Twenty Five Years after the Rwandan Genocide

On April 6, 2019, President Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi rebel, marked the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. He invoked the oft-chanted phrase “Never Again,” which was first uttered 70 years ago during the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The goal of the convention was to remedy the inaction of the international community during World War II when Hitler slaughtered an estimated 20 million people (including Black Germans). Yet, in 1994, almost 50 years later, world leaders failed to keep that promise when the Hutu majority-led government embarked on an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority Tutsi population.

Civilians were also conscripted to join in the killings. Rene Mugenzi, genocide survivor and chairman of the Global Campaign For Rwandans' Human Rights, described the horror of losing many members of his family in a recent interview with Al Jazeera.

While much criticism has been leveled against the international community for its inaction during the Rwandan Genocide, a salient question remains: how did the Hutus come to hate the Tutsis in the first place? The answer is colonialism.

In her essay “Rwanda and Burundi: Culture, History, Power, and Genocide,” Dallas L. Browne, details the almost century-long conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu. Since the 17th century, Rwanda’s three ethnic groups — the Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa — “coexisted in a highly stratified, monarchical society.” While the Tutsi were in the majority and dominated the elite class, social status was fluid; a Hutu could advance to the status of a Tutsi and vice versa. “The general population intermarried, lived in ethnically mixed communities,” according to Browne, “fought in the same army, and shared the same religion, and the same political and social cultures.”

In 1899, Germany conquered Rwanda. In a pernicious campaign of divide and rule, the Germans introduced the concept of racial superiority based on the Hamitic Hypothesis developed by 19th century British explorer John Hanning Speke. Impressed with the country’s sophisticated government, Speke surmised that the Tutsi ruling class was descended from Hamitic peoples — lost European tribes who were politically and physically superior to the African tribes they conquered. Hence, Tutsis were depicted as European while the Hutu were depicted as African. The Germans took their cue from Speke and implemented a policy which required Rwandans to carry ethnic identity cards that reinforced the superiority of the Tutsi. Germany assisted the Tutsi in conquering the remaining territories of the Hutu, and Tutsis were granted privileges in education, politics, employment, church leadership, and the military.

By 1923, as the eugenics craze seized the imagination of the West, Belgium replaced Germany in Rwanda after their defeat in World War I. Belgians continued the racial identity card policy which maintained Rwanda’s social hierarchy.

As Browne aptly stated, “Colonialism created apartheid-like systems” in Rwanda which “collective national identity” was destroyed.

The tables had turned by 1959, due to an expanding post-WWII economy, and the Hutus began to emerge as the ruling elite. That year marked the first of a series of retaliation with the killing of approximately 300 Tutsi. As calls for independence grew louder, Belgian officials shifted their allegiance to the Hutus on the basis that the Tutsi had aligned with the Communist Party, and the Hutu could be better controlled since independence would be a welcomed relief for them. Belgium granted Rwanda early independence on July 1, 1962, ensuring a Hutu electoral victory. With the Hutu now in power, many Tutsi fled to neighboring Burundi; those who remained faced the revenge of the Hutus. As violence against the Tutsi within Rwanda and Tutsi resistance outside of the country continued, the Hutu-led government also continued enforcement of racial identity cards, which were now used to their own advantage. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, the Tutsi continually faced extreme discrimination and indiscriminate violence, which erupted into the 1994 ethnic genocide.

Days before the slaughter commenced, Roméo Dallaire, commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, informed Kofi Annan, then head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, of the Rwandan government’s weapons stockpile and the imminent violence to come but the UN refused to intervene. On April 6, 1994, the systematic slaughter of 75 percent of the Tutsi population commenced by Hutu militias — many of whom felt politically threatened after the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. The two leaders were returning to Kigali, Rwanda from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania after signing a peace agreement with the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Kagame. For 100 days, Hutu militants indiscriminately beat, hacked, and shot to death Tutsis (and thousands of Hutus who tried to protect them) with lethal weapons obtained from foreign arms dealers, most notably the French. Once the violence was underway, the UN continually refused to intervene because the carnage did not fit the definition of genocide but was rather a civil war.

During last week’s long commemoration, which begins 100 days of mourning for the victims of the Rwandan genocide, many celebrated Rwanda’s miraculous recovery from the trauma that occurred 25 years ago. They cited the nation's economic development, the process of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the substitution of national identity for ethnicity. The story, however, is far more complex. Many survivors and dissidents, have accused Kagame of misrepresenting Rwanda’s progress. Others point to his complicity in the 1994 genocide, which led to his rise as leader of Rwanda’s now authoritarian regime. For these individuals, the anniversary of the genocide is also a moment of concern. Many worry that changes in Rwanda’s constitution that end presidential term limits, and the reliance on foreign investment, will not only halt Rwanda's progress, but also set in place a system of neo-colonial rule for years to come.


About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.