Lest we forget: The centennial anniversary of the Belgian defeat of Germans in Kigali

As Carl Sagan stated “To understand the present we must understand the past”: May 6, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary that should be remembered by all Rwandans as it was on this day in 1916, that the second phase of colonial occupation began for Rwandans.

As Carl Sagan stated “To understand the present we must understand the past”: May 6, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary that should be remembered by all Rwandans as it was on this day in 1916, that the second phase of colonial occupation began for Rwandans.

General Charles Tombeur defeated the German army in Kigali, as he and his forces (largely made up of Congolese troops) captured the city, thus moving closer to end German rule in Africa.

 

But, most importantly for the citizens of the area, it officially ended the German occupation of the country and began the tumultuous reign of Belgians.

 

Events in faraway Europe had profound (and devastating) effects on the inhabitants of different areas claimed by European powers.

 

For the Belgians in 1916, who had suffered a devastating defeat in Europe just under two years earlier at the start of WW1, the war in East Africa was a great victory for them (all of the battles including those in Rwanda).

The battles in this region are often overlooked in history, but were extremely costly for those unfortunate enough to have been caught in the middle of the fight, and Rwandans were no exception.

The spillover of the war in Europe dragged people throughout the region into what the German Commander Lettow-Vorbeck (amongst others) pursued: a “scorched-earth policy”.

For the Belgians, the win was not just a win against German belligerence and violation of Belgians proclaimed neutrality (in Europe as well as their only colony), but it meant that they were gaining additional pieces of what King Leopold II had called “the magnificent African cake”.

These pieces (Rwanda and Burundi) would be in addition to their one occupied territory that they had already gorged on, i.e., the neighbouring colony, the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

While the official timeline for becoming a Belgian “protectorate” was decided well after the May 6 battle, the decision was in the spirit of the Berlin Conference of 1885 and the Brussels Conference of 1890 when the entire region (including the Kingdom of Rwanda) was divided amongst the Europeans.

The decision to hand the land and people to the Belgians was, again, an arbitrary decision in the spirit of those conferences mentioned earlier and would have long reaching effects on the populace (with post-occupation effects lasting even today).

As the replacing occupying force, the Belgians utilized the wealth of experience gained while cutting their teeth in the DRC. The default policy was to maximize profits from these seized territories and squeeze the local population through various means of control; this was practiced in Rwanda with the similar cold bureaucratic efficiency in the DRC (with notable differences).

While the Belgians had slight differences in the specific methodologies of controlling the population in their newly acquired territories, ultimately it was the implementation of these administrative policies that established the egregious tribalism which was perpetuated until it came to a head in 1994.

Many of these colonial obstacles such as linguistic imperialism, dependency and intervention were not thrown off until very recently. And, much of the legacy continues to this day as seen with the constant stream of attacks on the current democratically elected government from the outsiders who seem to think they can still dictate to the people and government that they once controlled.

It has taken a strong and independent government to finally overcome these post-colonial hangovers.

Speculating in counterfactual history might be an exercise in hubris to some, but with such a decisive gain for the Belgians and with catastrophic losses for Rwandans, it is difficult not to wonder; whether it would have been different had the British crossed Tanzania faster and taken Kigali first (even though its official policy was not to acquire any more territories).

Or, a much better scenario, if the Rwandan chieftains had consolidated power against the weakened Germans and greeted the Belgian army as equal nations linking up against the common enemy (which ironically at that stage for both parties would have been fighting the Germans as foreign powers who were occupiers of both home countries).

In the end, the Belgians were the winners leaving behind a painful legacy. After all they were the regime that Joseph Conrad was referring to when he called their African occupation “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human consciousness”.

While World War I was considered a “sideshow” (according numerous sources including the African Research Institute), the aftereffects of varying devastation were (and are) evident in much of East Africa, and in particular Rwanda.

Therefore, May 6 is a day that all Rwandans should reflect upon and remember contextually as seminal for the challenges and obstacles to development that the modern-day nation state has had to overcome.

The writer is a Canadian scholar currently working as an associate professor at a university in Japan. He has conducted regular visits to Rwanda and has given talks at the University of Rwanda and at the Kigali Independent University.

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