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2. The Root Causes of the Rwandan Genocide
It is hard to point to only one or two reasons as to why the conflict and then the genocide
occurred in Rwanda. There were too many contributing factors. I will try now to expand
upon some already introduced in Section 1, but will also introduce new factors that
happened between independence in 1962 and the genocide which took place from April
to July of 1994 and killed nearly one million people in Rwanda.
Section 1 talked about the random-ness of colonial power over African countries.
Rwanda had been no different in the marking of its borders and the abuses of power and
exploitation of its people by outsiders. What was different about Rwanda was that it was,
and is, mono-lingual, the ethnic divisions were both created and given throughout the
19th and first half of the 20th century. One may imagine that a mono-lingual culture or
area with few distinct ethnic groups would stand a better chance of living together,
cooperating and tolerating each other. This was not the case.
As noted in Section 1, Belgium switched allegiance from supporting Tutsi’s to supporting
Hutu’s right before Independence of Rwanda—even helping to create a Hutu political
party (PARMETHU). This led to confusion and lust for power along ethnic divisions.
Jobs, education and access to health were suddenly open to Hutu’s and not Tutsi’s. At
independence, many of the minority Tutsi’s fled the country for fear of persecution from
the governing Hutu majority (about 85-15%). The Tutsi’s went into the surrounding
countries. Many wound up in refugee camps that stood for over 30 years—not unlike the
Palestinian camps in Lebanon. To the south, in Burundi, something similar happened.
Almost as soon as independence, the ethnic divisions had been cut so deep in Rwanda
that killings and massacres began of mostly Tutsi’s by Hutu’s. There would be a few
people killed here and there or a massacre sometimes. The news coming from Rwanda
to the exiled groups was not good—much like the news that leaves Palestine to the
Palestinian refuges and diaspora. Still, at independence and into the 1970’s, Rwanda
signed on to every major human rights treaty, like the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, and even wrote a constitution.
The Hutu power structure relied on a few elite controlling the poor masses. Catholicism,
the French language and control of resources were used to undermine social cohesion.
This was not hard to do in this densely packed, poverty stricken country. It did not help
that in neighboring Burundi a mirror Tutsi ruling class was doing the same to the people.
In fact, in the mid-1970’s it is believed that the Tutsi government of Burundi had carried
out ethnic cleansing—this has been historically washed over, but it is likely that
thousands of Hutu’s were killed at the hands of Tutsi’s in Burundi, thus giving reason for
an even more repressive governance by the Hutu’s in Rwanda.
Juvenal Habyarimana came to power in Rwanda in the early 1970’s. Habyarimana was
more moderate than his predecesor but he still believed in controlling the masses with
an iron fist. As the 1980’s came, Rwanda was one of the poorest, most densely
populated countries in the world. Its roughly nine million people far exceeded livable
land. It was a country that was highly dependent on foreign aid. With very few cash
crops, Habyarimana continuously went to bilateral donors, the World Bank and the IMF
for help or support.
Some of this support came in the wake of the movement for ‘Structural Adjustment
Programs’ across Africa. Leading economists had encouraged countries like Rwanda to
focus on one (or two) main cash-crops for export and by achieving stability with this
crop, the free market would help monetary gains trickle-down into local markets. Besides
the few farmers able to farm for subsistence, the government took over control of most
land and forced the people to cultivate coffee as the main cash-crop. The problem with
coffee is that it does not provide sustenance. One cannot eat a coffee bean off a tree
and feel nurtured. But this is what the government had decreed based on
recommendations from foreign interests. It was believed by exporting coffee to European
markets, money would come back into the country that could then be used to buy
subsistence foodstuffs from neighboring African countries. This may have worked to
some extent had the Democratic Republic of the Congo not been in major conflict due to
their dictator and Uganda had not been in civil war, trying to break free from the grasps
of their dictator. As you can see the reliance on one cash-crop and on unstable
neighbors did not help the Rwanda cause.
One of the many problems with reliance on foreign aid at this time is that Rwanda was
not able to produce homegrown Rwanda-specific institutions. Justice, security, health
and education were reliant on outsiders for help and outsiders have their own interests
at heart. It also allows the foreign institutions to ignore political repression—which is
exactly what was happening in Rwanda. Foreign institutions used a ‘cookie-cutter’
approach to Rwanda (eg what worked elsewhere, will work in Rwanda) and chose to
ignore what was actually going on in the country.
The 1980’s also brought the organization of Rwandan exiles in the diaspora—mostly
Tutsi’s. Many organizing in neighboring countries had been born as refugees or fled
Rwanda as children and only had romantic notions of their ethnic homeland, thus
wanted to ‘return’ -- peacefully or violently. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (and Army) was
created to do just this: return to Rwanda and seize control of government and the
people. They mostly organized in the refugee camps of Uganda, north of Rwanda.
The organizing of opposition forces outside of Rwanda allowed the Rwandan
government to further centralize control in the hands of a few through fear and
manipulation. The government owned the media and continuously sent out messages of
the hateful Tutsi outsider’s ready to attack the livelihoods of the Hutu natives at any
moment. As this was happening, the world coffee market crashed. Coffee had always
been seen as a product for Europe and North America, so when the demand slowed in
the 1980’s due to various global economic crisis, people of the ‘north’ were less willing to
spend money on something like coffee.
The combination of angry Rwandan exiles, falling coffee prices, little available land, fear-
mongering media and myriad other problems proved a lethal one. The RPF/A took
advantage of this vulnerability and entered Rwanda in 1990 attempting to ‘liberate’ the
people from the Hutu government, thus, beginning a long civil war. For the next four
years, the RPF/A fought a rebellion within Rwanda, but it was the ruling Hutu
government that got the international backing. The RPF was seen as another outside
agitator, even though it was made up mostly of Tutsi exiles and Hutu moderates.
There were numerous attempts at peace agreements with both the RPF and
Habyaramina’s MRND paying lip service to the wishes of the international negotiators.
The whole time the peace process was starting and stopping outside of Rwanda, war
was happening in Rwanda. There were massacres and killings perpetrated by both
Hutu’s and Tutsi’s. The RPF was not just made up of exiled Tutsi’s, but anti-MRND
Hutu’s, as well. Whereas the MRND was only made up of Hutu’s.
A casual observer in Rwanda today, and likely during the 1990-1994 civil war would not
be able to meet someone on the street and judge that person a Hutu or Tutsi, unless the
Rwandan presented an ID card. There are short, fat Tutsi’s, just like there are light-
skinned Hutu’s. This made the conflict and the ethnic identities even more mis-leading.
Rwanda had been a society of inter-marriage, there were no language barriers and most
people lived off the same, poor lands. Everyone needed and wanted cattle and
sustenance for their families. The fact that the civil war became a fight of Hutu versus
Tutsi was just the latest evil outcome of centuries of missionary, colonizing and
imperialistic forces that paid no heed to the land and the people that were being
exploited. When Rwanda went to war, it had the fewest roads per its population of any
country in Africa.i Their had been exploitation and little given back. This was never as
clear as it was in Rwanda.
The Arusha Peace Agreement (APA) was finally signed between the MRND and the
RPF in Arusha, Tanzania in August of 1993. The war had already displaced thousands,
if not millions within Rwanda and out of Rwanda to neighboring countries, including
Burundi and Tanzania. These constrained countries had the incentive to bring Rwanda
to peace, even while Burundi, for example, had yet to achieve peace as well. Of course,
the Tutsi killings of Hutu’s in Burundi had likely stoked the idea of retribution upon
Rwandan Tutsi’s as early as the 1970’s.
Part of the APA was a UN Peacekeeping force and power-sharing with the RPF. When
the APA was signed, members of the governing MRND’s inner-circle were angry at
Habyaramina. They did not want power sharing with Tutsi’s. A plan was developed to
exterminate, to ethnically cleanse the 1.2 million Tutsi’s that were in the country. Lists of
Tutsi’s and anti-MRND Hutu’s were drawn up in every community across the country for
cleansing. Youth were trained in cadres. It was easy to train the youth to be killers: they
had little education, barely any job opportunities, their lands were densely packed and
uncomfortable and the prospect of being able to grab land and education and economic
opportunities through the elimination of an ethnic minority had great traction. The
Catholic church in Rwanda—run by Hutu’s—also saw this as an opportunity to organize
the poor masses in the community around a common goal. Of course, the church used
coded-language and spoke of the need to take over ancestral lands and to root out pests
The APA and the UN Peacekeepers were unable to keep the peace or control the
MRND elites. At the beginning of April 1994—while the world was celebrating the
coming of the first democratic election in South Africa after apartheid—a plane carrying
the president of Burundi and Habyarimana was shot out of the sky as it was about to
land in Rwanda after a regional peace conference. There upon, the civil war turned into
a genocide. Over the next 100 days nearly a million Tutsi’s and some Hutu’s were killed
in Rwanda. A country that had nearly nine million people, soon had nearly eight million.
It did not take long, as it was a well thought out plan. As soon as the plane blew up, road
blocks were set up in the capitol, Kigali, and other towns. Drivers were pulled from
vehicles and slaughtered. Large groups of Tutsi’s were rounded up and brought to
churches, hospitals and schools, being told they would be safe—only to be massacred
by the youth cadre, paramilitary, and government security forces. It was easier to horde
people into these centers and blow them up together, than it was to track each down.
The organizers of the genocide knew this well.
The UN did little to stop the genocide as it was happening; international bodies refused
to send troops and equipment; surrounding nations had their own issues and were
already too inundated with Rwandan refugees to help out; international aid organizations
in the country fled, leaving their Rwandan employees behind—many of whom were
Tutsi’s. The only people fighting to end the genocide were the Rwandan Patriotic Army
(RPA), led by future president Paul Kagame, which had been fighting for four years.
They received little support, but put pressure on the MRND during the genocide, and the
MRND began pulling out of the capitol. As they fled to other parts of the country and
region, they continued to kill and massacre. The radio’s and TV continued to read off
names of Tutsi’s and Hutu moderates to kill. Often one neighbor killed their neighbor or
son killed mother, for fear of their own life being taken if nothing was done.
In July of 1994, the RPA finally took the capitol, ending the genocide and the war. Nearly
a million people had been killed, including those by the ‘liberating’ RPA. Over a million
Hutu’s fled to the neighboring countries, especially the Congo. International military
support never came—Bill Clinton eventually called it the worst mistake of his presidency,
having known what was going on in Rwanda and not doing anything about it.
• What could the international community have done to prevent conflict between
the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s?
• If you were in Rwanda in 1993 as an outsider, what would you have done to
prevent the pending genocide?
• Why was it important for the governing Hutu’s to exploit ethnic differences with
the Tutsi to remain in control?
• The Rwandan government had ratified the UDHR, a constitution, the African
Charter on People’s & Human Rights and the Arusha Peace Agreement amongst
other treaty documents. Why were they not held accountable for their ongoing
• Do these kind of international treaty documents help in preventing crisis and
conflict? Why or why not?
Bond, Patrick. ‘Looting Africa; the Economics of Exploitation.’ University of KwaZulu Natal Press &
Zed Books, 2006. New York, London and Johannesburg.