Post-Genocide Rwanda: A Unique Case of Political and Psycho-Social Peacebuilding

by Ruth Gastreich

May 13, 2020


It has been almost thirty years since the violent conflict and genocide that occurred in Rwanda between the warring Hutus and the Tutsis. Reflection, hindsight, and history have all contributed to the peace building efforts Rwanda has taken to restore its country; however, Rwanda is a unique example of peace building measures because it doesn’t quite fit the academic literature progression of peace and reconciliation. Ricigliano (2012) states there are three key drivers of systemic change: structural, cultural, and behavioral change. Structural refers to systems and policies within the state; cultural includes norms, values, and patterns of shared basic assumptions; and behavioral refers to how individuals act in the state and how well they work together (Ricigliano, 2012). Change needs to take place at each of these levels for forward movement. Rwanda’s efforts of peace building have created a “repressive peace” in the political and psychosocial spheres on these levels. The term “repressive” is used because the government has control of the country politically, economically, and psychosocially. From the realist view, they have all the power and will use any tactic to maintain that power. This essay reviews the Rwandan conflict, peace building measures and implications in the political and psychosocial areas and concludes with additional thoughts on peace building and academic research.

Conflict in Rwanda

Rwanda had already been polarized between the Hutus and the Tutsis due to early colonization by Belgium and France. The Tutsis were highly favored due to their lighter complexion, and the Hutus were seen more as rural occupants and farmers – the laborers. After decolonization, massive communal violence erupted, and tensions were heightened. During the 1980’s, class and regional polarization grew due to overpopulation, and resource scarcity caused exploitation of land and famine. Democratization in 1990 caused President Habyarimana to separate party and state. After failing in the Arusha Peace agreements, the international community was about to see how ugly tensions in Rwanda really were. President Habyarimana’s death in April 1994 started the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus resulting in over 800,000 Rwandan deaths after failed peace agreements (Ricigliano, 2012). The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) secured Kigali from Hutu rule, and the civil war ended; however, “studies show that a main determinant of whether there will be a recurrence of a civil war is the duration and destructiveness of the preceding violence” (Ricigliano, 2012). Although the genocide was horrific, Rwanda was not immediately at peace.

When the civil war ended, the violence did not end with the RPF securing Kigali. Typically, throughout history, political and economic development in societies have been associated with violence – not peace. There was still violence to ravage the Rwandan people. Samset (2011, p. 268) stated, “Rwanda was certainly not ‘post-conflict’ in the first 15 years after the genocide in 1994. Collective violence occurred repeatedly, especially in the first four years.” Wars occurred in the Congo in 1996-2002 to fight Rwandans of the Hutu majority that had fled the country, and internal conflict continued (Samset, 2011). Four elements of peace building (in research led by Boutros-Ghali and Collier) include security, democracy, economic recovery, and state building, and though Rwanda succeeded in post-conflict peace, it has done so in a unique way. By avoiding democracy and using authoritarianism to control the state and people, a “repressive” peace has occurred. The RPF has maintained power over the last thirty years. Going forward, we will focus on what peace building measures were taken politically and psychosocially, but keep in mind, “peace” is a relative term.

Political Peace Building in Rwanda

The RPF party had become the “savior” of Rwanda, had a “genocide credit,” and immediately began to ensure their place was secure to remain in power. They focused on security (reform of military), economic recovery (reducing poverty), and state building (dominating politically, enacting laws, and rewriting history). They deviated from academic research by not democratizing – though the RPF put on a great show. Early strengthening of state institutions was driven by security concerns, and the post-conflict regime had high ambitions for a reform effort though there were democratic deficits and human rights concerns (Samset, 2011). Reyntjens (2011) pointed out:

From early 1995, Hutu elites became the victims of harassment, imprisonment, and even physical elimination. Provincial governors (prefets), local mayors, head teachers, clerics, and judges were killed in increasing numbers. During the following years, the same fate befell Tutsi politicians, officers, journalists, and leaders of civil society whose loyalty to the regime was in doubt. In many cases, the responsibility of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA, which had become the national army) was well documented…There are not many other countries where, in the absence of regime change, so many ministers, MPs, high-ranking army officers, civil servants, judges, diplomats, and civil society leaders have been jailed, killed, ‘disappeared’ or driven into exile abroad. (pp.8)

The RPF party had to maintain control of the government, and democracy was not an option though there was the illusion of it. Samset (2011) found that Freedom House did not consider Rwanda a democracy by 2009, and there was significant pressure to vote for the ruling party (RPF) and fraud that occurred during the presidential and parliamentary elections in the years following the genocide. The RPF dominated the political landscape of Rwanda with a strong hand.

The RPF and its army used threats and intimidation to control the country politically in the name of peace. For example, an EU observer mission saw during the 2003 vote “fraud, intimidation, the manipulation of electoral lists, ballot-box stuffing, lack of secrecy of the vote, and lack of transparency in the counting procedure,” and in 2008, these tactics led to the RPF getting over 98 percent of the vote (Reyntjens, 2011, p. 11). The elimination of political opposition by the RPF was commented on by the International Crisis Group (ICG) which stated, “When the regime’s viewpoint is not respected, accepted or understood, it is simply imposed” and “political parties that exist today in Rwanda are only tolerated if they agree not to question the definition of political life drawn up by the RPF” (Reyntjens, 2011, pp. 10-11). Samset (2011, p. 278) pointed out “Rwandans have historically been known for a relatively high tolerance for government interference and control. This relates to a political culture which ascribes high importance to respecting authorities and knowing your role in the social hierarchy.” In effect, the RPF tactics to retain control of the political system have succeeded by growing authoritarianism, and maintenance of that power included forming policies to control everything and everyone.

Laws were put in place to limit the scope for dissent from RPF views. For example, in 2001 “sectarism” (later called “divisionism”) was enacted to repress “genocide ideology” which allowed the RPF’s rewriting of history and truth (Reyntjens, 2011; Samset, 2011). This law would later have psychosocial effects on the people and their narratives. Another law was enacted to criminalize things such as “behaviour, suggestions, writings and any other acts aiming to or inciting others to exterminate human groups because of their ethnicity, origin, nationality, region, colour, physical appearance, language, religion, or political opinion” (Samset, 2011, p. 276). While on the surface, this looked like human rights, it ended up effectively curbing freedom of expression and eliminating any person or groups which disagreed with the ruling party. They were no longer Tutsis and Hutus, but rather, they were forced to forget cultural roots to all become one Rwandan people. Rwandans knew the consequences of going against the RPF, but the international community was just beginning to find out.

Though Rwanda depended on international aid, President Kagame denounced, repressed, and eliminated many analyses by international donor agencies citing “genocide ideology” was present, reports held outright lies, or noted the agencies role or lack of assistance during the genocide. Journalists and the press were threatened and/or removed from the country (or killed) if the material went against the RPF. Academic research was seized and destroyed, and researchers were banned from entering the country. The story and history of the genocide was efficiently monopolized by utilizing and exploiting feelings of guilt and lack of active assistance by the international community. Reyntjens (2011, p. 27) stated, “The RPF’s routine was simple but effective: ban outsiders from the battle zone; delay and frustrate their movements; deny any ‘rumour’ of military excesses; withhold information; (and) apply moral argument by shaming the international community.” The RPF and Kagame gained and maintain power in this way:

The RPF explored the limits of tolerance, and it realized there were none; so it crossed one Rubicon after another… Having eliminated individual domestic and external troublemakers one at a time, he had neutralized the political opposition by 2003, and civil society by 2004; between 2001 and 2010, the manipulation of elections allowed him to confer a layer of democratic legitimacy on what was in reality the gradual closing off of political space; the introduction of legal instruments allowed his regime to tighten its grip. This piecemeal approach, coupled with the regime’s moral high ground, kept the international community in a waiting mood. (Reyntjens, 2011, p. 32)

The peace building measures to restore security, political development, and economic development caused stress and undue hardship not only on the people of Rwanda, but also on the international community trying to help the Rwandan people. Structural change occurred in Rwanda’s systems and policies. Cultural change occurred by the RPF controlling the story of the genocide in research and reports. Finally, behavioral change occurred due to sheer force of the RPF army and what they could do. Ultimately, peace building occurred politically with a detrimental effect on the psychosocial component.

Psychosocial Peacebuilding in Rwanda

The horrors of the Rwandan genocide left many people and their families broken and in need of justice. Because of this, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 1998 to reduce ethnic tensions and re-educate people in “solidarity” camps, and gacaca courts were implemented at the local level to help address justice to those who had been wronged (Samset, 2011). An important aspect of reconciliation and peace building is state acknowledgement of experiences of violence which can include “memorials, museums, and narratives in textbooks” (King E. , 2010, p. 294). Much of the research that has been completed about the psychosocial effects on the Rwandan people discusses how helpful telling narratives for the memorials and gacaca courts were in the beginning, but state interference ended up corrupting the culturally accepted justice that initially occurred. In this section, we will look at what the state has done to help heal the people that is consistent with its “repressive” peace.

King (2010, p. 293) noted that the Rwandan government “selectively highlights some civilian memories of violence, and represses others, (and that) failing to acknowledge important memories hinders meaningful peacebuilding.” Acknowledgement is an important peace building act used for “the restoration of relationships, for transitional justice, and for building open, inclusive, and legitimate political institutions (which is) crucial to counteract the denial that often follows (genocide)” (King E. , 2010, p. 294). The Kigali Memorial Centre is Rwanda’s main genocide memorial that highlights civilian narratives of violence, and the Gisozi memorial was the target of multiple grenade attacks showing symbolic significance. The Kigali Memorial Centre has narratives that cited the “causes of genocide being grounded in dehumanization and discrimination against Tutsi by the previous regime,” and the RPF used Tutsi survivors’ memories as a way to maintain government power (King E. , 2010, pp. 297-298). In fact, Hutu memories are suppressed, and “saying that there are ‘unpunished RPF crimes’ is equated with the negation of genocide and may classify as the punishable offense of ‘genocide ideology’ (King E. , 2010, p. 299). This shows the behavioral change of people because they were scared of going against the RPF. While state acknowledgement occurred with the building of these memorials and implementing the gacaca courts, cultural change occurred by rewriting remembrance of genocide history. This sense of excluding certain narratives may create a path of intergroup conflict in the future.

The gacaca courts were praised when they first began. “Gacaca, which literally means ‘grass,’ was used traditionally as a Rwandan justice mechanism for dispute resolution to address issues related to property matters, inheritance, and family law” (King R. U., 2011, pp. 134-135). Reconciliation is an effect of gacaca “because of the extent of communal dialogue and collaboration during hearings” (Clark, 2014, p. 311). Between 2002 and 2012, around one million cases were prosecuted for over 400,000 genocide suspects, and the courts were the “most extensive post-conflict accountability process attempted anywhere in the world representing negotiated reconciliation” (Clark, 2014, p. 304). Though state-initiated, the government “did not adequately prepare the population for the challenges of hundreds of thousands of genocide perpetrators returning to their home communities, for more complex interpretations of culpability at the local level and for the long-term nature of reconciliation” (Clark, 2014, p. 315). Many officials during the trials were not prepared or lacked knowledge of how to properly deal with the emotions of the community against offenders or what to do for reparations. Lederach (1997, p. 286) pointed out “at the social level, the issue of reparation leading to coexistence becomes yet more complicated and raises equally tough questions about equivalence” because, what can be given to survivors that would be equivalent to the loss they endured? Most offenders were given community service or were charged with assisting the families with damage they incurred.

At the local level, there was “resentment over gacaca’s inability to address… important issues” which hindered reconciliation (Clark, 2014, p. 317). Clark (2014) made the point that:

Most groups within the Rwandan population critique the government’s transactional discourse of reconciliation as a reversion to a lost form of unity between ethnic groups and stress instead a forward-looking, negotiated view of reconciliation as forging new social relations between individuals and groups… The government holds that reconciliation can be achieved through two principal means: civic education, mainly through ingando, and dialogue during gacaca. (pp. 309-310)

The government’s intervention in the courts and policies regarding “genocide ideology” ended up causing issues instead of helping. King (2011, p. 137) said the process “became a top-down approach and it faced increased suspicion and safety issues” because survivors started to receive threats and genocide suspects manipulated facts and evidence. The government went so far as to control due process by “correcting judges statements, halting disruptive behavior, or interpreting back to the participants what the testimonies meant (King R. U., 2011, p. 139). Survivors experienced emotions of “sadness, fear, disgust, insecurity, and shame” and offenders experienced an “intensified sense of guilt” (King R. U., 2011, p. 142). The process that was supposed to help heal people and communities “became more retributive that restorative, and the collected facts were used to prosecute wrongdoers rather than restore relationships through the processes of apology and forgiveness” (King R. U., 2011, p. 145). Behavioral change occurred through this process because the Rwandan people learned that their government would have say over everything regardless of their stories or voices. These peace building measures caused more stress and pain than address and heal.


Rwanda is a case for peace building that is highly praised internationally, but at what cost to the Rwandan people? Will this authoritarian response to conflict continue to hold the country together, or will there be further acts of violence when the people have had enough? Is this truly “peace” or not? There has been structural change at the government level, cultural change due to suppression of rights and suppression of ethnicity, and behavioral change due to threats and manipulation by the country’s government. From a realist view, the RPF is in complete control, and power continues to drive the President and government to get whatever they want. The RPF has politically manipulated the country and the international community to remain in power claiming they are the reason the genocide stopped. King (2011, p. 147) makes the point that “governments and external supporters have the responsibility to ensure security and the rule of law and to acknowledge the impact of mass violence on the psychosocial well-being of individuals and their communities.” Gacaca courts and memorials were meant to acknowledge the genocide and instead have been used to manipulate the Rwandan people’s testimonies and recollection of the violence they experienced. The peace building measures taken by Rwanda politically and psychosocially have given the illusion of peace… for now.

Further research needs to be completed on whether future violence has been curbed due to these peace measures as well as on implications of an authoritarian rule on peace and reconciliation. Current research focuses on democratization as a part of peace building, but Rwanda has strayed from this focusing mainly on security, state-building, and economic recovery. How long will this “repressive” peace last? Samset (2011, p. 279) suggested that since little is known how the state is viewed “from below,” that “more work to grasp these micro-level dynamics will be key to reach a better understanding of the repressive peace as well as potential peace building alternatives.” Clark (2014, p. 318) concluded gacaca “created an environment in which citizens could challenge the government’s approaches to post-genocide recovery – which in some respects have been an impediment to reconciliation.” King (2010, p. 305) shared that the “exclusion of many Rwandans’ memories is likely to hinder reconciliation, justice, and democracy and undermine durable peace.” Finally, King (2011, p. 147) concluded “the healing of psychosocial trauma cannot start and finish with truth commissions or other imposed models.”

Conflict transformation occurs when behaviors, issues, and attitudes are addressed and some form of negotiation, dispute resolution, or mediation leads to reconciliation and peace. While the international community is basically black-listed from Rwanda, intervention with the RPF party is unlikely to occur. The RPF has monopolized the country politically and psychosocially to maintain its rule. This “repressive” peace creates more questions than answers causing Rwanda to truly be a unique case in peace building research.


Clark, P. (2014). Negotiating Reconciliation in Rwanda: Popular Challenges to the Official Discourse of Post-Genocide National Unity. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 8(4), 303-320. doi:10.1080/17502977.2014.958309

King, E. (2010). Memory Controversies in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Implications for Peacebuilding. Genocide Studies and Prevention, 5(3), 293-309. doi:10.1353/gsp.2010.0013

King, R. U. (2011). Healing Psychosocial Trauma in the Midst of Truth Commissions: The Case of Gacaca in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Genocide Studies and Prevention, 6(2), 134-151. doi:10.1353/gsp.2011.0122

Lederach, J. P. (1997). Building Peace: Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Reyntjens, F. (201). Constructing the Truth, Dealing with Dissent, Domesticating the World: Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda. African Affairs, 110(438), 1-34. doi:10.1093/afraf/adq075

Ricigliano, R. (2012). Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.

Samset, I. (2011). Building a Repressive Peace: The Case of Post-Genocide Rwanda. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 5(3), 265-283. doi:10.1080/17502977.2011.566485

Wiebelhaus-Brahm, E. (2007, August). Transitional Justice, Civil Society, and the Development of the Rule of Law in Post-Conflict Societies. The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, 9(4). Retrieved from


Metagraphic: Rwanda flag: Hjalmar Gislason from Reykjavik, Iceland, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.