What Caused the Rwandan Genocide?

View of an open tomb at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda.
View of an open tomb at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda.

The infamous Rwandan genocide was triggered by the tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis. There are no noticeable differences between the two communities as they both use the same Bantu languages together with French, and mainly observe Christianity. Geneticists have attempted to discover differences between them and the research has found that the Tutsis are generally taller. The tensions between the two ethnicities are mainly due to class warfare.

The Hutu People of Africa

The Hutu people are one of Africa's numerous Bantu groups, and they reside in Rwanda and Burundi with communities in the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Hutu population is estimated at 11.5 million. Hutu make up 84% of Rwandans and 85% of Burundians, making them the largest population division in the two countries. The Hutu were among the Bantu communities which left West Africa for the Great Lake region during the great Bantu expansion. A section of historians has proposed that the distinction between the two groups were exacerbated by European powers. Historians have been divided as to whether the two communities are separate groups or not. The Hutu genetic kinship is closely linked to that of neighboring Bantu populations, especially the Tutsi. It remains unclear whether this situation resulted from intermarriages or common origins. Hutus have Rwanda-Rundi as their indigenous tongue and French from colonialization. Rwanda-Rundi is classified under the Bantu subgroup of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The Kingdom of Rwanda reigned in what is today Rwanda before colonialization. The Hutu were majorly peasants while the ruling class was mainly Tutsi. It was a common belief that Hutus excelled in agriculture and had healing power while Tutsis possessed military leadership.

The Tutsis of Africa

The Tutsi, also called the Watutsi, Watusi, Wahinda, Abatutsi, or Wahima, inhabit Rwanda and Burundi with significant communities in the DRC, Uganda, and Tanzania. The total Tutsi population is estimated at 2.5 million. Contemporary genetic studies note that the Tutsis are mostly of Bantu extraction, but they exhibit more Nilo-Saharan paternal lineages in comparison with the Hutu. It is estimated that the Tutsi first entered the Rwandan region in the 14th or 15th century and they slowly obtained dominance over the native Hutu. The Tutsi subsequently initiated a feudal relationship with the resident Hutu where they made use of their sophisticated military knowledge and dominated over the Hutu's cattle. The Mwami (king) lorded over the political structure established by the Tutsis. The Tutsis intermarried considerably with the Hutus which has led historians and ethnographers to stipulate that the two divisions cannot be considered distinct ethnic groups.

Background Of The Conflict Between The Hutus And The Tutsis

The differences between Hutus and Tutsis in pre-colonial Rwanda was mainly regarding wealth. Most Tutsis accumulated wealth as herders while Hutus tilled the land. The Tutsi King further rewarded his close allies who were mainly Tutsis. In the advent of colonialization, Hutus were more open to Christian conversion, and so they were awarded Tutsi land by the Germans. Once the Belgians took over, they accommodated the Tutsis in the colonial government and allowed them to gain an education. The Belgians further required the population to identify with an ethnic group. The Belgians changed this policy in 1959 and enabled the Hutu to control the government via universal elections in the post-independence era. The Hutus subsequently launched an onslaught against the Tutsis forcing them to flee and settle in Tanzania and Uganda. Rwandan Tutsis helped Uganda's Yoweri Museveni to clinch power in 1986 and thus gained a power base in Uganda. The Rwandan Patriotic Front was established and commenced attacks on the Hutu-dominated administration in Rwanda.

The Rwandan Genocide

Rwanda's genocide was triggered by the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane in Kigali on April 6, 1994. The plane had also carried the then Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, and the two leaders had been returning from a summit in Tanzania. Habyarimana had been at the helm of a Hutu-dominated government which had discriminated against the Tutsis. Habyarimana had, however, on April 3, 1993, signed the Arusha Accord which allowed for the inclusion of the Tutsis in political administration. Genocidal killings commenced the next day after Habyarimana's plane was shot down. The genocidal plans were spread via media to incite the Hutus. The militia and soldiers began with executing moderate Hutu and influential Tutsis in the political and military spheres to deter anyone who would have assumed political control in the chaos. Barricades and checkpoints were subsequently erected to examine identification documents and execute Tutsis. The Hutu civilians were incited to accumulate such weapons as machetes and clubs and to execute the neighboring Tutsis as well as destroy and steal property and also rape and maim. Other civilians were afforded with monetary incentives to carry out the crimes. Moderate Hutus were also executed. The UN was hesitant to dispatch troops to the chaotic Rwanda since ten Belgian peacekeepers had been murdered at the start of the genocide. Half a million to a million Rwandans were executed, and nearly 70% of the Tutsi community was wiped out.

Aftermath Of The Genocide

After 100 days of genocide and instability, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up of exiled Tutsis, marched into the country and began establishing control. It was only when the RPF gained full control of the country around mid-1994 that the executions stopped. Thousands of Hutu militants ran away to Zaire where they created encampments in the mountain areas and commenced arming themselves to reclaim power in Rwanda. The Rwanda government launched counter-offensive assaults in late 1996 as the Hutu had begun counter-border attacks. A section of Hutus returned to Rwanda while others retreated deeper into Zaire. Paul Kagame, who was at the helm of the RPF, initiated a war against Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko and once he fled into exile, the country became the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). RPF subsequently sought to rebuild Rwanda's economy and infrastructure and initiated numerous reforms to ease the ethnic tensions such as removing ethnicity from identity cards.

Current Situation

The post-genocide Rwandan government has implemented numerous measures to foster unity among the residents of the country. The Rwandan economy has been flourishing, and a large amount of foreign assistance has been channeled to the nation. In a move to facilitate the country's healing, Kagame initiated a process called "reconciliation" where Hutu genocide perpetrators are sent to live among Tutsi survivors provided they admit their guilt and also renounce their ways. The national census no longer keeps track of ethnicity, and thus there are no official numbers of the two divisions. The government has further encouraged the people to get rid of ethnic titles on their own since identity cards do not reflect ethnicity.


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