Fourth of July is Liberation Day in Rwanda

By Lama Mugabo

The Rwandan Patriotic Front Army as liberators

For the past 25 years, the significance of July 4th has replaced July 1st Independence Day. To most Rwandans, Rwanda did not become independent on July 1st in 1962, but on July 4th, 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Army marched onto the streets of Kigali and declared victory against the genocidaire army.

July 4th remains a memorable day, twenty-five years later.

I asked my niece, who turned 20 yesterday about what the 4th of July means to her. She told me she was pleased to celebrate the Liberation Day because: “If the RPF had not won the war,” she said: “my parents would not be alive today”.

Divide and Conquer

Before colonialism, Rwanda was a beautiful country tacked away in Africa’s great lakes region, the country known as the land of a thousand hills. The country was inhabited by three ethnic groups: Tutsis who were pastoral; they provided milk and fertilizer for the land to grow food. Hutus, who were farmers; they cultivated the land and supplied the country with organic vegetables and legumes. Twa, who were hunters and gatherers; they brought meat to the table, and nourished bodies and minds. There was no hill reserved for Tutsi, Hutu or Twa; all three ethnic groups spoke Kinyarwanda, shared a similar culture. They were one people.

The Colonial Sin

Berlin Conference

At the Berlin Conference of 1885, European powers sat down to carve up the African continent and divide up its treasures. The conference was convened by Otto van Bismarck, chancellor of Germany. Powerful countries like Great Britain, Germany, France, and Portugal were given access to large swaths of land to plunder. King Leopold II walked away with the most, considering the size of his monarchy; he was given an entire country to himself. He called it The Congo Free State.

Rwanda and Burundi became German colonies. Germans, however, were booted out as soon as they lost World War 1, in 1918. The two small nations became the League of Nations trustees and were put under the care of Belgium. It is key to remember that while pillaging the spoils of Congo, the King of Belgium is reported to have killed more than ten million Congolese, the world turned a blind eye[1].

As the plunder of Africa continued, Belgium was grappling with a major national psychotic problem. The two Belgian tribes; Flemish and Walloons hated each other to death. It is said that whenever the colonial administrator was a Flemish, the entire team would change to only include Flemish staff. Belgian colonial administration offloaded its tribal hatred to their colonies in Africa. They ruled with terror, arrogance, and cruelty while claiming to be Christians. They put into action the-divide-and-conquer policy, which consisted of pitting Hutus against Tutsis, creating political instability and dependency, in order to remain the chief power broker.

Belgians introduced a national identification card system that stipulated who was a Hutu, a Tutsi, and a Twa. In their distorted logic, the Belgian administration assigned every Rwandan who owned more than ten cows, the ethnic Tutsi designation. Thus, Hutus, who owned more than ten cows, became Tutsis, and Tutsis who had owned a few cows became Hutus. Between 1962 -1994, ID cards were systematically used to discriminate against Tutsis. It means that all Rwandan students who came to study in Canadian universities, between the 32 years were only Hutus. Ottawa, like many western capitals, endorsed the ethnic discrimination card, despite refugees’ efforts to lobby the governments and expose human rights abuses in Rwanda. Their appeals fell on deaf ears until the RPF attack on October 1, 1990.

Decolonizing the mind

By October 1990, Rwandan refugees had become the world’s longest-serving refugees with thirty-seven years languishing in statelessness, their record was approximately a million people scattered in neighboring countries of Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, DRC, Kenya, etc.… In their countries of asylum, they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Parents invested everything they had in education for their children. They believed that education was their only ticket to a better life. Young people, however, grew impatient.

They decided to form a political liberation movement, called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), to fight for the liberation of Rwanda. In order to join the movement, everyone had to go to a pollical school where he/she learned why they were fighting? What victory looked like? What to do once they won the war? This exercise was fundamental in order to decolonize the minds and build a sense of patriotism. They learned their rights and responsibilities to Rwanda. This exercise is arguably one of the reasons why post-conflict reconstruction in Rwanda has been far more successful than in other post-conflict countries in Africa.

The 1994 genocide perpetrated against the minority Tutsis lasted 100 days. Starting from the evening of April 7th through the morning of July 4th when the RPF Army marched onto the streets of Kigali and declared the end of the war. Rwandan refugees’ communities around the world were ecstatic. They were pleased that Rwanda was liberated by its sons and daughters who had a plan and executed it well.

Refugees who had lived in exile for more than 37 years had finally broken down the barriers they faced to citizenship. In neighboring Burundi where I grew up, people nodid not wait for the UNHCR - United Nations High Commission for Refugees, to send in transportation. They walked home from Burundi to Rwanda.

Agaciro Foundation

The 4th of July is a reminder of where we have come from as a nation. Forty years in exile have led to the satisfaction of having a country we call home. Rwandans who remained inside the country from 1962 to 1994, remember how they were treated like second-class citizens, constantly living in fear and suspicion. Today, they are pleased to see the hurdles they have jumped to get to where they are today. Joining the East African Economic Community and the Commonwealth have been major boosts to Rwanda’s quality of life today. Adding English to its three official languages has strengthened Rwanda’s competitive advantage in the Great Lakes Region. In the past 20 years, Rwanda has become an important transportation hub on the continent and a major convener for international conferences. Visitors enjoy the fact that Rwanda has a pleasant climate, friendly people and is the safest and cleanest country on the continent.

In 2011, the Government of Rwanda launched the Agaciro Development Foundation (AGDF) to build up public savings to achieve self-reliance, maintain stability in times of national economic shocks and accelerate Rwanda’s socio-economic development goals. In 1994, Rwanda was at the mercy of international donors with 100% of its national budget coming from foreign aid. Today, Rwanda’s budget boosts of 70% of its own money and only 30% from foreign aid. The goal is to reach a 100% foreign aid free in the near future.

July 4th has become the most significant celebration day in Rwanda. As Rwandans, we look back and are grateful for our brothers and sisters who fought courageously to liberate Rwanda from tyranny. We remember the inhuman conditions under which Rwandans endured up to 1993, and the long journey we have traveled to reach where we are today.

[1] Rothchild, Adam: King Leopold’s Ghost: The story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa, Mariner Books, 1998

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