The Habyarimana Regime and the Rwandan Genocide

My first post focused primarily on the history of Rwanda leading up to the movement that culminated in the official independence of Rwanda in 1962 and the relations between the Hutu and the Tutsi under Gregoire Kayibanda, Rwanda’s first president.  In this post, however, I will elaborate further on the Kayibanda regime and discuss the Habyarimana and how the Rwandan government used ethnic tensions to maintain political power.  I will also attempt to analyze the events that followed the death of Habyarimana in 1994, after his plane was shot down near Kigali.  Habyarimana’s death almost immediately sparked the massacres that have become known as the Rwandan Genocide, and I will look at the political aspects of his death and the aftermath.

By 1973, Kayibanda had been the president of Rwanda for 11 years.  However, he was overthrown by his Defense Minister Juvenal Habyarimana from the northern part of the country.  “That was the culmination of a power struggle between the radical southern [Hutu] and the conservative and wealth northern [Hutu]” (Braathen 75).  Once again, the change in power was an example of a politically motivated coup, just as the independence movement had been supported by the Hutu as a means of gaining power through majority rule.

Once Habyarimana gained power in 1973, “[he] pledged to end the mass killings of Tutsis” (Moghalu 13).  However, “he concentrated power and access to wealth in the hands of a small group of Hutus” (Moghalu 13), and skirmishes between the Tutsi and Hutu continued during his reign.  Early in the Habyarimana regime, the rapidly growing economy of Rwanda lessened the overall tensions in the country, but an eventual economic downturn let to public disapproval with Habyarimana and the government.  In response, the Habyarimana regime once again tried to raise tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi in order to distract from the recent economic problems.  This led to killings of both Hutu and Tutsi, as one side would respond in kind to the actions of the other.  Additionally, it increased the rate of emigration from Rwanda as Tutsis and moderate Hutus attempted to avoid the tension of the situation.

Additionally, Habyarimana “firmly denied Tutsi exiles and refugees the right to return to their country, to which they were entitled according to international law, claiming that pressures on land made refugee’s return impractical.  This policy led to a revival of the armed struggle by Tutsis outside Rwanda and the civil war that served as the immediate context for the genocide” (Moghalu 13).

Eventually, public frustration grew to such a level that the general public became involved in a “democracy movement that called for expanded civil rights, a legalization of multiparty politics, and free and fair elections.  Facing growing unrest, President Habyarimana announced that he would consent to limited government reform” (Cruden 15).  Unfortunately for the democracy movement, however, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) [a rebel group composed primarily of Tutsi refugees seeking the right to return to Rwanda] invaded in October of 1990, shifting the national focus from political reform to civil defense.  Additionally, the invasion “provided an opportunity for Habyarimana to play the ethnic card” (Cruden 17), which expanded his political power and improved public opinion of the regime at the expense of Hutu-Tutsi relations.

In order to further implicate the RPF as the aggressors in the conflict, Habyarimana developed a plan to stage a military attack on Kigali.  However, he was able to do so in such a way that he convinced the people of Rwanda that the attack had been undertaken by the Rwandan Patriotic Front rather than his own military.  He used this bogus attack as justification for the arrests of many Tutsis and moderate Hutus.  Simultaneously, government officials organized massacres of Tutsis in the northern part of the country.  They were able to portray these attacks as popular and spontaneous, falsely showing support for Hutu victory and the elimination of the Tutsi group from Rwanda.  All of these actions by the Habyarimana regime demonstrated the manipulation by the government of the ethnic tensions as a manner of maintaining power, despite the numerous deaths caused.

Throughout the civil war that followed between the armed forces of Rwanda and the RPF, both armies massacred members of the opposing ethnic group in an effort to gain or maintain power in Rwanda.  Eventually, due to international pressure for peace, Habyarimana entered talks with the leaders of the RPF.  However, he was limited in his willingness to negotiate due to the feeling that “granting the Tutsi rebels and the internal Rwandan opposition a dominant role in the transition would be tantamount to a ‘negotiated coup’ ” (Moghalu 14).

Finally, Habyarimana agreed to the Arusha Accords, which outlined the process of demilitarization and transition to a democratic state that many Rwandans sought.  However, while flying back to Kigali from a meeting with the Burundi president Cyprien Ntariamyra, Habyarimana’s airplane was shot down.  This sparked massive unrest throughout the country, and the military quickly filled the power vacuum that had been left by the death of Habyarimana.

In order to consolidate power, the new government wanted to eliminate all political opposition to the military regime.  This involved killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and the massacres quickly escalated to the Rwandan Genocide.  Originally, this simply involved killing Tutsis that directly opposed the military government.  However, it grew to all possible political opponents, namely those of other ethnicities (Tutsis) and those with differing views on government (moderate Hutus).  Additionally, the military wanted to unite the general Hutu population under a single cause.  Unfortunately for many people in Rwanda and the world, the common cause was the fact that they were not Tutsi, and the set about trying to eliminate them from the nation.

Despite early economic growth, Habyarimana eventually regressed to ethnic massacres as a means of keeping the population of Rwanda satisfied, or at least not focused on the problems of the nation.  His reasoning for doing so was not an internal hatred of the Tutsi but instead a desire to maintain political power despite growing unrest.  After his death, other Hutus gained power and, in order to consolidate it, attempted to unite the Hutu ethnic group and eliminate political opposition.  This led to the killings of many Rwandans that culminated in genocide and the deaths of a large portion of the population.

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

Moghalu, Kingsley Chiedu. Rwanda’s Genocide: The Politics of Global Justice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Braathen, Einar, Morten Bøås, and Gjermund Sæther. Ethnicity Kills?: The Politics of War, Peace, and Ethnicity in SubSaharan Africa. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.