Political Failure and The Rwanda Genocide

I began my research by looking at the politics behind the Rwanda genocide and the political situation both before and after the Rwanda Independence movement in 1959, all the way up to the genocide in 1994.  I found that this time period can be split into three basic eras: the colonial system under Belgium until 1962 (when Rwanda fully gained independence), the Kayibanda regime from 1962 until 1973, and the Habyarimana regime from 1973 until 1994.  By looking at these different time periods separately, I hoped to reveal something about why the genocide occurred in 1994 instead of earlier, and discover what political changes, if any had led to the genocide.

Rwanda first became a colony of Germany in the late 1800s, but Belgium took control of the territory by way of a League of Nations mandate after World War 1.  Regardless of which country controlled the territory, “colonial administrators practiced ethnic group-based indirect rule.  They put power in the hands of the Tutsi and gave administrative and political positions to the Tutsi, and at the same time eliminated the power of Hutu kings and chiefs” (Cruden 13-14).  Additionally, it is important to realize the differences the area underwent when European nations took control.  As I learned in African History before 1800, the three groups in Rwanda had all previously been social classes that designated occupation and social standing rather than ethnicity.  The Twa group, which was the vast minority and made up a negligible part of the Rwandan population, were often hunters and by far the poorest group.  The Tutsi, around 15% of the population, were rich cattle-herders.  Lastly, the Hutu made up the last 85% of the population and were largely involved in agriculture.  However, these groups were very fluid, and a rich Hutu could easily become Tutsi, and vice-versa.  The fact that one’s social class was not permanent was so prominent in society that there were even words for “to become Hutu” and “to become Tutsi.”  This all changed, however, during the colonial period when “, the Belgian colonial law dictated that one’s ethnicity was the ethnicity of one’s father – which effectively eliminated the prior fluid nature of ethnic identities” (Cruden 14).

The Hutu, under the colonial system, were below both the Belgian authorities and the Tutsi, who had been placed above the in order to facilitate the indirect  rule.  Just as countries across the world were gaining independence after the Second World War, “a Hutu uprising [in 1959] drove Tutsi chiefs from their positions and [threw] thousands of Tutsi citizens into exile.  The uprising marked the beginning of the transfer of political power to the majority Hutu.  Rwanda gained its independence in 1962.  The Hutu-dominated post-independence governments referred to the 1959 uprising as a social revolution” (Cruden 14).

Gregoire Kayibanda became Rwanda’s first president in 1962.  He had previously been the leader of the Party of the Movement for the Emancipation of Hutu (Parmehutu), and he used ethnic appeals as a means for gaining popular power.  This created a tense environment in the newly independent state.  Later in the 1960s, exiled Tutsis trying to get back into Rwanda attacked the new nation, but the government responded by massacring thousands of Tutsi.  This greatly exacerbated tensions between the two groups.  Overall, though, these killings were based on political pressures on the Kayibanda regime to maintain power in the face of Tutsi opposition.  Returning Tutsis would grow the Tutsi minority and threaten his political status, and his response to the attempted return of exiles showed his reluctance to give up power.

To Kayibanda, ethnicity was only important as a means of acquiring and maintaining power.  In my next blog post, I plan on showing how this trend of the importance of political power continued under Habyarimana and was the primary motivation for the 1994 genocide, rather than simple ethnic tensions.

Cruden, Alex. The Rwandan Genocide. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven/Gale, Cengatge Learning, 2010. Print.