RWANDA: 'We care about what we achieve together'
Angharad Stoodley «View Bio

In 1994 Rwanda was propelled onto the world stage in dramatic and tragic form. As this central African country spiraled out of control, culminating in the massacre of some 937,000 people, the lack of a quick response from the international community meant that Rwanda experienced months of horrific genocide. Rwanda’s ambassador to Washington, Zac Nsenga, talked to about Rwanda’s nightmare and what the country has been doing since to rebuild and to become a modern nation capable of attracting major international investment. The ambassador spoke with confidence of the progress made by Rwanda since 1994 and the promise of better times to come.

“The genocide could have been prevented. It should not have happened and it will not happen again,” asserted Ambassador Nsenga. Recent film portrayals of the genocide, such as the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda”, serve to remind one of the international community’s totally inadequate response, yet the forgiveness extended by the Rwandans both to the perpetrators of the genocide and those who did nothing to stop it has humbled international observers.

Rwanda has managed to move forward in part by adopting what is called the Gacaca process, a traditional, pre-colonial system of justice. It had been estimated that the conventional justice system would have taken over 150 years to try and to sentence all 120,000 prisoners held for crimes committed during the genocide. As a result of Gacaca, however, 60,000 prisoners have now been released and the entire process should be completed within the next few years. Similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of South Africa, the Gacaca process enables the perpetrators of crimes to admit their offences and to ask for forgiveness. They are reintegrated into the community to work three days a week on community service projects such as building roads and schools. They are allowed two days a week to devote to their own businesses or jobs.

The success of the Gacaca process, along with the adoption of a new constitution in May 2003, are demonstrations of the determination and humility of the Rwandan people and their determination to make sure the events of 1994 will never be repeated. 

Ambassador Nsenga explained the background to the fighting that witnessed decades of Hutu-Tutsi conflict, ultimately leading to the 1994 genocide. There had never been a Hutu-Tutsi conflict prior to colonial times. Before the Belgians colonized the region, those who held wealth in cows and other livestock were termed Tutsi, and those who were agriculturalists were called Hutus. Once an agriculturalist purchased significant livestock with his capital he was then considered Tutsi; while in the event a Tutsi lost his livestock he was deemed a Hutu. “Hutu and the Tutsi have traditionally had a social connotation; it used to be more a relationship between the classes,” he said. The Belgian administration, based in Kinshasa, ruled Rwanda and Burundi through the Tutsi Kings and introduced identity cards which determined an individual’s status as either Hutu or Tutsi. Social mobility was blocked by this. “The realities that were created during colonial times are still with us, but the Hutu and Tutsi divisions are artificial,” the ambassador says. In an effort to remove these divisions, today’s Rwandan government has put an end to including Hutu/Tutsi classification on identity cards.

In spite of these efforts, criticism has been leveled at the government that Tutsis are once more being favored over Hutus for top positions, and fears of reprisals abound. The ambassador noted that currently Hutus occupy several senior positions. “Everyone is represented in the Government of Rwanda. It is not a question of Hutus and Tutsis. It is merit-based,” he said. He said the same is true in business, the army, police and schools. “We care about what we achieve together, not who we are”. 
Rwandan women have played an important role in the reconstruction and development of Rwanda. Making up 54 percent of the population, women were among those who suffered most during the genocide, yet their organizations were the first to rebound. They have a strong presence politically, and the Rwandan government has the highest percentage of women in the world. They are found in every area of Rwandan life, and dominate some sectors, such as coffee, exports and microfinance. In fact the ambassador said women control the key areas of the national economy.

The Rwandan Diaspora has also made a significant contribution to the general optimism and growth in the Rwandan economy. According to the ambassador, “The Diaspora is partly responsible for how Rwanda has rebounded. Their contribution has been big.” He explained that following the genocide every Rwandan longed to go home. Many of those that did return came to form the backbone of the government and private sector, as they included bankers, industrialists, technicians and politicians. Those unable to return contributed by sending money home and offering ideas for the betterment of the country. From joint ventures in fields ranging from information and communications technology (ICT) to banking, the Diaspora’s participation has helped Rwanda’s rapid recovery.

Yet despite the relative peace and stability that has been achieved in Rwanda, the after effects of the genocide crossed borders into the Democratic Republic of Congo, in particular eastern Congo where some 10,000-15,000 soldiers of the former Rwandan government, the FDLR (Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda) have destabilized the country and the region. Until recently, the current Government of Rwanda was held responsible for much of the trouble in Congo, it has recently been recognized that the FDLR has been the biggest threat and source of instability in the DRC and the great lakes region by the International community. As part of a US-facilitated deal, Rwanda, the DRC, Burundi and Uganda came together under the Tripartheid Plus agreements, to demobilize the FDLR. Initially MONUC (the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) was charged with disarming the rebel group but, MONUC has failed in the implementation of this mandate.

At the UN General Assembly meeting earlier this year it was agreed that if the FDLR did not disarm voluntarily by the end of September 2005, “harsh measures” would be taken against it. However, the soldiers have still not given up their weapons. The ambassador said this failure of MONUC is confirmation that its mandate has to be changed so that an effective solution can be found. Given accusations of Rwandan government support for the FDLR, authorities in Kigali are pleased that the international community now recognizes that this is not the case, and that the FDLR is acting on its own. 

The ambassador stressed just how far his country has come since 1994. Kigali, in particular, is emerging as a modern metropolis and showing great promise as a business hub. “Rwanda has come far,” he said. “After the genocide, we have achieved a lot and mainly through determination.” He said the support of the international community is still important. “The more support we get from the international community the better because the after-effects of the genocide are still with us,” he said. “We have worked hard to make sure we are not always looking back at the genocide; we have to look beyond the genocide… to ensure genocide will never happen again.”

President Paul Kagame has articulated a vision for the development of his country that is called “Vision 2020”. The plan is for Rwanda to be a middle income nation by 2020, to be stable, democratic and technologically advanced. “We need to be out there,” enthused the ambassador. “The most challenging issues we face now are in energy, education, communication and trade links.”

ICT is the buzz word of the moment in Rwandan political and business circles, which are aggressively pursuing programs to enable the Rwandan people to fully utilize their capabilities. “We are looking at capacity-building for our people. The main resource that we have is our people. We want to focus on giving Rwandans the skills to make it in this world.”

Far from dwelling on the tragedy and ignoring the troubles of the world around them, Rwandans have taken a key role in international affairs. “We believe in the international community and know that what affects them affects us,” explained the ambassador. “What happened to us is maybe that lack of leadership from the international players.” He noted the constructive role of the president, who he said, “is a man who is looking far and the developments in Rwanda are partly due to that leadership.”

Rwanda has played an active role in the African Union and was the first country to send peacekeeping troops to Darfur, in Sudan. And this year the Rwandan minister of finance was elected to lead the African Development Bank. 

“We are there and we can play a role in those matters that affect all of us in the region and internationally,” the ambassador said. “When you are consistent it pays.”

Biography of Ambassador Zac Nsenga

Ambassador Zac Nsenga was born in 1958 in Rwanda. He studied and graduated from Makerere University Medical school- Uganda with a degree in human medicine and University of  Westminster with an MA in diplomatic studies and a certificate in strategic studies.
He practiced medicine both in Uganda and Lesotho before joining the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) in December 1990.
The Ambassador served as Secretary General in the Ministry of Internal Security (overseeing National Police and Prisons Services).
He has been ambassador to the State of Israel, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark  and now the US with concurrent accreditation to Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as well as the Bretton Woods institutions.
Ambassador Nsenga is married with 3 children.