For my summer project, I researched the causes of Rwandan genocide with a focus on the political situation and how it affected the ethnic tensions and, eventually, the outbreak of genocide. I had originally planned to focus on the independence movement in Rwanda during the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, I recognized early in my research that the political issues that played a role leading up to the Rwandan genocide were typically created after independence was already achieved.
I began my research by observing the conditions and relationships between the Hutu and Tutsi prior to the colonial period and comparing those findings to the same when Rwanda was under German and Belgian rule. In African History before 1800, I had learned about the fluid nature of the two groups. Prior to the colonial period, the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” referred to social groups based on wealth and occupation, rather than the ethnic background of an individual and his family. However, Europeans did not fully understand Rwandan society and, during the colonial period, instituted legislation stating that one’s “ethnicity” of that of his father.
In my search for political causes of the 1994 genocide, I found that ethnic tensions were often exacerbated by the government, which was controlled by the Hutu majority from independence in 1962 through 1994, in order to gain public support and distract the population from other issues. Directly after Rwanda gained independence, Gregoire Kayibanda used ethnic appeals in order to gain power and become the first president of Rwanda. In the late 1960s, exiled Tutsis trying to get back into Rwanda attacked the new nation, but the government responded by massacring thousands of Tutsi. 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.
After Juvenal Habyarimana took control of the government from Kayibanda in 1973, the trend of ethnic violence continued as a tool with which the government could maintain power. After initial economic growth in the Habyarimana reign, a downturn led to public disapproval of the regime. Habyarimana reignited tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi in order to shift the focus away from the declining economic fortunes of Rwanda. Eventually, however, unrest led to a democracy movement that called for many government reforms.
One of Habyarimana’s controversial policies was his refusal to allow Tutsi exiles and refugees into Rwanda, the right to which they were entitled under international law. These Tutsi formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, which in 1990 invaded Rwanda, igniting a civil war between the Tutsi RPF and the Rwandan military, which fought to maintain the Hutu government. This conflict was also fought out on a local level, with Hutu and Tutsi civilians massacring each other, albeit on a very small and sporadic level, constantly responding to a previous attack and increasing the tensions between the two groups.
After Habyarimana had agreed to the Arusha Accords, his plane was shot down as he returned to Kigali. Filling the void left by Habyarimana and blaming the Tutsi for the assassination, a group of radical Hutus seized control and, such that nobody else would oppose them, became killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus in what became known as the Rwandan genocide. These killings were not done out of an inherent hatred of the Tutsi; if so, moderate Hutus would not have been subject to the same fate. Instead, the radical Hutus wanted to gain and consolidate power, and they attempted to exploit the ethnic tensions that had been rising since the 1980s for their own political gain.