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Background to Rwanda

Ten years ago, beginning on 6 April 1994, more than one million Rwandans were massacred in a three-month bloodbath. The dead were mainly Tutsis, the minority ethnic group in Rwanda who made up about 14 percent of the then eight million population. All were unarmed civilians. Their killers, extremists from Rwanda's ruling Hutu majority, had embarked on a premeditated mission: to exterminate an entire people. But it was not only Tutsis who suffered. Tens of thousands of moderate Hutus were also slaughtered because they were political opponents of the one-party Hutu state and natural obstacles to the genocide.

May 1, 2004
3 min read

Even today, the true story of Rwanda is little known in popular circles. The common misconception – fuelled by the conveniently racist Western government and media propaganda of the time – is that “two tribes went to war’ with tragic consequences. Then UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali summed up this whitewash three weeks into the slaughter as one of “Hutus killing Tutsis and Tutsis killing Hutus’.

The background to the Rwandan genocide is inseparable from the destructive legacy of first German, then Belgian and finally French colonialism on the country’s inter-ethnic politics. Rwanda gained “formal’ independence from Belgium in 1961 after decades of social engineering that promoted the Hutus as the colonial master’s preferred ruling elite. In July 1973, following a decade of anti-Tutsi violence and murder that had forced over 350,000 Tutsis into exile, the Hutu elite split and the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND), led by Hutu Major-General Juvnal Habyarimana, installed itself as a one-party dictatorship in a bloodless coup. Although discrimination continued against the Tutsi community, there were no further ethnic massacres between 1973-1990.

From its inception, the Habyarimana regime was a bulwark against those states in the region that sought to protect their independence and effect progressive structural change (for example, neighbouring Tanzania under the progressive president, Julius Nyerere, one of the African leaders of the non-aligned movement). It was thus actively backed by Western powers, particularly Belgium, France and Switzerland. In 1975, France signed a military cooperation and training agreement with Rwanda and gradually replaced Belgium as the dominant imperial power.

By October 1990, however, a growing democratic opposition movement was joined by returning Tutsi refugees who had formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF’s attempted overthrow and replacement of the Habyarimana regime with a progressive non-ethnic government was brutally put down. Agreement was reached in 1992 to set up a transitional government in which the RPF would be included. Habyarimana, however, had no intention of sharing power and continued to arm and train militias and secretly import weapons with French assistance while using the regime’s own radio station to broadcast extreme anti-Tutsi propaganda and denounce the peace agreement.

On 6 April 1994, just as the preparations for genocide were being threatened by huge international pressure on the regime to comply with the transitional power-sharing arrangements, Habyarimana was assassinated when his aircraft was shot down. Within hours the Hutu prime minister had also been executed and extremists took control of the government. The genocide had begun.


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