The 1994 Rwandan genocide can be characterized by one hundred days of pervasive murders that resulted in the deaths of almost one million men, women, and children. At the root of this atrocious tragedy, sits the divisions between two very similar groups that were driven farther apart by colonialism. What is ingrained in Rwanda’s history prior to this event, offers insight for the numerous catalysts of this dark period. The Rwandan civil conflict was rooted in pre-existing tensions between the two ethnic groups, and Belgian colonial rule characterized by colonial administration accentuating the divide. German and Belgian imperialism sustained the tensions between the Rwandan ethnic groups Hutu and Tutsi, and fundamentally contributed to Rwandan society’s problems alongside the deeply rooted issues over cultural and political differences.
At the forefront of Rwanda’s highly centralized and hierarchical system, was the practice of Hutu oppression lead by the Tutsis. The civilization sprung up from conquering neighboring kingdoms and resulted in three ethnic groups that were very physically and customarily similar, but presented one major difference. They separated amongst the Hutu (farmers), Tutsi (landowners), and Twa (forest dwellers). The Tutsi tribe grew to have a monopoly on natural resources and land, thus the land they owned gave structure to their political systems and a allowed them a platform for their oppression. The Tutsi people used cattle as a symbol of status and wealth which lead to their initiation of a cattle contract (New Encyclopedia of Africa). This initial form of trade placed the pastoralist Tutsi at an advantage because they had the land to endorse an eco-centric economy that could thrive on agricultural trade. The Tutsis consolidation of their power through the lucrative trades of agricultural land and cattle, morphed into the input of political and governmental systems by the monarchy. The Hutus would farm and tend to all the land as payment for being tenants to the landowning Tutsis, with the Tutsis maximizing their exploitation as time passed. The initial unfair treatment of the Hutus festered in history until it was brought out in the form of ethnic warfare. The Tutsi people deliberately exploited the Hutu peasants, which left a rift between the two groups that time would not forget.
The first systematic differentiation between Tutsi and Hutu may have developed in the context of militarization, (New Encyclopedia of Africa) The Tutsi aristocratic herder dynasty the Nyiginya dynasty, called upon the implementation of permanent armies and military services, which would initially benefit the Hutu until the system turned on them and exploited them. The violent nature of these two groups facilitated the political domination achieved by the Tutsi. The methods of extermination thought to be critical in avoiding dissension, only lead to terror from where the problems originated from. The Tutsi minority had always been in power, so they only saw fit that Tutsi would be fighting and defending so they only recruited them. The Tutsi never gave the Hutus a fair chance or a seat at the table, or even tried to show that they were interested in sharing powers or being equals. The Hutu were always below the Tutsi and so the long standing oppression they would continue to feel would later reap them the reward of finally conquering the Tutsi.
The tenacious hold Tutsi hegemony had on military, natural resources, and cattle would last into imperialism in Rwanda as Belgium initially endorsed the feudalistic government. Germany had the first claim to Rwanda as a result of the Berlin Conference, but little interest or action was shown by the German administration. After WWI, Rwanda and Burundi came under the ownership of the Belgian administration. Belgian colonizers took a more direct control over Rwanda, upholding the pre-existing government systems characterized by Tutsi ruling over the Hutu. This policy further fueled and intensified ethnic divisions which would lead to conflict. This policy was effective in bringing colonization to Rwanda in a more underhanded manner. Rwandans would believe that the europeans would not interfere with what they had always done so they allowed the European colonization to take place. The Belgians were aware of the distinctions of the Tutsi and Hutu and initiated an identification policy that would emblazon conflict between the two groups, (Gale e-book).
The Belgian colonial regime promulgated the Tutsi as racially superior and therefore aided them in extracting and exploiting the Hutus. The Belgian administration greatly increased the oppressiveness of the Tutsi minority over the Hutu masses. They maintained their pro-Tutsi stance until the furthering of Rwandan independence in the late 50s, upon which they flipped entirely to a pro-Hutu stance. They saw the legitimacy in Hutu claims of inequality with the Tutsi and administered more rights and attempted to get the Tutsi to eliminate their unequal and oppressive caste system. This emphasized class divisions and intensified the ethnic tensions that had been in place for centuries, (Rwanda ABC-CLIO). The oppression of the Hutus had been in place for centuries and both the German and Belgian administrations had failed to provide any relief. Both administrations further damaged the conflict between the groups and would leave a lasting impact on the challenges Rwanda would face during decolonization.
The granting of independence from European administrations in Rwanda lead to the initiation of a Hutu lead government. For the first time in Rwandan history the Hutu majority would be recognized over the Tutsi minority. The Hutu extremist party sprung up and reversed the previous promulgated notions that the Tutsi were the superior peoples and created a way for the Hutu to be superior at last. (New Encyclopedia of Africa). Years of hard oppression and having no voice in matters engulfed the minds of the Hutus and lead them to take out their frustrations in violent manners. In 1959, before Rwanda’s independence from the UN, a Hutu uprising lead to the deaths of hundreds of Tutsi and the fleeing of thousands. This event seemed to foreshadow what was to come for the Tutsi in the following decades. In the wake of their new independence, the Hutu sought the detrimental mistreatment of the Tutsis as a way to seek some sort of revenge for the hundreds of year they had suffered.
The effects of colonial rule were displayed in the Hutus position against the Tutsi. The Hutu were determined to parallel the events they had endured from the Tutsi so they began to focus on consolidating power. One advantage the colonizers gave the Hutu was the fact that they urged them to profit on cash crops such as coffee. They would find that this ultimately would increase their economic footing and aid them in the retention of power. The strength of the coffee economy was majorly valued for this purpose. The manipulation displayed by the Hutu extremists saw its past in the colonial administrations that had achieved the same. The collective history between the Tutsi and Hutu heightened the conflicts between them and as a resultant it came to a head during the genocide of 1994.
The will of the Hutus to act upon their impulse to enact revenge is only human, though childish in nature. They escalated the human conflicts of the few over the many and established what they saw as justice. In society today, the few over the many can be equated with and applicable to the elite vs. the ordinary vs. non functioning society. So many barriers and inequalities exist in and amongst not just U.S. citizens, but also the thousands of places less fortunate than our country. We take for granted the benefits we have as privileged americans when so many people in even our realm are suffering around us. The Hutus and the Tutsis experienced both power shifts and were able to construe society’s ideas of who should have authority over who. They had in their hands both the despotism and the suppression. Knowing two sides to a story is so impactful in the way that it can shape outcomes. Rwanda created unfavorable outcomes, but we possess the power to treat others the way we want to be treated and advocated for peace and equality.
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