A history of Rwanda and Burundi, 1894-1990 - Tony Sullivan

King of Rwanda with Belgian general
King of Rwanda with Belgian general

A history of Rwanda and Burundi, two African nations run by Western Imperial powers until independence in 1961. Burundi became an independent state in 1962.

Submitted by Steven. on September 8, 2006

The genocide which occurred in Rwanda in 1994, in which majority-Hutu militias wiped out from 500,000 to a million of the minority-Tutsi population is well-known. The complicity and even help given the Hutu government by the UN and the French government is less well-known, however.

The prior history of Western Imperial intervention which led to the events culminating in the genocide are vital background knowledge for an understanding of those horrific events.

Hutus and Tutsis: a tribal war?
The 1994 genocide was targeted mainly at Rwanda's minority Tutsi population. The perpetrators came from the majority Hutus. In the western media the killings were widely portrayed as tribal hostilities.

But the Tutsis and Hutus are not "tribes". They belong to the same Banyarwanda nationality. They share the same language, religions, and kinship and clan systems.

Before white rule the Tutsis simply constituted a privileged social layer, about 15% of the population, with control of cattle and arms. The Hutus were farmers. Most of the land was ruled by a Tutsi king, though some Hutu areas were independent.

The legacy of European rule
The Germans arrived in what was to become Rwanda in 1894 and, like all western imperialists, at once began to intensify local divisions to strengthen their own control. They ruled through the Tutsi king and brought formerly independent Hutu areas under the central administration.

Rwanda's northern and western borders were basically decided among the colonial powers in 1910. The borders with Tanzania and Burundi began as internal administrative divisions in German East Africa.

Before their departure in 1916 the Germans had suppressed a rebellion and established coffee as a cash crop.

After World War One Rwanda fell under Belgian control. The Belgians continued to rule through the Tutsi king, though in the 1920s they deposed a king who obstructed their plans, and chose their own candidate to replace him, ignoring the line of succession.

Belgian policy was openly racist. Early in its mandate, the Belgian Government declared: "The government should endeavour to maintain and consolidate traditional cadres composed of the Tutsi ruling class, because of its important qualities, its undeniable intellectual superiority and its ruling potential." Belgium educated only male Tutsi. (Frank Smyth, The Australian 10.6.94)

In the 1930s Belgium instituted apartheid-like identity cards, which marked the bearer as Tutsi, Hutu or Twa (pygmy). Their efforts to establish a racial basis for the Hutu-Tutsi division through qualities such as skin colour, nose and head size came to nothing: they fell back on the reality of economic division and defined a Tutsi as owner of ten or more cattle. However the division was now rigidly enforced: it was no longer possible to rise from the status of Hutu to Tutsi.

After the Second World War the Belgians continued to run the economy to their own advantage. Goods were exported via Belgian colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, although the route to Indian Ocean ports was far shorter and made much more sense in terms of future economic development. But neither Belgium nor other Western nations planned to develop Rwanda.

Repression and revolt
Hutu resistance was brutally suppressed. Amputations and other mutilation were standard punishments decreed by the the Belgians authorities, and administered by Tutsis. By the 1940s thousands of Hutus had fled to Uganda. But in the 1950s a powerful Hutu opposition movement grew out of a land crisis, caused primarily by the spread of coffee as a cash crop and the King's cancellation of the traditional custom of exchanging labour for land that had given Hutus a small chance of land acquisition.

The Belgian authorities were meanwhile becoming concerned at the rise of radical nationalist sentiments amoung the Tutsi urban middle class.

A rebellion of Hutu farmworkers broke out the late 1950s. The colonialists decided to come to terms with it by granting independence in 1961, and allowed free elections.

At the same time, with staggering hypocrisy, the colonialists encouraged a violently anti-Tutsi atmosphere to divert the fury of the Hutus from themselves.

The elections were won by the Party for Hutu Emancipation, or PARMEHUTU. It began at once to persecute the Tutsis.

The nation of Burundi separated from Rwanda in 1962 and remained under Tutsi control. The following year Tutsi refugees in Burundi invaded Rwanda and tried to take the capital, Kigali.

The PARMEHUTU government defeated them and unleashed a wave of murderous reprisals against Tutsi civilians in Rwanda, described by the philosopher Bertrand Russell as "the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis." (Smyth, The Australian 10.6.94)

In 1973 General Juvenal Habyarimana seized power and became President and set up a highly centralised, authoritarian regime. He formed the MRND, which was to become the only legal political party. It created cooperative groups in the countryside run by MRND loyalists. It coopted the Catholic Church and tightly controlled the tiny trade union movement.

At the same time the racist policies of the past were intensified: Tutsis were banned from the armed forces and marriage between Tutsis and Hutus was forbidden.

Despite these policies growing numbers of Hutus actively opposed the regime.

The free market cripples Rwanda
The proportion of Rwanda's labour force involved in agriculture was the highest in the world. In 1994 Agriculture employed 93% of the labour force (compared to 94% in 1965). Industry contributed only about 20% of Gross Domestic Product and this was largely limited to processing agricultural goods.

Dependence on inefficient agriculture left Rwanda prey to drought in 1989. Environmental damage also played its part. Originally well wooded, less than 3% of Rwanda is now forest. Erosion is rampant and is wiping out both natural vegetation as well as food and cash crops, despite tree-planting programs. In these conditions disease and famine spread.

Thanks to its colonial heritage Rwanda relied on coffee exports for anywhere between 60% and 85% of its foreign earnings. But in 1989 world coffee prices collapsed after the International Coffee Organisation suspended export quotas, allowing market forces free play.

The result was a foreign debt of $90 per person, in a nation where total wealth per person was only $320. Calorie consumption was only 81% of the required intake. Under 10% of children reached secondary school and one in five babies were dying before the age of one.

In 1990 the desperate Habyarimana Government adopted the International Monetary Fund's Structural Adjustment Programme in return for credit and foreign aid. Massive cutbacks in the already meagre public spending followed.

The regime prepared for resistance by stepping up the repression of political opponents, whether Hutu or Tutsi. But it also embarked on a huge new campaign to scapegoat Tutsis for the economic crisis. Government radio relentlessly spread hate propaganda, and in the background the regime began to organise militia death squads.

It is against the backdrop of this economic crisis that the genocide of Tutis took place.

Edited by libcom from an article The UN in Rwanda By Tony Sullivan

Other sources not already cited:
Economist Intelligence Unit, Zaire/Rwanda/Burundi, 1991-2; Europa Year Book 1993; Socialist Worker 10 June 1994; Rwanda, Randall Fegley; Socialist Review 178, September 1994