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.