False History, Real Genocide: The Use and Abuse of Identity in Rwanda

Posted: January 13, 2011 in Genocide Denial
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By Michelle–April 06, 2009

The roots of the Rwandan genocide stretch far back from that horrible day in April 1994, when Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali and the country’s armed forces and Interahamwe militia launched a systematic campaign, driven by hateful Hutu Power propaganda, to exterminate the country’s Tutsis and anyone who dared to sympathize. One hundred days, over 800,000 deaths, and the history of a country, the fabric of a society, the lives of families, divided into “before” and “after.”

History can, indeed, be deadly. When power-lust meets and manipulates a distorted historical narrative, identity can become a tool of dominance and oppression: The ideology that fed the genocide in Rwanda, which began on April 6, 1994, was firmly rooted in a misconception of history that cast Tutsis as historical oppressors and the Hutu government as stalwarts of freedom.

A single account can never do full justice to the various complex factors that led into the Rwandan genocide, and I make no pretense of doing so here. However, this post (which is less blog post, and more resource/background material) attempts to give at least a basic explanation of the manipulation of identity and history in the run-up to the Rwandan genocide — the briefest of explanations of how identity and history became tools in the hands of the power-hungry. A subsequent post will address the genocide itself.

What does it mean to be Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa?

Significant controversy exists over the origin of Rwanda’s Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa ethnic groups. The long-held belief that Tutsis descended on Rwanda from the north has now been dispelled by experts. Indeed, as Elizabeth Neuffer wrote in The Key to My Neighbor’s House:

“Hutu and Tutsi, by most anthropologists definitions, are not different ethnic groups at all: They speak the same language, share the same customs, have the same religion, have intermarried.”

According to Alison Des Forges, the growth of the Rwandan state resulted in a more clearly defined elite group in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Given that cattle served as the measure of wealth, the terms ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ at first referred to the status of an individual: ‘Tutsi’ indicated a cattle-holder and became the term for the elite, power-holding group, and ‘Hutu’ indicated subordinates or followers, the “mass of ordinary people.” Although these terms originally stem from occupational and social status differences, historian Catherine Newbury rejects describing the groups as “castes,” as they were not so rigid or clearly-defined, nor were they religiously or ideologically sanctioned, and their discussion as such neglects variations and complexities in Rwandan history. “Tutsi” and “Hutu” became hierarchical designators of proximity to power, with social relations crystallized as ethnic-like identities before the arrival of European colonists.

Enter: The Europeans

When German colonists arrived in 1897, they found a highly developed state. Influenced by the “Hamitic hypothesis,” the theory that a “Caucasoid” race (the Tutsi) migrated from the north (in this case, Ethiopia) to bring culture and civilization to Africans, the Germans set up a system of indirect rule based on the essentialist belief that Tutsi domination was the natural, traditional order of Rwanda. Colonial rule thus served solidify Rwandan identities — what had previously been at least somewhat flexible now became racialized, and thus, unchangeable.

To make matters worse, after World War I, the Belgians — who acquired Rwanda as a trusteeship — simplified Rwanda’s previously complex system of governance into a single hierarchical structure purged of almost all Hutu chiefs. By also closing off Hutu access to higher education and thus to administrative jobs, Hutus were essentially denied political representation and economic opportunities. Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa identities were firmly solidified of ethnic identity cards beginning in 1926. As Des Forges writes, “The very recording of ethnic groups in written form enhanced their importance and changed their character. No longer flexible and amorphous, the categories became so rigid and permanent that some contemporary Europeans began referring to them as ‘castes.’ The ruling elite…increasingly stressed their separateness and their presumed superiority. Meanwhile Hutu, officially excluded from power, began to experience the solidarity of the oppressed.”

While the political ethnic groups existed before the colonial period, the racist ideology of the Europeans had drastic implications, creating the idea of a superior race which was solidified via colonial policies and internalized by Rwandans themselves. Hutu and Tutsi identities were thus further developed and strengthened according to inclusion or exclusion in the colonial power apparatus, with the racist ideology of the Europeans creating a divisive, false political memory.

Independence, and After

Belief in this racialized version of Rwandan history is clearly seen in the 1957 Hutu Manifesto, a document produced on the eve of independence demanding democracy and freedom from rule by the Tutsi aristocracy. Referring to Tutsi rule as “colonialism,” an idea derived from the erroneous belief (rooted in the Hamtic hypothesis) that the Tutsi population migrated or invaded Rwanda from Ethiopia, this document reveals the internalization of this false history its characterization of Hutu and Tutsi identities.

After a bloody Hutu uprising in 1959, approximately ten thousand Tutsi went into exile; groups of exiles tried to attack and re-enter the country eleven times between 1961 and 1967, leading to reprisal killings of Tutsi within Rwanda, who were accused of aiding the invaders, by the newly-independent Hutu regime. Like fear-mongering regimes are wont to do, the attacks were used to strengthen a sense of Hutu solidarity. This memory of oppression and revolution, aided by the false historical context constructed by the European colonizers, ensured the persistence of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities — with a distinctly political flavor — in the post-independence era. Furthermore, the status of Hutu and Tutsi as political identities ensured their survival as such, even through increased intermarriage in the post-colonial period, as their relevance as a tool for politicians (frequently for the purposes of scapegoating) kept the ethnicities in place.

This post was adapted from papers written in college and graduate school by me, drawing on a variety of sources, and including my own general knowledge of the the subject (after several years of study)

Source: http://humanrights.change.org/blog/view/false_history_real_genocide_the_use_and_abuse_of_identity_in_rwanda


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