Ethnic & Political Relations: at the forefront of Rwanda's genocide



As of 2019, Rwanda has a population of a little over 12 million. Rwanda’s history is unforturnately marked by the Tutsi genocide of April 1994 which is considered as "one of the major humanitarian crises of the end of the 20th century" (Plauchut, 2012, p.15). For three months, more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu victims were murdered. The Tutsis, who form the minority of the Rwandan population, are massacred by Hutu extremists. Unfortunately, there is uncertainties regarding the origins of the genocide. The following will seek to answer one question:  what led to the Rwandan genocide?

As a result of the socio-ethnic motives particularly the ethnic relations, originated during the pre-colonial and colonial period, we tackle the subject of colonization of the Belgians until the independence of Rwanda, (the concept of divide and conquer) to better understand the history of the country. Furthermore, we will see that politics and political actors are at the forefront of the genocide in 1994, particularly the civil war and the assassination of President Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, one day before the beginning of the genocide.


Ethnic relations

For several centuries before colonization, Tutsis and Hutus were identified as social classes where Kinyarwanda was the common language. They share the same culture, territory and religion but a different way of life. "Hutus are the majority of the people who cultivated" (Debre, 2006, p.24). As for the Tutsis, "they are cow breeders" and particularly pastoralists. Given their way of life, Tutsis are ranked higher. Thus, in a very practical way, they exercise social and institutional domination (Debre, 2006, p.30). There was no form of violence before colonization, however the following colonial policy would "strengthen the grip of Tutsi [domination] from administrative reforms [...] (Feltz, 1998, p.96).

In the 19th century, the major European countries decided to embark on the territorial conquest of Africa. Rwanda was first colonized by the Germans in 1894 and then by Belgium in 1919. "[...] the Belgians occupy Rwanda militarily" (Debre, 2006 p. 40) and use their religion to educate the Rwandan population.

During the colonial era, Belgian settlers favored the method of division. They start by theorizing a country completely divided between Tutsi and Hutu people. They classify the Tutsis being a systematic people of large size, straight noses, intelligent and superior unlike the Hutus defines messy, small and inferior. "This distinction comes from the fact that the Belgians apprehend Rwanda based on physical and aesthetic prejudices"(Plauchut, 2012, p.23). They estimated that this minority representing 15% of the population was closer to the high birth of whites, unlike the Hutu majority. In addition, they draw up an identity card which cites ethnicity.

From the 1950s the nationalist movement emerged, the Rwandan people advocated their independence and wanted to get rid of the Belgians. On the other hand, the country develops "an ethnic conscience" which starts a Hutu revolution from 1959 to 1961 (Klinkemallie, 2007, p.24).  The majority Hutu takes control of the country and a few hundred Tutsis take refuge in neighboring countries such as Burundi and Uganda. This revolution marks the beginning of the violence perpetrated against Tutsis which does ultimately lead to the genocide in 1994.

The height of tensions in Rwanda was reached in the early 1990s when the Habyarimana authoritarian regime went into civil war against the rebel army of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Tutsi exiles. Ethnic relations are a fundamental issue in the Rwandan conflicts. Since the Hutu revolution, Tutsis had been dominated and the tool of anti-Tutsi propaganda had been used to indoctrinate Rwandan society and subsequent generations. It was in 1990 that Rwandan leaders used totalitarian state supervision and psychologically prepared the Hutu population for the massacre of thousands of Tutsis. Fueled by the hatred of Tutsis, the message is also transmitted by the media, notably national radio stations and Rwandan national newspapers. Religion has a limited role in the systemic action of anti-Tutsi propaganda. Church leaders (Hutu priests and pastors) use religious doctrine to legitimize propaganda (UAO, 2000, p.15).


Political relations

Thus, it should not be overlooked that refugee camps often serve as bases for military training and that at the time, Tutsi refugees in Uganda wanted to return to the country and reconquer Rwanda (Pourtier, 2006, p.52).

President Habyarimana and his Rwandan armed force (FAR) go into battle to prevent the Tutsis of the RPF from taking control of the territories and are supported by France. Given the emergence of the RPF, President Habyarimana decides to eliminate or imprison any opponent. Political relations have also pinpointed conflicts in Rwanda. “The armed forces have [all] allies among the great powers. Even if these allies do not all come out into the open.” (Debre, 2006, p.82). Juvénal Habyarimana, and his regime is supported by the French while the Anglo-Saxons (USA, UK) support and finance Paul Kagame, leader of the rebel army.

From this point of view, these great powers are accomplice to genocide according to many.  For example, "France increased its [political, financial and military] support for the Rwandan armed forces in order to secure their victory against the [RPF] and keep Habyarimana in power." (Klinkemallie,2007, p.51). Several French soldiers remain stationed in Rwanda with the aim of strengthening and ensuring the defeat of the RPF. In addition, France "delivered artillery pieces, armored vehicles and helicopters" (Klinkemallie,2007, p.59). Similarly, the rebel army is financially and militarily supported in the same manner.

 In August 1993, the RPF and the Rwandan government signed the Arusha Accords (peace accords). "They notably provide for the establishment of a pluralist government led by a moderate Hutu […]”  (Plauchut,2012, p.27). They are thus responsible for establishing the rule of law, repatriating Tutsi refugees and preparing for elections. Armed and trained Hutu power activists do not seek peace and are completely opposed to a transitional government bringing together Hutus and Tutsis.

The April 6, 1994 attack was described as the official trigger for the genocide. While attending the Dar es Salaam regional summit in Tanzania, President Habyarimana is assassinated in his presidential plane when several missiles are fired and shoot down the plane. Despite efforts to bring peace, chaos is unleashed. Habyarimana's death becomes a legitimization tool for the massacres that follow.



While the genocide is a historic marker in the entire history of Africa, its origins are still controversial. However, mainly established by political alliances, the genocide of the Tutsis was the result of preparations and executions by a collective. Resulting in years of destructive ideology of ethnic division and racial hierarchy established by the Belgian colonizers, and later maintained by the elite in power, Rwanda is filled with hatred, division & violence. Although the country is modernized and developed under Habyarimana, we can see that its authoritarian regime and its ethnic policies increased tensions in the country. The influence and military support of the world’s great powers is also an issue to be taken into consideration. In addition, even if the peace talks are initiated, the death of the Hutu president on April 6, 1994 brings back the violence on the pretext of revenge. Be that as it may, the horrific events in Rwanda should serve as lessons for other countries that seem to be taking the same path today. We, as a society, should avoid remaining silent and thus use our moral judgment to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.




Work cited

 DEBRE, Bernard, La véritable histoire des génocides rwandais, Paris, Jean-Claude Gawsewitch, 2006, 206 p. (Book)

 Feltz Gaetan« La colonisation belge sous l'oeil inquisiteur des événements du Rwanda, du Burundi et du Congo/Zaïre ». In: Revue française d'histoire d'outre-mer, tome 85, n°321, 4e trimestre 1998. pp. 43-63.

KLINKEMALLIE, Sylvie, Rwanda : la presse en question, Villeurbame, Golias,2007, 433 p. (Book)

PLAUCHUT, Agathe, L’ONU face au génocide rwandais : le silence des machettes, Paris : Harmattan,2012 233 p. (Book)