Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

For anyone who has thought critically about Itorero, Rwanda’s national civic education programme launched in late 2007, it comes so easy to deem its methods visibly flawed. A Twenty-sixteen study (originally a PhD thesis) by Dr. Sylvestre Nzahabwanayo of the University of Rwanda sheds light on some of the training scheme’s inconsistencies with sustainable and active citizenry.

Twenty-five years after the genocide against the Tutsi, the young scholar suggests, Rwanda could use a notion of citizenship that fosters critical thinking, democratic values, and cosmopolitanism. In contrast, Itorero “relies heavily” on a republican and communitarian paradigm that risks producing uncritical and docile citizens — although, his paper assesses, the programme has helped encourage unity, values of integrity, hard work, self-reliance, and upholding one’s dignity, among others. The programme has neglected the important attributes of an active and responsible citizen.

It is hard to disagree.

I met with Dr. Nzahabwanayo in November to discuss his findings and make sense of a possible direction for change. As a scholar in political philosophy applied in education, he was keen to study “local, indigenous form of knowledge and elevate it to the academic debate.” That is how he took an interest in the concept of Itorero.

A corresponding policy brief co-authored with Prof. Kai Horsthemke, and published on the Genocide Research Hub (an initiative of Aegis Trust), provides insight into the proposed paradigm.

The republican and communitarian paradigm, Dr. Nzahabwanayo told me, generally teaches that a good citizen is one who is loyal, obedient, unquestioning, patriotic, with a strong sense of self-sacrifice. However, it is “not surprising,” he asserts: Post-genocide and conflict-afflicted communities or countries, like Cambodia for instance, tend to use such a notion of citizenship in the aftermath. The shock of mass atrocities, in theory, leaves such countries in a position that drives political leaders to take “more-than-required caution.” But after recovering from the hangover of genocide, he emphasises, you see that these countries move towards something more democratic. And instead of teaching people rigid virtues, they rather tend to “start focusing on democratic skills and values but also critical skills and values.”

A critical citizen, argues Dr. Nzahabwanayo, is more likely to counteract the risks of indoctrination and fanaticism; a democratic citizen reasonably engages in political events and has a stake in them; a cosmopolitan citizen is more open to the world, larger identities, and communities.

I asked him if he has discussed his findings with authorities in charge of Itorero (and what sort of feedback did he receive) and if there are any ongoing reforms, that he knows of, which have been informed by his research or similar work. He told me the officials he has engaged in a conversation with have acknowledged the need for change. I believed him — it’s only right to be optimistic.

Sure, post-genocide Itorero has been scrutinised several times before although it has never really been put to significant public debate. Now that Rwanda looks to greater ambitions, institutions in charge of the training programme should focus on the right thing: listen to critique, use reason to implement reform, and thrive to make Itorero more relevant and consistent with the government’s new vision. Officials are aware of the challenges and agree there is a need to shift; that’s a good and important step. But the process needs to happen faster.

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