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The Frantic Desire for Life That Thrives at the Heart of Every Calamity: Rwanda, Twenty Years On

14/04/2014 16:27 BST | Updated 14/06/2014 10:59 BST

The title of this piece comes from Camus' La Peste, the story of what disaster does to a community, both physically and morally. Twenty years ago this month, genocide - actual genocide, the systematic and coordinated attempt to destroy an entire people - re-emerged in Central Africa endowing Rwanda with the same moral resonance as Armenia, Cambodia, and of course the Holocaust. Just like the Ebola virus currently wreaking fear at the other end of the continent in Guinea and Liberia, it was virulent, merciless, and seemingly unanticipated. And just like the pestilential Ebola, it reverberates long after the original pathology.

The calamity of Rwanda has been picked over relentlessly in the media and wider culture. Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families tells you something in its very title about the deranged logic that gripped both genocidaire and victim in April 1994. Shooting Dogs highlights the failure of the West in anticipating, preventing and ultimately stopping the slaughter. Contrary to the narrative at the time, as the Arusha process has shown, this was not anarchic tribal violence, it was a well-planned and resourced extermination executed with military precision aided by the sophisticated propaganda of a complicit media. Just as with the gas chambers and gulags of a half century prior, Rwanda shows that genocide is not a crime borne out of chaos. It is a crime of premeditation, organisation and precision.

Rwanda has since received enormous support from the international community, reformed its economy, and has profited from the African economic renaissance of the last two decades. This support has led to unwavering, and at times unjustified, support for President Kagame who has held on to power as the liberator of Rwanda. Part of Kagame's populism has been based on standing up to foreign imperialists, particularly the French, who have been recast in Rwanda as co-conspirators to the genocide, and actively hostile to the English-speaking, Ugandan-backed, Tutsi elites who liberated the country.

The relationship between France and Rwanda is still so bad that a diplomatic-spat between the countries escalated into the French Ambassador being disinvited to the official commemoration in Kigali on April 7. This snub shows two things: first, forgiveness and community courts aside, this is a country still defined by the legacy of 1994; second, Kagame's promotion of himself as standing up to bullies at home and abroad still works, twenty years into his Presidency.

One of the lasting consequences of the genocide has been the conscious migration of Rwanda from the Francosphere to the Anglosphere. For all the talk in Central Africa of post-colonial self-confidence, it is striking how countries like Rwanda and Uganda still orient their foreign policies to maximise the structures and systems put into place during Empire. Rwanda, or at least the new Tutsi-elite, saw the tragedy and opportunity of genocide to escape the Franco-Belgian system that had so consistently, and in their eyes chauvinistically, disfavoured them.

But unlike several African states in the Cold War that became self-consciously, and determinedly non-aligned (which is a different thing to membership of the Non-Aligned Movement, which many African nations nominally joined), Rwanda was always a (willing) captive of the Francosphere - a post-colony of Belgium absorbed into the wider French sphere of influence after the Belgian grand depart from Congo in 1960 meant they were no longer able or willing to have a presence in Central Africa. Rwanda is one of the few African countries to change alignment post-colonialism that didn't have a Marxist revolution or a military/capitalist counter-revolution - in this case from Francosphere to Anglosphere, rather than East to West.

What is the legacy of Rwanda? I see five main legacies. First, it coincided with a change in attitude towards Africa by the rest of the world. Certainly not the only change in attitude, nor even the most important, but a change nonetheless. It is true that the West, and the newly-hegemonic United States in particular, was loath to intervene in Rwanda because of the memory of the high-risk, low-reward failure of Somalia two years previously. But the genocide was a spectacular intelligence failure by all, and was scarcely believed to even be genocide almost until it was over. It reminded the international community that Africa was not an irrelevant backwater but part of the geostrategic equation, and would assert itself in either tragedy or triumph.

Second, the failure of Rwanda acted as a spur to the liberal internationalism of subsequent years. The immense attention of NATO on the wars in Bosnia and later Kosovo were imbued, in part, with a sense of moral mission, one that was admittedly only limited to political leaders and a neoconservative intellectual movement. The mistakes of Somalia, Croatia and Rwanda seem to have contributed to a pre-911 sense that the West should use its moment of triumph to enforce a pax libertatem that survived until the Second Iraq War.

Third, Kagame's liberation of Rwanda, and the Tutsi hegemony he has built since, is representative of a generation of semi-democratic strongmen across Africa that the West embraced for a long time; willing to turn a blind eye against corruption and suppression of rivals in return for stability, economic growth, and an end to the egregious human rights violations of previous years. Former military men from Uganda's Museveni to Ethiopia's Zenawi, and from Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo to Kagame himself, have restyled themselves as democrats; acts bought by a West that was eager to latch onto charismatic populists, shower them with resources, and consolidate their rule by feeding their self-image as reformers.

The greatest legacy, and sadly the one least talked about, was the effect on Rwanda's neighbour Congo, where the flight of Hutu militias pre-empted the Congo Wars - the deadliest conflict since 1945, and one that still impoverishes that country and drives the regional politics of Central Africa. At least five Congolese have been slaughtered, or have died from famine or disease, for every Rwandan that died in the genocide.

The genocide ultimately reminded the world that Africa is still part of the geostrategic calculation - of which Rwanda's migration from Francosphere to Anglosphere is merely totemic. We live in what Alex de Waal calls a liberal technocratic age, one in which risk is something that we imagine we can commodify, put in a neat package, and manage into ever-smaller chunks. When challenges to this narrative emerge - whether swiftly, as from aeroplanes flown into skyscrapers, or slowly as from complex changes to our climate - we not only respond poorly, but become entirely uprooted from the narratives that gave our lives structure. Small wonder that the responses to events such as Rwanda are not policy changes and details. They focus on things like forgiveness, memory and most important of all, acknowledgement.