History of Rwanda

History of Rwanda

This article discusses the history of Rwanda.

Early history

The earliest inhabitants of the region now known as Rwanda were the Twa, a group of diminutive forest hunters and gatherers, according to Bethwell Ogot in the UNESCO "History of Africa". The Twa were supplanted by the immigration of the forbearers of the agriculturalist ethnic group, today known as the Hutus. The Hutu began to clear forests for their permanent settlements. The nature of a third major migration, of a predominantly pastoralist people known as Tutsi, is highly contested. By the fifteenth century, many of the Bantu-speakers, including both Hutu and Tutsi, had organized themselves into small states. According to Ogot, these included at least three. The oldest state, which has no name, was probably established by the Renge lineages of the Singa clan and covered most of modern Rwanda, besides the northern region. The Mubari state of the Zigaba clan also covered an extensive area. The Gisaka state in southeast Rwanda was powerful, maintaining its independence until the mid-nineteenth century. However, the latter two states are largely unmentioned in contemporary discussion of Rwandan civilization. [Mahmood Mamdani (2001) "When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda", Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 61-62]

In the nineteenth century the state became far more centralized, and the history far more precise. Expansion continued, reaching the shores of Lake Kivu. This expansion was less about military conquest and more about a migrating population spreading Rwandan agricultural techniques, social organization, and the extension of a Mwami's political control. Once this was established camps of warriors were established along the vulnerable borders to prevent incursions. Only against other well developed states such as Gisaka, Bugesera, and Burundi was expansion carried out primarily by force of arms.

Under the monarchy the economic imbalance between the Hutus and the Tutsis crystallized, a complex political imbalance emerged as the Tutsis formed into a hierarchy dominated by a "Mwami" or 'king'. The King was treated as a semi-divine being, responsible for making the country prosper. The symbol of the King was the Kalinga, the sacred drum hung with the genitals of conquered enemies or rebels against the King.

The Mwami main power base was control of over a hundred large estates spread through the kingdom. They would include fields of banana trees and many heads of cattle and formed the base of the rulers' wealth. The most ornate of these estates would each be home to one of the king's wives, monarchs having up to twenty. It was between these estates that the Mwami and his retinue would travel.

All the people of Rwanda were expected to do tribute to the Mwami, and this tribute was collected, in turn, by a Tutsi administrative hierarchy. Beneath the Mwami was also a Tutsi ministerial council of great chiefs, the "batware b'intebe", while below them was a group of lesser Tutsi chiefs who for the large part governed the country in districts, each district having a cattle chief and a land chief. The cattle chief collected tribute in livestock, and the land chief collected tribute in produce. Beneath these chiefs were hill-chiefs and neighborhood chiefs. Again, over 95% of hill and neighborhood chiefs were of Tutsi descent.

Also important were military chiefs who had control over the frontier regions. They played both defensive and offensive roles, protecting the frontier and making cattle raids against neighboring tribes. Often, the Rwandan great chief was also the army chief. Lastly, the biru or "council of guardians" was also an important part of the administration. The biru advised the Mwami on his duties where supernatural king-powers were involved. These honored people advised also on matters of court ritual.

Taken together, all these posts from great chiefs to military chiefs and to biru member existed to serve the powers of the Mwami, and to reinforce the control of the Tutsi race in Rwanda.

The military, located in the border camps, were a mix of Hutu and Tutsi drawn from across the kingdom. This intermixing helped produce a uniformity of ritual and language in the region, and united the populace behind the Mwami. Most evidence suggests that relations between the Hutu and Tutsi were mostly peaceful at this time. Some words and expressions suggest there may have been friction, but other than that all evidence supports peaceful interaction.

Colonial era

Unlike much of Africa, the fate of Rwanda and the Great Lakes region was not decided by the 1884 Berlin Conference. Rather the region was divided in an 1890 conference in Brussels. This gave Rwanda and Burundi to the German Empire as colonial spheres of interest in exchange, renouncing all claims on Uganda in exchange for being given the island of Heligoland. The poor maps referenced in these agreements left Belgium with a claim on the western half of the country, and after several border skirmishes the final borders of the colony were not established until 1900. These borders contained the kingdom of Rwanda as well as a group of smaller kingdoms on the shore of Lake Victoria.

In 1894 Rutarindwa inherited the kingdom from his father Rwabugiri IV, but many of the king's council were unhappy. There was a rebellion and the family was killed. Yuhi Musinga inherited the throne through his mother and uncles, but there was still dissent.

German colonialism

War and division seemed to open the door for colonialism, and in 1897 German colonialists and missionaries arrived in Rwanda. The Rwandans were divided with a portion of the royal court being very wary and the other seeing the Germans as a welcome alternative to the dominance of Buganda or the Belgians. Backing their faction in the country a pliant government was soon in place. Rwanda put up far less resistance than Burundi to German rule.

In the early years the Germans had little control in the region and were completely dependent on the indigenous government. The Germans didn't encourage modernization and centralization of the regime.

During this period many Europeans had become obsessed with the study of race, and this had an impact on life in Rwanda. Now to the Germans, the Tutsi ruling class was a superior racial type who, because of their apparent "Hamitic" origins on the Horn of Africa, were more "European" than the Hutus they oppressed. Because of their seemingly taller stature, more "honorable and eloquent" personalities, and their willingness to convert to Roman Catholicism, the Tutsis were favored by colonists and powerful Roman Catholic officials, and were put in charge of the farming Hutus (almost in a feudalistic manner), the newly formed principalities, and were given basic ruling positions. Eventually, these positions would turn into the overall governing body of Rwanda. Thus the Tutsi oppression of the Hutus seemed somehow normal and expected. As with later Belgian colonizers, the Germans romanticized Tutsi origins.

Before the colonial period about 15-16% of the population was Tutsi; many of these were poor peasants, but the majority of the ruling elite were Tutsi. A significant minority of the political elite were Hutu, however. Europeans simplified this arrangement and decided that the Hamitic Tutsi were racially superior and should thus make up the entire ruling class, while the inferior Bantu Hutu should become a permanent underclass.

The Germans, simply out of their need for a streamlined administration, helped the Mwami gain greater nominal control over Rwandan affairs. But there were forces that entered with the German colonial authority that had the opposite effect. For instance, Tutsi power weakened through the exposure of Rwanda to capitalist European forces. Money came to be seen by many Hutus as a replacement for cattle, in terms of both economic prosperity and for purposes of creating social standing. Another way in which Tutsi power was weakened by Germany was through the introduction of the head-tax on all Rwandans. As some Tutsis had feared, the introduction of this tax also made the Hutus feel less bonded to the will of their Tutsi patrons and more dependent on the European foreigners, any head-tax necessarily implying equality between any of those heads being counted - whether Hutu or Tutsi. Thus, despite Germany's attempt to uphold traditional Tutsi domination of the Hutus, the Hutus were now getting a slight taste of autonomy from Tutsi rule.

World War I

While the agreements dividing the region had called for the region to remain neutral in the event of any European war, this was disregarded after the outbreak of World War I. Small forces of Europeans, backed by large numbers of locals fought for control of the region. The main offensive was by the Belgians who quickly forced the German forces out of the region. A British offensive from Uganda aided them. The Belgian army was mostly made up of Congolese forces who proceeded to loot and pillage the region. A great number of Rwandans, who were fighting alongside the Germans, were killed in the long German retreat.

Belgian colonialism

At the end of the war the League of Nations mandated Rwanda and its southern neighbor, Burundi, to Belgium as the territory of Ruanda-Urundi. The portion of the German territory, never a part of the Kingdom of Rwanda, was stripped from the colony and attached to Tanganyika, which had been mandated to the British.

The Belgian government continued to rely on the Tutsi power structure for administering the country. It also consistently favored the direct and harsh polices that had been instituted by the Germans. The Belgians insisted that the colony turn a profit, and this meant forcing the population to grow large quantities of coffee. Each peasant was required to devote a certain percentage of their fields to coffee and this was enforced by the Belgians and their local, mainly Tutsi, allies. An onerous corvée was also introduced, labour that was enforced by the whip - eight strokes before work each morning. This forced labour approach to colonization was condemned by many internationally, and was extremely unpopular in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans immigrated to the British protectorate of Uganda, which was much wealthier and did not have the same draconian policies.

As mentioned above, Hutus and Tutsis lived together as neighbors before the colonial period. However, Belgian rule solidified the racial divide. The Belgians then gave political power to the Tutsis. Due to the eugenics movement in Europe and the United States, the colonial government became concerned with the differences between Hutu and Tutsi. Scientists arrived to measure skull--and thus, they believed, brain--size. Tutsi's skulls were bigger, they were taller, and their skin was lighter. As a result of this, Europeans came to believe that Tutsis had caucasian ancestry, and were thus "superior" to Hutus. Each citizen was issued a racial identification card, which defined one as legally Hutu or Tutsi. The Belgians gave the majority of political control to the Tutsis. Tutsis began to believe the myth of their superior racial status, and exploited their power over the Hutu majority. Current academic thought is that the European emphasis on racial division led to many of the difficulties of racialism, as structured at the time of German and Belgian colonisation, and that this was the engine behind later conflicts. In the 1920s, Belgian ethnologists analysed (measured skulls, etc) thousands of Rwandans on analogous racial criteria, such as which would be used later by the Nazis. In 1931, an ethnic identity was officially mandated and administrative documents systematically detailed each person's "ethnicity," just as Jewish identity would be specified a few years later in Germany. Each Rwandan had an ethnic identity card. The Belgians considered the Tutsis to be the superior race and systematically imposed their authority over the Hutus across the colonial administration and the access to education, engendering great frustration among the other Rwandans.

A history of Rwanda that justified the existence of these racial distinctions was written (see History of Rwanda). No historical, archaeological, or above all linguistic traces have been found to date that confirm this official history. In fact, as those who have looked for such evidence have remarked, the observed differences between the Tutsis and the Hutus are about the same as those evident between the different French social classes in the 1950s. The way people nourished themselves explains a large part of the differences: the Tutsis, since they raised cattle, traditionally drank more milk than the Hutu, who were farmers.

Some observers have also noted an induced replica of the Belgian linguistic conflict in the Rwandan problem. It is undeniable that the Walloons, who were the majority in the beginning in Rwanda, and the Flemish continued their ideological fights and also tried to gain supremacy over one another on Rwandan soil. In the 1950s and 60s, the back and forth of Belgian support for the Tutsis over the Hutus was articled at the same time over Tutsis demands for political independence, like everywhere in Africa, and over the development of the presence of Flemish people in Rwanda who would see in the Hutu a people who were repressed just as they had been (recalling the Armenian genocide).

Catholic influence

The Belgian Roman Catholic Church favored the Tutsis, admiring Tutsi leadership qualities. The church evangelized also, beginning with the Tutsis, leading more Tutsis to share in the benefits that came with associating with the colonizers' Roman Catholic culture.

King Yuhi Musinga was exiled by the Belgians after he refused to be baptised. He was succeeded by his son Mutara Rudahigwa who had received a seminary education. He was baptised and renamed Charles, and he sought to bring about political changes by allowing Hutus greater access to positions of authority. He chose Catholics for his appointments.


Following World War II, Rwanda-Urundi became a UN trust territory with Belgium as the administrative authority. Reforms instituted by the Belgians in the 1950s encouraged the growth of democratic political institutions but were resisted by the Tutsi traditionalists who saw in them a threat to Tutsi rule.

From the late 1940s King Rudahigwa, a Tutsi with democratic vision abolished the "ubuhake" system and redistributed cattle and land. Even though the majority of pasture lands remained under the control of the Tutsi, the Hutus began to feel yet a deeper sense of liberation from Tutsi rule established by the Belgian "divide and rule" policy. Through the reforms, the Tutsis were no longer perceived to be in total control of cattle, the long-standing measure of a person's wealth and social position. Thus, these reforms marked the beginning of a long period of ethnic tension in Rwandan history.

In addition, the Hutus began to develop a group consciousness as the Belgians instituted ethnic identity cards (in 1933, Belgium required all its Rwandan and Burundian subjects to self-identify as "Tutsi," "Hutu" or "Twa;" this data appeared on the cards themselves). Yet a further step was Belgium's system of electoral representation for Rwandans. At first, the Tutsis retained total control, and then Belgium decided to make the electoral process function by means of secret ballots. Thereafter, Hutus made enormous gains within the country. The Catholic Church, too, began to oppose Tutsi mistreatment of Hutus, and began promoting equality. Tutsis were about to be removed from their traditional role as masters in Rwanda.

trife and independence

Charles made many changes - in 1954 he shared out the land between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Tutsi were unhappy with this, which led to Charles' assassination in 1959. Political instability and tribal conflict grew despite the efforts of his son, King Kigeri V.An increasingly restive Hutu population, encouraged by the Belgian military, sparked a revolt in November 1959, resulting in the overthrow of King Kigeri V, the last Tutsi monarch, who fled to Uganda. The Tutsis, enraged by their gradual loss of power, made an attempt on the life of Grégoire Kayibanda leader of Mouvement Democratique Republicain (MDR), the largest Hutu political party. Genocide ensued, with an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 Tutsis being killed by Hutus.

On 25 September 1960, through United Nations intervention, a referendum was held to establish whether Rwanda should become a republic or remain a kingdom. The result indicated an overwhelming support for a republic. After elections, the first Rwandese Republic was declared, with Grégoire Kayibanda as prime minister.

The revolution of 1959 marked a major change in political life in Rwanda. Some 150,000 Tutsis were exiled to neighboring countries. Those Tutsis that remained in Rwanda were excluded from having any political power in a state becoming more and more centralized under Hutu power. The Belgians declared the country independent in 1962, and there was no mistake to be made, the power would be completely in the hands of the Hutu. In fact, following independence, the Hutu would come to blame anything that went wrong in the country on the Tutsi. The Tutsis were to become the national scapegoats. The previous history of Rwanda under the Tutsi monarchy and then as a colony was rejected as a long period of darkness. The new Rwanda was Hutu and Catholic and thus believed to be a complete break with the past.

Grégoire Kayibanda, leader of the PARMEHUTU Party, became Rwanda's first elected president, leading a government chosen from the membership of the directly elected unicameral National Assembly. Peaceful negotiation of international problems, social and economic elevation of the masses, and integrated development of Rwanda were the ideals of the Kayibanda regime. Relations with forty three countries, including the United States, were established in the first ten years. Despite the progress made, inefficiency and corruption began festering in government ministries in the mid-1960s.

Under President Kayibanda, a system of quotas was established. Thenceforth, the Tutsis would be allowed only ten percent of school and university seats. The quotas also extended to the civil service. In these posts too, the Tutsis would only be allotted a 10% take. At the time, employment was bad, and competition for the available seats only exacerbated ethnic tensions.

The Kayibanda government also continued the government policy of labeling people with ethnic identity cards, a practice first begun by the Belgian colonial government, and using this practice to attack mixed marriages. This was not, however, meant to generally target all Tutsi, but was directed against the educated classes.

Another bout of violence followed in 1964, and for years a system of inequality was instituted. A Hutu could freely murder a Tutsi and would never be prosecuted. The other political parties UNAR and RADER were banned and their Tutsi members executed. Tutsi were described as "inyenzi" or cockroaches. Hundreds of thousands fled as refugees into neighbouring countries. While some in the west, most notably Bertrand Russell, acknowledged that this was the worst event since the Holocaust and called for something to be done, these calls were ignored.

The Rwandan government was friendly to the west and the base of CIA operations in the successful effort to oust the left leaning Patrice Lumumba of the Congo. The Catholic Church was closely intertwined with PARMEHUTU. They shared local resources and on the ground networks, and through the church the government maintained links and support with those in Belgium and Germany. The country's two newspapers, both strongly in favour of the government, were both staunchly Catholic publications.

Military rule

On July 5, 1973, while serving as defense minister, Maj. Gen. Juvénal Habyarimana, a native of the northwestern province of Gisenyi overthrew Grégoire Kayibanda, a native of central province of Gitarama. He dissolved the National Assembly and the PARMEHUTU Party and abolished all political activity.Clarifyme|date=March 2008 Still, the issue of ethnicity remained powerful. Each ethnic group held onto the memories of massacres in the past, and for the predominantly Hutu establishment, Tutsis remained scapegoats of convenience. For instance, Kayibanda was born in a southern region of the country, while Habyarimana came from the north. Southerners, however, blamed Habyarimana's perhaps favoritism for the north on Tutsi plots and machinations.

In 1974 a public outcry developed over Tutsi overrepresentation in fields such as medicine and education. Thousands of Tutsi were forced to resign from such positions, and many were forced into exile. In associated violence several hundred Tutsi were killed.

In 1975, President Habyarimana formed the Mouvement Révolutionaire National pour la Démocratie et le Développement (MRND) whose goals were to promote peace, unity, and national development. The movement was organized from the "hillside" to the national level and included elected and appointed officials.

Under MRND aegis, Rwandans went to the polls in December 1978, overwhelmingly endorsed a new constitution and confirmed Habyarimana as president. President Habyarimana was re-elected in 1983 and again in 1988, when he was the sole candidate. Responding to public pressure for political reform, President Habyarimana announced in July 1990 his intention to transform Rwanda's one-party state into a multi-party democracy.

Civil war

Ultimately, a new wave of ethnic tensions were unleashed in 1990. Causes included a slumping economy and food shortages, political pressure for democratic reform from France and demands by exiled Tutsis to be recognized as Rwandans with the right to return. However, the RPF proved unwilling to wait for the Rwandan government to come through on its promises. On October 1, 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda from their base in neighboring Uganda. The rebel force, composed primarily of ethnic Tutsis, blamed the government for failing to democratize and resolve the problems of some 500,000 Tutsi refugees living in diaspora around the world.

The Tutsi diaspora miscalculated the reaction of its invasion of Rwanda. Though the Tutsi objective seemed to be to pressure the Rwandan government into making concessions, the invasion was seen as an attempt to bring the Tutsi ethnic group back into power. The effect was to increase ethnic tensions to a level higher than they had ever been.

The Rwandan genocide

On April 6 1994, the airplane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana- the then President of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the President of Burundi, was shot down as it prepared to land at Kigali. Both presidents were killed when the plane crashed. Military and militia groups began rounding up and killing all Tutsis they could capture, as well as political moderates irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds. The killing swiftly spread from Kigali to all corners of the country; between April 6 and the beginning of July, a genocide of unprecedented swiftness officially left more than 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of organized bands of militia: Interahamwe. Even ordinary citizens were called on by local officials to kill their neighbors. The president's MRND Party was implicated in organizing many aspects of the genocide.

The RPF battalion stationed in Kigali under the Arusha accords came under attack immediately after the shooting down of the president's plane. The battalion fought its way out of Kigali and joined up with RPF units in the north. The RPF renewed its civil war against the Rwanda Hutu government when it received word that the genocidal massacres had begun. Its leader Paul Kagame directed RPF forces in neighboring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania to invade the country, battling the Hutu forces and Interahamwe militias who were committing the massacres. The resulting civil war raged concurrently with the genocide for two months.

Aftermath and peace

The Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the genocide in July 1994, but approximately two million Hutu refugees - some who participated in the genocide and fearing Tutsi retribution - fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire.

Following an uprising by the ethnic Tutsi, sometimes referred to as a whole as Banyamulenge (although this term only represents people from one area in eastern Zaire--other ethnic Tutsi Kinyarwanda-speaking people include the "Banyamasisi" and the "Banyarutshuru", as an example) people in eastern Zaire in October 1997, a huge movement of refugees began which brought more than 600,000 back to Rwanda in the last two weeks of November. This massive repatriation was followed at the end of December 1996 by the return of another 500,000 from Tanzania, again in a huge, spontaneous wave. Less than 100,000 Rwandans are estimated to remain outside of Rwanda, and they are thought to be the remnants of the defeated army of the former genocidal government, its allies in the civilian militias known as Interahamwe, and soldiers recruited in the refugee camps before 1996. There are also many innocent Hutu who remain in the forests of eastern Congo, particularly Rutshuru, Masisi and Bukavu, who have been misinformed by rebel forces that they will be killed upon return to Rwanda. Rebels also use force to prevent these people from returning, as they serve as a human shield.

In northwest Rwanda, Hutu militia members killed three Spanish aid workers, three soldiers and seriously wounded one other on January 18, 1997. Since then, most of the refugees have returned and the country is secure for tourists.

Rwandan coffee began to gain importance after international taste tests pronounced it among the best in the world, and the U.S. responded with a contribution of 8 million dollars. Rwanda now earns some revenue from coffee and tea export, although it has been difficult to compete with larger coffee-producing countries. The main source of revenue, however, is tourism, mainly mountain gorilla visitation. Their other parks, Nyungwe Forest (one of the last high-altitude tropical forests in the world) and Akagera National Park (a safari game park) have also become popular on the tourism circuit. The lakeside resorts of Gisenyi and Kibuye are also gaining ground.

The postwar government has placed high priority on development, opening water taps in the most remote areas, providing free and compulsory education, and promulgating progressive environmental policies. Their Vision 2020 development policy has the aim of achieving a service-based society by 2020, with a significant middle class. There is remarkably little corruption in the country.

To overcome ethnic divisions, the government has established a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission which oversees the reconciliation process, called "gacaca" (pronounced "ga-cha-cha," meaning "on the grass under the elder's tree"). "Gacaca" is a traditional adjudication mechanism at the "umudugudu" (village) level, whereby members of the community elect elders to serve as judges, and the entire community is present for the case. This system was modified to try lower-level "génocidaires", those who had killed or stolen but did not organize massacres. Prisoners, dressed in pink, stand trial before members of their community. Judges accord sentences, which vary widely, from returning to prison, to paying back the cost of goods stolen, to working in the fields of families of victims. "Gacaca" is expected to conclude in December 2008. For many, "gacaca" has been a vehicle for closure, and prisoners' testimonies have helped many families locate victims. "Gacaca" takes place once a week in the morning in every village across Rwanda, and is compulsory.

Ethnicity has been formally outlawed in Rwanda, in the effort to promote a culture of healing and unity. One can stand trial for discussion of the different ethnic groups.

Rwanda has become a President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) focus country, and the United States has been providing AIDS programming, education, training, and treatment. Rwandans who have been infected can now receive free antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in health centers across the country, as well as food packages.

Notes & References

*Jean-Pierre Chrétien. "The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History" trans Scott Straus

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