoned by the international community all too often. Not just during the genocide, but ever since the Hutu Revolution in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Up to a million Rwandans would be forced to flee their homes with little care by the international community. With each new pogrom, massacre or forced exile of Rwandans, the international community did little to help.

For Rwandans, especially genocide survivors, Tanzania under President Kikwete wanted to abandon Rwanda to the same actors and beliefs who caused so much bloodshed and pain. President Magufuli knew the level of damage this caused and helped rebuild trust. We can see it during his visit at the Kigali Genocide Memorial of how Rwanda would not be abandoned at least by Tanzania under his Presidency. He was not going to allow the memory of all who had died during the genocide be forgotten by supporting genocide ideology. Hopefully, the new President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, will continue on the path which President Magufuli started.