The Colonial Cause of Rwanda’s Genocide

Posted: October 20, 2010 in Don't Miss!

Last week I picked up a book titled “God Sleeps in Rwanda”: a personal memoir and account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda by Joseph Sebarenzi – a Tutsi clansman and, later on, member of parliament in Rwanda.

In his book, Sebarenzi points towards a little known cause of the genocide that resulted in the systematic murder of at least 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu over a period of about 90 days. (Do the math: that is roughly 9,000 human beings every single day). The cause? Colonial influence and manipulation. Let me explain:

Prior to the arrival of European colonizers at the turn of the twentieth century, the Rwandan kingdom was a fiercely independent and efficient one. Even the arriving Europeans admired the organization of the government as well as the politics and military structure they encountered. As a culture, it was isolated from the rest of Africa. Rwandans spoke one language (Kinyarwanda), worshipped one God, answered to one king. That king was a Tutsi.

Their society was composed of three populations: the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa (the native hunting and gathering pygmy people). Historians estimate that the cattle-raising Tutsi arrived in Rwanda sometime in the 10th and 14th centuries. Somehow, they established a monarchy led by an all-powerful “mwami” or king. The king was not a mortal, but a divine creation.

This king appointed both Hutu and Tutsi to positions of authority in his administration and in local communities, but Tutsi enjoyed more power, social status and influence than Hutu. Despite this, the two groups lived peacefully together – working together, marrying one another, having children together. The people of Rwanda saw themselves first and foremost as Rwandans. There is an ancient Rwandan saying: Turi bene mugabo umwe, meaning “we are the sons and daughters of the same father.” For centuries, Rwandans believed this firmly and lived accordingly.

Then in 1885 – in a far away place, white men sat down with a map of Africa and pencils and started drawing borders and writing names. It was the Berlin Conference. Rwanda was given to Germany. It wasn’t until 1894 that the first German set foot in Rwanda – and informed a surprised Mwami that his country had been under German rule for the past 9 years.

Germany, for the most part, ignored Rwanda. It set up some administrative posts, but otherwise stayed away from the landlocked, farming country. It also governed through the existing monarchy, thereby not introducing many changes to their society. Catholic and Protestant missionaries, however, brought some change with them when they set up schools, hospitals and churches.

Then came WW1 – where Rwanda was taken from Germany and given to Belgium. Belgium colonizers took a keen interest in the Rwandan people. They were fascinated by the physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu and decided to make a “scientific” study of them: their height, their weight, their eye color, the width of their noses, and even the texture of their hair. Using callipers and rulers, scientists set about classifying these differences, determining that not only were Tutsi physical features more European but they were nobler and more intelligent than Hutu, and therefore the natural rulers of the country. (While stereotypically Tutsi and taller, thinner and lighter-skinned than Hutu, in reality not many Rwandans fit these portraits).

As a result of the data they collected, Belgians stripped Hutu of any authority they had been granted by the Tutsi king. Admission to schools was limited to Tutsis and in 1935, Belgium institutionalized  ethnic identity cards which openly displayed if one was of the higher Tutsi race or the lower Hutu one.

In the 1950’s, the Tutsi elite claimed their independence from Belgium. Out of anger towards the subjects they had favored all along, the Belgians shifted their support to the Hutu. Under the guise of social justice, they systematically took away power from Tutsi and gave it to the Hutu. The colonists helped Hutu leaders take political and military power – often by force – in the years leading up to Rwanda’s independence in 1962. The Belgians then left.

What remained was a society divided. Seeds of hatred had been planted among a people who had for hundreds of years lived together in peace and unity. What followed in 1994 was inevitable – the hatred between the groups was mounting. It would emerge and subside periodically – but was always innately present – always a dormant volcano ready to erupt.

More often than not, current historical accounts of the genocide (including Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ make it seem like the Hutu’s hatred towards the Tutsi was “always there” – that being another tribal African country, it was probably an issue of land ownership, ethnic superiority, ancient rivalry etc. that led to the massacres of 1994. However, as it is shown above, this is not true. Someone is definitely to blame – and it is not the first instance where a western power has abruptly left an occupied county – leaving it in social, political and economic shambles. It is kind of like being a bad tenant: defecating someone’s property before moving out.

Now we know who laid the foundation for the Rwandan genocide.

To learn more about the genocide, visit:


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