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The end of the Cold War birthed a new generation of conflicts, many internal rather than international, fuelled by ethnic rather than ideological differences.  As bipolar tensions ebbed, some conflicts proved to be more susceptible to resolution, others were waged more fiercely, and still others proceeded on without apparent interference to broader geo-political changes.  While many conflicts were clearly produced by superpower differences, smaller disputes found their roots in long-time differences.  The Great Lakes crisis is unique in that it arose from a combination of factors including the two discussed above.  The region comprising of Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda and North-western Tanzania, takes its’ name from the three ‘great’ lakes found in its’ proximity: Tanganyika, Kivu and Albert.  The widespread thought is that the problem this region has grappled with is rooted in the minority rule at the expense of the majority.  Nowhere has this been more prominent than in Rwanda.  It seemed the death of a republic when the country starting from 1st April 1994 bore witness to 100 of the darkest days in her history.  In a short period of three months, close to one million people had been massacred, most of them Tutsi and many others Hutu political moderates and sympathizers.  Not only was this etched in the world’s memory, but additionally many remembered the inaction by the International community at the time, and the role of the media: locally, fuelling the killings - internationally, misconstruing what was really going on. 


At the height of all the madness, it seemed unlikely that this small country once dubbed ‘Tropical Switzerland’ would arise from the ash heap, but arise she did; to such an extent that the country has been penned by some journalists to be the biggest success story in the whole of Africa.  Present-day Rwanda is stable, and records astounding economic growth.  The country’s average incomes have tripled, health care is good and literacy levels are rising.  The West views the government as one of the more efficient and honest ones in Africa.  It has made an effort to include all sections of the population in its institutions and women have a strong say in the government.  Female Ministers have succeeded in changing some laws in the country more so those on rape, inheritance and business transactions.


Rwanda specialists and political analysts believe the secret of the country’s success to be found in her leadership, that none less than the President himself: Paul Kagame.  Kagame tagged ‘rebel leader turned President’ came to prominence as the leader of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) that halted the genocide 15 years ago.  He has spent a good part of his life in Uganda and in the United States where he was at a military college.  Kagame is regarded as an intelligent guerrilla tactician, an austere disciplinarian and a proud yet laid-back leader committed to democratic principles.  Since the end of the genocide, he has been instrumental in steering the country to progress by putting in place exceptional strategies that have helped bring not only stability to the country, but has put the nation on track to re-building and reconciling its’ peoples.  Re-integration has been a key theme of his; not only settling down many of the perpetrators of genocide into their original homes, often living side-by-side with those whose relatives they killed but as well absorbing 15,000 former Hutu soldiers into the army, the last being an act that has fostered inter-ethnic goodwill.


 As one could imagine, the country’s jails were bursting at the seams with those incarcerated for genocide-related crimes.  The genocide had involved a big part of the country’s population, and thus Kagame decided to employ an age-old technique in easing this; the gacaca court system.  These essentially were a type of community justice system, informal and outside the main legal machinery.  Here people confessed what they had done, received punishments, were forgiven and re-integrated into their communities.  The death penalty in Rwanda has been abolished and solitary confinement as punishment is being reassessed.


While international journalists like Fareed Zakaria of CNN International are of the opinion that Rwanda has become a model for ‘African renaissance’, many other commentators beg to differ.  Some label the nation as double-faced, on the one hand undergoing enormous economic progress, maintaining stability and upholding the formalities of democracy; while on the other hand engaged in warfare in neighbouring Congo and excluding most of the rural population from its growing welfare.  Despite the humanitarian cost to the Congolese civilians, the DRC war has increasingly become a source of much needed resources and capital for many of the ruling elites in the Great Lakes region.  Major actors have been accused of smuggling primary resources out of eastern Congo and into the international markets.  There is a growing global trade in blood diamonds and Coltan which is a major component in mobile phones.  Kagame’s support of local warlords and militiamen like Laurent Nkunda, has been questioned by the United Nations.  Suprisingly, Nkunda was arrested early this year in Rwanda and is being held at an unspecified location.  Some bloggers in Rwanda complain of a lack of freedom of speech or expression, but seeing that local radio and print media were used during the genocide as a tool of hate, the media is monitored and constrained for reason.  In addition to all this, last October a directive was issued by the government stating that the whole country shall shift to English next to the local language kinyarwanda, replacing French thus as the official language of policy and education.  It is a measure that will in a single-stroke displace thousands of francophone teachers and officials who have no mastery of the English language.


* Caroline Achieng Otieno is the Director and Founder of Operation Girl-Child based in Nairobi, Kenya. She may be reached on

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