Rwanda: A closer look at the Tutsi genocide

Posted: October 25, 2010 in Evidence Material
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By Lama Magabo

As we celebrate this year’s Black History Month, let’s try and shade some light on the perplexity behind the Tutsi genocide, so that instead of feeling sorry for the victims, we can be better informed hopefully, and prevent the holocaust from happening again.

Several of the events which led to last spring’s Rwandan tragedy, where more than half a million Tutsi were slaughtered, stemmed from two key factors: the Belgian colonial legacy and the price which most Africans have had to pay as a result of the Cold War. Like the Rwandan proverb says, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Innocent people were butchered through no fault of their’s, but rather the fact that they were born Tutsi.”

One must bear in mind from the outset, that the independence era which took place in the ’60s was a disguised contract between former colonial masters and African dictators who were scrupulously chosen to carry out the mandate of the colonial administration. The post-colonial era is undoubtedly known as neo-colonialism because it was an extension of colonialism. In other words, though the master had left, he was replaced by a stooge in military uniform or in a business suit, with specific orders to protect European economic interests.

This is why democracy was repelled and freedom of expression outlawed, while despots were guaranteed to remain in power for life . . . with full protection by either the Soviet or Western intelligence. Some cases in point; Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Ethiopia’s Haire Mariam Mengestu and Rwanda’s Juvenal Habyarimana. Since these leaders were not accountable to their people, the only way to remove them from office was through a popular uprising. When the Soviets couldn’t help his regime any longer, Mengestu escaped to Zimbabwe. Habyarimana was killed in a mysterious plane crash. Mobutu is still fulfilling his assignments, safely protected by the French government.

Divide and Conquer

Without doubt, Rwanda exemplifies this concept better than any other nation on the continent. When Belgians took over the colonial reigns following Germany’s defeat in the first World War, Rwanda was a monachy where people spoke the same language, shared the same culture and followed the same religion. And because of intermarriage between the three ethnic groups, it was difficult to distinguish a Hutu from a Tutsi or a Twa. The first thing the new colonial masters did was to put in place a system of national identification card which stipulated one’s ethnic background.

How could they decipher who belonged where? By assumption. They presumed that since Tutsi (15%) were pastoral and Hutu (74%) were agriculturist, anyone who owned more than four cows was inevitably a Tutsi. Thus, destitute Tutsi became Hutu and wealthy Hutu became Tutsi. Twa only made up 1%, they didn’t count . . .

In addition, Belgians also assumed that since the tall Hamitic-Tutsi, who originated from the horn of Africa had Caucasian-like features, they were biologically brighter and thus more predisposed to rule than the Bantu-Hutu, who were stout and shorter, from the equatorial region. Systematically, Hutu chiefs were demoted and Tutsi were promoted. In most cases, Tutsi were given preferential treatment in training and administrative positions. Inevitably, some Tutsi leaders were excessive in mistreatment towards fellow Hutu.

By the mid-’50s, the wave of independence was sweeping the continent. Freedom rhetoric from Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba reached Rwanda and the ideals of breaking off the shackles of colonial rule began to vibrate in people’s minds. At the same time, the League of Nations began to exert some pressure on the Belgian colonial administration to end its favouritism of Tutsi and some Hutu were given limited power.

As the Belgian mandate was drawing to its end, the colonial administrator asked the Rwandan King whether he favoured immediate independence or autonomy – which meant keeping alliance with Brussels. The King responded in no uncertain terms that he stood for total independence. This position angered the Belgians who then turned the tables and sponsored a massive Hutu uprising, not only to overthrow the King, but also to exterminate the minority Tutsi. Several Tutsi fled to neighbouring countries, many were slaughtered while others were kept in concentration camps within Rwanda.

Towing the Line

Habyarimana came to power in a military coup in 1973, instead of rescinding the colonial identification cards, he used them to deny any opportunity for Tutsi to advance. Tutsi were not allowed to join the military, to work as civil servants, to train as doctors, lawyers or any influential position. Outside, Rwandan refugees were refused the right to repatriate. Habyarimana claimed that the country was too poor, too crowded and too small for them to return. Though, Rwanda had the highest density in Africa, the influence of the Vatican made family planning virtually impossible and Rwanda maintained an average of eight children per mother.

Besides his ethnic division policy, Habyarimana oppressed Hutu from the south relentlessly since his predecessor had been a southerner. Internationally, he played his cards shrewdly. His alliance with the West gave him legitimacy before donor institutions and Western media.

Refugees who tried to denounce Rwanda’s human rights abuses were discredited as communists. Rwanda continued to be hailed as the model for African development. While researching for an earlier article, a former Canadian aid worker revealed to me, when I asked how could he turn a blind eye to the sheer violation of human rights, “When we first arrived in Rwanda, we were specifically briefed not to discuss politics with Rwandans. Besides, unlike in many countries I had been to in Africa, roads were in good operating state, telephones worked without interruption, things got done. We just shut our mouths and tried to do our job.”

A bomb ready to explode . . .

Beneath the apparent stability, there a social bomb was ticking away. Frustrated, refugees in East-Africa began to organise into the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a military- political movement which sought to liberate their country. Thirty years in exile had taught them that a new political order had to be implemented. Though armed struggle was inevitable to liberate the country, Rwanda could not be ruled along ethnic lines. They launched an ambitious program to re-educate the masses, and recruited both from within and without Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi alike.

Rwandan refugees had played a key role in helping Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to overthrow Idi Amin from power; in return, Museveni allowed the RPF to use Uganda as a base to attack Rwanda. On October 1, 1990 the RPF launched a military raid into Rwanda. Caught by surprise, Habyarimana interrupted his visit to the UN and immediately flew to Paris for help.

Unlike Canada, the Elysee Palace doesn’t need a parliamentary approval to commit its troops for such mission, but as a precaution, France deemed it strategic to involve Belgium, Zaire and Morocco, to give its rescue mission some international dimension. Little did Habyarimana know however that the RPF army had acquired extensive training in guerrilla warfare. Besides their participation in the Ugandan civil war, the RPF officers had fought in Mozambique helping FRELIMO to end the Portuguese domination in early 70s. Conscripts were recruited from all over the world, from Burundi to Canada.

On August 22, 1993, Habyarimana was forced to sign The Arusha Peace Accord with the RPF. Someone convinced him that since he couldn’t beat them, he may as well join them. The Arusha Accord, which was witnessed by the UN, OAU, France, Belgium and the US, was to set up a broadly-based government made up of five main opposition parties and the RPF, with the mandate of preparing the ground for general elections in twenty-two months.

Eight months following the Arusha Accord, Habyarimana hadn’t yet honoured it. It appeared that extremist elements from his camp vehemently opposed any power-sharing with Tutsi. In order to cling to power, Habyarimana began to divide the opposition with bribery. His twenty-year rule had alienated southern intellectual Hutu who felt ideologically aligned with the RPF and wanted him to step down. Power-sharing posed a serious threat to his regime which had enjoyed total impunity and corruption, particularly his small circle of relatives known as Akazu (a small house), from high ranking officers all the way down to junior army, and the notorious militia known as Interahamwe (those who attack together).

The Genocide

On April 6, while returning from a meeting in Tanzania, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. He had been invited to honour the peace accord which he had signed in August of the previous year. Africa Watch recently reported that extremist elements of his camp may have shot down his plane because of their opposition to the Arusha Accord. By killing the president, they could incite the masses into a total Tutsi genocide which they had orchestrated for months before. Although Tutsi minority were the main target, orders were issued to eliminate the Hutu opposition as well. Organisers knew where every Tutsi resided, how many Tutsi lived in each household and what profession. French-acquired weapons, pangas (machetes) and other weapons were then distributed to Hutu who attacked Tutsi and the opposition. This clearly explains how more than half a million people were decimated in less that three months. Ironically, Tutsi who looked like Hutu were spared and Hutu who looked like Tutsi were killed.

General Romeo Dalaire, the Canadian commander who was responsible for the UN peace keeping mission at the time explained that, the Rwandan tragedy could have been minimised had the UN mandate been modified in its role from peace-keeping to peace-making.

However, following its experience in Somalia, the Clinton administration vigourously opposed any UN intervention in Rwanda for fear that it would be asked to commit American troops. As the situation deteriorated by the minute, the Security Council debated for months whether the crisis was a random tribal killing or whether it was a genocide.

As a result of this fragrant international community negligeance, the new Rwandan government is facing a monumental task of rebuilding a nation from the ashes of the worst human catastrophe of this century. Virtually every Rwandan has lost a member or all members of his family. It must be acknowledged that the worst victims of this tragedy are Tutsi orphans who witnessed their parents being butchered before their eyes. In Rwanda the question of the day is: how to proceed in rebuilding the society?

Two issues are critical: the new government, which has so far demonstrated a remarkable restraint in reprisal, will need massive economical assistance to rebuild the infrastructure; but most importantly, the international community must assist Rwanda in bringing to justice the perpetrators of this genocide who are still armed in neighbouring Zaire and attempting to return to Rwanda by armed struggle.


The Peak, Simon Fraser University’s Student Newspaper since 1965, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6, e-mail:, phone: (604) 291-3597 fax: (604) 291-3786
Volume 89, Issue 4 January 30, 1995 Feature
  1. Yahalom Kashny says:

    Whoever is behind this blog, THANK YOU for spreading the truth. I fully acknowledge Rwandan Genocide.