A Land of Violence, A Land of Conquest: Memory, Truth, Historical Continuity, and Imperialism in Rwanda

April 22, 2024

By Paolo Bellone


How is the imperialism of a small African country connected with questions about its own identity and troubled past? In this paper, I try to analyze through the lenses of historical continuity how the ghosts of a dramatic past have crafted Rwanda’s foreign policy. My analysis goes deeper into the pre-colonial era, observing patterns of similarities throughout Rwandan history, starting from the kingdoms of Rwanda in the 18th century until Paul Kagame’s presidency (2000–present). Moreover, instead of seeing a historical break between the pre- and post-1994 genocide governments, I have found historical parallels with the Rwandan independent governments, especially between those of Juvénal Habyarimana (1973–1994) and Paul Kagame. Those similarities swing around the necessity of controlling ethnic dissent, determining a common truth, centralizing power, and establishing the cult of the leader. Nonetheless, the dramatic consequences of the genocide and the international legitimation that has brought on Kagame’s party Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) have had, as a result, an imperialistic project based on the necessity of defending “national security.” Rwanda’s delicate balance between managing internal dissent, the homogenization of the society through shared collective memory, and the imperialistic project is at the center of this work.


“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

– Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard


Introduction: A Contested Memory

Michela Wrong starts her inquiry into the Rwandan regime with a historical anecdote concerning the truth and how it is expressed in this complex region (Wrong 2021, 2). The account is the story of Dr. Richard Kandt, a German explorer and naturalist who arrived at the gates of the Rwandan Royal Court in 1898. When he asked to see the Mwani (King) Yuhi Musinga, the courtiers presented him with a relative and awaited his reaction, laughing among themselves at the German’s anticipated stupidity. Dr. Kandt, however, knew the local language (Kinyarwanda) and had done some research. He knew that the Mwani was a teenager. The expressions among the courtiers rapidly changed when he shifted into Kinyarwanda, pointing out how this relative was not the true Mwani. His reward was to be made a Resident in Rwanda, a mediator between the Rwandan Tutsi court and a Germany hungry for an African Empire. His house in Kigali is now a national museum, a tribute to a European—a foreigner—capable of not falling into the net of lies woven by the Rwandan courtiers. This anecdote sheds light on two essential elements: how the concept of “truth” is considered an internal affair of Rwanda, and how it is manipulated by Rwanda’s elite in its relationship with foreigners. 

This small country in the Great Lakes region is, in a certain sense, a unique case. A country almost destroyed by the horrendous genocide of 1994 proved capable of rebuilding itself, becoming a model for many other African countries. This classic story is palatable to the Western world, in which the concept of genocide and resilience have a special place in the media narrative, especially in the United States, with its unique relationship with Israel (Mwambari 2021, 611-628).

Secretary Blinken Visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda

United States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, on August 11, 2022. Image "Secretary Blinken Visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda" by U.S. Department of State is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The “truth,” namely a version of events not soiled by the Rwandan political elite, is almost impossible to detect, especially if observing the vast net of lies that characterizes the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and its attachment to power. However, a certain complexity is crucial to understanding how events are not black or white but far more nuanced. I will try to analyze the history of violence and memory in Rwanda through the lens of historical continuity, finding in the past the common elements that characterize all the ambiguities behind the contemporary “success story” of this small African state. History will be the essential tool to simultaneously complexify and decomplexify the ways Rwanda presents itself to the world and how there’s not a “new Rwanda,” born from the ashes of the genocide, but a country with its own historical trajectory that is leaning toward a multifaceted imperialistic project. Taking into account the relevance of historical continuities would mean, for Western liberal countries, avoiding the terrible contradictions that have been made following a redemptive narrative, the one promoted by the current Rwandan regime. Backing an authoritarian state will just result in the jeopardization of the reputation of its allies (Munshi and Marks 2024). Certainly, Rwanda is in the same region where Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was settled, but that doesn’t mean that its history has to remain in the shadows.


Ku-aanda: A Genealogy of Violence

Rwanda has a long historical trajectory (Reyntjens 2018, 514-532). Far from being only a colonial creation, this political entity already existed when European colonizers came (Germans first, then Belgians). From pre-colonial times to the post-genocide era, four elements have shaped this political entity: concentration of power, intra-regime conflicts, ethnicity, and the intense nature of the state. The reasons for widespread violence in the Rwandan context must be found in the linearity of its past. Rwanda's first pre-colonial forms of political entities were based on kingdoms; under King Rujugira (1770–1783), a strong army was created (Chrétien 2003, 160-161).

Steadily, the military became the organizational framework of the country, the element that allowed for a certain degree of social mobility. At the same time, the concentration of power in a few hands (those of the military leaders) was an essential step in the unification and defense of the kingdom. Observing these elements, it is not surprising to understand why war and violence played and still play a significant role in Rwandan history. 

A detailed etymological analysis of the name Rwanda is eye-opening: Rwanda derives from Ku-aanda, meaning “expansion or spreading out from the center” (Rusagara 2009, xvi). This expansion resulted in the concentration of power in the hands of the army and was accompanied by struggles inside the regime and the courts (Vansina 2004). 

The colonial period was characterized by the strengthening of the existing political and administrative system, which would later result in a strong state. The indirect rule applied by the colonizers meant that administrative and military ideologies remained almost the same from the pre-colonial period, with a significant difference: when the Belgian colonizers took control of Rwanda in 1916 (after the defeat of Germany in World War I and the loss of its rights in Rwanda), they reinforced the existing ethnic division between Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa (Chrétien 2005, 129-167). 

The two most prominent ethnic groups were the Hutu and Tutsi. Applying the logic of divide et impera, the Belgians institutionalized the racial superiority of the Tutsi, who were considered to have Caucasian origins. Under Belgian rule, the majority of administrative and military roles were given to the Tutsi minority, considered the best option for maintaining indirect control. However, with the growing power enjoyed by the Tutsi, the Belgians shifted their support toward the Hutu in the mid-1950s (Reyntjens 2009, 1-45). This event led to the Hutu Revolution of 1959–1961, and, when Rwanda became independent in 1962, it was under the Hutu-dominated Republic. Even under the two Hutu Republics (1961–1990), the pattern remained quite similar: concentration of powers between the president and the army, a strong state apparatus, intra-state conflicts, and the issue of ethnicity. 

The situation turned dramatic when a small community of Tutsi who fled the consequences of the Hutu Revolution of 1959–61, settling mainly in Uganda decided to organize themselves into the RPF to seize power, following the persecutions suffered under Hutu rule, with the backing of the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The already existing RPF and its army, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) started an attack in 1990. The conflict lasted four years and brought about two significant consequences: from one side, the victory of the RPF and the taking of power by their leader Paul Kagame; from the other side, the horrors of genocide, committed mainly by the Interahamwe, the Hutu-led paramilitary organization, left the country destroyed and traumatized (Fujii 2011, 1-23). Even if formally declared as a government against any ethnic division, the new Rwanda is ruled by a Tutsi military elite, who are nostalgic for the pre-colonial kingdoms (Jessee 2017, 144-163). During the almost 30 years of RPF and Kagame rule, the country has observed a reinforcement of the state control apparatus (Reyntjens 2015) and a central role for the army. Indeed, the militaries have also accomplished “pedagogic” tasks through the establishment of civic reeducation and indoctrination camps, known as Ingando (Reyntjens 2011, 1-34), targeting mainly thousands of prisoners accused of genocidal crimes. So, the effects of the RPF's takeover of power have been the concentration of power in the hands of the President and the army, the “Tutsification” (Reyntjens 2011, 1-34) of the political and military elite, the persecution of opponents, and the solidification of the state.


A Shared Past: The Kagame Regime and its Similarities with the Hutu Republics

The genocide has played a central role in Rwandan history, establishing a new periodization: a history pre-genocide and a history post-genocide (Desrosiers 2011, 429-453). The rhetorical artifice of the Rwandan state, the one that accompanies this kind of periodization, is the rhetoric of a new beginning, fresh from the horrors of the past and directed toward a shining future. However, as Thompson and Desrosiers highlight (Desrosiers 2011, 429-453), clear continuities exist between the Juvénal Habyarimana (1973–1994) and Paul Kagame (2000–present) regimes, which have both projected a remarkably similar image of “benevolent leadership.” As heralds of an improved and “new” Rwanda, both leaders claimed to be the best option to guide the country toward the “right path” of peace, security, and development. This kind of leadership has generated a gaping distance between the Rwandan elites (those “who know what is right”) and the population (those “needing guidance”). In both cases, this pattern of benevolent leadership reinforces the importance of hierarchy, authority, and the need for obedience, aiming to limit popular dissent and stimulate support on the part of the population. The savvy management of this image has been used to try to manage and improve relations with the international community. Grégoire Kayibanda’s regime (1962–1973) took power and increasingly isolated itself on the international scene because of the ethnic policies and actions of the First Republic (1962–1973) (Chrétien 2003, 268-269). The politicians of the Second Republic (1973–1990) saw, in the debris left by Kayibanda’s regime, the opportunity to establish a new relationship with civil society and the world. The same can be said of Kagame’s regime, which had to rebuild the nation after the genocide. From a little-known country to one associated with one of the worst tragedies of the twentieth century, post-genocide Rwanda had the opportunity to forge deep relations with the international community. This tragic story, easily associated with the events of the Jewish people and the establishment of Israel, generated in the Western audience sympathy toward the Tutsi people, the RPF, and its leader Paul Kagame (Helm 2005, 1-27). 

An ongoing dependence on foreign aid is an element shared by all Rwandan regimes. This dependence made good relations with the international community necessary (Ansoms 2008, 1-32). The relationship with the international community has also been managed by the way in which foreigners, especially Western citizens, are treated when they come to visit Rwanda. There’s an “aesthetic of progress” (Ingelaere 2010, 41-59), in which visitors are confronted mainly with an “urban bias,” namely the visit to Kigali and its growing urbanization, considered a synonym of development. An example of that is Kinzer’s book, A Thousand Hills. The author interviews mainly Rwandan urban elite affiliated with the RPF, giving an astonishingly myopic vision of Rwanda, a vision incapable of seeing beyond Kigali’s skyscrapers. For too many of them, progress is conceived just in an economic sense, without considering the implications of a lack of freedom of speech and growing social inequalities.

The genocide has played a central role in Rwandan history, establishing a new periodization: a history pre-genocide and a history post-genocide. The rhetorical artifice of the Rwandan state, the one that accompanies this kind of periodization, is the rhetoric of a new beginning, fresh from the horrors of the past and directed toward a shining future.

Regarding the state-society links, both governments have encountered difficulties in managing civil society. During the late 1980s, droughts, famines, and unfavorable economic conditions put Habyarimana’s regime in an unfavorable light in the eyes of the population. Also, the relationship with some bureaucratic and political elites was worsening. The best example is grounded on region-based divisions among the political elites (Newbury 1998, 7-24). Kagame’s regime suffered similar problems in its relations with the population, especially with the rural population still connected, in the imagination of the RPF elite, with the massacres of 1994. Many Rwandans know that an authoritarian regime runs post-genocide Rwanda with little regard for human rights and little respect for peasants or the welfare of the population (Jessee 2017, 237-261).

The relationship with elites is also not straightforward. The Kagame regime is allergic to domestic dissent, even when it comes from members of the RPF, as the murder of the former head of intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, has demonstrated (Wrong 2021, 17-37). To tackle these domestic issues, both regimes have projected the image of “benevolent leadership,” trying to discipline the Rwandan population through the exaltation of the “charismatic leader” and the concentration of power in a few hands. The centrality of the concept of “higher morality” is observable in both cases. The Habyarimana coup was seen by many as a “moral revolution” (Verwimp 2005, 297-323) and the beginning of a new era for Rwanda’s people. The pillar of this new Rwanda had to be ethnic harmony and regional peace. As many people claim in the interviews made by Jesse, in contemporary Rwanda, the idea of Habyarimana as an advocate of ethnic cohesion in the country is pervasive, at least at the beginning of his regime (Jessee 2017, 215-237). For Habyarimana, that meant management of ethnic divisions, and for Kagame, the negation of ethnic differences. Even if presented as a multiparty democracy, Rwanda is still an authoritarian regime, as it was during the years of Habyarimana’s regime. 


Truth and Reconciliation: Change Everything to Change Nothing

In the “new Rwanda” of Paul Kagame, ethnic unity and reconciliation dominate government policy and its task of establishing a shared concept of “truth.” Ironically, however, the key to unity for the regime lies in the past. The RPF claims that ethnic unity is a traditional value that must be reasserted, reinforced, and taught to the population. The official version of Rwandan history and how the genocide happened is embedded in a particular narrative emphasizing the ethnic unity that Rwandans enjoyed before colonization (Reyntjens 2011, 1-34). Colonization, the official record argues, factionalized Rwandans by turning the labels Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa into racial or ethnic categories (Jessee 2017, 45-81). The violence against the Tutsi in 1959 and the 1994 genocide are seen as strictly ethnic in origin, ignoring important class and regional dimensions of these events (Straus 2006, 1-16). Reconciliation, for its part, is built to promote a vision of unity by educating and mobilizing Rwandans for the new Rwanda, free from division and genocidal ideology. In that way, the regime establishes the standard of political and moral correctness in the country, especially on the issues of unity and reconciliation. 

Government officials and other representatives of civil society are expected to tell the “truth” (that is, the official narrative). Local officials often force peasants to “perform” reconciliation (Jessee 2017, 144-163). Hutu who don’t tell the official truth and Tutsi who do not forgive in state-sanctioned public courts like gacaca are harassed and imprisoned (Ingelaere 2010, 41-59).

Gacaca trial

Gacaca trial. Image "Gacaca trial" by Scott Chacon is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The gacaca system was a pre-colonial justice system, active at least since the 17th century (Huyse and Salter 2008, 33-35), that relied on public testimony of survivors and their suspected killers to establish the truth about a violent past (Ingelaere 2016, 50-75). As Ingelaere points out, gacaca courts are presented as a Rwandan solution for Rwandan problems (Ingelaere 2016, 98-116). These courts drew inspiration from pre-colonial practices of restorative relationships in communities after disputes, but in the case of contemporary Rwanda, gacaca were used for crimes related to genocide. These courts were re-established in 2005 and treated more than 1.2 million cases throughout the country until 2012, when they were closed (Department of Public Information of the UN, 2014). However, being established by the regime, it is easy to think that gacaca courts are sites where the RPF tries to consolidate its narrative among the people, especially the rural Hutu peasants. Of particular concern for the RPF establishment is eliminating critics who compare the violence of the genocide with war and killings of civilians that the RPF committed before, during, and after the 1994 events; in that sense, the extreme controversy generated around the BBC documentary “Rwanda: The Untold Story” is eye-opening (Reyntjens 2015, 637-648). Some authors discuss a “selective amnesia” (Buckley-Zistel 2006, 131-150) embedded among Rwandan people. The memory of the crimes committed by the RPF is not part of the official history. Even if many Rwandans know what happened, they prefer to forget to avoid problems with official authorities. However, as the article of Mwambari on agaciro shows (Mwambari 2021, 611-628), the will to establish a unique official truth for every citizen is confronted with a multi-layered social complexity in which many families claim their own agaciro. [1]]  A parallel “unofficial” history is, in that way, established among many citizens. In the shadow of official truth, it is possible to find another reality that relates to a more nuanced memory, one in which the conflicts in this complex region have seen the RPF as the protagonist of many violations of human rights. In 2012, gacaca courts were closing, and agaciro emerged as another way to establish the truth (Mwambari 2021, 611-628), but this time a truth far less controlled by the Rwandan government. Through this kind of conflicting memory, many different stories have appeared, including the role of the RPF in the Kibeho massacre (Prunier 2010, 38-42) and the carnage it wrought in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Also, the role of Kigali behind the establishment and funding of the March 23 Movement (M-23) rebel movement in Congo has been raised (Stearns 2022, 121-163). Memory is also “controlled” by the steady elimination of opposition political parties, such as the ban on the Republican Democratic Movement (MDR) in 2003, accused of “divisionism,” has shown (Reyntjens 2011, 64-69).


From the Thousand Hills to the Endless Wills: The Imperialism of a Small African Country

Rwanda has also become the perfect case study of an African country expanding its sphere of influence in the region through an imperialistic project. The thirst for enlarging Rwandan territory and its influence in the region derives from logistical reasons like security and demography, as well as a drive for resources. The smuggling of minerals, specifically led through movements such as the M-23, is a business worth billions of dollars, bringing into the Rwandan economy some valuable minerals such as gold, coltan, and tin (Schipani and Wilson 2023).

Since the refugee crisis in the DRC in the post-genocide years, and the subsequent war in DRC unleashed by Kagame and Museveni (backing the Congolese rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila) against former DRC President Mobutu’s regime (Williams 2013, 81-100) (who had been accused of having backed the Hutu genocidaires), Rwanda has emerged as one of the main actors in the region, showing incredible resilience and military organization. [2]]  The foreign policy of Rwanda has also been shown in its contribution, since 2004, as a core contributor to African peacekeeping operations throughout the continent (Moody 2022). The aggressive Rwandan foreign policy is based essentially around four points (Beswick 2014, 212-231): mistrust of external actors, coupled with an emphasis on self-reliance (agaciro); an interventionist outlook, based on the responsibility to protect its own people, as the case of Tutsi Banyamulenge in DRC (Turner 2007, 1-24). Finally, the last two points revolve around the use of force as an effective rampart against genocide; and the predominant role of the military. These four elements, with the addition of the demographic challenge of overpopulation (Renouil 2022), (with Rwanda being one the most densely populated areas in the world) and the desire to exploit the rich resources of the Congolese Kivu and Katanga regions (Nichols and Charbonneau 2012), have pushed Rwanda to an ambitious foreign policy. [3]]  There are two arenas in which Kigali has shown its aggressive approach: intervention in the enduring conflict (Stearns 2022) in the neighboring DRC and peacekeeping, especially in the case of Darfur (South Sudan). 

Due to the international recognition caused by the genocide, the RPF leaders have also made important statements on global and African crises (Statement by Rwanda 2016). In addition, the successful diplomatic slogan of “African solutions to African problems” seems to have long prevented the international community from considering the possibility of criticizing this kind of project, namely the imperialism of some countries to the detriment of others in the African arena. It is impossible to understand Rwanda without considering the role that genocide had in shaping its collective identity. The victory of the RPF against the “génocidaires” of the Hutu extremist movement gave the Kagame regime two crucial tools: the legitimacy (especially in the international arena) to be considered “the savior” who stopped the genocide, and the “obligation” of justice, chasing and persecuting the Hutu militia that fled the country, mainly in the direction of DRC, in 1994. The refugee crisis that ended with the first conflict in Congo and the invasion by the RPA was justified by Kigali by the fact that among the refugees, there were movements of Hutu paramilitaries (Interahamwe) and that, under protection by the Congolese government, they were secretly training in refugee camps to retake power in Rwanda. The refugee crisis, as well as the pretense of defending the Congolese Tutsi (Banyamulenge) from the risk of genocide, were the main reasons that pushed the RPF to start a war. However, the conflict has evolved into a push for territorial control and resources (Reyntjens 2022). The conflict in Congo has been carried on by Kigali through the backing and funding of Congolese rebel movements, such as the M-23 (Uwiringiyimana 2022), which by many observers is considered to be directly controlled by the Rwandan government (Smith 2012). The M-23 has recently put Goma, the capital of the Northern Kivu region, under siege, generating an instability that could potentially escalate the tensions between the DRC and Rwanda (The Economist 2024). This example clearly shows how the borders between internal and foreign affairs are blurred in the Rwandan case; the relevance of security policy has pushed Kigali to “foreignize” its internal political affairs.

Meanwhile, since 1994, Rwanda’s military has been transformed, reaching the important number of 35,000 soldiers in 2009 (Wilén 2012, 1323-1336). The RPA, which had been considered too strictly linked with the RPF, was reshaped and renamed Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) in 2002 (Wilén 2012, 1323-1336), after the integration of many ex-soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), the official army under the Habyarimana regime. For many international observers, this new army is one of the best-trained, most professional, and most disciplined on the continent. This is one of the reasons why Rwanda is one of the core partners in peacekeeping missions throughout Africa. The prestige and international sympathy enjoyed by Kagame’s regime is the result of an official narration about the story of a country that has been able to “resurrect” itself from the atrocities of the genocide. The material consequences of this prestige are the donor investments made by the international community (especially the United States and the United Kingdom), which Rwanda has used to reinforce its already strong army.

The fact that this kind of narrative, in which Kagame’s regime is presented as a success story, is shared by an essential part of the Western community, especially the United States, provides Rwanda’s representatives a respected and unique voice in debates on African conflict management and genocide prevention internationally.

After having “defeated” the genocide, the Rwandan military forces have been portrayed on the international scene as the “army of good.” The manipulation of the genocide has become quintessential to managing African conflicts and “protecting” civilians. The following statement made by the former Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo at the Bundestag summarizes well this Manichean way to observe international affairs and the role of Rwanda in the world: “Will rage at this historic transgression turn us into an insular and embittered nation — or can we transcend anger and instead seek more and better engagement with the world? We chose the latter, opting for a path of reconciliation both inside and outside our borders.” (Igihe 2013)

The fact that this kind of narrative, in which Kagame’s regime is presented as a success story, is shared by an essential part of the Western community, especially the United States (U.S. Department of State 2022), provides Rwanda’s representatives a respected and unique voice in debates on African conflict management and genocide prevention internationally. An exceptional example of this kind of “moral power” is the case of Darfur. An atrocious conflict suffocated Sudan at the beginning of 2000 (Reid 2012, 147-183), in which the Sudanese military regime attempted to exterminate many ethnic Darfuri populations. This event unleashed a series of protests and was labeled a genocide by Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch 2004). The following peacekeeping missions brought by the UN, with the critical participation of Rwandese soldiers, and the denunciation of Khartoum’s actions made by the Rwandan government (Straus 2006, 41-55) were part of Rwanda’s strategy to enlarge its sphere of influence (Wilson Center 2005). The spiderweb of international and diplomatic relations woven by Rwanda in the last decades is certainly complex and fascinating; an analysis of the relations with its most prominent ally, namely the West, and specifically some countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, is compulsory to have a larger picture and understand better why this small, apparently isolated country, could act in such unpunished way.


A Linguistic, Geopolitical Waltz: Rwanda’s Post-Genocide Foreign Relations

This date, 1994, represents more than a simple year in Rwanda’s history; it has been a watershed in many things, among them the foreign relations with the so-called Western world (Swedlund 2022, 178-193). Prior to the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s foreign policy was strictly connected with the French-speaking world represented by the former colonizer Belgium and, above all, France. During Rwanda’s Second Republic (1973–1994), French-Rwandan relations grew more profoundly, as President Habyarimana had a personal relationship with French President Mitterand (Melvern 2000, 24-39). However, after the genocide, when the RPF and its leader, Kagame, took power, the relations with the West were profoundly reshaped. France was considered an ally of the former genocidal government, and new actors that historically did not have too much importance in Rwandan international relations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, entered the scene (Hayman 2010, 341-360). Since then, the United Kingdom and the United States have been the most valuable Western allies for Rwanda, significantly contributing to its development through international cooperation. The relationship was strengthened in the early 2000s with security cooperation and the defense of this central African state from international criticism (Beloff 2023, 72-82). However, this strong relationship did not necessarily translate into a strong influence from those Anglo-Saxon countries vis-à-vis Rwanda. The strong Rwandan presence in DRC, through the support of the M-23 movement, despite having been denounced in 2012 by a group of UN experts on illegal mineral theft, followed by a withdrawal of UK foreign aid, didn’t change (Beloff 2023, 72-82). In fact, the UK rapidly resumed aid. In 2015, the British High Commission in Rwanda legitimized the RPF policies in DRC, arguing that fighting against the Hutu paramilitary militia in eastern DRC was necessary for Rwanda’s defense (Beloff 2021, 183-185). Rwanda’s decision to join the Commonwealth in 2009 (Fletcher 2009) brought many economic advantages. Having the ambition of becoming one of the high-tech hubs in Africa, the logic of joining the English-speaking world was certainly strategic since the Information, Communication, Technology (ICT) sector and international trade are primarily in English. However, that decision resulted in amplifying the social division between an old class of Rwandans who were educated in French and a new RPF elite who, growing up in refugee camps in Uganda, spoke English (Samuelson and Freedman 2010, 191-215). This linguistic clash symbolizes perfectly the geopolitical waltz that RPF’s Rwanda started to dance after 1994. From the UK and the US position, Rwanda is undoubtedly a strategic partner since, beyond providing the perfect example of the well-doing of international cooperation and aid, the country has also become an effective ally in the African continent for peacemaking missions such as in Central African Republic and Mozambique (Cannon and Donelli 2023, 109-127). The reduction of instability brought by the Rwandan peacekeeping missions limits the risk of terrorism, providing the people with a better environment and avoiding migration, something that for the UK and European governments have become a central topic in recent years. The UK and Rwandan governments signed a five-year Migration and Economic Development Partnership in 2022. With this agreement, Rwanda received £240 million in development funding at the cost of taking an unclear number of migrants seeking refuge in the UK (BBC 2024). This agreement, due to its controversial nature, has been widely criticized and has not yet been approved by the British parliament; despite that, this plan says a lot about the perception of credibility that Kagame’s Rwanda has reached with the Western world and, in particular, the United Kingdom and the United States. This agreement is critical in understanding the relatively mute response to the recent allegations of further Rwandan support of the M-23 new military operation in eastern DRC (Schwikowski 2024).

M23 troops in Rutshuru army base

M-23 troops in Northern Kivu. Image "M23 troops in Rutshuru army base" by Al Jazeera English is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

As I have described, the Rwandan foreign policy toward the West is a waltz, and as a waltz, it revolves. Diplomatic and military relations with France have recently improved under President Macron, as the cooperation between the two countries against Islamic terrorists in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, has proven (Cannon and Donelli 2023, 109-127). France, through its major hydrocarbon company, Total, had substantial concessions in Cabo Delgado, and the intervention of Rwandan troops against the advance of Islamists proved vital. Despite that, reestablishing strong relations between France and Rwanda seems to be a difficult task due to the great hesitation that the ruling RPF elite still holds towards a country that, they feel, substantially helped Habyarimana’s regime. Despite that, future agreements in the economic and commercial fields are foreseeable between these two countries (Broulard 2022). 

The future of Western/Rwandan relations seems shining; however, the destabilization of neighboring Congo and the rising tensions with other close countries such as Burundi and Uganda (Reyntjens 2022) should not leave the West indifferent. Rwanda is a place that is becoming more and more of a police state, in which human rights are sacrificed under the promotion of development. Opposition leaders are either killed, imprisoned, or banned from the election (The Guardian 2024). Maybe Rwanda is growing economically compared to other countries in the region, but the distribution of revenues should be considered better. Rwanda is still an extremely unequal country (World Economics 2019), but, most dangerously, is an illiberal country. Not exactly the best example for a Western world that is struggling to promote its universal idea of freedom and individual rights. Blind backing of countries such as Rwanda is not certainly protecting countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States from the claims of hypocritical behavior from anti-Western leaders. The risks, for Western leaders, of pretending more freedom and a less aggressive foreign policy from Rwanda are high. This country is an essential ally in the region and could turn its back to the West, taking advantage of relatively new partnerships with illiberal countries such as China, Russia, and India (Swedlund 2022, 178-193). However, a country with such aggressive behavior both toward its own citizens and its neighbors is doomed to fail. It is up to the West to do its moral and strategic evaluations.


Conclusion: Looks Can Be Deceiving

The Kagame regime pretends to have turned a page in Rwandan history. However, the way in which power is managed in Rwanda, namely through authoritarian rule, violence, centralization of power, and the cult of the “benevolent” leader, is a typical pattern throughout Rwandan history. Even the establishment of gacaca courts, as well as a specific cultivation of the myth of Rwanda as a peaceful and harmonious place just before colonialism, shows how this government is searching for the “truth” in the past, manipulating history, and, in that way, finding it in an idealized past. I have shown how continuity is an essential concept to understanding twenty-first-century Rwanda. It is a continuity that has been selected in a distant, idealized past, a continuity that uses the past to find a future. Something similar can be found in Habyarimana’s regime and its project to form a new Rwanda. Some elements change, but how both governments present themselves, with supposedly progressivist ideals, and a curated truth, is more analogous than different.

In Rwanda, there are still ethnic quotas (the Tutsi RPF elite dominates the political and economic landscape), even if the government pretends to negate these differences. There is still an authoritarian rule, even if the same government claims that the multi-party system is the one that officially characterizes the country (a country governed by the same party for more than 20 years). Finally, regional identities have become transnational in the way in which the “inner circle” of Kagame, consisting of Tutsi who grew up in Uganda during their exile (Prunier 2010, 1-37), is the leading group. The ethnic and regional identities of the Habyarimana’s regime still exist and have become even more extensive and transnational, as demonstrated by the leadership of Paul Kagame, a president who, having grown up in an anglophone country, does not speak French, a language still known by many older Rwandans who never left the country. 

In Kinyarwanda, there is a word, ubwenge, that can be translated as cunningness (Chrétien 2010, 103-121). This definition seems to have inspired Kigali’s government, especially in its relations with Western partners. In that sense, the opera of the RPF and Kagame leadership has been genial. Change everything to change nothing. An exceptional work of engineering of appearances has allowed the government to cultivate relations with Western countries while still being considered an “African model.” Without avoiding the consideration of the complexity of the area and the fact that almost every country in the Great Lakes region tends or has tended toward authoritarianism, considering the Rwandan regime as a model is a hypocrisy that will cost both the Rwandan government as well as its Western allies, especially the United States and the United Kingdom (Beswick 2011, 1911-1930), dearly in reputation.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets Rwandan President Kagame

United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets Rwandan President Kagame in 2023. Image "Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets Rwandan President Kagame" by Number 10 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

Finally, the interventionist stance is a double-edged sword in Rwandan foreign policy. While Rwanda strongly advocates African peacekeeping, it’s hard to understate this small but strong country's role in destabilizing the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Peace Direct 2022). The Rwandan argument, one that justifies intervention when states fail to secure their territory and the safety of its citizens, can be questioned observing the mounting authoritarianism of the Kagame regime as well as its even more critical relations with its neighbors and former allies Uganda and Burundi (Reyntjens 2022). Moreover, even if the Rwandan regime has long enjoyed excellent relations with the United States and the United Kingdom (both between the best donor representatives for Rwanda), things are changing due to the continuous instability in the Congolese regions of Kivu and Katanga. Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars that international organizations have spent to stabilize the area, this instability has pushed the American and British governments to convince Rwanda to stop supporting the rebel groups and instead seek long-term solutions (Kariuki 2022). The foreign policy of Rwanda has been reflected around four main issues: ending the genocide and prosecuting the criminals; defeating the post-genocide insurgency; facing genocidal militias threatening Tutsi in DRC; and peacekeeping missions (especially in Darfur). However, even if at the beginning of this policy, Kagame’s regime enjoyed much sympathy, throughout the years, the growing ambitions of its military court pushed the country into a complicated situation in which some of its former regional allies such as Uganda and Burundi have become suspicious of Kigali’s ambitions. In conclusion to my analysis of Rwandan imperialism, it would seem that, even if the heritage of the monopoly on truth due to the state control of genocide’s memory concedes the Rwandan regime important moral advantages to use both internally and internationally, the further expansion of Kigali will be undermined by the aggressive, violent policy in neighboring Congo as well as by the systematic internal repression. This moral conundrum will soon put Rwanda, and most importantly, its Western donors and backers in the face of a new existential crisis: either follow the path of latent violence, with the risk of generating a stronger internal and external opposition, either try to liberalize internally the Rwandan society and choose diplomatic solutions to the disputes with the neighboring countries. Without considering this second option, looks are and will always be deceiving. Rwanda is not the beautiful phoenix reborn from the ashes of genocide, instead, it seems to be the same, aggressive hawk that used to be: an authoritarian and expansionist regime. 

*This article was edited by Aaron Arnett (Princeton University), and Sam Padmanabhan (University of Minnesota).

About the Author

Paolo Bellone

Paolo Bellone is a second-year Master's student of International History and Politics at the Geneva Graduate Institute. He previously studied Cultural Anthropology at the University of Turin and the School of Governance and Economics of Rabat, where he earned a double degree. With prior professional experience in diplomacy on the African continent and research experiences in Ghana and Senegal, his academic interests revolve around international and transnational history, as well as the history of violence, memory, and trauma.


First of all, as a lover of clichés, let me thank my parents for always believing in me. Many thanks to my editors, Aaron and Samuel; they have both been lighthouses in this storm of words that is writing. Finally, I would like to thank my professors of African history, Aidan Russell and Jean-François Bayart; if the African continent is one of the most fascinating human puzzles, they certainly helped me to put together many pieces.


[1] Agarciro means dignity, self-respect, and self-worth. (Return to Note)

[2] This definition refers to the people who are guilty of genocide due to their involvement in the mass killings that were perpetrated in the context of the Rwandan civil war (1990-1994). (Return to Note)

[3] The pursuit of mineral resources such as gold, diamonds, and coltan have generated a sort of “business conflict,” namely a process in which conflicts progressively reorient from their original goals (in the case of Rwanda; security its borders) towards profit, and through which military actors capitalize increasingly on the economic opportunities the war has generated. (Return to Note)

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