By Ludovica Pizzichelli
The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 saw the massacre of about 800,000 Tutsis, Hutu moderates, and political opponents of the Habyarimana regime by an estimated 200,000 Hutu extremists (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). The conflict was incredibly complex, with shifting power dynamics between ethnic groups (the two conflict parties of the Hutus and Tutsis), the presence, and lack thereof, of Western powers and the UN, media propaganda, and refugee spillover into neighboring countries. Though the genocide itself lasted about 100 days, the conflict itself had been unfolding for more than thirty years. In order to understand the genocide and preceding conflict it is necessary to examine the history of conflict that preceded it and the legacy of violence it left in both Rwanda and its neighboring countries.
Rwanda is a small Central African country slightly below the equator. It is a landlocked state neighboured by Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (at the time of conflict known as Zaire), and Burundi. It is very hilly and mountainous and almost 75% of its land is used for agriculture, and though most of its economy relies on the agricultural sector, the production of food cannot keep up with the demand seeing as Rwanda is the most densely populated African country (United States CIA, 2016). It has an extremely low GDP per capita at around $1,000, though at the time of the genocide, it was not as poor as many other African countries. To this day the ethnic composition of the country is 84% Hutu (Bantu), 15% Tutsi, and 1% Twa (United States CIA, 2016). It also has three official languages: Kinyarwanda (a Bantu vernacular), French, and English, largely a symptom of the past colonial presence of Belgium and the United Kingdom, though it was also under German rule for a time before World War I (United States CIA, 2016).
Conflict Timeline and Context
Rwanda has a history of ethnic tensions, largely due to a system of clans which crystallized into a centralized Tutsi kingdom in the 16th century and remained throughout colonization by European powers. Throughout Rwandan history, the Tutsis held a socioeconomic and political dominion over the Hutu majority, but there was a fluidity present between the two groups while the society remained pastoral and agricultural up to the arrival of Europeans (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). The flexibility in between the two groups vanished when first the Germans, and after World War I Belgium, took control of the nation and claimed the ethnicity could be discerned by physical characteristics, taking away the ethnic sort of “social mobility” that existed beforehand and supporting an absolute Tutsi monarchy (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). Eventually, the Hutu majority rebelled with the 1959 Hutu Peasant Revolt, killing many Tutsis and sending countless others into neighboring countries to seek refuge, culminating into a coup d’etat which replaced the Tutsi monarchy with a Hutu republic complete with a provisional national government in 1961 (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015).
In 1962, Rwanda became independent; at that time, there were more than 120,000 Rwandan refugees in neighboring states (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). The following years, from 1962 to 1973, were marked with violence and flaring tensions as Tutsi refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania who could not be repatriated to Rwanda under the Hutu government staged attacks against Hutu targets in Rwanda (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). In 1975, General Habyarimana founded the only political party of Rwanda, Le Movement Revolutionaire National pour le Development (MRND), through which he was president up until 1988 (Marhoum & Samper, n.d.). A civil war erupted in 1990 when Tutsi exiles and rebels from Uganda, as the Rwandan Patriotic Front, invaded Rwanda and violence erupted; a ceasefire was declared in 1991 though violence would periodically erupt until 1993 when the Arusha peace agreement was made through the cooperation of the Security Council’s UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) (Marhoum & Samper, n.d.). The Hutu majority opposing the peace agreement spread propaganda through its Radio/TV Libre Des Milles Collines (RTLM) (Marhoum & Samper, n.d.).
The genocide itself was precipitated by the downing of an airplane transporting President Habyarimana and the president of Burundi in April of 1994; even though the perpetrator of the attack was never discovered, Hutus interpreted it as an attack from the RPF (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). The next day, moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana was killed, along with 10 Belgian UN Peacekeepers assigned to protect her which led to many countries withdrawing their peacekeeping troops, in an attempt to replace Hutu moderates in the government with a Hutu extremist interim government headed by Col. Théoneste Bagosora (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). Organized mass murders of Tutsis by the Hutu government army and Hutu militias, the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi, took place in the months following the plane crash, centralized in the capital of Kigali and then spread throughout the rest of the country (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015); (Marhoum & Samper, n.d.). The mass murders were done using very crude weapons, including machetes, and civilians were killed indiscriminately.
In June of that year, the UN supported the French military intervention to impose a safe zone under Operation Turquoise, but this operation was opposed by the RPF, claiming that France had always supported the Habyarimana regime (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). In July, the RPF took control of Kigali and the Hutu extremist government and supporters fled into neighboring countries; a transitional government composed of a Hutu president and a Tutsi RPF leader as vice president was created. Once this new government was in place, the genocide was officially over (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). While the genocide had ended, Rwanda would still face many years of reconstruction and the conflict had largely devastated the country economically and created the spilling over of refugees into neighboring countries (United States CIA, 2016).
The Conflict Parties and Issues
The major conflict issues were those of politicized ethnic plurality through the creation of different regimes which asymmetrically represented one ethnic group or the other, a history of colonization which exacerbated ethnic tensions, a failure of the international community to adequately and timely intervene, a very hierarchical social organization which lasted centuries, propaganda, a politically weak and unstable state, porous borders which allowed the easy movement of militia groups [the RPF], and the creation of refugees without the possibility of repatriation into Rwanda under the Habyarimana regime.
The causes of the conflict can be boiled down to politically relevant ethnic groups and the legacy of colonialism. The length of the conflict, lasting more than 30 years before the culmination in the genocide, can be attributed by the existence of an ethnocracy of minority Tutsi rule, which according to Cederman leads to long wars marked by rebellions. Although there was another ethnic group in Rwanda, the Twa (1% of the population), they were never politicized nor given political power. The political power struggle remained between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Another related cause of the conflict was colonialism, as Rwanda was under the control of Germany as a colony and later under the jurisdiction of Belgium under the League of Nations and the UN; both of these countries were responsible for supporting the Tutsi ethnocracy. The state’s changing leadership and constant threats to security from the RPF could have also been a reason the genocide was able to take place due to its constant instability and bursts of violence.
The core conflict parties of the conflict were Hutus and Tutsis, but it can be narrowed down further. More specifically, the primary conflict parties were the Hutu government led by President Habyarimana before his death, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi Hutu militias. Secondary actors in the conflict were the Radio/TV Libre Des Milles Collines, who fueled the conflict through media propaganda, and France, which sent in military under Operation Turquoise to set up a safe zone and who were regarded by the Hutus as always having favored the Tutsi minority (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015); (Marhoum & Samper, n.d.). Third party actors were international organizations, in particular the Organization of African Unity, UN Peacekeepers, and UNAMIR, which had a stake in preventing the genocide which could spread violence throughout the region. Many countries were also criticized for withdrawing their troops at the beginning of the genocide from the UN peacekeeping mission and for merely watching as the conflict unfolded. In an indirect way, Belgium and Germany were also actors in the sense that they fueled ethnic tensions and stimulated asymmetric power dynamics in the pre-independence period.
The motivations of the different primary parties were both based on grievances and political power. The Hutus wanted vengeance against centuries of Tutsi rule which they enacted through the Hutu Peasant Revolt, against which the Tutsis wanted vengeance along with years of dissatisfaction under the Habyarimana Hutu regime. However, the Hutus also wanted vengeance against the RPF attacks against Hutu targets and the supposed plane attack (which was later found out to have been enacted by Hutu extremists to serve as justification for the genocide) (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). Each party harbored grievances against the other which they wanted to make right through conflict and eventual genocide. Throughout the conflict there were shifting power dynamics based on which ethnic group had political power at the time and the relationship between the primary parties was one of dominion of one over the other.
Global, Regional, and State-Level Factors
At the state level, the nature of the state was constantly put in question since its creation as a republic in 1962. Though the leadership was composed of Hutus, RPF militias that had been formed after the Hutu Peasant Revolt were constantly attempting to bring down the state through armed attacks. On the other side, Hutu extremists opposed any sort of peace deal such as the Arusha deal instead in favor of violent repression of the RPF. Institutions which tried to quell the conflict such as the Organization of African Unity and UNAMIR were able to generate peace talks, but due to opposition by Hutu extremists, the efforts reaped no real benefits (“Rwanda genocide of 1994,” 2015). UN peacekeeping troops were also insufficient as many countries recalled their troops in April of 2014.
Throughout the history of Rwanda, the Tutsi minority had economic leverage over Hutus, belonging to the superior pastoral community; this economic inequality also fueled grievances on the side of the Hutus which eventually led to the genocide itself. As a result of the genocide at the state level, many Western countries began to pour in aid to attempt to resolve guilt as a result of not doing enough to prevent the genocide (Hunter, 2014). Some scholars recently have claimed this has led the Rwandan economy to rely too much on international aid, preventing it from being able to become stable and independent (Hunter, 2014). After the end of the genocide, the RPF gained political power and placed a Hutu as president and a Tutsi as defense minister and vice-president in an attempt to replace the previous ethnocratic government. According to United to End Genocide, 26% of Rwandans still suffer from PTSD as a result of the genocide.
At the regional level, the genocide caused a high level of instability. The number of people displaced by the genocide itself were more than 2 million, and they became displaced not only in Rwanda itself, but in its many neighboring countries, especially Uganda and present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. In these neighboring countries, violence between Hutus and Tutsis, as well as between other ethnicities in the receiving countries, continued and spread to other nearby states due to genocidaires fleeing Rwanda and fleeing prosecution. This continuation of violence in the neighboring countries fueled regional instability.
At the global level, the conflict culminated in a major reassessment of international humanitarian action and initiatives and forced the international community to reflect on its failure to act. The size of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda was not nearly enough to prevent the genocide, and the force got reduced once the prime minister was murdered. Instead of countries sending in more troops to deal with an escalation of violence, it drew back, leaving Rwanda to face its fate (Hunter, 2014). Another problem was that major international parties, including the UN, refused to classify the conflict of 1994 as a genocide, for which both Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan later apologized (Hunter, 2014). At the global level, this conflict led to the unanimous agreement of the UN to act on a “responsibility to protect” in the future, setting a precedent that the international community would no longer act slowly or inefficiently to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities. The conflict also led to the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda in 1994 to prosecute those responsible for the genocide.
The Rwandan conflict was marked by politicized ethnicity and ethnocracy: a conflict fueled by grievances and perhaps even political greed in attempting to reverse political power on either side. It is a case wherein refugees and porous borders played an important role, as well as ethnic propaganda through media. The effects of this conflict led to the prevalence of the responsibility to protect mantra and an increased effort and unanimous resolution to impede this from happening again, though the many ethnic conflicts still occurring around the world leave much to be accomplished–and prevented.
Hunter, J. (2014, April 7). We cannot forget: The legacy of Rwanda’s genocide 20 years later. Retrieved February 23, 2016, Retrieved from https://aoav.org.uk
Leposo, L. (2014, April 8). Rwandans continue to struggle with the legacy of genocide two decades later. Retrieved February 24, 2016, Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/
Marhoum, A., & Samper, D. A. (n.d.). East Africa Living Encyclopedia: Rwanda. Retrieved February 15, 2016, Retrieved from http://www.africa.upenn.edu/NEH/rwhistory.htm
Rwanda genocide of 1994. (2015). In Encyclopaedia Britannica online. Retrieved February 15, 2016, from http://www.britannica.com/
United States, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (2016, February 11). The world factbook: Rwanda. Retrieved February 15, 2016, from https://www.cia.gov/
United to End Genocide. The Rwandan genocide. Retrieved February 15, 2016, from http://endgenocide.org/
Figure 1: edugeography.com
Figure 2: economist.com
Figure 3: bbc.co.uk