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History of Rwanda


Rwandan history has been dominated by the theme of interaction between its two largest ethnic groups, the Tutsis and the Hutus. In its earliest history however, the region now known as Rwanda was province of neither of those groups, but rather, was home to the pygmy Twa, a group now accounting for only about 1% of Rwanda's population and playing only a marginal role in Rwandan life.

In a time before memory, the Twa were replaced by the migration of the racially Congoid forbearers of today's ethnic Hutus. The Hutus had been an agriculturalist people making traditionally no use of domesticated animals, and thus were culturally at contrast with the third of Rwanda's ethno-racial groups to arrive, the taller, racially Hamitic Tutsis.

Coming from east Africa (likely the horn region of the modern Oromo group), the Tutsis brought with them cattle. The cattle, providing beef and milk for sustenance, as well as dung for agricultural fertilizer, promised enormous benefit to the majority Hutus, but the Tutsis didn't simply hand over this valuable resource, rather; they lent it out in an evolving system whereby a Tutsi patron would provide cattle, and in return a Hutu client would provide his lands, military service, and homage to the patron. The Hutus were thus enfeuded to the Tutsi establishment, the Tutsis becoming masters, while the groups whos previous name remains unknown came to called in its own language "servants" or "Hutu".


As the economic imbalance between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis crystallized, a complex political imbalance emerged as the Tutsis formed into a hierarchy dominated by a Mwami or 'king'. The King was treated as a semi-divine being, responsible for making the country prosper. The symbol of the King was the Kalinga, the sacred drum hung with the genitals of conquered enemies or rebels against the King.

All the people of Rwanda were expected to do tribute to the Mwami, and this tribute was collected, in turn, by a Tutsi administrative hierarchy. Beneath the Mwami was also a Tutsi ministerial council of great chiefs, the batware b'intebe, while below them was a group of lesser Tutsi chiefs who for the large part, governed the country in districts each having a cattle chief and a land chief. The cattle chief collected tribute in livestock, and the land chief collected tribute in produce. Also, beneath these chiefs were hill-chiefs, and neighborhood chiefs. Again, over 95% of hill and neighborhood chiefs were of Tutsi descent.

Also important were military chiefs who had control over the frontier regions. They played both defensive and offensive roles, protecting the frontier and making cattle raids against neighboring tribes. Often, the Rwandan great chief was also the army chief. Lastly, the biru or "council of guardians" was also an important part of the administration. The biru advised the Mwami on his duties where supernatural king-powers were involved. These honored people advised also on matters of court ritual.

Altogether, all these posts from great chiefs to military chiefs and to biru member existed to serve the powers of the Mwami, and to reinforce the control of the Tutsi race in Rwanda.

Colonial influence

The next important period in Tutsi/Hutu relations was the colonial period. In 1885, the conference of Berlin gave Rwanda and Burundi to the German Empire as colonial spheres of interest. Nine years later, the first Europeans arrived in Rwanda. When they came, the Germans were impressed by the administrative structure of Rwanda, and since they needed a tribe to rely on they continued to allow Tutsi rule. At this point in time, many Europeans had become obsessed with the study of race, and this had an impact on life in Rwanda:

To the Germans, the Tutsi ruling class was a superior racial type who, because of their apparent Hamitic origins on the Horn of Africa, were more "white" than the Hutus they oppressed, and thus the Tutsi oppression of the Hutus seemed somehow normal and expected. As with later Belgian colonizers, the Germans romanticized Tutsi origins. But in Rwanda, the German authorities, while taking measures to uphold Tutsi power, actually strengthened and weakened it concurrently.

Though the Germans, simply out of their need for a streamlined administration, helped the Mwami gain greater nominal control over Rwandan affairs, there were forces which entered with the German colonial authority which had the opposite effect. For instance, Tutsi power weakened through the exposure of Rwanda to capitalist European forces. Money became to be seen by many Hutus as a replacement for cattle, in terms of both economic prosperity and for purposes of creating social standing. Another way in which Tutsi power was weakened by Germany was through the introduction of the head-tax on all Rwandans. As some Tutsis had feared, the introduction of this tax also made the Hutus feel less bonded to the will of their Tutsi patrons and more dependent on the European foreigners, any head-tax necessarily implying equality between any of those heads being counted - whether Huti or Tutsi. Thus, despite Germany's attempt to uphold traditional Tutsi domination of the Hutus, the Hutus were now getting a slight taste of autonomy from Tutsi rule. In effect, they had new rulers, Germany on the one hand, and the international money supply on the other.

Rwanda entered into another period in its history as Germany was ousted from its African colonies at the end of World War I. The League of Nations mandated Rwanda and its southern neighbor, Burundi, to Belgium as the territory of Ruanda-Urundi. Belgium became the new possessor of Rwanda. Though at first supporting Tutsi rule, Belgium later did an about-face. Altogether, Belgium's various actions in Rwanda did much to polarize Hutus against Tutsis.

In the beginning, where Rwanda was concerned, Belgium had much the same racial ideas as Germany. Even the Belgian Roman Catholic Church favored the Tutsis, admiring Tutsi leadership qualities, assuming that they could be well harnessed to serve the Church's own purposes. The church evangelized also, beginning with the Tutsis, leading more Tutsis to share in the benefits that came with associating with the colonizers' Roman Catholic culture.

The Belgian government, for its part, continued to rely on the old Tutsi power structure for administering the country. It also consistently favored the Tutsis where education was concerned, leading to a situation where many Tutsis were literate, while the majority of Hutus were not.

Following World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a UN trust territory with Belgium as the administrative authority. Reforms instituted by the Belgians in the 1950s encouraged the growth of democratic political institutions but were resisted by the Tutsi traditionalists who saw in them a threat to Tutsi rule.

However, there came a major change in the 1950s, when the Belgians grew uncomfortable observing the sad plight of the Hutus, and began to suppress and then eventually came to outlaw the ubuhake and to redistribute cattle. Even though the majority of pasture lands remained under the control of the Tutsi, a situation arose where the Hutus began to feel yet a deeper sense of liberation from Tutsi rule; the Tutsis no longer seemed to be in control of cattle, the long-standing measure of a person's wealth and social position.

In addition, the Hutus began to develop a sort of group consciousness as the Belgians instituted ethnic identity cards. Yet a further step was Belgium's system of electoral representation for Rwandans. At first, the Tutsis retained total control, and then Belgium decided to make the electoral process function by means of secret ballots. Therefore, Hutus made enormous gains within the country. The Catholic Church, too, began to make a change. Suddenly they too were opposed to Tutsi mistreatment of Hutus, and began promoting Hutu equality. The Tutsi fate seemed sealed. They were about to be kicked out of their traditional role as masters, and not only that, they were about to suffer enormously under the newly liberated Hutus.

Ethnic Strife

An increasingly restive Hutu population, encouraged by the Belgian military, sparked a revolt in November 1959, resulting in the overthrow of King Kigeri V, the last Tutsi monarch. Two years later, the Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (PARMEHUTU) won an overwhelming victory in a UN-supervised referendum.

During the 1959 revolt and its aftermath, more than 160,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries. The PARMEHUTU government, formed as a result of the September 1961 election, was granted internal autonomy by Belgium on January 1, 1962. A June 1962 UN General Assembly resolution terminated the Belgian trusteeship and granted full independence to Rwanda (and Burundi) effective July 1, 1962.

In all, some 20,000 Tutsis were killed. These Hutus knew that because of the small numbers of the Tutsi opposition, they had the advantage: both in terms of how the state would function if it adopted a purely democratic system, and in terms of the probably outcome of any violent conflict between the two unequally sized groups. This revolution of 1959 marked a major change in political life in Rwanda. Some 150,000 Tutsis were exiled to neighboring countries. What's more, those Tutsis that remained in Rwanda were excluded from having any political power in a state becoming more and more centralized under Hutu power. The Belgians declared the country independent in 1962, and there was no mistake to be made, the power would be completely in the hands of the Hutu. In fact, following the independence, the Hutu would come to blame anything that went wrong in the country on the Tutsi. The Tutsis were to become the national scapegoats.

Despite this process, and after the revolution, there was a period of some calm. Hutus and Tutsis seemed for a time to get along slightly better, and for a while, mixed Hutu/Tutsi marriages were on the rise. Still, by the 1970s, the ethnic question had once again become central.

Gregoire Kayibanda, leader of the PARMEHUTU Party, became Rwanda's first elected president, leading a government chosen from the membership of the directly elected unicameral National Assembly. Peaceful negotiation of international problems, social and economic elevation of the masses, and integrated development of Rwanda were the ideals of the Kayibanda regime. Relations with 43 countries, including the United States, were established in the first 10 years. Despite the progress made, inefficiency and corruption began festering in government ministries in the mid-1960s. Under President Kayabinda, a system of quotas was established. Thenceforth, the Tutsis would be allowed only 10 percent of school and university seats. The quotas also extended to the civil service. In these posts too, the Tutsis would only be allotted a 10% take.

At the time, employment was bad, and competition for the available seats only exacerbated ethnic tensions. The Kayibanda government also continued the government policy of labeling people with ethnic identity cards, a practice first begun by the Belgian colonial government, and using this practice to attack mixed marriages. This was not, however, meant to generally target all Tutsi, but was directed against the educated classes.

On July 5, 1973, the military took power under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Juvénal Habyarimana, who dissolved the National Assembly and the PARMEHUTU Party and abolished all political activity. There were no massacres of Tutsi until 1990. Still, the issue of ethnicity remained powerful. Each ethnic group held onto the memories of massacres in the past, and for the predominantly Hutu establishment, Tutsis remained scapegoats of convenience. For instance, Kayibanda was born in a southern region of the country, while Habyarimana came from the north. Southerners, however, blamed Habyarimana's perhaps favoritism for the north on Tutsi plots and machinations.

In 1975, President Habyarimana formed the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) whose goals were to promote peace, unity, and national development. The movement was organized from the "hillside" to the national level and included elected and appointed officials.

Under MRND aegis, Rwandans went to the polls in December 1978, overwhelmingly endorsed a new constitution, and confirmed President Habyarimana as president. President Habyarimana was re-elected in 1983 and again in 1988, when he was the sole candidate. Responding to public pressure for political reform, President Habyarimana announced in July 1990 his intention to transform Rwanda's one-party state into a multi-party democracy.

Ultimately, a new wave of ethnic tensions was unleashed in 1990. One of the main causes was a slumping economy and food shortages. Throughout the year, the country was subject to bad weather and lessening coffee prices. These problems helped create a bad political climate. Further political tension was evident following a call by the French President for increased democracy in Francophone Africa. France, though not traditionally associated with Rwanda, began to show that it would put political pressure on Rwanda if it didn't make concessions to democracy. Many Rwandans heard the call, and began forming a democracy movement which protested during the summer.

Another source of source of mounting tensions in 1990, were the grumblings of the Tutsi diaspora. Those Tutsis who had been exiled over the years were now coming together in an organized manner. The Hutus in Rwanda considered these Tutsis an evil aristocracy which had rightly been exiled. They pointed out that the descendants of these Tutsis no longer had any knowledge of Rwanda, and spoke English instead of French. The exiled Tutsis however, demanded recognition of their rights as Rwandans; including, naturally, the right to return there. These Tutsis, organized as the Rwandan Patriotic Front, began to pressure the Rwandan government, and eventually forced the Habyarimana government to make a concession.

Habyarimana found himself forced to set up a national committee to examine the "Concept of Democracy" and to work on the formation of a "National Political Charter" which would help reconcile the Hutus and Tutsis. During this crucial point in negotiations the situation went bad. The Rwandan patriotic Front was simply unwilling to wait any longer for the Rwandan government to come through on its promises. On October 1, 1990, Rwandan exiles banded together as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded Rwanda from their base in neighboring Uganda. The rebel force, composed primarily of ethnic Tutsis, blamed the government for failing to democratize and resolve the problems of some 500,000 Tutsi refugees living in diaspora around the world. This would be the initial cause of a genocide, or more correctly: democide.

The Tutsi diaspora miscalculated the reaction of its invasion of Rwanda. Though the Tutsi objective seemed to be to pressure the Rwandan government into making concessions which would strip Tutsis of their largely 'second class' status, the invasion was seen as an attempt to bring the Tutsi ethnic group back into power. The effect was to increase ethnic tensions to a level higher than they had ever been. Hutus rallied around the President. Habyarimana himself reacted by immediately instituting genocidal pogroms, which would be directed against all Tutsis and against any Hutus seen as in league with Tutsi interests. Habyarimana justified these acts by proclaming it was the intent of the Tutsis to restore a kind of Tutsi feudal system and to thus enslave the Hutu race.

By April 1991 100,000 were dead, by May, 200,000, and by May's end, half a million. In all, over a million were killed, and as the RPF advanced, Hutus who were aware of the RPF's viciousness began fleeing the country in the hundreds of thousands. This was the calamity that befell Rwanda in the early 1990s.

The war dragged on for almost 2 years until a ceasefire accord was signed July 12, 1992, in Arusha, Tanzania, fixing a timetable for an end to the fighting and political talks, leading to a peace accord and powersharing, and authorizing a neutral military observer group under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity. A ceasefire took effect July 31, 1992, and political talks began August 10, 1992.

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying President Habyarimana and the President of Burundi was shot down as it prepared to land at Kigali. Both presidents were killed. As though the shooting down was a signal, military and militia groups began rounding up and killing all Tutsis as well as political moderates irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds.

The prime minister and her 10 Belgian bodyguards were among the first victims. The killing swiftly spread from Kigali to all corners of the country; between April 6 and the beginning of July, a genocide of unprecedented swiftness left up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of organized bands of militia: Interahamwe. Even ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbors. The president's MRND Party was implicated in organizing many aspects of the genocide.

The RPF battalion stationed in Kigali under the Arusha accords came under attack immediately after the shooting down of the president's plane. The battalion fought its way out of Kigali and joined up with RPF units in the north. The RPF then resumed its invasion, and civil war raged concurrently with the genocide for 2 months. French forces landed in Goma, Zaire, in June 1994 on a humanitarian mission. They deployed throughout southwest Rwanda in an area they called "Zone Turquoise," quelling the genocide and stopping the fighting there. The Rwandan army was quickly defeated by the RPF and fled across the border to Zaire followed by some 2 million refugees who fled to Zaire, Tanzania, and Burundi. The RPF took Kigali on July 4, 1994, and the war ended on July 16, 1994. The RPF took control of a country ravaged by war and genocide. Up to 800,000 had been murdered, another 2 million or so had fled, and another million or so were displaced internally.

The Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the genocide in July 1994, but approximately 2 million Hutu refugees - some who participated in the genocide and fearing Tutsi retribution - fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire.

The international community responded with one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts ever mounted. The U.S. was one of the largest contributors. The UN peacekeeping operation, UNAMIR, was drawn down during the fighting but brought back up to strength after the RPF victory. UNAMIR remained in Rwanda until March 8, 1996.

Following an uprising by the ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge people in eastern Zaire in October 1996, a huge movement of refugees began which brought more than 600,000 back to Rwanda in the last 2 weeks of November. This massive repatriation was followed at the end of December 1996 by the return of another 500,000 from Tanzania, again in a huge, spontaneous wave. Less than 100,000 Rwandans are estimated to remain outside of Rwanda, and they are thought to be the remnants of the defeated army of the former genocidal government, its allies in the civilian militias known as Interahamwe, and soldiers recruited in the refugee camps before 1996.

In northwest Rwanda, Hutu militia members killed 3 Spanish aid workers, 3 soldiers and seriously wounded one other on January 18, 1997. Since then most of the refugees have returned.

With the return of the refugees, the government began the long-awaited genocide trials, which got off to an uncertain start in the closing days of 1996 and inched forward in 1997. In 2001, the government began implementation of a participatory justice system, known as ?gacaca? in order to address the enormous backlog of cases.

Despite substantial international assistance and political reforms - including Rwanda's first ever local elections held in March 1999 - the country continues to struggle to boost investment and agricultural output and to foster reconciliation. A series of massive population displacements, a nagging Hutu extremist insurgency, and Rwandan involvement in two wars over the past four years in the neighboring DROC continue to hinder Rwanda's efforts.

See also : Rwanda