Course:GEOG352/Social polarization in Kigali: gentrification, segregation, and post-genocide reconstruction

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Spatial residential segregation is a key issue in addressing urbanization and the making of an inclusive city. It is usually characterized by an unequal access to space based on characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or economic status. Segregation is generally either the outcome of public policies or of market-induced mechanisms. For instance, Apartheid in South Africa was one of the most extreme cases of government-induced separation based on ethnicity, as Apartheid laws determined in which neighborhoods it was deemed acceptable for native South Africans, Indian immigrants, and Afrikaners to reside. However, most contemporary cases of spatial segregation are caused by private socio-economic forces, both in the global north and the global south. It therefore leads to situations of unequal access to housing that feed into already existing intersectional inequalities. As cities of the global south are rapidly growing, urban planning tends to lag behind actual development, which can create situations of housing price surge along with the appearance of informal housing — often referred to as ‘slums’. Such situations raise questions regarding the role of the state in housing, and whether mechanisms should be established to limit increases in housing price and guarantee that everyone gets access to decent housing, in order to build fairer and more inclusive cities and spaces.

Kigali infographic.png

This article will focus on spatial segregation in Rwanda’s capital: Kigali. In 1994 Rwanda witnessed the worst genocide since the Holocaust, caused by ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus. The country then had to rebuild itself and its capital, which has become one of the fastest growing cities of the African continent. This article will unpack whether this turn, which occurred over the course of two decades, is a politico-economic miracle or an exportable model that could inspire other cities of the global south, by analyzing (1) the legacies of the genocide, (2) the role of the public sector, (3) the impact of the Vision City, and (4) women’s access to land and housing.


Spatial segregation and gentrification in Kigali need to be situated in the broader historical context of the last two decades. While Rwanda is widely considered as a model of economic success in East Africa, this small country experienced the deadliest genocide in recent history: in the short period from April to July 1994, the Hutu majority government ordered the killing of the Tutsi minority. Ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis stemmed from Belgian colonialism which had exacerbated tensions between both groups by crystallizing these formerly fluid identities, in addition to an economic crisis that caused inflation and food shortages. Within a hundred days, 75 percent of the Tutsi community was killed, leaving Rwandese society deeply traumatized.

Since the 1990s, however, the Rwandan economy has recovered. Because of its relatively small territory and its relative lack of natural resources, Rwanda has concentrated its efforts on building a service economy, focused on its capital Kigali, as a service hub for finance, tourism, and business. Development and urbanization were key components of post-genocide rebuilding, as Rwanda had to unite its society through reconstruction efforts to keep up with the Central African pace of development, as development is often synonymous with urbanization in the context of the global south.

Kigali's skyline

People individually come to the capital to get better employment opportunities, but Kigali — like most cities of the global south — does not have the infrastructure necessary to absorb this rapid immigration inflow. With a population density of 4,000 inhabitants per square mile, Rwanda’s capital is one of the most densely populated cities in Central Africa. Challenges linked to access to land, housing, infrastructures, and services such as health and education, are intensified and require heightened attention from local and national decision-making actors. In order to build a fairer and more inclusive city, an ambitious urban planning project has been drafted with the goal to decentralize the capital by 2040. One of the project’s main targets is to demolish informal housing, which accommodates more than 70 percent of Kigali’s dwellers today, in order to build more high-density areas. The city’s population is expected to triple by 2040, which will intensify existing challenges. In order to ensure that the city will develop in an inclusive way, rent-to-own schemes are being considered and the government has promised to enforce regulations that set quotas of affordable building for any purchased land [1].

Yet, the challenges remain numerous. This urban-planning initiative will need to find ways to efficiently integrate different genders, ethnicities, and social classes within the city, not only by providing housing but also by making sure to foster affordable transportation, health facilities, and education services. Urban planners will thus need to think about ways to mitigate the potentially adverse effects of gentrification and the polarization of different groups within Kigali.

Case Study of Theme/Issue

Kigali is one of the fastest growing capitals in Africa and is exposed to many urban challenges involving infrastructure, gentrification, and the legacy of genocide. The divide between Hutus and Tutsis that prompted the genocide now takes another form under the guise of social segregation towards poor urban dwellers. The rates of expropriation have gone up as a result of the government’s “urban growth” policy, which is perpetually transforming Kigali’s landscape. Urban land is requisitioned for the implementation of massive development projects. The general direction of development investments in Kigali is given by the ‘Master Plan’, an official report which outlines sustainable strategies for managing population growth and the changes in urban spaces it entails[2].

Vision City project under construction in Kigali: aimed primarily at the rich, it displaced many local populations

The rationale behind the urban planning initiative is to transform Kigali into a truly global city. To this end, the Organic Land Law of 2005 and the Expropriation Law of 2007 were passed which reinforced existing legal definitions regarding land and its ownership, and enshrined the government’s right to “expropriate in the public interest”. The law sets out a definition of ‘public interest’ which includes private and commercial developments, provided they fulfill certain criteria set by the ‘Master Plan’[3]. In addition to clarifying the legal framework of land in Kigali, incentives for investments in real estate were set up, including low taxes on building materials and free assistance to complete necessary paperwork. The Rwandan government also takes an active part in urban development through projects directed and financed by the Rwandan Social Security Board[4]. The largest of such projects, ‘Vision City’, is expected to deliver 4500 dwelling units to the city, helping in part to alleviate the increasing pressure on housing stocks. With a cost of US$150 million, it knows no equivalent in the country’s history[5]. According to Liliane Mupende, a chief executive officer on the project, it will, once completed, “[...] be the reference point for contemporary Rwandan living, characterized by security, modernity, environmental friendliness, and high quality living in a unique and hussle-free environment in Kigali city.”. While it includes social housing and will serve the low and middle income inhabitants, Mupende recognizes that the first phase of Vision City is primarily targeted to the city’s higher income brackets[6]. The priority put on the richer parts of Kigali’s population, coupled with the expropriations undertaken to secure land for construction, hint to problematic patterns of urban development.

In pursuing the goal of making Kigali a global powerhouse, current developments have left the city oversaturated with luxurious residences. Gentrification has turned the city into a haven mostly for the wealthy; welcoming capitalist investors and excluding the poor. The lack of industry in Rwanda has channeled capital directly into real-estate, creating a boom in construction. This phenomenon was further accentuated by a sudden influx of foreign aid after the genocide[7]. 81 percent of the Rwandan population does not have access to mortgage, resulting in little demand from the lower and middle classes to purchase land and afford housing[8]. The majority of new housing in Kigali is thus directed at the top 20 percent of the market. Supported by the Master Plan’s vision for the city’s future, expropriation of land — often in its most disenfranchised parts and with little compensation — displaces the poor or confines them in shrinking districts[9]. This creates a situation of spatio-economic segregation, which increasingly resembles the barricaded landscape of other large African cities, where the rich are physically walled-off from the poor[10].

Post-genocide reconstruction and reconciliation

In the aftermath of the Rwandan Civil War and the brutal killings of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, the Rwandan capital was a site of chaos and instability. Yet, in spite of Kigali's staggering population growth and the ravaged social and political fabric of the country, Kigali became a model for African urbanization and development[11].

During the conflict, Kigali's infrastructures and buildings were devastated. The city had been emptied of its population, as both Hutus and Tutsis had fled to neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo[12]. With the end of violence, approximately 700,000 Tutsi exiles returned to Kigali, filling the city with traumatized genocide survivors. Two years later, the return of two million Hutus to the capital posed a massive integration challenge. Aside from the issues of reconstructing the city's infrastructure and finding appropriate housing solutions for the survivors, the Tutsi-dominated government and city administration also faced the problem of welcoming masses of people who were presumably associated with the genocide[13]. Although the city offered a fair degree of anonymity, tensions between the groups were palpable and the risk of an outburst of violence was high. Still, only a decade later Kigali was awarded a UN-HABITAT award for "many innovations building a model and modern city"[14].

Although the Rwandan reconciliation is a "'messy' process"[15], the new government has succeeded in keeping the peace in the city by focusing the inhabitants' attention on attracting foreign direct investment and on the 'Model City' project, and by adopting a strategy of "chosen amnesia"[16] of the genocide.

Kigali has benefitted from a substantial "donor guilt"[17], on the part of the Global North which had failed to intervene in the genocide[18]: "Between April and December 1994, US$1.4 billion in emergency assistance was targeted at Rwanda and approximately 200 NGOs were involved"[19]. In the early 2000s, improved development indicators (female representation in government, increased health and education coverage) gave the government another credibility boost and resulted in another wave of international aid[20]. The city benefitted immensely from this capital inflow, as urban infrastructure accounted for up to 40 per cent of capital expenditure[21]. Additionally the World Bank funded the US$23.7 million Urban Infrastructure and City Management Project which focused on local roads and drainage in low-income areas of Kigali.

The money did not only help with the capital's extremely rapid reconstruction and reduced the number of unemployed city dwellers, but it also contributed to the stability of the RPF (the Tutsi-dominated government) which led to improved security in the city. Poverty reduction was declared a national priority, also as a way to push for national reconciliation[22].

Overcoming gender inequalities in Kigali

As in many other postcolonial conflicts, the experience of war and violence was particularly harsh for women, and its lasting repercussions kept impacting them especially hard. Unlike other conflicts on the continent, women and children were not spared, even in the churches that had previously been places of refuge; the genocide itself saw rape – often public – used as a weapon, along with the intentional passing of the HIV virus to Tutsi women. The movement of refugees shattered traditional community and support structures. Widows were left to take the duties usually reserved for men, often with the added burden of taking care of orphans in the absence of formal structures to do so.[23] Women’s legal access to land, previously restricted de juris by the state, has been dramatically liberalized since the war – but changes on paper have not reflected societal attitudes, and the views of Rwandan society have not evolved to reflect the changes in the law.

Rwanda boasts many statistics to bolster its gender equality credentials: in the lower house of the national legislature, women hold nearly two-thirds of the seats[24]. Additionally, the country’s Ministry for Women has promoted a national agenda backed by President Paul Kagame[25]. In Kigali, female construction-workers became “a common sight” in the years after the war[26]; a recent study even showed that women, whether jointly or on their own, “own most of the registered plots of land.”[27]. These statistics are backed up by a series of legal reforms regarding women’s right to inherit property. Reforms continued through the 2000s, in tandem with the rise of the proportion of women in government[28].

A major obstacle has been that ‘law’ in the sense above is not a Rwandan invention, but a construct inherited from Belgian occupation. Since much of the population does not speak French, adherence to the Western notions of rule of law and formal legal procedures is weak<red> Rose, L.L., 2004. Women's Land Access in Post-Conflict Rwanda: Bridging the Gap Between Customary Land Law and Pending Land Legislation. Texas Journal of Women and the Law, 13. </ref>. A major challenge for women in Rwanda is the prevalence of “informal marriages” – traditional weddings that are not publicly registered and therefore not recognized beyond the community and family of the betrothed[29]. The inheritance rights of women, legally protected since 1999, are thus not recognized in these cases if they become widows. Even in “formal” marriages, particularly interethnic ones, the social conventions that had ruled Rwanda for centuries have not been overruled by legal changes: women report hostility on the part of their in-laws and communities that refuse to acknowledge their title[30]. The government’s efforts are often lauded, and their lack of total power should not be cause for discouragement. Instead, Rwanda’s difficulties in putting parliamentary laws and procedures into practice throughout society should be a reminder that transformations should be built from the ground up.

Lessons Learned

Kigali is certainly a remarkable case for a city in the global south, having developed rapidly and peacefully after an incredibly brutal conflict. The Rwandan government, by focusing on the economic future of the capital and of the country in general, has taken important steps towards a prosperous future. Through international aid and by attracting foreign direct investment, Kigali has become one of Africa's top financial hubs. The Rwandan capital is in many respects a socio-economic miracle and an exception on the African continent. Its path towards regional financial importance can be an example for cities in other parts of the global south which are still suffering through civil wars and brutal conflicts such as Damascus and Baghdad.

However, many scholars also criticize the Rwandan model of reconciliation. Although economic development has been successful so far, the government has been unable to find viable judicial solutions to manage reconciliation. Many aspects and perpetrators of the genocide have been "silenced" (Zorbas, 5) and the new government is in the hands of the Tutsi minority, which risks to spark conflict as soon as the period of economic growth ends. President Paul Kagame is clearly turning towards an authoritarian style of government which limits the freedom of the press and harshly represses any form of opposition (Schaller, 634). The international community however, out of guilt of having not intervened in 1994 and out of fear of hurting the country's economic development, avoids open critique of the regime.

These elements could make for an explosive mix in the future and eventually lead to a new chapter in Rwanda's history of conflicts.


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Reference List

  1. Topping, A. (2018). Kigali's future or costly fantasy? Plan to reshape Rwandan city divides opinion. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2018].
  2. Oz Architecture. [no date]. Kigali Master Plan [online]. Available from: [Accessed 5 April 2018].
  3. Goodfellow, T. (2014). Rwanda's political settlement and the urban transition: expropriation, construction and taxation in Kigali. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8(2), pp.311-329.
  4. Goodfellow, T. (2017). Urban Fortunes and Skeleton Cityscapes: Real Estate and Late Urbanization in Kigali and Addis Ababa. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 41(5), pp.786-803.
  5. Kagire, E. (2013). Standoff at Vision City project site ends with demolition of homes. The East African. [online] Available at: /Standoff-at-Vision-City-project-site-ends/1433218-1913126-144au9jz/index.html [Accessed 5 Apr. 2018].
  6. Tumwebaze, P. (2015). Vision City project to deliver 500 housing units by April next year. The New Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Apr. 2018].
  7. Goodfellow, T. (2014). Rwanda's political settlement and the urban transition: expropriation, construction and taxation in Kigali. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8(2), pp.311-329.
  8. Goodfellow, T. (2014). Rwanda's political settlement and the urban transition: expropriation, construction and taxation in Kigali. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8(2), pp.311-329.
  9. Goodfellow, T. (2014). Rwanda's political settlement and the urban transition: expropriation, construction and taxation in Kigali. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8(2), pp.311-329.
  10. Goodfellow, T. (2017). Urban Fortunes and Skeleton Cityscapes: Real Estate and Late Urbanization in Kigali and Addis Ababa. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 41(5), pp.786-803.
  11. Goodfellow, Tom, and Alyson Smith. "From urban catastrophe to ‘model’city? Politics, security and development in post-conflict Kigali." Urban studies 50, no. 15 (2013): 3186
  12. Goodfellow, Tom, and Alyson Smith. "From urban catastrophe to ‘model’city? Politics, security and development in post-conflict Kigali." Urban studies 50, no. 15 (2013): 3188
  13. Goodfellow, Tom, and Alyson Smith. "From urban catastrophe to ‘model’city? Politics, security and development in post-conflict Kigali." Urban studies 50, no. 15 (2013): 3189
  14. Goodfellow, Tom, and Alyson Smith. "From urban catastrophe to ‘model’city? Politics, security and development in post-conflict Kigali." Urban studies 50, no. 15 (2013): 3190
  15. Zorbas, Eugenia. "Reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda." African Journal of Legal Studies 1, no. 1 (2004): 1
  16. Buckley-Zistel, S., 2006. Remembering to forget: Chosen amnesia as a strategy for local coexistence in post-genocide Rwanda. Africa, 76(2), pp.133
  17. Goodfellow, Tom, and Alyson Smith. "From urban catastrophe to ‘model’city? Politics, security and development in post-conflict Kigali." Urban studies 50, no. 15 (2013): 3190
  18. Schaller, D.J., 2008. Schuld und Sühne in Ruanda. Zeitschrift für Politikberatung, 1(3-4), pp.626-636.
  19. Goodfellow, T. and Smith, A., 2013. From urban catastrophe to ‘model’city? Politics, security and development in post-conflict Kigali. Urban studies, 50(15), pp.3190
  20. Goodfellow, T. and Smith, A., 2013. From urban catastrophe to ‘model’city? Politics, security and development in post-conflict Kigali. Urban studies, 50(15), pp.3191
  21. Uvin, P., 1998. Aiding violence: The development enterprise in Rwanda. Kumarian Press, pp. 149
  22. Zorbas, E., 2004. Reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. African Journal of Legal Studies, 1(1), pp.3
  23. Newbury, C. & Baldwin, H., 2000. Aftermath: Women in Postgenocide Rwanda.
  24. Warner, G., 2016. It's The No. 1 Country For Women In Politics - But Not In Daily Life. NPR. Available at: [Accessed April 7, 2018].
  25. Burnet, J.E., 2008. Gender Balance and the Meanings of Women in Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda. African Affairs, 107(428), pp.361–386.
  26. Newbury, Baldwin, op. cit.
  27. Anon, 2015. Secure Land Rights for Rwanda's Women are Critical for Families and the Nation. Women's Land Rights Blog. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2018].
  28. Burnet, J.E., 2011. Women Have Found Respect: Gender Quotas, Symbolic Representation and Female Empowerment in Rwanda. Anthropology Faculty Publications.
  29. Vanhees, K., 2014. Property Rights for Women in Rwanda: Access to Land for Women Living in De Facto Unions. thesis. Ghent: Faculteit Rechtsgeleerdheid.
  30. Polavarapu, A., 2014. Procuring Meaningful Land Rights for the Women of Rwanda. Yale Human Rights and Development Journal, 14(1), pp.105–154.
  31. (2018). Writing better articles. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
  32. Cite This For Me. (2018). Save Time and Improve your Marks with CiteThisForMe, The No. 1 Citation Tool. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].

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