If you want to know why history is so important, and why reading history can be so wonderfully rewarding, there is a fascinating piece of history being enacted, or more likely re-enacted, right now in front of our very eyes in Rwanda. You should be following this. Rwanda’s recent history is appallingly bloody. This African country is made up largely of two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, split unevenly between the majority 85% Hutu and the minority ruling elite of the 14% Tutsis. In the early 1960s, the minority Tutsis, the ruling aristocracy, were driven out and a majority Hutu government was set up. An unsettled acceptance of this new state of affairs existed for about 30 years, until on the 6th April 1994, Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was assassinated. Within hours, violence erupted in the capital Kigali. Hundreds of Tutsis, together with a similar number of the more liberal Hutus, were murdered overnight. Within days a rebel Tutsi army, which had been in exile, invaded the country. As this army headed towards the capital, Kigali, the Hutu government ordered its army and all other Hutus to begin a planned and sustained campaign to kill all Rwandan Tutsis. There followed one of the most unbelievable mass slaughters of all time. Hundreds of thousands of perfectly ordinary citizens picked up anything they could get hold of, from knives, to scythes, to machetes and literally hacked their neighbours to death. Within three weeks over a quarter of a million Tutsis has been massacred. This, I will remind you, was in 1994, only 21 years ago. An acquaintance of mine, a journalist called David Belton, flew into Rwanda within a month of the initial presidential murder; his book “When the hills ask for your blood” is a personal story of that time and is well worth a read. There’s a copy on my desk if anyone would like to borrow it.
The reason for the re-telling of this awful story is what happened next. The invading Tutsi army prevailed and between 1994 and 2000, whilst the new government tried to rebuild the country, this army carried out some brutal retribution killings and put down by force any resistance they found. The head of this army was a man called Paul Kagame. That same man has now been President of Rwanda for 16 years, having won office in 2000. On the face of it, he has been remarkably successful. Since 2000, Rwanda has had one of the fastest
growing African economies, growing by 8% per annum from 2004-2010; gross domestic product has tripled in the last 13 years; ICT, banking, tourism and real estate has all been booming in a way more reminiscent of a first world country than a so-called third world country; and perhaps key to it all education has been transformed. There is now a generation of young people who have grown up free from the awful violence that their parents will have witnessed; and our country, and many other western democracies, has supported Kagame’s government and the re-building of Rwanda with millions of pounds of aid. On the face of it, it is a remarkable turnaround since the genocide of 21 years ago. However, there is a dark side. Human rights agencies have multiple complaints against Kagame, from the early days of his army’s brutality, to his current total control of the press, his alleged silencing of journalists, his suppression of demonstrations, to murders carried out against his opposition and questionable financial deals. He has been, it seems, utterly ruthless in power. It is instructive, perhaps, to learn that Kagame’s two elections so far have resulted in votes in his favour in excess of 95%. There are many, understandably, who question the legitimacy of these elections.
Kagame has always said that he would remain president only until 2016, when his constitutional 2 terms (of 8 years each) are finished, and will then hand over in peace and with grace to a successor. Then last year, against all he has promised, he called for a re-write of the constitution to allow him to stay until 2032, and just before Christmas, sure enough Rwandans voted 95% in his favour (again) to let him stay on as President for potentially another 16 years.
This is living history. What will happen next? What can the past tell us? What, indeed, can the past tell him? This apparent thirst for power at all costs has been seen before, often in recent years on the African continent, but also in previous centuries all over the world. Will Kagame become another Mugabe, ruthless in the early years in response to previous oppression, apparently successful in his middle years by clever control of the economy and careful relationship building with the west, before becoming carried away by power, paranoid of opposition and returning to his earlier ruthlessness in response. Or will he become another Augustus, first Emperor of Rome, who also came to power on the back of years of unrest, quashed it with an iron fist, yet then settled to a wise and largely benevolent rule in which economic and social challenges, and indeed careful succession planning, were paid equal attention.
Rwanda today illustrates one of the reasons why the study of history is so important. It is because history is so relevant; it can teach us so much about people; it helps us to make some sense of the world we live in; and, at its best, though no two situations are ever exactly the same, it can give us some insight with which to explore the future. Next time you have a moment, look up Rwanda’s recent history and read about Kagame. Take a view; borrow one of my books, if you like – come along to the open door at 8.15am. Then see if you can place some of it in the context of history. Because without any knowledge of history, it is so much more difficult to understand the way we behave today.