Background Briefing

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The genocide in Rwanda, like all genocides, was a complex phenomenon that resulted from a combination of long-term structural factors as well as more immediate decisions taken by powerful actors. Of course none of these circumstances—whether poverty, land scarcity, a population of two groups of very different size, a history of colonial rule, or a misreading of history—in and of itself caused the genocide, no more than did the introduction of multiparty politics or the start of war. But all these circumstances formed the context in which Rwandans made decisions in this period of crisis, and so must be taken into account in trying to analyze the genocide.

Economic forces

Rwanda was very poor, and in the years just before the genocide it had become poorer.  Some 90 percent of the population lived off the land, and with significant population growth in recent decades most farmers lacked sufficient land to provide for themselves and their families. In the late 1980s economic conditions worsened because of drought, a sharp drop in world market prices for coffee and tea (the export crops that provided the major sources of foreign exchange), and limits on government spending imposed by international financial institutions.

Demographics and history

Of the three groups that comprised the population, one, the Twa, was so small as to play no political role. Of the other two, the Hutu was by far the larger group.  Hutu and Tutsi shared a common culture and language and occasionally intermarried. Neither group had moved into what is now Rwanda in a single mass and at an identifiable moment in time. Rather, small clusters of people drifted in over centuries and coalesced. As the Rwandan state developed, an elite took shape and its members were called Tutsi; the masses became known as Hutu. 

The colonial administrations, first German, then Belgian, used and were used by the Tutsi in a process that extended and intensified the control by the Tutsi-dominated central state over areas—both Hutu and Tutsi—that had previously maintained considerable autonomy.  During these years of colonial rule the categories of Hutu and Tutsi became increasingly clearly defined and opposed to each other, with the Tutsi elite seeing itself as superior and having the right to rule, and the Hutu seeing themselves as an oppressed people.  

Influenced by European ideas about race and the peopling of Africa, Rwandans came to accept a distorted version of history. It held that Tutsi, a conquering group from northeast Africa, had swept into Rwanda centuries before and had established the Rwandan state through military prowess, through self-serving marriage alliances, and through an exploitative clientage system based on the grant of cattle. It depicted Hutu as the consistent losers in major battles as well as in the ordinary power struggles of daily life.

In the mid-twentieth century, as the colonialists were preparing to leave, Hutu overthrew the Tutsi elite and established a Hutu-led republic. In the process they killed some twenty thousand Tutsi and drove another three-hundred thousand into exile. This event, known as the 1959 revolution, was remembered by Tutsi as a tragic and criminal event, while for Hutu it was seen as a heroic battle for liberation, to be celebrated with pride. Just before and during the 1994 genocide, Hutu political leaders insisted on the importance of protecting the “gains of the revolution,” which meant not just control of political power but also the lands and jobs once held by Tutsi and distributed to Hutu after 1959.

During the 1960s some of the Tutsi in exile led incursions into Rwanda, seeking to unseat the new Hutu leadership. Within Rwanda officials incited and, in some cases, led attacks against Tutsi still resident in the country, accusing them of supporting the incursions. Most of the twenty-thousand Tutsi counted as victims of the revolution actually died in these reprisal attacks and not in early combat surrounding the change in power.

Politics and regionalism

Hutu leaders from central and southern Rwanda and from the northern prefecture2 of Ruhengeri led the 1959 revolution and established the first republic. Within a decade leaders from the center and south had taken control of the most important government jobs and associated benefits. In 1973 military officers led by Juvenal Habyarimana and representing the interests of the northwestern prefectures of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri overthrew leaders of the first republic and established the second republic. Over time, Habyarimana and his group executed or caused the deaths through starvation and ill-treatment of the first president and some fifty others.  Hutu of central and southern Rwanda resented their loss of power and saw the killing of the first generation of Hutu leaders as a betrayal of these leaders of the revolution.

[2] At the time of the genocide, Rwanda was divided into eleven prefectures, each headed by a prefect. The administrative unit below the prefecture was the commune, headed by a burgomaster, and below that was the sector, headed by a councilor.

index  |  next>>April 2006