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The Rwanda Genocide and the Colonial Politics


Rwanda which is a landlocked country in the eastern central of Africa supports a very high population among the highly populated countries in Africa. It mostly depends on agriculture to boost its economy. It is fertile and thus has good yields of agricultural products. Many people across the world knew nothing of Rwanda until the sombre April of 1994. During this time, so many people died during the genocide that involved the Tutsi and the Hutu. It is estimated that 800,000 -1,000,000 people died during the in fight between the two tribes. It came into world history when it elected a majority of women in its national legislature in the year 2008. There have existed lifts since before between the Hutu and Tutsi where one group was considered to belong to a higher class than the other.

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These social strata played a big part into the genocide where one tribe felt being oppressed by the other. In this and the subsequent months the nation was subject of global discussion as ethnic tensions spiraled into one of the most ghastly humanitarian crises the world experienced in the last phase of the twentieth century. Opinion remains divided as to who should principally shoulder the blame for the 1994 genocide with many blaming the United Nations Organization for an apparently belated response to the crisis as others, the incumbent president included, maintain that the French were key accomplices in its organization ( Abutonge, 1995).

Geography and demography

Amongst Uganda and Burundi, Rwanda is a landlocked country in the Great lakes region of East and Central Africa. It is separated from its starkly gigantic neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, by the Ruzizi river valley and Lake Kivu towards which the western region of the country slopes. It is bordered to the east, north and south by Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi respectively. Popularly referred to as “The land of a thousand hills”, Rwanda’s eastern slopes are characterized by rugged mountains and rolling hills. Its countryside is primarily savanna.

With its capital city Kigali at the centre of the nation, the demographics and size of Rwanda render it amongst the most densely populated countries in the African continent. By the 2002 national census, it was estimated that the nation (26,798 square kilometers) was inhabited by about 8,100,000 citizens, translating to a population density of about 340 people per square kilometer. Many of these are subsistence farmers given the rich fertility of the volcanic region. History records that initially Rwanda was home to three ethnic communities- the Tutsi, Twas and the Hutu. Social integration was rapidly taking lace through the years due to inevitable environmental changes such as animal epidemics that would wipe out many herds of cattle of the primarily pastoralist Tutsi.

This would compel the Tutsi to adapt into the agricultural lifestyle of the Hutu. In times of adverse aridity, the reverse would be the case as the farming Hutu would adapt to the means of living of the Tutsi. This however was to be reduced significantly and almost entirely by the onset of the colonial era which employed the ethnically divisive tactics to maintain governance ( Dina, 2005). The inter-ethnic harmony that had previously prevailed amongst the three ethnic communities was fragmented by the colonial administration. Up till the colonial interference, the ethnic communities were governed by a justice system by the name Gacaca which was headed by a Tutsi King titled Mwami and whose principal mandate was the resolution of disputes. Today many Rwandans use Kinyarwanda amongst French and English as their medium of communication. Presently the nation’s population is estimated to stand at about 10,000,000 with the Hutu constituting about 85%.

Precolonial and colonial History

Colonial interference in Rwanda began with the Germans who signed treaties with Tanganyika chiefs in the period between 1884 and 1885 and lay claim to the territory covering Rwanda, Tanganyika and Burundi. The Mwami’s death in 1895 stirred unrest amongst the ethnic communities and slowly missionaries and Germans trickled in Rwanda in the late seventeenth century. In 1911, the Germans played a leverage role in helping the Tutsi counter a rebellion from the Hutu who were no longer willing to be under the control of a Tutsi king. At the height of World War I, the Belgians advanced their troops into the German East African region which included Rwanda, Tanganyika and Burundi. With the loss of Germany in the World War, Belgium was granted the mandate to govern Rwanda-Burundi alongside the Congo region. The Belgian involvement in Rwanda far exceeded that of their German predecessors.

In 1926 they did away with local governance systems such as the military, land and cattle chieves. In effect, they rendered the Hutu relatively powerless. In 1931 the deposed the Tutsi Mwami and caused a silent revolt to their authority. In 1933, they went farther and introduced identification cards to classify one’s ethnic background. In 1960 the Belgian authorities held the first ever Rwanda-Burundi municipal elections which saw a landslide victory for the Hutu. This implied a significant change in the Tutsi superiority that had prevailed over the years. With the attempt to create a power shared Tutsi-Hutu independent state, under the request of the United Nations, Belgium divided Rwanda-Urundi into the present Rwanda and Burundi. Rwanda was to remain under the Belgian’s colonial rule until July 1st 1962 when with the oversight of the United Nations they were attained independence ( Peter, 1995).

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Postcolonial politics and the genocide

Rwanda, much like many other African countries, has had a turbulent post-independence period. Its first president was Gregoire Kayibanda who was the founder of the PARMEHUTU (Party of the Hutu Emancipation). He was seating president for thirteen years after which he was overthrown in a coup by Juvenal Habrayimana who accused the PARMEHUTU administration of ineptitude in governance. Rwanda maintained very close relations with her sister Burundi. Both countries shared not only a common colonial history but also a majority Hutu population. In Burundi, however, there existed an ambience of volatility and animosity between the Tutsi and the Hutu. The first postcolonial Prime Minister, for instance, who was a Hutu, was assassinated by a Tutsi extremist.

The deceased’s successor, another Hutu, suffered similar fate after which power was placed under the single handed control of the Tutsi with the Tutsi monarch appointing his own secretary to serve in the capacity of the Prime Minister. This spurred a coup by the Hutu in view of which the monarch fled and the Prime Minister was killed. This occasioned tension in the country which saw majority of the Hutu politicians slain. Michel Micombero, a Tutsi soldier, seized power. Burundi was to be under the governance of military dictatorship for close to three decades. This violence led to a massive inflow of refugees from the war-torn Burundi into Rwanda. This served to sow the seeds of genocide in Rwanda.

Many exiled Tutsi soldiers had moved into Uganda from Rwanda and when Yoweri Museveni took over power after ousting Milton Obote, plans were under way for the Tutsi soldiers to invade Rwanda from Uganda. This was done under the stewardship of Paul Kagame, founder of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), and Fred Rwigema. This invasion by the Tutsi dominated rebels was to take place in 1990. The Rwanda government and the RPF were to sign a cease fire in 1993 in the interest of creating a power sharing administration. Clashing view points over the terms of the accord prevailed between the two factions and a state of violence forced many Hutus to flee the carnage that was being carried out by the Tutsi RPF (Abutonge, 1995).

Political tension in Burundi was to prove more costly than many had anticipated. When the first Burundian president to be democratically elected was assassinated by the army that was dominated by the Tutsi, a civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi ensued in Burundi and quickly spread into Rwanda where the fragility of the political atmosphere could not weather the tide. The United Nation’s response to this state of affairs is to date recalled with much contempt and lamentation. The United Nations Mission for Rwanda which was deployed in response to the situation was understaffed and underfunded.

April 06th 1994 will forever be borne in the minds of many as the day when the war was to assume a course that would bring to the attention of the world the perils war. On this date the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, both Hutus, were assassinated when the jet they were aboard was shot down. In the next three months, the situation was to bizarrely gallop out of control as the Interahamwe militia and Hutu dominated military carried out a pogrom that killed Tutsi and Hutu moderates. This was the infamous Rwanda Genocide 1994. In mid 1994, the RPF advanced in the capital Kigali and captured the entire country. The number of Hutu that fled the country in fear for their lives was staggering and brought about the Great Lakes Refugee crisis.

Beyond the genocide

In what appeared to be a strange twist of events, the Tutsi RPF, upon seizing power, installed a Hutu president, Pateur Bizimungu. He was however to be removed from presidency in 2000 and Paul Kagame assumed office. The first elections since 1990 were held in 2003 in which Paul Kagame emerged triumphant with minimal opposition. Rwanda is today effectively a one party state. Opposition parties, including the PDR formed by Pateur Bizimungu, were outlawed until 2003 just before the elections. Political parties in Rwanda have since been cautioned against aligning themselves to either the Hutu or Tutsi communities.

Rwanda adapted a new constitution in 2003. The law stipulates that at least 65% of the parliamentarians have to be women. Today Rwanda is setting the pace for Africa and the world in so far as gender parity on the political arena is concerned with 56% of its parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections having been won by women.

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Parliamentary structure

The country’s senate is structured as detailed here under:

  • At least twenty six members each with an eight years term.
  • It has eight posts to be filled through presidential appointments.
  • Twelve representatives elected from the eleven provinces and the capital.
  • Four positions are set aside to be filled by selected members of the nation’s Forum for Political Organizations.
  • A position for a renowned researcher/university lecturer elected by the public universities and
  • A position for a renowned researcher/university lecturer elected by the private universities.

This structure provides that twelve members get into the senate through the appointment of the president and his party. All elected members must have the approbation of the Supreme Court. Any past president has life membership in the senate.

The 80 membered chambers of deputies is structured as follows:

  • Fifty three elective positions can be for either men or women.
  • Women are reserved for twenty four elective positions.
  • Two positions are left for election by the National Youth Council.
  • One position is reserved for election by the Federation of Associations of the Disabled.

The constitution provides that all holders of the Chamber of Deputies serve a five year term. It farther dictates that the speaker of the chamber of deputies and the president be from different political parties.


The country’s economy is managed by the Central National Bank of Rwanda. The 1994 genocide and the preceding political instability greatly battered Rwanda’s economy especially by creating an environment unfavourable for local and foreign investment. That notwithstanding Rwanda’s is amongst the fastest growing economies in Africa today. At the height of the genocide its Gross Domestic Product stood at about $400. By 2008 it had risen to about $950. Rwanda’s major export markets are in Germany, USA and China with tea and coffee being the country’s main export crops.

Rwanda is not resource endowed with estimates that about 90% of the nation’s working populace carries out farming. In 2006 it was reported that the agricultural sector comprised about 40% of the GDP. Animal husbandry is said to contribute about 9% of the GDP. Animals reared in the country include sheep, chicken, pigs and goats. The nation’s industrial sector is still small and underdeveloped. Key products that are manufactured include textiles, cigarettes, agricultural products and cement. Minerals mined in the nation are wolfram, gold, coltan and cassiterite. In 2006 the mining industry contributed about $90 million to the country’s GDP ( Robin,2004).

Tourism is the country’s fastest growing sector and leading foreign revenue generator. In 2008 it is reported to have generated a massive $210 million.

Rwanda is amongst the world’s many Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) owing to its low Gross National Product.

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The issues discussed above relating to Rwanda in terms of geography, population, the massacre of 1994 and post colonial Rwanda live a lot to be desired from the country. It is not often that many leaders will lead a country from a state of massacre to a steadily growing nation. My opinion is that the current president of Rwanda has done a splendid job and should be given the accreditation he deserves. However, this conclusion will address matters relating on what the situation was, is and the possible measures that could be taken to prevent another outbreak of a genocide. We, the rest of the world, have already witnessed genocide in neighboring Sudan where many people lost their lives and property.

To prevent another event like the one witnessed in 1994, serious measures need to be taken and considered. One major issue is that relating to the media. The media played a great role in fueling the genocide that was witnessed and experienced in Rwanda. Not only in Rwanda but in the rest of the world as well. Leaders need to take into account the freedom of the media. It is granted that the media is entitled to its freedom and should be left to work independently from the government and other forces of power in a country. But it should also be noted that with this freedom comes responsibility, accountability and impartiality. Media owners and employees should take it upon themselves to spread messages of truth and those that could prevent an event of such a massacre. If the news possessed by the media could cause harm to the nation, they should conceal the information until such a time when it is necessary and safe to release the information to the public. The Rwandan authorities should strive to ensure this.

Another key issue to be addressed is the kind of speech and messages passed across by the politicians. The Rwanda genocide was because of negative ethnicity which was brought out by the politicians. Were politicians more careful in what they say and do, such events can be avoided. At this point, it is important to note that ethnicity is not a wrong ideology, the problem comes in when this pride of one’s own ethnical group is transformed into an identity. This is harmful to society. Greatly contributed to by the politicians in the kind of messages they spread, negative ethnicity leads to hate and lack of trust for each other. This is what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

Another issue is that the untended to issues need to be attended to and addressed. A good example is the land issue. This issue needs to be resolved in Rwanda where equitable distribution of land should be the norm and should be promulgated for. Issues such as unequal distribution of land and property are what led to the genocide in the first place. These matters need to be looked into and put to an end. Sweeping them under the carpet will never resolve the grievances brought out by the civilians.

All in all, Rwanda is a growing nation. The economic growth rate is impressive. The political stability being experienced in the country right now is to be commended. The democracy enjoyed in the country should also be commended. Rwanda has a bright future ahead of it as one of the leading African states. This task, however, lies greatly on the heads of the politicians and other leaders. Failure to maintain political stability ands shun negative ethnicity, will lead the nation back to the dark days that they experienced over a decade ago. So, will the leaders rise to the occasion or will they prove to be as useless as the leaders of yesterday? We hope for the best.

Work cited

Abutonge Akiwumi. Rwanda; Genocide, Economics, Politics and Social lives. Lagos. Macmillan Publishers. 1995.

Philpot Robin. Rwanda 1994; Colonialism dies hard. 1st edition. Montreal. Oxford University Press. 2004.

Raston Dina. Justice on Grass. New York. Harvard University Press. 2005.

Stockholm Peter. African Politics. London. Manchester University Press. 1995.

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