In its efforts to manage the impact of violent conflict, public authority can be shown to govern memory as a means to establishing a nation. Years after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Annalisa Bolin explores how memory and cultural heritage are being used to create a single Rwandan identity.
This article is part of the #PublicAuthority blog series with the Centre for Public Authority and International Development at LSE.
To govern affected communities after acts of violence, forms of public authority often target memory to manage the impact of the conflict. Cultural heritage, often encountered through museums, archaeology and other sites of history, can be seen as a materialisation of memory, where the past is concretised in the present. Such heritage is a useful tool for the construction of nations, because it can give people a shared past and common identity.
As a result, public authorities that seek to establish national identity and make territorial and historical claims frequently have recourse to heritage, as we see in places like Israel. This mechanism can be particularly useful in post-conflict nations: when public authority needs ways to unify the nation after violence has divided it, using heritage to create a single, cohesive national identity offers a promising route.
In post-genocide Rwanda, heritage is a significant mechanism for the government in its pursuit of a unification agenda. The effort to create a Rwandan identity holds, in theory, the promise of replacing divisive ethnic identities. This has led to increased government attention on national museums, cultural traditions and – through memorialisation – the painful past of the 1994 genocide, as heritage is integrated into the process of building a nation after conflict.
Several years ago, the Rwandan government institution National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG) received a grant from the US Department of State via the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP). The AFCP supports local initiatives focused on cultural heritage, including architectural conservation and training in conservation techniques for artefacts, books and other material culture. In Rwanda, the money was directed toward training CNLG employees, specifically in order to facilitate the long-term preservation of Rwanda’s national genocide memorials, for which CNLG is responsible.
As a participant observer during the training and conservation project, I witnessed the efforts of a CNLG crew and their American collaborators (a group of historic preservationists) as they set to work on the site of Nyamata, a genocide memorial south of Kigali. Committed to finding uninvasive, sustainable methods for managing the site and making sure it would endure for many years to come, the team also prioritised Nyamata’s unique characteristics, its significance and value as a historical site where victims of the genocide can be remembered and visitors can encounter the past. What neither the Rwandan nor American members of the team addressed – making a reasonable decision, given Rwanda’s tense politics – was the political significance of the site and of their work.
But, as an anthropologist, I was particularly interested in the politics of heritage. Based on my time with the Nyamata conservation team, I analysed conservation work at Nyamata as part of an ongoing project of nation-building in Rwanda. In an article in Anthropological Quarterly, I argue that Nyamata, and the processes of conservation I observed there, is a key site for the construction of the New Rwandan identity promoted by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government. The article pursues the question of agaciro – a Kinyarwanda word meaning dignity or self-respect. I suggest that through conservation practice, the team was negotiating how to best provide dignity for the remains of genocide victims at the site (from bones to clothes and possessions). Moreover, because the genocide is a foundational event for the new Rwandan nation, the work at Nyamata is a microcosmic, material manifestation of the larger processes of establishing dignity or agaciro for the nation as a whole.
Agaciro is a political project that extends far beyond conservation and memorialisation practice. For example, it appears in such endeavours as the Agaciro Development Fund, which solicits donations from Rwandans in order to offset changes in aid flows from international donors. But it is much broader than this: as a philosophical imperative, it underpins much of the RPF’s contemporary program of governance. Agaciro, according to President Paul Kagame, is a corrective to Rwanda’s past; the restoration of self-respect and dignity to Rwandans, he has stated, is part of the effort to ensure that the New Rwanda is strong, proud and free of internal division.
The conservation work I observed at Nyamata demonstrated the pervasiveness of this concept in two ways: first, through its concern with ensuring the dignity of the remains of genocide victims and, second, via the link between practical, material questions of dignity, and the broader issue of restoring dignity to the nation after genocide. As mentioned above, such efforts to use heritage for nation-building are common in countries with histories of conflict. The Rwandan government’s unique twist on this project comes via its commitment to developing and deploying the agaciro concept.
By understanding the practice of conservation at Nyamata as being both affected by and a contributor to this agaciro project, analyses of memorialisation can be integrated into discussions of how nations are built and governed in post-conflict periods. Memorialisation and conservation practice at Nyamata is a way for public authority to deploy the power to shape national narratives and understandings of citizen identity. While memorials are, of course, sites of memory, sites of mourning and sites for education, the Nyamata example indicates that such places are also deeply engaged with the political processes of nation-building.
While memory is part of how an authority like the Rwandan government seeks to create identity for a nation, it is also part of how public authority is legitimated. Public authority is frequently a contested field, but the Rwandan government’s dominance responds to a sense that fragmentation in the field of public authority leads to violence, and therefore that contestation threatens stability. Memorial sites in Rwanda function as reminders of the terrible violence of 1994, recalling to visitors the threats of conflict as well as the legitimacy of RPF rule based on its military victory over genocidal forces. In heritage, we also see the absence of significant non-governmental heritage producers – heritage is too important to the creation of a unified, peaceful nation for the government to allow other producers to participate. Heritage production thereby helps create a pacified field in Rwanda, where memory is part of the legitimisation of the government as public authority.
If we are interested in how public authority seeks to manage the impacts of violent conflict, we should attend to these instances where memory is governed as part of the process of establishing a nation – in Rwanda as elsewhere in the world. In places where public authority is strongly contested, we can investigate how the management of heritage plays into this contestation. Where identity politics and moral populism are particularly salient, memory can play a key role in constructing identity and legitimising claims to authority. Memory and heritage, then, can be important elements of our investigation of public authority, identity and legitimacy in communities after conflict.
Photo: Torch from the Kwibuka Flame Tour, Rwanda. Credit: Kwibuka Rwanda