Managing Fault lines in the Rwandan Conflict

1. A Brief History of the Rwandan Conflict Rwanda, unlike many African countries, has experienced the worst of violent conflict that culminated into the 1994 genocide, seeing nearly a million dead. The history of the Rwandan conflict, however, as in much of the continent, mainly traces its roots to the colonial policies of “divide and rule” that employed a racial ideology.
The effects of the genocide are still evident today.
The effects of the genocide are still evident today.

1. A Brief History of the Rwandan Conflict

Rwanda, unlike many African countries, has experienced the worst of violent conflict that culminated into the 1994 genocide, seeing nearly a million dead.

The history of the Rwandan conflict, however, as in much of the continent, mainly traces its roots to the colonial policies of “divide and rule” that employed a racial ideology.

This pitted the Hutu against the Tutsi, bringing about the 1959 Hutu Revolution. The Revolution saw the first killings and exile of mainly Tutsi into neighbouring countries.

Independence in 1962 brought with it further pogroms under the Kayibanda regime (1962-1973), in response to armed exile incursions into Rwanda in the 1960s. During the Habyarimana regime (1973-1994) there were further pogroms and political repression. Both regimes were informed by the racist colonial ideology.

The early 1990s saw the armed struggle of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) against the government, seeing further killings of the Tutsi. Though negotiated agreement would be reached under the 1993 Arusha Peace Accords, they would come to naught culminating into the 1994 genocide.

The end of the genocide would leave nearly a million dead, and a fleeing genocidaire regime herding over 1.5 million Rwandans into refugee camps in eastern Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo - DRC). Other refugees would flee into Tanzania (600,000), Burundi (500,000) and Uganda (200,000).

The refugees would however be back in Rwanda in November 1996, especially after a military campaign to wrest the refugees free of the hold of the militia and genocidaire forces that have continued to operate in eastern DRC leading to regional insecurity.

While Rwanda is currently experiencing a measure of peace and security within the country, it still has to contend with the false but persisting perceptions of difference between the Hutu and Tutsi. These perceptions remain a potential source of conflict, though government efforts continue apace at unity and reconciliation. 

Rwanda also has to contend with insecurity posed by the militia and genocidaire forces, now calling themselves the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), from their bases in eastern DRC.

Since the end of the genocide to date the FDLR continue to be source of insecurity in the region, despite the heavy presence of UN peacekeepers under the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC).
This paper traces the history of the fault-lines in the Rwandan conflict to date.  

2. Divisions

The divisions that brought about the Rwandan conflict trace their roots to a colonial racial ideology that would destroy the socio-cultural fabric of an erstwhile one people. As may be discerned in the words of Pierre Ryckmans, Governor General of then Congo Belge Ruanda-Urundi, there was a certain perception of the uniqueness of the Tutsi who also made the ruling class:

“The Batutsi were destined to reign over their people. Their fine presence alone already insured them considerable prestige over the inferior races surrounding them; their qualities, and even their defects, enhanced them even further. Proud, distant, in total control of themselves, rarely blinded by anger, avoiding any familiarity, insensitive to pity, and with a conscience never touched by scruples: no surprise that the good Hutu, less cunning and simpler, let themselves be enslaved without ever attempting to rebel.”

This perception of difference by the colonialists, first the Germans (1894-1918) and then the Belgians (1918-1962), would sow the seeds of conflict that would echo through the generations based on a falsehood of ‘racial’ and/or ‘ethnic’ divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi. The Tutsi were purported to be descendants of the Biblical Ham, and thus were Hamites.

Matching these colonial perceptions with ideologies of resentment, Semujanga illustrates the stereotype of intelligence and the qualities of command of the Tutsi.

He demonstrates elements of the myth that show the Tutsi’s cunningness and wickedness, making the Hutu their victims. He links these observations with what has been termed the Hamitic stereotype, within the perspective of a Marxist vision advocating Hutu liberation – the precursor to the 1959 Hutu Revolution.

Thus, on one side, the subject White-Hamite-Tutsi + thematic roles (intelligence, cunningness) + social roles (command). On the other, the opposite subject Negro-Bantu-Hutu + thematic roles (naivety, simplicity) + social roles (submission).

There is a hero (Tutsi = Hamite =White) and an antihero (Hutu = Bantu = Black). This demonstrates a narcissistic phenomenon that turns the Tutsi into a white man through a metaphorical definition: he is white because of his intelligence, his nobility, his innate sense for command.

This kind of thinking is what underscored the racist ideology. Racism, as an ideology, is predicated on exclusion and marginalization of one group of people by another. Indeed, it is widely accepted by social scientists that race or ethnicity is not an essential category based on the objective, physical existence of genetic, linguistic, or cultural differences but a socially constructed category of ascription and identification by the actors themselves, through employment of clichés and stereotypes.

It is indeed the genius of the Belgian colonialists’ bigotry in Rwanda, therefore, that they were able to engineer racism without there being different races.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Belgian Colonial administration employed this “racial” ideology asserting that, given the advanced Rwandan civilization in the heart of the dark-continent, including its well organized institutions, it could not be African but Caucasian in origin.

This was “confirmed” by the apparent “similarities” in the physical features between the Tutsi and the Caucasians. Thus the Tutsi were Caucasians, the Hutu Bantu Negriod and the short and slight Twa, Pigmoids. The racial hypothesis was reinforced by the immigration theory, which had it that the Tutsi pastoralists found the agriculturalist Hutu Bantu Negroids, who in their turn had found the Twa aboriginals in Rwanda.

Although the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa entities existed, they were not primary identities, neither were they genetically locked as was advocated by this colonial discourse. In fact, the Rwandan identity reference was the clan first. Every Rwandan, whether Tutsi, Hutu or Twa belonged to any of eighteen common clans in the Rwandan genealogy.

Then, depending on their socio-economic status or their proximity to the monarchy (Ubwami) and ruling clans, they could be identified as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa.

However, the Belgian colonial administration chose to create artificial divisions among Rwandans that reflected their own bitter Walloon-Flemish divisions in their country, and that would obviously facilitate colonial exploitation and subjugation in the well-known colonial policy of “divide and rule.”

By the mid-1950s, the divisions were stark and irreconcilable as the Hutu perceived Tutsi oppression at the behest of the colonialists. Thus the 1957 Hutu Manifesto would cite a major grievance being the “political monopoly of one race, the Tutsi race, which, given the present structural framework, becomes a social and economic monopoly.” 

In the same vein, the “abagaragu b’ibwami bakuru” (the king’s elder clients) would in 1958 unapologetically proclaim the Tutsi supremacy saying that the Banyiginya ruling clan conquered the indigenous Hutu “tribes” to a state of servitude, and that that was the way it should be. 

With increasing assertiveness through calls for the nation’s independence mainly by the Tutsi, the Belgians would suddenly change their hearts and began to support the Hutu. Lemarchand observes that this was Rwanda Resident Governor Col. Logiest’s coup when the colonial administrator pronounced his long-term political goal in his new-found Hutu embrace, saying, “[W]e must undertake an action in favor of the Hutu, who live in a state of ignorance and under oppressive influences.” 

This would lead to the 1959 Hutu Revolution. Soon after violence broke out, making it Rwanda’s first real conflict that pitted the more numerous Hutu against the Tutsi.

The result was killing, banishment and arson on Tutsi homes across the country who fled with many Hutu among them.

The United Nations estimated that refugees who fled into exile to escape the violence were about 7,000 at the end of November 1959, with the total number climbing to 22,000 by April, 1960. Most of the refugees resettled in neighbouring countries of Tanzania, Uganda, Congo and Burundi with the total number of those living abroad reaching 130,000 by 1963. 

3. Context

The context for violent upheaval in Rwanda since 1959 has been political, reinforced with a racist ideology, first by the colonial administration, as already observed, and then by the successive post-colonial governments of Kayibanda and Habyarimana.

The post-colonial administrations promoted an ideology that entrenched differences, created institutions such as the Nazi-like Hutu populist political parties (i.e., Parti du Mouvement pour l’Emancipation Hutu – PARMEHUTU, and Coalition pour la Défence de la République – CDR) that in government marginalized and discriminated against one section of Rwandan society, the Tutsi, and rewarded injustices and human rights abuses committed against them.

This went on unhindered and, at times, with the tacit consent of some in the international community that paid little or no attention to what was happening in Rwanda. Since the first exiles in 1959, the Rwandan conflict has been propelled from the Diaspora beginning with the Inyenzi incursions of the 1960s, which would eventually lead on to the formation of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) in the 1980s.

The exiles sought their way back home, which brought retribution to those of their kin who remained in Rwanda. The armed incursions into Rwanda in the early 1960s only served to reinforce the government’s will to suppress, and even eliminate as many Tutsi as possible in Rwanda.

It is worth noting that the media played a central role. In a passage describing the organization to carry out the Tutsi pogroms of 1963, Lemarchand observes:

“Steps were taken to organize civilian ‘self-defense’ groups among the Hutu population, to counter possible attempts at internal subversion. For this task primary reliance was placed upon the burgomasters and prefects. In addition, one minister was assigned to each of the ten prefectures (now converted into ‘emergency regions’) to supervise the organization of self-defense units. These arrangements were made within a few hours, in an atmosphere of panic, and therefore with little attention to procedural details or coordination. Meanwhile, Kigali Radio beamed emergency warnings, asking the population to be ‘constantly on alert’ for Tutsi terrorists. In the atmosphere of intense fear, saturated with rumour and suspicion, the worst was bound to happen.”

During these reprisals a total of between 10,000 and 14,000 Tutsi were killed, so that Vatican Radio at the time would be so appalled by the massacres as to label them genocide. 

As the above passage attests, it would indeed be the precursor to the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and the 1994 genocide. It may be recalled how the radio RTLM was effectively used to mobilize the masses with devastating consequences.

It however all boiled down to ideology. As Magnarella has argued, the rule of dominant persons does not depend on political or economic power alone, but on persuading the ruled to accept an ideology that justifies the rulers’ privileged positions and convinces the ruled that their best interests are being protected,  thus invoking the “happy slave” mentality among the ruled.

In this vein, it has also been observed that genocide is not an overnight event, but a process that in Rwanda took generations since the advent of colonialism. Research on genocides, notably by Stanton , has charted out this process drawing from similar trends across the world.

Stanton observes that genocide is a continuum of eight stages that trace the beginnings of the intention to commit genocide to the consummation of the act, including a perpetuation of denial.

He traces the eight stages as follows: i) classification through “racial” distinction between the three social categories Hutu, Tutsi and Twa ; ii) symbolization through physical characteristics, i.e. height, shape of nose; iii) dehumanization, labeling with disgusting animal names, i.e., Inyenzi (cockroaches); iv) organisation, i.e., death squads; v) polarization, seeing emergence of moderates who oppose; v) preparation, i.e., lists of targeted victims are drawn; vii) final solution, extermination; viii) continued denial by some of the perpetrators that it was a genocide. 

Note that, save for the last stage, i.e., continued denial of the genocide by some of the perpetrators, the media played a significant role in magnifying and actively urging on the masses, as may be recalled of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM).

In the above stages, from the 1960s until 1994, the ideology promoted by the Hutu ruling elite was as follows: Tutsi were foreign invaders, who could not really be considered as citizens.

The Hutu had been ‘native peasants’, enslaved by the aristocratic invaders; they were now the only legitimate inhabitants of the country. A Hutu controlled government was now not only automatically legitimate but also ontologically democratic (Rubanda Nyamwinshi - Demographic Hutu majority). 

This political ideology validated both the persecution of Tutsi and the autocratic rule by some elite Hutu. This would be consistent through the years since the 1959 Hutu Revolution and would end up being a “permanent revolution” akin to that of China’s Mao Tse Tung, in which Habyarimana was the strongman at the helm right up to the waning days of his regime just before the genocide.

To be continued…

The author is the Defence Attaché at the Rwanda High Commision in London. The article is based on a paper presented by the author between 20th – 24th May, 2010, at the Tswalu Dialogue in South Africa. The Tswalu Dialogue is an initiative of South Africa ’s Brenthurst Foundation, and is a premier African forum that has been discussing issues of concern to continental development and security. The paper was presented at the final seminar of three rounds (the first two rounds were in September 2009 in Italy and January 2010 in Jerusalem) examining various international case-studies in establishing why some countries fracture, and why others are able to manage these divisions.


Subscribe to The New Times E-Paper

You want to chat directly with us? Send us a message on WhatsApp at +250 788 310 999    


Follow The New Times on Google News