North-South Conference: Building Partnerships for Sustainable Development

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Scenario: North-South Conference



Rwanda flag





Rwanda location

Rwanda, is a small, landlocked republic in the Great Lakes Region of east-central Africa, bounded on the north by Uganda, on the east by Tanzania, on the south by Burundi, and on the west by Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). Rwanda covers an area of 26,338 sq km (10,169 sq mi), and Kigali is its capital and largest city.

Home to nearly ten million people, Rwanda is the most densely-populated country in Africa. Most Rwandans are subsistence farmers. Three-quarters of the population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.


Rwanda map

The country has received considerable international attention due to its 1994 genocide, during which between eight hundred thousand and one million people were killed. The civil war greatly disrupted the ethnic and geographic distribution of the population and caused massive numbers of deaths. However, the country’s population density remains the highest in Africa.


The first known inhabitants of Rwanda were the Twa (a pygmy tribe or ethnic group). The Hutu, probably from the Congo Basin, were well established by the 15th century, when the Tutsi came down from the north and conquered the area. The Tutsi kings, or mwamis, became the absolute monarchs of the region. Their rule was enforced by chiefs and subchiefs, who each ruled an umusozi, a fiefdom that consisted of a single hill. Political and economic relations were based on an unequal feudal relationship, known as the ubuhake system, in which the Hutu became a caste of serfs forced into subjugation and economic dependency by the Tutsi. This caste system was rigidly upheld, and intermarriage was almost nonexistent. A similar feudal system prevailed in Burundi as well.

Today, the estimated population of Rwanda is 10,473,282 (2009). The population density is 420 persons per sq km (1,087 per sq mi), making Rwanda the most densely populated country in Africa, yet 78 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Most people live in family groups dispersed throughout mountainous regions.

With a population estimated at more than 656,000, the capital, Kigali, is Rwanda’s principal city. Smaller urban centers include Butare, in the south; Ruhengeri, in the north; and Kibungo, in the southeast.

Three ethnic groups make up the population: the Hutu (about 85 percent); the Tutsi (14 percent), noted as cattle raisers; and the Twa (1 percent), a pygmoid people thought to be the original inhabitants of the region. The official languages are Kinyarwanda (a Bantu language), French, and English. About one-half of the population is Roman Catholic, and one-fifth is Protestant. There are smaller groups of Muslims and people who follow traditional religions.

Way of Life:

Most Rwandans live in round grass huts in farms scattered over the country’s many hills. Family life is central to society. Traditionally, the principal goal in life was parenthood. Women generally dress in brightly colored wraps, men in white. However, many have adopted Western clothes. The Rwandan diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes and beans, with bananas, corn, peas, millet, and fruits added in season. Beer and milk are important beverages. Protein deficiency is a serious problem. Cattle are herded as signs of wealth and status rather than for their value as food. Most Rwandans consume meat only about once or twice a month. Fish is eaten by those living near lakes. Pastimes include poetry recitation, storytelling, and mancala, a board game common throughout Africa. Soccer is also popular.


Schooling is free and, in principle, compulsory for children aged 7 through 12, but only 72.7 percent of the adult population is literate. In 2002–2003 virtually all primary school-aged children were enrolled in school, but only 16 percent of the relevantly-aged children attended secondary or technical schools. The National University of Rwanda (founded in 1963), in Butare, is the main institute of higher education.

Health and Welfare:

Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), malaria, schistosomiasis, and sexually transmitted infections are all severe medical problems in Rwanda. However, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is by far the most serious health issue. In 2007, an estimated 130,000 Rwandans had AIDS.

Social Problems:

Ethnic division and rivalry have been the dominant features of Rwandan society since independence in 1962. These severe problems are compounded further by poverty, overcrowding, environmental stress, and one of the highest incidences of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the world.

Land and Resources:

The central portion of Rwanda is dominated by a hilly plateau averaging about 1,700 m in elevation. Eastward, toward the Tanzanian border, the land slopes downward to a series of marshy lakes along the upper Kagera River. On the western side of the plateau is a mountain system averaging about 2,740 m in elevation, forming the watershed between the Nile and Congo river systems. The Virunga Mountains, a volcanic range that forms the northern reaches of this system, includes Volcan Karisimbi (4,507 m), Rwanda’s highest peak. West of the mountains the elevation drops to about 1,460 m in the Lake Kivu region.


Rwanda has three main seasons: a short dry season in January, the major rainy season from February through May, and another dry period from May to late September. The average yearly rainfall is 790 mm and is heaviest in the western and northwestern mountain regions. Wide temperature variations occur because of elevation differences. The average daily temperature in the Lake Kivu area is 23°C (73°F). In the mountains in the northwest, frost occurs at night.

Plants and Animals:

Forests, once extensive, now are concentrated in the western mountains and Lake Kivu area. Predominant trees are the eucalyptus, acacia, and oil palm. Wildlife—including elephant, hippopotamus, crocodile, wild boar, leopard, antelope, and galago (bush baby)—is protected in Akagera National Park. The Virunga Mountains in northern Rwanda are the home of what is estimated to be half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. This subspecies of gorilla was made famous by the work of American zoologist Dian Fossey.

Mineral Resources:

Rwanda's principal mineral resources are cassiterite (tin ore), wolframite (tungsten ore), columbite, tantalite, beryl, and gold. Large natural gas reserves have been found near the DRC border.

Environmental Issues:

Because Rwanda is both small and densely populated, its land is intensively farmed. Soil exhaustion and overgrazing are leading to desertification throughout the country.

Forests cover about 18.2 percent (2005) of Rwanda. The country’s forests are threatened by Rwandans’ reliance on traditional fuels such as firewood for about 88 percent (1997) of their energy. Rwanda has designated 7.6 percent (2007) of its land as protected area, but human migration resulting from conflicts throughout the Great Lakes Region has resulted in significant damage to protected forests as well as other areas.


Rwanda is a poor rural country with about 90% of the population engaged in (mainly subsistence) agriculture. It is the most densely populated country in Africa and is landlocked with few natural resources and minimal industry. Primary foreign exchange earners are coffee and tea. The 1994 genocide decimated Rwanda's fragile economic base, severely impoverished the population, particularly women, and eroded the country's ability to attract private and external investment. However, Rwanda has made substantial progress in stabilizing and rehabilitating its economy to pre-1994 levels, although poverty levels are higher now. GDP has rebounded and inflation has been curbed. Despite Rwanda's fertile ecosystem, food production often does not keep pace with population growth, requiring food imports. Rwanda continues to receive substantial aid money and obtained IMF-World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative debt relief in 2005-06. Rwanda also received Millennium Challenge Account Threshold status in 2006. The government has embraced an expansionary fiscal policy to reduce poverty by improving education, infrastructure, and foreign and domestic investment and pursuing market-oriented reforms, although energy shortages, instability in neighboring states, and lack of adequate transportation linkages to other countries continue to handicap growth.


Most of the people of Rwanda depend on subsistence agriculture, generally using a hoe as the main tool. The main cash crops are tea and coffee. Food crops include bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, sorghum, beans, and rice. Cattle and goats are the main livestock raised. Overgrazing and soil erosion are serious difficulties that affect the entire country. Furthermore, Rwanda’s instability has caused disruptions in trade and a decline in exports, leading even more people to revert to subsistence agriculture.


Minerals are Rwanda’s second most important source of foreign exchange after agricultural products. However, due to drops in world commodity prices, the mining of cassiterite was halted in 1986. The following year the country’s wolframite mines were also closed for the same reason. By 1991 some cassiterite and other mineral ores were being exported again, but mining in general was disrupted by the instability of the mid-1990s. In the early 21st century, the main exploited minerals were columbite, cassiterite, gold, and beryl.


Industries in Rwanda mainly revolve around the processing of agricultural products, such as coffee, tea, and sugar. Other important products include beer, soft drinks, cigarettes, and cement. The 1994 civil war brought Rwanda’s manufacturing sector to a standstill, but industry began recovering when the conflict ended.

Civil War:

In April 1994, shortly after concluding peace negotiations with the RPF that called for UN peacekeeping forces to be stationed in Rwanda, President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed when their plane was shot down near Kigali. Responsibility for the attack has not been established. Habyarimana’s death provoked a wave of ethnic violence, prompting UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to accuse the Hutu-dominated Rwandan Army of genocide against the Tutsi. At the height of the violence, the UN forces, lacking a mandate to protect civilians, abandoned Kigali. Over the next few months, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were massacred. The RPF army pushed toward Kigali, and a civil war ensued. In June the French government sent 2,500 troops to Rwanda to establish a safe area in the southwestern part of the country. But attempts to mediate a cease-fire failed as the RPF mounted a successful final assault.

After capturing the capital of Kigali, RPF troops began to drive the Rwandan Army and Hutu civilians northwest, toward the border with Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Retaliatory violence by Tutsi claimed several thousand lives, including that of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Kigali. By mid-July, an estimated 1.2 million Rwandans had fled the advancing RPF army across the border and into Zaire, forming enormous refugee camps around the city of Goma. By early August, an estimated one-quarter of the prewar population of Rwanda had either died or fled the country. International relief efforts were mobilized to care for the refugees, but available supplies were inadequate and outbreaks of disease were widespread. In the midst of the squalor of the camps, more than 20,000 refugees died in a cholera epidemic.

A cease-fire was declared in July, and an RPF-backed government was established with Pasteur Bizimungu, a moderate Hutu, as president. The RPF made a point of including other groups in the government. Many Tutsi refugees began to return to Rwanda, including refugees who had fled in the 1960s, but the repatriation of Hutu refugees was slower, as many feared reprisals.

Cross-Border Unrest:

Throughout 1996 more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, most of them Hutu, remained in camps in Zaire. The civil war that erupted in eastern Zaire in late 1996 revealed that these camps contained small percentages of armed Hutu militias. These Hutu, likely the same who led or participated in the 1994 massacres of Tutsi, used the huge refugee camps as places of refuge while they organized raids into Rwanda with the goal of overthrowing the RPF government. The Hutu refugees remained in the camps either out of fear of Tutsi retribution in Rwanda or because they were held against their will by the militias. The militias clashed with the largely Tutsi eastern Zairian rebels around Lake Kivu, often very close to the border between Rwanda and Zaire. The Hutu militias were aided by the Zairian government, the Tutsi rebels in Zaire, by the Rwandan government. Cross-border artillery shelling was reported near Gisenyi, north of Lake Kivu.

In October and November 1996 the Tutsi rebels successfully routed Hutu militias in several huge refugee camps near the border. Some 800,000 Rwandans poured home, but several hundred thousand remained in Zaire. As the civil war spread and the rebels gained territory, the Rwandan refugees were forced west, deeper into the jungles of Zaire. Despite an international outcry over their plight, the constantly moving refugees remained largely beyond the reach of aid workers. By the end of Zaire’s civil war in May, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees had been killed in the fighting, or had died of disease or starvation.

Human Rights:

Significant human rights abuses occur, although there have been improvements in some areas. Citizens' right to change their government is restricted, and local defense forces (LDF) personnel were responsible for four killings during the past year. Violence against genocide survivors and witnesses by unknown assailants claimed at least 16 lives in 2008. There have been reports of torture and abuse of suspects, although significantly fewer than in the past. Prison and detention center conditions remain harsh. Security forces arbitrarily arrest and detain people. Prolonged pretrial detention is a problem, and government officials attempt to influence judicial outcomes, mostly regarding the community-based justice system known as gacaca. There continue to be limits on the freedom of speech and on the freedom of association, and restrictions on the press have increased. The government limits religious freedom, and official corruption is a problem. Restrictions on civil society, societal violence and discrimination against women, recruitment of child soldiers by representatives of a Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)-based armed group, trafficking in persons, child labor, and restrictions on labor rights occur.

On December 12, the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo Report Pursuant to UNSCR Resolution 1807 reported that Rwandan authorities have supplied military equipment and been complicit in recruiting soldiers, including children, to support the Congolese rebel National Congress in Defense of the People, led by a former general of the Congolese Armed Forces, Laurent Nkunda. Also in December the Rwandan and Congolese governments met to develop a joint strategy to eliminate the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

Rwanda's constitution requires that 30 percent of the seats in the main leglislative body be filled by women. Today, Rwanda is the first African nation to have elected a female majority to its legislature. In addition to the 24 female legislators mandated by the 2003 constitution, another 21 women were directly elected to the 80-member chamber in the 2008 parliamentary elections.

Selected Statistics:

Age structure:
0-14 years: 42.1% (male 2,216,352/female 2,196,327)
15-64 years: 55.4% (male 2,897,003/female 2,909,994)
65 years and over: 2.4% (male 100,920/female 152,686) (2009 est.)

Life expectancy at birth:
total population: 50.52 years
male: 49.25 years
female: 51.83 years (2009 est.)

Median age:
total: 18.7 years
male: 18.5 years
female: 18.9 years (2009 est.)

urban population: 18% of total population (2008)
rate of urbanization: 4.2% annual rate of change (2005-10 est.)

HIV/AIDS: 2.8% (2007 est.) adult prevalence rate; 150,000 (2007 est.) people living with HIV/AIDS; 7,800 (2007 est.) deaths annually.

Major infectious diseases:
degree of risk: very high
food or waterborne diseases: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever
vectorborne disease: malaria
animal contact disease: rabies (2009)

Ethnic groups:
Hutu (Bantu) 84%, Tutsi (Hamitic) 15%, Twa (Pygmy) 1%

Roman Catholic 56.5%, Protestant 26%, Adventist 11.1%, Muslim 4.6%, indigenous beliefs 0.1%, none 1.7% (2001)

Kinyarwanda (official) universal Bantu vernacular, French (official), English (official), Kiswahili (Swahili) used in commercial centers

total population: 70.4%
male: 76.3%
female: 64.7% (2003 est.)

temperate; two rainy seasons (February to April, November to January); mild in mountains with frost and snow possible

mostly grassy uplands and hills; relief is mountainous with altitude declining from west to east

Natural resources:
gold, cassiterite (tin ore), wolframite (tungsten ore), methane, hydropower, arable land

Land use:
arable land: 45.56% permanent crops: 10.25% other: 44.19% (2005)

Natural hazards:
periodic droughts; the volcanic Virunga mountains are in the northwest along the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo

Environment - current isues:
deforestation results from uncontrolled cutting of trees for fuel; overgrazing; soil exhaustion; soil erosion; widespread poaching

GDP - real growth rate:
11.2% (2008 est.)
7.9% (2007 est.)
7.3% (2006 est.)

Population below poverty line:
60% (2001 est.)

Inflation rate (consumer prices):
15.4% (2008 est.)
9.1% (2007 est.)
12.5% (31 December 2007)

Agriculture - products:
coffee, tea, pyrethrum (insecticide made from chrysanthemums), bananas, beans, sorghum, potatoes; livestock

cement, agricultural products, small-scale beverages, soap, furniture, shoes, plastic goods, textiles, cigarettes

Exports - commodities:
coffee, tea, hides, tin ore

Imports - commodities:
foodstuffs, machinery and equipment, steel, petroleum products, cement and construction material

Transnational issues:

Fighting among ethnic groups – loosely associated political rebels, armed gangs, and various government forces in Great Lakes region transcending the boundaries of Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda – abated substantially from a decade ago, due largely to UN peacekeeping, international mediation, and efforts by local governments to create civil societies. Nevertheless, 57,000 Rwandan refugees still reside in 21 African states, including Zambia, Gabon, and 20,000 who fled to Burundi in 2005 and 2006 to escape drought and recriminations from traditional courts investigating the 1994 massacres. The 2005 Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda border verification mechanism to stem rebel actions on both sides of the border remains in place.

Refugees and internally displaced persons:
refugees (country of origin): 46,272 (Democratic Republic of the Congo); 4,400 (Burundi) (2007)

Article links:

From fighting to forgiveness in Rwanda

Forgiveness Unbound

Sources (incomplete list):

CIA Factbook

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