History of Rwanda

From Academic Kids

This article discusses the history of Rwanda.


Early history

The earliest known inhabitants of the region now known as Rwanda were the pygmy Twa, a group now accounting for only about 1% of Rwanda's population and playing only a marginal role in Rwandan life.

In a time before memory, the Twa were supplanted by the immigration of the forbearers of today's Hutus. Historians debate the size and importance of a third major migration of Tutsis. Traditionally the Tutsis have been portrayed as a separate "Hamitic" people coming from east Africa (possibly the horn region of the modern Oromo group). However, current research is inconclusive about this migration. Colonial scholars of the early 20th century were quick to accept it because it confirmed their racial theories. Today's scholarship focuses on the many cultural and genetic similarities between Hutus and Tutsis. Many scholars today believe that the differences have been greatly exaggerated and are largely culturally constructed. Many researchers point out that both groups speak the same language, have a history of intermarriage and share many cultural characteristics. Traditionally, the differences between the two groups were occupational rather than ethnic [1] (

The definition of "Hutu" and "Tutsi" has changed over time. Mostly it has distinguished between those in commanding and subordinate social positions. Tutsi can often be physically distinguished as taller than Hutu, but according to the vice president of the National Assembly Laurent Nkongoli, frequently "[y]ou can't tell us apart, we can't tell us apart." [2] ( Complexities of meaning abound. Some Hutus do indeed own cattle and have important social standing. However, generally the Tutsi are the elite of the country, and people have been known to switch groups, reinforcing the idea that the Hutu and Tutsi labels are labels of class or caste rather than tribe or ethnicity as is usually portrayed by the media and militants on both sides.


Modern Rwanda is believed to have begun as a small state on the shores of Lake Muhazi around the town of Buganza. Early Rwandan history is still vague, a combination of limited archeology and oral history. The principality is said to have expanded under the rule of Cyirima who conquered the neighbouring areas of Bumbogo, Buriza, and Rukoma. Evidence shows the growing power of the rulers of Buganza during this period. However the state was soon broken up by an invasion by the Bunyoro.

Oral history states that the nation revived, centered further west on the Nduga highlands. This new state remained small and subservient to its neighbours until the late sixteenth century when under the rule of Ruganzu Ndori it expanded in all directions and retook Buganza. The next four rulers of Rwanda continued this rapid expansion.

In the mid-eighteenth century the Rwandan 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.

Altogether, 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 produced 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 influence

Unlike the rest of the region 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 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 rapacious 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 a very tenuous control in the region and were completely dependent on the indigenous government. The Germans did 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. 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 "white" than the Hutus they oppressed, and 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, the majority of Tutsi were poor peasants, but a number were part of the ruling elite and the majority of this group was 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 rulling 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 favoured the Tutsis where education was concerned, leading to a situation where many Tutsis were literate, while the majority of Hutus were not.

Belgian rule in the region was far more direct and far harsher than the German. The Belgians insisted that the colony turn a profit, and this meant forcing the population grow large quantities of coffee. Each peasant was obligated 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.

Though at first the Belgians supported Tutsi rule, they later did an about-face. Altogether, Belgium's various actions in Rwanda did much to polarize Hutus against Tutsis.

Catholic influence

The Belgian Roman Catholic Church favored the Tutsis, admiring Tutsi leadership qualities, assuming that they could be well harnessed to serve the Church's own purposes. 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, Ruanda-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.

However, there came a major change in the 1950s, when the Belgians grew uncomfortable observing the sad plight of the Hutus, and began to suppress and then eventually came to outlaw the ubuhake and to redistribute cattle. Even though the majority of pasture lands remained under the control of the Tutsi, a situation arose where the Hutus began to feel yet a deeper sense of liberation from Tutsi rule; the Tutsis no longer seemed to be in control of cattle, the long-standing measure of a person's wealth and social position.

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. Therefore, Hutus made enormous gains within the country. The Catholic Church, too, began to make a change. Suddenly they too were opposed to Tutsi mistreatment of Hutus, and began promoting Hutu equality. Tutsis were about to be removed from their traditional role as masters in Rwanda.

Ethnic strife and independence

Charles made many changes - in 1954 he shared out of 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 Mouvement Democratique Republicain (MDR) leader Grégoire Kayibanda, 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.

During the 1959 revolt and its aftermath, more than 160,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries. These Hutus knew that because of the small numbers of the Tutsi opposition, they had the advantage: both in terms of how the state would function if it adopted a purely democratic system, and in terms of the probable outcome of any violent conflict between the two unequally sized groups. This revolution of 1959 marked a major change in political life in Rwanda. Some 150,000 Tutsis were exiled to neighboring countries. What's more, 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 the 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 43 countries, including the United States, were established in the first 10 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 10 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 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 overthrew his cousin Grégoire Kayibanda. He dissolved the National Assembly and the PARMEHUTU Party and abolished all political activity. 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 Républicain 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. One of the main causes was a slumping economy and food shortages. Throughout the year, the country was subject to bad weather and lessening coffee prices. These problems helped create a dangerous political climate. Further political tension was evident following a call by the French President for increased democracy in Francophone Africa. France, though not traditionally associated with Rwanda, began to show that it would put political pressure on Rwanda if it didn't make concessions to democracy. Many Rwandans heard the call, and began forming a democracy movement which protested during the summer.

Another source of mounting tensions in 1990, were the grumblings of the Tutsi diaspora. Those Tutsis who had been exiled over 30 years were now coming together in an organized group known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The Hutus in Rwanda considered these Tutsis an evil aristocracy which had rightly been exiled. They pointed out that the descendants of these Tutsis no longer had any knowledge of Rwanda, and spoke English instead of French. The exiled Tutsis, however, demanded recognition of their rights as Rwandans; including, naturally, the right to return there. These Tutsis began to pressure the Rwandan government, and eventually forced the Habyarimana government to make concessions.

Habyarimana found himself forced to set up a national committee to examine the "Concept of Democracy" and to work on the formation of a "National Political Charter" which would help reconcile the Hutus and Tutsis. During this crucial point in negotiations the situation went bad. The RPF was simply unwilling to wait any longer for the Rwandan government to come through on its promises. On October 1, 1990, the RPF banded together and 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 which would strip Tutsis of their largely 'second class' status, 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. Hutus rallied around the President. Habyarimana himself reacted by immediately instituting genocidal pogroms, which would be directed against all Tutsis and against any Hutus seen as in league with Tutsi interests. Habyarimana justified these acts by proclaiming it was the intent of the Tutsis to restore a kind of Tutsi feudal system and to thus enslave the Hutu race.

Arusha accords

Main article: Arusha accords

The war dragged on for almost two years until a cease-fire accord was signed July 12, 1992, in Arusha, Tanzania, fixing a timetable for an end to the fighting and political talks, leading to a peace accord and powersharing, and authorizing a neutral military observer group under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity. A cease-fire took effect July 31, 1992, and political talks began August 10, 1992.

The Rwandan genocide

Main article: Rwandan Genocide

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying President Habyarimana 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. As though the shooting down was a signal, military and militia groups began rounding up and killing all Tutsis they could capture as well as political moderates irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds. Large numbers of opposition politicians were also murdered. Many nations evacuated all their nationals from Kigali and closed their embassies as violence escalated.

The prime minister and her 10 Belgian bodyguards were among the first victims. 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 937,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of organized bands of militia: Interahamwe. Even ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbors. The president's MRND Party was implicated in organizing many aspects of the genocide.

For the next couple of weeks, many questionable decisions were made by the United Nations, which had a peacekeeping force in the country. Belgium and the UN withdrew almost all of their forces, leaving all of the Rwandans behind. The UN Security Council unanimously voted to withdraw its troops, with France and Belgium at the forefront, over the protests of the peacekeepers' top commander Canadian Romeo Dallaire. Finally, on May 17, 1994, the UN conceded that "acts of genocide may have been committed." At that time, the Red Cross estimated at least 100,000 deaths at the hands of the Hutu extremists, the majority of those being minority Tutsis.

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.

The Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the genocide in July 1994, but approximately 2 million Hutu refugees - some who participated in the genocide and fearing Tutsi retribution - fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire. Thousands of them died in epidemics of cholera and dysentery that swept the refugee camps. The Rwandan genocide and presence of large numbers of refugees in the aftermath were major factors in the destabilization of Zaire, which plunged into chaos and civil war in 1998, with similarly horrible destruction and death: see Democratic Republic of Congo

The international community responded with one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts ever mounted. The U.S. was one of the largest contributors. The UN peacekeeping operation, UNAMIR, was drawn down during the fighting but brought back up to strength after the RPF victory. UNAMIR remained in Rwanda until March 8, 1996.

Following an uprising by the ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge people in eastern Zaire in October 1996, 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.

In northwest Rwanda, Hutu militia members killed 3 Spanish aid workers, 3 soldiers and seriously wounded one other on January 18, 1997. Since then most of the refugees have returned.

See also

fr:Histoire du Rwanda pl:Historia Rwandy


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