On July 1, Rwanda marked 60 years of independence from Belgium. However, unlike other African countries that celebrate with pomp and festivities, Independence Day in Rwanda is a somewhat muted affair.
On Rwanda’s Independence Day and a public holiday, no national celebrations are being held to mark the occasion.
Instead, the Rwandan government rolls that event together with Liberation Day — or Kwibohora, as it is known locally — three days later.
Liberation Day commemorates the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by President Paul Kagame over the former dictatorship of Juvenal Habyarimana and the Rwandan Armed Forces in the Rwandan Civil War.
The RPF victory ultimately ended the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, in which Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in 100 days. As a result, more than 2 million Rwandans fled the country.
According to political and social commentators, the reasons for the snub are deep and buried in the country’s history.
Scovia Mutesi, an independent journalist and commentator, told DW that shunning the independence day is deliberate as it brings back memories of division that left many Rwandans in exile for over three decades.
“Rwanda’s independence didn’t seem like independence,” Mutesi said, adding that it came with serious problems for one group of Rwandans.
“It marked the beginning of the suffering of the Tutsis. They were killed, their property destroyed, and many of them ended up in exile.”
She said Rwandans prefer celebrating Liberation Day because it preaches unity, and how laws govern all Rwandans without discrimination as opposed to Independence Day, which came with ethnic divisions.
Division at independence
Suleiman Muhirwa, a political analyst, told DW that the history of how Rwanda gained independence was based on divisive politics.
He said the independence flag was handed to Hutu extremists without a fight.
“In other countries like Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, citizens came together, and were led by revolutionaries to fight colonialists for their independence,” Muhirwa said, noting that in Rwanda, independence came about differently.
“The colonialists divided Rwandans, and by the time independence came around, some Rwandans were in exile.”
By early 1964, an estimated 150,000 Tutsi had fled to neighboring countries.
That explains why the current government of President Paul Kagame recognizes Independence Day as a public holiday but doesn’t necessarily celebrate it.
Significance of Liberation Day
“This day is not more important than the [July 4] liberation day,” Innocent Nzeyimana, a historian and researcher on social cohesion, told DW.
He explained that during the colonial era, Belgium used forced labor, and most of those enrolled were Tutsi children.
“If the work was not peformed well, they were beaten,” Nzeyimana said.
He also said during independence, Belgium sought to use Rwanda as a backup for exploiting the Democratic Republic of Congo. But they also knew that the Tutsi would not accept such a plan.
“So they [Belgian colonial regime] tried to tell the Hutu, ‘The Tusti have beaten you and made you do forced labor, so let us help you to give you independence.'”
Before independence, Rwanda was a monarchy, with members of the Tutsi ethnic group ruling the kingdom. The last king of Rwanda was Kigeli V Ndahindurwa (1936–2016). He reigned from 1959 to 1961, when the Hutu-led government forced him to exile in the US, where he died in 2016.
“This shows you that the independence given to Rwanda was under the interests of the colonial government, not for Rwandans,” Nzeyimana said.
Rwanda’s 1994 genocide
Upon gaining independence, the Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement began a systematic campaign emphasizing the right of the ‘majority’ ethnicity to rule and assert the Hutu’s supremacy over the Tutsi. Observers say this political ideology laid the foundation for the genocide.
On April 6, 1994, a jet carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down above Kigali, killing all on board. It is still unknown who was responsible for firing upon the plane; it did act as a trigger.
Over the following months, Hutu militia organizations and the army played a significant role in the genocide. It was only in July that Kagame’s Tutsi-led RPF could take control over most of the nation.
For regional political analyst Gonzaga Muganwa, events before and after Independence Day are to blame for the divisions that decades later brought about the genocide in 1994.
However, he said that the leadership in Kigali today, most of whom were born and raised in exile, prefer to focus on promoting unity instead of remembering what they call “bad history.”
“There is no consensus on whether independence happened in the right circumstances and delivered on the great promise people had hoped for,” Muganwa told DW.
“Of course, most of the current elite was in exile, and those who were in Rwanda were being oppressed. So, it is not marked as a very important day, although it is marked as a public holiday.”
But he proudly added that Rwanda as a nation had existed for more than 600 years before colonialism, with values and leadership. This poses a contrast to other countries that celebrate independence due to their founding.
“Rwanda was not founded in 1962,” Muganwa said.