How the Rwandan tragedy was created

September 14, 1994

By Zanny Begg

The death toll in Rwanda has shocked people around the world. Rows upon rows of dead bodies have filled TV screens, newspapers and magazines since the carnage began in April. It has been estimated that 500,000 people have been killed. The spread of cholera and dysentery in the refugee camps is still adding hundreds to the death toll each day. Rwanda, previously one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, is now a mass grave. Due to migration and murder, its population has declined from 8 million to 5 million, a drop comparable to that in the Irish famine of the 1840s.

This terrible massacre is only one of many in the history of Rwanda and its neighbour Burundi. Just last October, 250,000 people were massacred in Burundi after the ruling Hutu president, Ndadaye, was murdered. The ongoing cycle of violence in this region of Africa causes one to ask: is Rwanda condemned to this, a basket case of world history, or is there something deeper at play?

The myth of tribalism has been used to render Rwanda's suffering inexplicable. The violence in Rwanda has been reduced to Hutu and Tutsi rivalry in an attempt to wash the colonisers' hands of any blame. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Early stability

Prior to European contact, Rwanda was a fairly stable kingdom. The population was composed of three main groupings: 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi and 1% Twa. What differentiated these groupings was a division of labour. The Hutus were mainly agriculturalists, the Twa were crafts people, and the Tutsis formed a cattle-owning warrior elite.

The Tutsis came to Rwanda through an earlier invasion which conquered the region but did not overthrow the land-owning system of the Hutus. Land ownership was in fact dually expressed between the agriculturalist Hutus and the pastoralist Tutsis. Although the Tutsis formed the ruling elite, not all Tutsis benefited from this relationship, many remaining poor and exploited. There is also evidence of movement between the Tutsi and Hutu groupings, with Hutus who progressed up the social ladder being accepted as Tutsis.

Cultural tensions at this time seemed fairly minimal. Both Hutus and Tutsis spoke the same language, Kinyarwanda, and followed the same religion. The prime minister of Rwanda, Faustin Twaginamingu, dismisses claims of tribalism as "ridiculous". "We are the luckiest people in Africa", he says. "We have the same language and the same religion. No dance or song is particular to Hutu or Tutsi. Before colonialism, the population did not suffer any conflict similar to the one we are now experiencing."

The first Europeans settled in Rwanda at the turn of the century. In 1899 Germany had claimed the region, calling it German East Africa. After the defeat of Germany in the first world war, its colonies were parcelled out, and Belgium took Rwanda.

The Belgian colonisers were not renowned for their compassion. Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness gives an enduring literary image of the effects of Belgian colonialism in Rwanda's neighbour, Zaire (then the Belgian Congo).

In Rwanda the Belgians ruled by the classic colonial motto — divide and conquer. They exploited the historic division of labour between the Hutus and Tutsis and incorporated the Tutsis into a ruling elite. Belgian rule was characterised by social favouritism towards the Tutsis. The Hutus were reduced to serfs and used as a labour reserve for Belgian interests in Zaire.


In the waves of decolonisation that swept Africa in the 1950s and '60s, the Belgians turned against the Tutsis, who were agitating for greater independence, and switched allegiance to the Hutus. In a violent uprising, the ruling Tutsis were pushed aside by the Hutu majority and Rwanda was declared a republic in 1961. The Hutus' rise to power was bloody, and many thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, especially Uganda, to avoid execution.

The party that established the republic, Paramehutu, was overthrown by a rival Hutu grouping in a coup in 1973 led by Habyarimana.

On coming to power, Habyarimana banned all political activity, suspended the legislature and established a military command. In 1975 he launched a ruling party called the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) and declared himself president.

The rule of Habyarimana was a cruel one. Rwanda is a terribly poor country, with a crippling foreign debt and an over-reliance on one cash crop, coffee. When the price of coffee collapsed in 1989, Rwanda's foreign debt rose to $90 per head of population, in a country where the total income per head is only $320. Habyarimana fostered "ethnic" unrest to divert attention from internal problems of de-development and poverty.

Under Habyarimana's rule, peasant mobs were encouraged to attack Tutsi families and Hutu-Tutsi rivalry was used to justify one-party rule and grave abuses of human rights.

Democratic pressure led to some reforms in the 1980s. For example, in 1983 elections were held, but opposing political parties were unable to function and Habyarimana was elected unopposed.

In 1990 provisions were made for multiparty democracy, but Habyarimana and the governing MRND failed to fulfil basic democratic criteria and the governmental cabinet was formed almost exclusively by MRND candidates. Anti-government protests were staged in 1991 by the Rwandan Liberal Party and the Rwandan Socialist Party.

French colonisers

The increasing role of French imperialism further destabilised Rwanda's political situation. Belgian power was declining by the late 1970s in sub-Saharan Africa. France has historically had a major influence in north and equatorial Africa and moved into sub-Saharan Africa as Belgium's direct influence waned. In 1975 France signed an arms pact with Rwanda. Over the 1980s, France's military and diplomatic influence increased.

Social conditions made political activity difficult. In 1979 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was born. It was unable to operate openly in Rwanda, but found a base in the almost 2 million Rwandan exiles, based mainly in Uganda. The RPF's main aim was the overthrow of the dictatorial Habyarimana regime and the establishment of non-ethnic-based national unity. The RPF drew support from both Hutus and Tutsis.

In the late '80s, the RPF became convinced that peaceful change was impossible and a military conquest of Rwanda was necessary to establish democracy. The RPF had received military training in Uganda, fighting alongside the National Resistance Army in the struggle to overthrow Idi Armin, and modelled itself on that organisation.

In early October 1990, 4000 RPF soldiers launched an attack against the Rwandan regime that took them within 30 km of the capital, Kigali. Only the intervention of Zairean, Belgian and French troops saved Habyarimana. Hundreds of RPF members were killed in reprisals that followed the raid.

In late October, a cease-fire was declared but hostilities continued in the north. In December 1990 and January 1991 further incursions by the RPF were made into Rwanda. In July 1992 peace talks in Arusha, Tanganyika, resulted in a new cease-fire agreement. The Arusha talks stalled, however, on the question of the RPF's role in a united Rwandan military, the repatriation of Tutsi refugees and the RPF's demand for full participation in the establishment of a transitional government.

In 1993 the peace talks broke down again, and violence escalated in Rwanda. Approximately 1 million people fled Rwanda at this time. Following this exodus, the RPF launched another military invasion which swept through Rwanda and was poised to occupy Kigali before French military reinforcements rushed to back up Habyarimana and the RPF was pushed back.

Peace talks were reconvened in Arusha. Reportedly, Habyarimana agreed to the RPF's demands for the withdrawal of foreign troops, and the French army began withdrawing to the Central African Republic. The August talks led to an uneasy peace. Moves were made to share power between the MRND and the RPF through a transitional government, with the intention of holding multiparty elections in 1995.

In April this year, in an event the world is now familiar with, Habyarimana and the president of Burundi were flying back from negotiations in Arusha when their plane was shot down and both were killed. Officially, this was the catalyst for the carnage in Rwanda.

Reports from the RPF, however, tell a different story. According to Theogene Rudasigwe, the general secretary of the RPF, the massacres were planned, with large qualities of arms, particularly from France, being shipped into Rwanda before April. The perpetrators of the assassination of Habyarimana have been named as either extreme factions of the Hutu military who feared any compromise with the RPF or as French secret agents. In either scenario, the French connection was crucial, as they were the only ones with the ground-to-air missiles capable of bringing down the plane.

The motive for the assassination of Habyarimana can only be guessed at, but it seems logical that the French had decided that Habyarimana was too undemocratic and exposed and that a more credible alternative was needed to contain the RPF.

Neo-colonial struggle

The French government went into Rwanda with one overriding aim: to destroy the rebel RPF. Hundred of thousands of lives later, it has failed in this objective and the RPF now forms the government of Rwanda. Rwanda is a tiny, resource-poor country in a strife-torn corner of Africa. What did the French fear in the RPF so much and why did they intervene in Rwanda?

The struggle in Rwanda is primarily a struggle against neo-colonialism. The RPF represents the leadership of the second wave of decolonisation in Rwanda, the first being carried out when Rwanda became a republic in 1961. The RPF's program is radical nationalist and anti-imperialist in orientation. Its threat to the French lies in its threat to their neo-colonial project in Africa.

In the first wave of anti-colonial struggles in Africa, the French and other imperialist powers took great pains to contain or wipe out radical independence movements. Neo-colonialism evolved as a response to the push for independence. For Africa, this meant former colonies would be declared republics and granted their own flag and the other trappings of independence, but the real economic power would remain with the colonisers. Consistent anti-imperialists like Patrice Lumumba and Sekou Toure were to be crushed, and acceptable colonial leaders like Houphouet-Boigny were cultivated.

At the zenith of its colonial power in the first half of this century, France controlled much of north and west Africa. Today the France still fosters a "special relationship" with Africa, and its sphere of influence embraces more than 200 million people. More then any other imperialist power, France has courted African leaders to pick up special deals for French capital.

The attention France has lavished on Africa has certainly paid off. The French pharmaceutical companies that dominate French-speaking West Africa have used their political contacts to secure preference for their products against cheaper Anglo rivals.

Elf, a major French oil company, appointed the daughter of the Gabonese president as a leading director of the company. Much to the annoyance of US rivals, Elf-Gabon won 16 of the 22 oil lifting contacts awarded in 1991.

The French building giant Bouygues has sole rights to water and electricity installation and distribution in the Ivory Coast. The French public relations firm ADEFI-international won contracts to represent Togo, Cameroon, Congo and the Ivory Coast, all former clients of French PR firms in colonial days.

But if the African connection has paid France well in economic terms, in diplomatic terms it has had its costs. The effort to secure French interests has led to backing some of the most ruthless and cruel dictators in the region. Habyarimana is only one of the dictators France nurtured and protected.

President Mobutu, the infamous dictator of Zaire, has received consistent political backing from France. Mobutu is known for his liberal handling of Zaire's national finances, with an estimated $5 billion of the country's wealth having been spirited away into a private Swiss bank account. Mobutu's leadership of Zaire is so disastrous that the country has disintegrated into regional fiefs underpinned by smuggling and bribery.

The French have major interests in Zaire and see Mobutu as the best custodian of them. Zaire has one of the richest copper deposits in the world, large diamond reserves and rich strategic resources like uranium and platinum. French capital has been pushing to overtake Belgian interests in Zaire. France is now the key creditor in Zaire, and French telecommunications companies have won a monopoly in the country. France is also up to its elbows in mining and military investments in Zaire.

France's intervention in Rwanda ties in with its interests in Zaire. Rwanda borders Zaire, and their political fortunes are interlinked. France feared a successful anti-imperialist RPF government would undermine the corrupt and brutal rule in neighbouring Zaire.

Most of the world has been holding its breath waiting for Mobutu to be swept away by popular outrage. Even France was thinking its foreign policy in Zaire had to move beyond Mobutu. But the crisis in Rwanda has persuaded France to again back Mobutu. He remains central to France's interests in the region.

The victory of the RPF has entrenched France's need to rely on Mobutu. If the RPF-led government in Rwanda survives, it will present a constant alternative to the corrupt regime in Zaire just across the border.


The rise to power of the RPF is a major step forward for Rwanda, but the future of the country still lies in tatters.

The central priority for Rwanda is to get the refugees home and to stop any further exodus out of the country. The RPF has issued repeated assurances to the population that no reprisals will be carried out and that Hutus and Tutsis are safe in Rwanda.

The French, however, have made the RPF's job very difficult. Not only did they shelter the leaders of the old government responsible for the massacre in their "safe zone", but they have not disarmed the old army, which is still terrorising people in the refugee camps. The French also did not close down the old regime's radio, which is warning Hutus not to return to Rwanda with false reports of Tutsi revenge massacres.

The UN has also played a destructive role in allowing the massacre in Rwanda to take place. The UN left Rwanda to the French, who had a direct interest in defeating the RPF, by pulling out its small band of troops just as the massacre began. The Organisation for African Unity (OAU) promised 5000 more troops to help stop the killing, but the UN failed to organise the necessary financial and logistical help to make these troops available. In effect, the UN stood aside when it was most needed and sat on the hands of those willing to act.

The recent turmoil in Rwanda will leave a horrible legacy. Reports coming out of Kigali at the moment say that crops are rotting and much of next year's harvest has not been sown. Starvation may follow the civil war.

The responsibility for the killing in Rwanda lies squarely with France and other imperialist powers which tried to crush the RPF at any price. For Rwanda to prosper it will need vast amounts of overseas assistance and the right to determine its own affairs without neo-colonial intervention.

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