Rwanda genocide had less to do ethnic rivalry, more to do with Tutsi lineages scramble for control of state

Rwanda genocide had less to do ethnic rivalry, more to do with Tutsi lineages scramble for control of state


As I have argued elsewhere, the Rwandan Revolution of 1959 occurred in large part because of widespread rural grievances. This strong disaffection from the regime was articulated by a Hutu counter-elite (at times supported by Tutsi moderates linked with the RADER party), who were pushed into more radical action by the intransigence of the monarchists.

Powerful external institutions (the Belgian administration, the Catholic Church, and at certain points the United Nations) were also involved, to be sure.

Although their support helped the revolution succeed, the events in Rwanda were not engineered from outside; this was an “assisted revolution,”20 not an “imposed revolution.” The difference is significant, for the concept of an assisted revolution reflects certain realities of the years immediately following independence in 1962.

Many rural people had a stake in this new political order, and they shared a strong commitment not to return to the “old order” in later years. To interpret the events of the 1990s in Rwanda, one must take account of the rural population’s disaffection (and in some areas outright anger among many Hutu) toward the behaviour of many Tutsi authorities under colonial rule as well as the intense struggles over land that accompanied the decolonisation process.

Moreover, one tragic result of the conflicts during 1959 and after (continuing through 1964) was the exodus of large numbers of Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, who took refuge in neighbouring countries. It was these exiles, and their children, who organised the Rwandan Patriotic Front in Uganda in the late 1980s. In October 1990, the RPF led a military attack against Rwanda. They sought to win the right for Rwandans in exile to return and, the RPF asserted, they wanted to push for democratisation of the authoritarian Rwandan government.

At the time of the RPF attacks, official rhetoric claimed that the Habyarimana government represented all rural segments in the country and that this government was a continuation of the ideals of the 1959 Revolution. In reality, the government was dominated by a wealthy, powerful clique (the Akazu). By the end of the 1980s, widespread popular disaffection had weakened the regime, particularly in the southern and central areas of the country.

Intense struggles (mainly among Hutu) based on class and regional differences threatened the continued hegemony of those in power. To be sure, Tutsi were discriminated against in education and access to government jobs; but before October 1990, systematic harassment of Tutsi was not characteristic of the Habyarimana regime. At that time, Tutsi did not face exclusion from private sector employment or local-level positions in the teaching, agriculture or medical fields.

In the wake of the attacks of 1990, Habyarimana accused the RPF of seeking to overthrow the Hutu government and reestablish monarchical rule and Tutsi hegemony – in other words, he accused them of seeking to reverse the results of the 1959 Revolution. The RPF vigorously denied that this was their goal. Nonetheless, the invasion resuscitated conflicts and fears from the recent past. Even if many rural Rwandans of any social category chafed under the authoritarian rule of Habyarimana and his clique, they were not necessarily eager to embrace rule by the RPF.

In intellectual terms, then, the ethnic polarisation that occurred in Rwanda during the 1990s, culminating in the genocide of 1994, was in many respects a continuation of the evolving tensions of late colonial rule. Therefore, in efforts to seek pathways to a more peaceful future for Rwanda, it is necessary to understand the complexity of these contested histories of ethnic relationships and their connections to the Revolution of 1959.

But it is also necessary to move beyond such dichotomised debates. Exploring parallels between the violent conflicts of the early 1990s and the events of decolonisation in Rwanda would appear to be particularly fruitful. Three such parallels will be discussed briefly below.

One concerns the marginalisation of moderates in the recent history of Rwanda. A second parallel is seen in the dynamic of fear associated with political competition in these struggles. A third (and related) focus highlights the political patterns that accompany major crises of governance in Rwanda’s recent politics.

 Marginalisation of moderates

A major characteristic of the 1950s conflicts, as in the 1990s, was the destruction of the political middle ground. In both crises, there werecourageous voices of moderation that called for inclusiveness, the restructuring of power relations, and the necessity to attend to the needs of allRwandans, regardless of ethnic background. But in both cases, hardliners on both sides who made an ethnic appeal gained the upper hand in the debates, effectively marginalising the more moderate voices in the 1950 and physically destroying such individuals in the 1990s.

Such polarisation was already evident following the elections of 1960 and 1961 in Rwanda. The elections had brought to power a republican government dominated by Hutu, with inclusion of a small number of Tutsi in the parliament and cabinet. But in 1964, Tutsi guerrillas invaded the country, attempting to overthrow the fragile government of Gregoire Kayibanda.

The invasion collapsed; in its wake the Tutsi members of the government were executed and the Hutu authorities allowed (or encouraged) massacres of several thousand rural Tutsi residents. These victims were targeted not because they had done anything wrong. Rather, they were punished as scapegoats because their ethnic “brothers” (note again the corporate view of ethnicity) had attacked the country.

A similar dynamic was evident in 1990, in the wake of the RPF attack on Rwanda. Within four days of the October invasion, the Habyarimana government had arrested more than 9,000 people, mostly Tutsi, but also Hutu seen as critics of the government.

After several months, most of these people were freed, thanks to the efforts of a nascent human rights movement within Rwanda and the pressures of Western donors. But some died and many suffered serious aftereffects from the ill treatment and poor conditions of incarceration. This was the beginning of a series of mini-pogroms against Tutsi in different parts of the country carried out by the Habyarimana government – what later would be seen as rehearsals for the conflagration of 1994.

Here one can see a recurrent pattern: the tendency for a regime threatened by external attack to target an internal scapegoat and to rationalise its behaviour by propagating a corporate view of ethnicity.

Since July 1994, when the RPF ended the genocide and took control of the country, the new Rwandan government has been led by Tutsi in conjunction with the Rwandan Patriotic Army (the military wing of the RPF).

Critics of this government assert that the pattern of scapegoating continues. But now, those threatening the regime are Hutu associated with the former Rwandan army (the FAR) and the Interahamwe militias. This time, the power of the Rwandan military has expanded; the scapegoats are not only those within the country but potentially all those living in areas where the FAR or Interahamwe are known or believed to be operating (including, apparently, refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo).

The rationale has been well rehearsed in recent Rwandan history: if it is impossible to capture the Interahamwe, it is acceptable to liquidate civilians assumed to be associated with them. While this approach may be effective in terrorising the citizenry, it does little to enhance the legitimacy of the current regime or give it strong roots in the rural population.

 Dynamic of fear

A second parallel between the 1950s and the early 1990s in Rwanda is the tendency for political struggle to be associated with a pervasive dynamic of fear and rural discontent.24 In both cases, those in power feared losing their position of privilege, with attendant economic consequences and the political risks of being punished for past misdeeds. And those demanding change feared their dissent might bring personal harm. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens feared the consequences of political struggles they knew could have important implications for their tenuous hold on jobs or land they needed for family survival.

 Political Patterns

A third parallel places these struggles in broader historical context. Before the mid-twentieth century, crises of governance in Rwanda often had violent consequences, but the violence was limited to a relatively small group of key participants in the competition, often members of the same ethnic group. The losers-usually highly placed political actors-often faced death or exile. Political violence was more often intra-ethnic than interethnic.

Although this was not unique to Rwandan succession struggles, key aspects of such earlier crises of governance were a winner-take-all pattern for the victors and death or flight for the losers. But in light of recent tendencies to see all conflict in Rwanda as tribal warfare, it is important to note that these were not ethnic conflicts. Rather, they were conflicts among competing Tutsi lineages for control of the state.

Patterns found in these earlier governance crises-nonethnic, but involving winner-take-all outcomes and violent exclusion of the losers-reappeared in political conflicts of the terminal colonial period in Rwanda.

These later conflicts, however, occurred in a different context: colonial state building and policies of ethnic favouritism had broadened the stakes and deepened ethnic polarisation. The struggle for power had widened, such that in the 1959 Revolution political contestation was perceived as (at least in part) an ethnic struggle. Changes in the state and the new corporate view of ethnicity contributed to implicating whole “ethnic” groups in political competition, and also making them targets of political violence.

Whereas rival politicians at the court had in the past been the main protagonists in crises of governance, now ethnic groups came to be seen as collective actors in the political game.

  • A Tell report / By Catharine Newbury, Ethnicity and the Politics of History in Rwanda
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