Despite the crucial role of the Northern Hutu in overthrowing the Tutsi, the Belgians handed the reins of power to a southern coalition at independence in July 1962.Gregoire Kayibnada emerged from this group as the new country’s first president. A moderate who preached Hutu unity, Kayibanda led a government that practiced systematic discrimination against the Tutsi. The government also directed a disproportionate share of the nation’s limited foreign investment to the favored central and southern provinces. After ten years of perceived regional neglect and national decline, the Northern Hutu again took matters into their own hands. On July 5, 1973, a bloodless coup installed Juvenal Habyarimana as president of the second republic the event that caused Idi Amini to hold us captive as Peace Corps volunteers in the Entebbe airport. Kayibanda was placed under house arrest, where he died of chronic alcoholism several years later.
The politicians of the Northern Ruhengeri Gisenyi axis were a dynamic group. Once they felt comfortably in control of internal affairs, they opened their borders in the mid-1970s and rolled out the welcome mat for foreigners. Belgian, Swiss, French and German donors were impressed with the seriousness of their hosts. The image of Rwanda as the “Switzerland of Africa” stable hardworking, beautiful began to take hold. The strict quota system, under which 10 percent of all government jobs and school openings were allocated to Tutsi according to their ethnic representation in the population, should have been repulsive to most westerners. Yet even this was held up as an enlightened policy toward minorities in comparison with practices in most African countries at that time. Habyarimana was seen by many as the kind of benign dictator the continent needed to move forward. The Rwanda story warmed the hearts and loosened the purse strings of foreign investors. By 1978, even the United States agency for international development was hiring staff to open a full office in Kigali. As development assistance flowed at unprecedented levels, the rising tide lifted all regions. But the biggest wealthiest projects were generally steered toward Ruhengeri and Gisenyi.
The Habyarimana government was not just a passive recipient of foreign assistance, it under took some much needed initiatives. Nearly half of its budget was dedicated to agriculture. Following a post independence period of neglect under the first republic Rwandans were again attentive to their land resource base. Six thousand miles of terraces and hedgerows were built or restored in the government’s first five years providing increased erosion protection to almost one quarter of the existing arable land base. Starting in 1975, millions of trees were planted each year. Both activities were supported primarily by Rwandan financing and labour. When we arrived in early 1978, fewer than one hundred miles of paved road existed in the entire country. Within two years, a grid covering all majors’ arteries was planned and financed by a curious consortium of donors that included the Italians, Libyans and Chinese.
Secondly only to agriculture, the new government invested heavily in education spending more than one quarter of its annual budget in support of schools and school children. Still fewer than half of all eligible Rwandan children attended primary school by the late 1970s only one child in fifty attended secondary school. Part of the problem was a lack of classroom, part of the problem was lack of teachers. The colonial powers had not invested in this sector certainly not for disempowered Hutu students. A radical program of educational reform was launched in 1979 to increase classroom access and make the curriculum more relevant to Rwandan needs. Without any setbacks or interruptions, the new program’s first graduates would emerge from high school and college in the late 1990’s.
Public health spending was more modest. Only 6 percent of the annual budget was dedicated to this sector, virtually none of it for family planning in 1978 nearly one fourth of all Rwandan children died before the age of five barely better than the 29 percent mortality rate for young gorillas. Still fertility rates for women of reproductive age approached the biological maximum and the overall human population was growing at 3.7 percent per annum. Rwanda rose toward the top of lists of the world’s most densely populated countries, with nearly five hundred people per square mile. If considering only agricultural lands, the density raised to more than 1300 per square mile an extremely relevant figure in a nation where 95 percent of the people lived off what they could produce on shrinking rural holdings. The average farm size was down to an acre, framers were becoming intensive gardeners and further sub division of most family plots through inheritance was out of the question. In a small land locked nation with few minerals and an overdependence on coffee, alternative development options were limited.
As one of its first acts, the Habyarimana government created the office Rwanda is du Tourism et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) in 1974.This removed conservation from the ministry of Agriculture which had approved the 1969 conversation of 25,000 acres of Virunga parkland for pyrethrum production. It also gave new emphasis to development of the tourism sector of the economy. Yet by 1979, the rising tide of human settlement again lapped at the Virunga shore. Land hungry farmers cast covetous looks toward what was left of the PARC National des Volcans. Northern politicians were all too ready to oblige their constituent’s interests as well as their own and Western donors had money to spend.