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HomeNewsIn Rwanda, ethnicity doesn’t matter to people if their needs are met: study

In Rwanda, ethnicity doesn’t matter to people if their needs are met: study

Réginas Ndayiragije, University of Antwerp and Marijke Verpoorten, University of Antwerp

Thirty years ago, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a predominantly Tutsi armed group, took over Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city – and soon after, the country’s governance. This victory occurred amid a horrific genocide masterminded by a Hutu-dominated regime. Rwanda’s main ethnic groups are the Hutu, who make up a majority of the population, and the Tutsi.

Since 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front – led by Paul Kagame, who was first elected president in April 2000 – has been at the country’s helm. Kagame is expected to extend his rule in the July 2024 elections. The law allows him to serve two more five-year terms.

We are researchers who study political representation in post-conflict contexts. We recently sought to understand to what extent Rwanda has managed to overcome the fault lines that got it to a dark place in 1994. In recent research, we looked at how the country has fared in managing the fissures in society that led to the violence.

Our findings show that the country’s Hutu majority have over time reported feeling more represented by government. This is despite it being largely made up of a Tutsi ruling elite.

What has made the ruling elite legitimate among the Hutu?

We found that the Kagame regime has rolled out policies that seek to improve state-citizen relations and highlight the state’s capacity to deliver. The government has invested in public goods, such as universal healthcare, that include both the Hutu and Tutsi. It has also emphasised Rwanda’s improved socioeconomic situation.

Our findings illustrate that even when ethnicity is an important political identity, what matters for citizens is not only their ethnic group’s proportional representation in state institutions. More importantly, it’s the extent to which the ruling system acts on their fundamental needs.

This suggests that real or perceived uneven ethnic representation in state institutions can be compensated by the development and implementation of policies that appeal to citizens’ interests and needs.

The research

Initiatives to address ethnic conflicts tend to revolve around institutional remaking. This generally involves power-sharing between groups competing for power (as in the cases of Burundi and Lebanon). Or integrative state institutions – that is, a political system pushing for moderation and national unity (as in post-genocide Rwanda).

We set out to get answers on how such institutional reforms influence the individual. Our research investigated the perceptions of political representation by the Hutu and Tutsi before, during and after the 1994 genocide.

Political representation is an important political resource. Its deficit lies at the origin of horizontal inequality – that is, inequality among citizens in terms of access to opportunities. This inequality is linked to many identity-based conflicts.

In two data collection rounds, we asked more than 400 Rwandan citizens to tell us their life history. We asked them to rank their perceived political representation for each year in their life history, and explain any change in ranking over time.

The respondent narratives we collected related to “the standing for” dimension (whether they recognised themselves in the rulers), the “acting for” dimension (whether their needs and priorities were considered), and the emotional connection they felt with rulers and the political system. We also covered the processes (such as elections) through which they felt represented.

Unsurprisingly, we found that perceived political representation was at a low during the genocide. This was true for Hutu and Tutsi respondents who at the time were experiencing extreme insecurity.

Prior to the genocide, when the Hutu dominated political power, the Hutu respondents in our survey perceived greater political representation than Tutsi respondents. This reversed when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s grip on power has increased over the past three decades. But we found that the inter-ethnic gap in perceived political representation has narrowed over time. In other words, despite a concentration of power in the hands of a Tutsi elite, Hutu respondents experienced improved political representation over time.

This finding can come across as puzzling. But we found an answer to the puzzle in the respondents’ narratives, that is, their explanations for changes in their perceived political representation.

Hutu respondents often referred to “substantive” representation – understood as the alignment between policy outputs and policy preferences by citizens. Or simply put: what a government does to make your life better. Our study found that the Tutsi regime in Rwanda boosts its legitimacy by adopting policies that appeal to both the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. These policies include the universal healthcare policy and improvements in public infrastructures.

This finding aligns with an argument made by researchers that the Rwandan Patriotic Front had to invest in substantive representation to compensate for a lack of descriptive representation. Descriptive representation refers to the extent to which a representative or legislative body resembles constituents and their social or demographic identities.

Why it matters

Our findings are important for two major reasons.

First, we provide an empirical account of what it means for citizens to (not) have their co-ethnics in state institutions.

Second, our research makes the case for a more holistic approach to post-conflict institutional remaking in divided societies.

As international and national actors increasingly recommend power sharing between groups competing for power, they should equally devise strategies that enable state institutions to deliver on key governance outcomes. This can include capacity building for state institutions and mechanisms to make these institutions accountable to citizens.

It’s on this condition that citizens can feel the superior value of institutional engineering.

Of course, while we show that the Rwandan government gained legitimacy by providing public goods and services to both ethnic groups internally, this doesn’t justify the many human rights violations ascribed to the regime, both internally and externally.

Bert Ingelaere, who was a professor at the University of Antwerp, collected the data used in this research, and led the writing of the first draft of the paper. He unexpectedly passed away on 4 February 2022.

Réginas Ndayiragije, Associate researcher, University of Antwerp and Marijke Verpoorten, Associate Professor, University of Antwerp

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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