Are Rwanda’s Post-Genocide Youth Programs Paving the Way for Future Unrest?

Are Rwanda’s Post-Genocide Youth Programs Paving the Way for Future Unrest?

Are Rwanda’s Post-Genocide Youth Programs Paving the Way for Future Unrest?

Many participants say they peddle militaristic values and obedience to the state.


This article is a joint publication of and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Of all of the displays in the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, it is one of the least memorable. Humbly settled between panels describing the historical tensions that led to the genocide, it’s largely overshadowed by the stained glass panels and commemorative statues placed in front of and behind it.

The display is a simple glass panel that quotes an African proverb: “A tree can only be straightened when it is young.” Understated as it may be, this small placard is invaluable when it comes to understanding the post-genocide mindset in Rwanda.

In particular, it echoes the Rwandan government’s focus on rehabilitation and development for the country’s youth. To prevent another outbreak of ethnic violence, the country’s autocratic regime—which enjoys friendly relations with Washington—has strived to cultivate a healthy sense of nationalism among young Rwandans, and has instituted an ambitious educational agenda in a bid to offer young people jobs and direction.

But though the government has dedicated itself to a variety of youth-oriented reform projects, it has also instituted propagandistic “national solidarity” camps that peddle militaristic values and obedience to the state. At the same time, the country has cracked down on free speech and political dissidents.

The question remains as to whether its efforts in the twenty years since the genocide have amounted to straightening its citizen saplings or simply stunting their growth, creating a generation of Rwandan bonsais.

Education and Employment

Some of the most significant efforts have been aimed at the country’s education system. These reforms have focused on overcoming the colonial legacy of reserving education for Tutsis—the ethnic group favored by the Belgians, which helped stoke ethnic animosity in the country—as well as developing the sort of “human capital” necessary for young Rwandans to compete on the global job market.

The government has worked at breakneck speed to expand access to quality education. Between 2009 and 2011, the government constructed 9,000 new classrooms and switched the language of instruction from French to English, and it’s currently undertaking a review of the national curriculum. In addition to improving traditional forms of education, the government has also upgraded the vocational training available to students and instituted nationwide courses in entrepreneurship in an effort to decrease the country’s high unemployment rate.

Rwanda’s efforts have not gone unnoticed: in 2012, the government won the Commonwealth’s Education Good Practice Award for its establishment of free and compulsory basic education for all Rwandans for nine years. Suggesting that the program be used as a regional model, the judges determined that the program “represented a qualitative shift in the dynamics of schooling and made a major contribution to national reconciliation.” As a representative for UNICEF in the country noted, “the government has recognized education’s role in creating social cohesion” and has acted accordingly. Representatives from both USAID and UNICEF admitted sheepishly to me that, at times, it is difficult for them to keep pace with the Rwandan government’s reforms.

The reason for the government’s sense of urgency, according to an employee of Kigali’s Youth, Sports and Culture Ministry, is that in Rwanda “we have to be careful with our youth. They can destroy or rebuild our country.” In particular, the government has identified Rwandans between ages 14 and 35 as particularly critical to the process of reconciliation and development, as this subset of the nation’s youth “participated in or were directly affected by the immediate aftermath of the genocide.”

Compulsory Solidarity

Yet for all of its laudable efforts to straighten the trees while they’re still young, Rwanda’s efforts to rehabilitate its youth have a dark side as well: a mysterious system of “national solidarity camps,” most commonly referred to by the Kinyarwanda term ingando. According the government officials I spoke with, the majority of Rwandan youth in the target age range have participated in ingando. Many officials said they hoped that all citizens will complete such a program by 2020.

Despite the widespread participation, information concerning the objectives and structure of the program is difficult to come by. Foreigners I spoke with, even those who have worked in the country for a number of years—including a representative of USAID, the country director of a major religious philanthropic group and the founder of a private school on the outskirts of Kigali—were entirely unaware that the program existed.

Part of this opacity stems from the variety of names for these camps. Andrea Purdeková of the Oxford Department of International Development has noted that “since their inception soon after the genocide, the three to eight week long camps have been known variously as ‘solidarity camps,’ ‘re-education’ camps, ‘civic education’ camps, ‘political awareness’ camps, ‘reorientation’ camps and ‘reintegration’ courses.”

From interviews with local government officials and camp participants, I found that there was a subtle but noticeable divide between the descriptions of the camps given by officials and participants. Though government representatives argued that ingando camps were a return to a “pre-colonial tradition” of retreat and reflection on the state of society, participants more frequently described the camps as a post-genocide innovation.

The camps have targeted a variety of populations within the country, ranging from pre-university students to prisoners and refugees. From discussions with both government officials and Rwandan citizens, I was able to glean that attendance at the camps was mandatory for certain demographics of society. Most notably, for a number of years, students who were attending public university on national scholarship were required to attend ingando. Even when ingando is not strictly mandatory, social and political pressure is often strong enough to coerce citizens into attending. The amount of time spent at ingando varied according to the age of the person I spoke with and their reason for attending, but the most frequent report was that the program lasted between one and three months.

According to most reports, days in the camps are strictly scheduled, with early morning exercise followed by lectures from government officials, then more exercise or military drills and finally the singing of “patriotic” songs at night. Across the range of experiences with ingando, the most frequent refrain was that the camps “taught us how to be soldiers.” This description is unsurprising, as observers have speculated that the camps are modeled after the sort of military and political education camps the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) used to train Rwandans during the civil war between 1990 and 1994.

Patriotism or Propaganda?

According to a Rwandan government official who has lectured at ingando camps in the past, these programs are a way of “creating a national identity” and serve to “help people realize that ethnic identities give us nothing.” An employee of the Youth, Sports and Culture Ministry even claimed that “ingando is the reason we are so peaceful.” A high-ranking police officer in Kigali, also speaking on terms of anonymity, agreed with this assessment, attributing the country’s stability since 1994 to “a change in the mindset of the people,” which he says was facilitated through ingando. A young woman who attended ingando and is currently working at a post-conflict education nonprofit mused that “the older generation has been corrupted; they have different ideologies than we do,” and suggested that the new ideologies had been learned in the camps.

Some Rwandans who recalled their experience at ingando positively report that this program instilled in them “patriotism” and taught them “how to love our country,” as well as imparting civic education “about the importance of paying taxes and contributing to development.” The mandatory lectures from government officials, they said, “explain why the government has created these policies” and seek to foster support for government programs. One middle-aged NGO coordinator who did not attend ingando was excited for when her children would be old enough to attend, stating that “I don’t know how to teach my children about the country, so I am happy that there is a way for them to learn how to love their country.”

However, some researchers and dissidents have suggested that the lectures by government officials are a means of indoctrinating participants and mainstreaming the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s political agenda. Even Rwandan participants who enjoyed their experience admitted that “people do have different views of ingando” both within and outside of Rwanda.

By some accounts, the camps have evolved over time. Descriptions of the camps from people who attended before 2010 are particularly disturbing. A 25-year-old master’s candidate who attended ingando in 2008 said that the program “taught us how to contribute as soldiers, not as intellectuals.” It was frequently reported that upon entering the camps, participants were forced to wear military fatigues and were treated as if they were new recruits. One participant recalled being beaten and harassed at the camps, a common refrain among ingando participants now in their mid-20s. In addition to physical intimidation, some participants reported that the government lectures were also coercive and propagandistic. One young man stated quietly that “some outsiders say ingando is a way of attracting the youth to the Rwandan Patriotic Front…but if you feel that way in this country, you must keep silent.”

The future of these camps is uncertain, as certain members of the government suggested that ingando was being phased out and replaced with a less militaristic, more community-centered civic education program called itorero. Others stated that ingando had been tamed in recent years, while still others unequivocally declared that the program was as militaristic as ever. Even if ingando is entirely discontinued, which is unlikely, the program may have already stunted the development of a flourishing civil society in Rwanda.

A Dangerous Combination

President Paul Kagame’s government has often been criticized for its limitations on free speech and its authoritarian tendencies. Its approach to resolving the conflict in the country has amounted to a de facto ban on the use of ethnic titles under “genocidal ideology” laws, which have been used to shut down newspapers and websites. Under these same laws, the leaders of opposition parties were arrested ahead of the 2010 elections. The government says that such laws are necessary to construct a national unity in the wake of a horrific genocide, but researchers at Oxford concluded that “‘Unity’ in Rwanda is a totalitarian unity which… can hardly be politically contested.”

Such censorship gives way to graver threats, as illustrated by the recent murder of Rwandan dissident Patrick Karegeya, who was found dead in South Africa. A variety of international observers have attributed the killing to Kagame, though there has been remarkably little public discussion about the matter in Kigali. Kagame recently threatened that “you cannot betray Rwanda and get away with it. There are consequences for betraying your country.”

In light of the broader political situation in Rwanda, the propagandistic and militaristic components of the ingando camps are troubling. By instilling a sense of national identity explicitly connected to the programs of the current administration—while silencing dissent through oppressive regulations on free-speech—the Rwandan government may have created a self-policing society that allows no peaceful means for citizens to express their grievances. Such a society is not only undesirable, but also untenable. In simultaneously militarizing the society and denying citizens the ability to peacefully dissent, Kagame’s policies create a situation in which both dissent and reaction to dissent are likely to be violent.

The stability Rwanda has achieved in the two decades since the genocide is indeed remarkable, but stability based on repression and propaganda is seldom durable. Government services can promote citizen development, just as straightening a sapling and modestly pruning its leaves can promote its growth. But ingando camps and state repression are more like the aggressive pruning that stunts a bonsai tree—and a tree stunted carelessly may die.

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