A Brief History of Rwanda

Published on by KANYARWANDA

A Brief History of Rwanda


rwanda_map.jpgThe Kivu rift valley where Rwanda is situated has been populated by Bantu-speaking agriculturalists for 2000 years. There is archaeological and glotto-chronological evidence of pastoralism from 500 BC onwards. An indigenous cattle-owning class, later called Tutsi, began emerging around 1000 AD, supplemented by pastoralists of Nilotic origin, who began migrating south into modern-day Rwanda and Burundi during the following centuries. By the time the Tutsi monarchy began expanding its power base in the 15th century, those specialising in agriculture and not owning cattle were called Hutu. The words "Hutu" and "Tutsi" had a variety of inter-related meanings however, generally revolving around notions of patronage and clientage. By the time European colonists arrived in the late 19th century, the monarchy had established considerable control over Tutsi and Hutu people alike, involving high levels of labour and produce extraction, which were sustained by complex, inter-connected patronage systems and networks.

Germany claimed the colony, which was linked to Burundi and called Ruanda-Urundi, in Berlin in 1885, but only began to occupy and subjugate its peoples ten years later. Mostly French, Belgian and Swiss Roman Catholic missionaries called White Fathers commenced evangelising there at the same time. Belgian forces occupied Ruanda-Urundi towards the end of World War I, and Belgium inherited the colony when it was confiscated from Germany after the war. Ruanda-Urundi was administratively joined to the Belgian Congo in 1925. Belgian administrators viewed Rwandan society through racial lenses, and considered Tutsis innately superior to Hutus and born to rule them. In 1926 major administrative reforms were enacted which greatly strengthened the Tutsi aristocracy's ability to extract surplus labour from their predominantly Hutu subjects. Colonial work obligations were also highly onerous, and at the onset of World War II, the country had been termed a labour camp.

After World War II, the king and the rest of the Tutsi elite demanded independence. The call was resisted by Belgium and the White Fathers, who instead backed Hutus who demanded Hutu liberation from Tutsi oppression. The main Hutu political party was the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR), led by Grégoire Kayibanda, who, in the name of "social revolution", orchestra ted the first of many pogroms against Tutsis, with Belgian connivance, in 1959. Thousands were killed, and many more fled as refugees.

The MDR toppled the monarchy in 1961, and when Rwanda was granted independence a year later, Kayibanda was the first president. Massacres of Tutsis continued throughout Kayibanda's reign, generally in response to failed attacks on the country by externally based Tutsi guerillas. Kayibanda was toppled in a coup d'état by his commander-in-chief Juvénal Habyarimana in 1973. Following this, there were government-orchestrated attacks on both MDR supporters and Tutsis, killing an estimated 100 000 people.

Habyarimana was from Gisenyi in the north and, like his predecessor, ensured that people from his region were the primary beneficiaries of his patronage. Habyarimana officially instituted a one-party state in 1975, and all Rwandans, regardless of age, were automatically made members of the Mouvement Révolutionnaire Nationale pour le Développement (MRND). Real power however lay not with formal party structures but with Habyarimana and his presidential guard, together with a small coterie of people close to him called the akazu (little house).

Habyarimana retained ties with Belgium but cultivated closer links with France, which was happy to welcome another francophone state into "the family". Under the presidency of François Mitterand in the 1980s, France became Rwanda 's biggest bilateral donor, and the two countries signed a military co-operation agreement which guaranteed Habyarimana the assistance of French troops should his power become threatened.

The agreement with France was invoked when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a guerrilla movement originating from the Ugandan Tutsi refugee camps, invaded Rwanda in September 1990. The RPF had Ugandan government backing and was well armed, but French troops were sent to save Habyarimana, and preven ted the capture of Kigali by the RPF.

The result was a stalemate, with the RPF holding Rwanda 's northern Byumba province and the government unable to capture it, but the RPF equally unable to advance on Kigali. Under French pressure, Habyarimana instituted long-delayed political reforms, including an end to the one party state in 1991. A multiparty government was formed in 1992 and immediately begun negotiations with the RPF, despite hostility to the process from within the akazu.

An agreement between the Rwandan government and RPF was signed in Arusha, Tanzania, in August 1993. French troops left in November 1993 and a UN force called UNAMIR arrived to oversee the implementation of the Arusha agreement. However, the akazu was not prepared to share power with the RPF, and instead planned the genocide of the entire Rwandan Tutsi population, while Habyarimana bought time by stalling the installation of a new government.

Habyarimana was assassinated on 6 April 1994. The genocide and subsequent conflict history is related in Conflict History.

The RPF took Kigali in July 1994 and has been in power ever since. Officially, it heads a multiparty government, but in practice non-RPF cabinet ministers only retain their positions by the grace of the ruling party. From October 1999 to March 2000 there was a major shake-up in government as the RPF leadership engineered the departure of the parliamentary speaker, the prime minister, three other cabinet ministers, and finally president Pasteur Bizimungu. Bizimungu, was succeeded by the vice-president and minister of defence, Paul Kagame of the RPF. Meanwhile Bizimungu was thrown in prison after he founded the Parti Democratique pour le Renouveau (PDR), which the government accused of inciting racial hatred.


In August 2003, Kagame was re-elected president in the country's first presidential elections since independence. Officially he received 95% of the vote. Although the AU and the South African team of observers endorsed the vote, EU observers declared that the poll had been marred by irregularities and instances of fraud, and that the opposition had been intimidated in the run-up to the vote. Kagame rejected the accusations as false and accused the EU of backing a rival candidate.


The following month Rwanda 's first legislative elections since independence were held. The RPF and four parties allied to it won 40 of the 53 contested seats.


A key challenge for the government has been administering justice in the post-genocide environment. Over 120 000 people have been accused of genocide, arrested and imprisoned in over-crowded prisons, and most are still awaiting trial. In order to expedite the process, a traditional justice system known as gacaca has been revived and modified, and trials began in mid-2002. Since then over 10 000 trails have been processed, but over 90 000 accused remain imprisoned awaiting trial. Meanwhile over 25 000 people allegedly involved in the genocide were released provisionally in early 2003, primarily the old, the very young, the terminally ill and those who have admitted to being involved in the genocide. The prospect of some sort of amnesty has encouraged additional confessions, and over 60 000 prisoners admitted to participation in the genocide by the March 2004 deadline, which has since been extended for a further year.


It has emerged during pilot trials that government bureaucracy and witness intimidation are serious problems, and the government is under pressure from the judiciary and genocide-survivor associations to institute remedial measures. Meanwhile, an international criminal tribunal (ICTR), based in Arusha, Tanzania, is prosecuting senior members of the former Rwandan administration for genocide. The ICTR has worked slowly, and has completed only 21 cases since 1995, which have resulted in 18 convictions and 3 acquittals.


During 2002, trials slowed even further because of increasingly poor relations between the prosecutor and the Rwandan government. The prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, alleges that this is because of her plans to prosecute RPF members for war crimes, but the government has responded that the problems are because of the incompetence of the ICTR, and its insensitivity to genocide survivors. In September 2003 del Ponte was replaced by Bubacar Jallow, a Gambian judge and an expert on UN war crimes tribunals. Jallow has stated that he hopes to pursue a further 26 trials and that some of them can be held in Rwandan courts in order to allow the ICTR to close down by the appointed date in 2008.


Jallow visited Rwanda in August 2004 and reiterated his position that those convicted of genocide by the ICTR would not serve their sentences in Rwanda. His objection is based on the fact that Rwanda still has a death sentence, while the maximum penalty from the ICTR is life imprisonment. Kagame subsequently proposed a compromise solution which would preclude those judged by the ICTR from being submitted to the death penalty. Although Jallow did not officially state the ICTR's position on the possible prosecution of RPF members for crimes against humanity, it seems likely that the ICTR will not pursue this, primarily because it suspects that this would hamper crucial cooperation between the ICTR and the Rwandan government. This is a controversial position as it may leave the ICTR open to accusations that it is making political compromises rather than acting as an independent judicial body.

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