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International Socialism, December 1996


Charlie Kimber

Review Article:

Coming to Terms with Barbarism
in Rwanda and Burundi


From International Socialism 2:73, December 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Gérard Prunier
The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide
London 1995, £12.50

African Rights
Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance
London 1995, £14.99

African Rights
Rwanda, Not So Innocent (When Women Become Killers)
London 1995, £6.95

René Lemarchand
Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide
Cambridge University Press 1996, £12.95

Filip Reyntjens
Burundi: Breaking the Cycle of Violence
Minority Rights Group 1995, £4.95

F. Keane
Season of Blood, a Rwandan Journey
Penguin 1996, £6.99

Rwanda and Burundi have become synonymous with the horror of communal violence. In Rwanda, from 6 April 1994,

in one hundred days up to one million people were hacked, shot, strangled, clubbed and burned to death. Remember, carve this into your consciousness: one million. [1]

As for its neighbour Burundi, ‘Nowhere else in Africa has so much violence killed so many people on so many occasions in so small a space as in Burundi in the years following independence. [2]

The suffering continues in both countries today. Tucked away in the international pages of the broadsheet newspapers are regular reports of massacres which would have been front page news if they had occurred in ex-Yugoslavia. In addition to the killings, millions of people have been driven from their homes. Many remain in fetid refugee camps and recently groups which fled from Rwanda and Burundi have continued their wars in the countries to which they have been exiled. [3]

Such tragedies pose a challenge to any theory that seeks to analyse the world rather than simply despair about its inhumanity. Why did these tiny countries, with populations of around 6 million each, become the site of such savagery? In this article I shall try to explain what has happened and, crucially, show how its repetition can be avoided. One of the most chilling aspects of the present situation is that almost all commentators anticipate further horrors in the near future in Rwanda, Burundi and perhaps Zaire as well. They are probably right, and if they are the conflict could engulf 20 million people.

Hutu, Tutsi, Twa

In both Rwanda and Burundi there is a group called Tutsis who make up about 15 percent of the population, one called Hutus which covers around 85 percent and a tiny number called Twas. It is not possible to say with certainty what happened thousands of years ago which laid the basis for Hutu, Tutsi and Twa groups. But what can be utterly disproved is the notion popularised by some newspapers and writers that bitter divisions between Hutus and Tutsis have always existed.

Most historians [4] argue that the original inhabitants of the area we now know as Rwanda and Burundi were hunter-gatherers whose modern day descendants are the tiny minority of Twa people (‘the pygmies’). Later, cultivators (‘Hutus’) and cattle herders (‘Tutsis’) arrived. The authors of the African Rights book argue that:

What appears to have happened is that about twenty generations ago, one Tutsi clan, the Nyiginya, achieved political dominance in central Rwanda. Over several centuries the Nyiginya formed the core of a state. But the political institutions that followed were a fusion of Hutu and Tutsi. In large part, before the nineteenth century, Twa, Hutu and Tutsi roughly corresponded to occupational categories within a single differentiated group. Cattle-herders, soldiers and administrators were mostly Tutsi, farmers were Hutu and the Twa were hunter-gatherers and potters. [5]

Whether you were a Hutu or a Tutsi depended largely on your lineage (what group your parents were). But as the terms also referred to social function, there was mobility: ‘Individuals could and did move between the categories Hutu and Tutsi as their fortunes rose and fell, and intermarriage was not uncommon’. [6] If your father was a Hutu, you would be a Hutu. But if you then made sufficient wealth, and could buy cattle, then you might become a Tutsi. There was a ceremony of ‘becoming Tutsi’ which recognised this. Your children would then be Tutsi. This means that the Hutu-Tutsi distinction in pre-colonial Rwanda and Burundi was not a simple class distinction (because you could be a poor Tutsi or a rich Hutu) nor was it an ethnic distinction because you could be born into one group and die as another. Cattle were the dominant form of disposable wealth. Cattle herders were, by definition, Tutsi. Therefore society was largely dominated by Tutsis, although not all Tutsis were part of the dominant class. Moreover, all institutions and social activities displayed the mixing between Hutus and Tutsis. Everyone, Hutu, Twa or Tutsi, spoke the same language.

Power in society was extremely complicated. The king in Rwanda was a Tutsi and was surrounded by (mostly) Tutsi nobles. But the king’s power did not extend evenly over the whole surface of ‘Rwanda’. As Gérald Prunier demonstrates, there were ‘several Hutu principalities which remained defiant until the 19th century and in some cases were incorporated only after the arrival of Europeans and with their help’. [7] Within Rwanda each locality was ruled by three chiefs, responsible for land, grazing rights and men. Often the land chief was a Hutu while the other two were Tutsis.

War with neighbouring states, which was quite common, took two forms. Often it was a largely symbolic act when armies would gather but the fighting was confined to ‘champions’ from either side. This sort of war was dominated by the Tutsis and the Twas. But when more serious combat was necessary, the Hutus took the leading part. For example, ‘the great Rwandese conqueror Kigeri IV Rwabugiri (1853–1895), who meant business when he went into battle, preferred to recruit mostly Hutu armies who were perhaps less elegant but more efficient’. [8] So war acted as a ‘social coagulant’, breaking down differences. Religion was another ‘shared’ factor. The kubandwa cult included members of all three categories of society, although it was Hutu in origin (probably) and was (sometimes) regarded as inferior by the Tutsis.

As for the oppressed class, the peasants and landless cultivators, they were mostly Hutus but also contained many Tutsis who had slipped down the scale. They did not normally cease to be Tutsi, but they were as poor as their neighbours. So, as Gérard Prunier writes about present day Rwanda, ‘Tutsi and Hutu, the notorious rival twins of Rwandese society, live side by side on the same hilly slopes – for better or for worse, for intermarriage or for massacre’. [9]

In Burundi, before the colonialists came, the situation was even more mixed because of an intermediate class between the king and the population. [10] Moreover, there were groups within the Tutsis ‘known colloquially as the ‘high Tutsis’ and the ‘low Tutsis’ – and poor Tutsis often found themselves subservient to wealthy Hutus’. [11] Among the peasantry, ‘relations between ordinary Tutsi and Hutu were on an equal footing and intermarriage was common’. [12] So although there clearly were social divisions between Tutsis and Hutus they were not absolute or the sole defining feature of people’s lives.

What about the physical differences which so many writers mention?

[These] have been greatly exaggerated both by European colonialists and missionaries, and later by some Rwandese politicians and the Western media ... Rwandese tell an individual’s group by his or her lineage, not by his height or straightness of nose. [13]

Any differences which did exist would in any case be blurred by intermarriage; in Ntarama in the southern lowlands of Rwanda a third of Tutsi daughters were married to Hutus. [14]

Any belief in defining physical differences between Tutsis and Hutus should be shattered by one remaining fact: victims of the slaughter of 1994 were selected on the basis of their identity cards. Many Tutsis survived by having a forged Hutu card. The second most common way of choosing victims was to ask people the background of others in their village. In other words it depended on one person revealing another to be a Tutsi. [15] There is another powerful example: the leader of the Hutu militias, the interahamwe, in 1994 was Robert Kajuga, a Tutsi whose father had opted for a Hutu identity card.

The Europeans in Rwanda and Burundi

Whatever the complexities of early Rwanda and Burundi, these societies were fundamentally altered with the arrival of colonial powers. As part of the ‘scramble for Africa’ between rival European states, Rwanda and Burundi were seized by Germany. The colonisation began around 1890 and developed over the next decade. In the late 1890s Rwanda and Burundi, which had been separate states for centuries, were merged into a single colony as part of German East Africa. The German colonial presence was very limited, [16] but began to transform the relation between Tutsis and Hutus. ‘When due to lack of manpower the Germans could not directly control a certain area … they were not above sub-contracting local control to Tutsi chiefs, who, secure in the white man’s support, acted as rapacious quasi-warlords’. [17]

This transformation was much accelerated when the Belgians occupied German East Africa in 1916. At the end of the war they separated Rwanda and Burundi once more and began to construct a system that would guarantee stability for the coffee and ivory trade. It was some time before the Belgians instituted a fully fledged system of colonial rule, and their strategy was to administer the country directly through Africans.

In Rwanda there was at first some attempt to understand the existing structures so that they could be absorbed into Belgian control. [18] But the Belgian ruling class, who (like the British, the French and others) acted in the most brutal fashion towards colonised Africans, were not willing to spend the time and energy dealing with the ‘intertwined fingers’ of Rwandese Tutsi-Hutu relations. It was much easier to divide society between Tutsis and Hutus and ally with one group against the rest. [19]

The ruling class, which had formerly been dominated by Tutsis but still contained elements of Hutu and Twa, was changed into one almost wholly made up of Tutsis who were willing to act entirely in accordance with the colonialists’ wishes. Gérard Prunier quotes from a Belgian colonial report to show how such changes were justified; the Twas were ‘small, chunky, muscular and very hairy: he is quite similar to the apes whom he chases in the forest’. The Hutus ‘are generally short and thick-set with a big head, a jovial expression, a wide nose and enormous lips’. [20] But the Tutsis were definitely superior beings:

The Tutsi of good race has nothing of the negro, apart from his colour. He is usually very tall, he is usually very thin. His features are very fine. He is a natural-born leader, capable of extreme self-control and of calculated goodwill. [21]

Given the racist assumptions about central Africa, most outsiders decided the Tutsis had come from a long way away. The famous British explorer of the Nile, John Hanning Speke, decided without a shred of evidence that the Tutsis had come from southern Ethiopia. The Belgian administrator Count Renaud de Briey ‘coolly speculated that the Tutsi could very well be the last survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis’. [22]

The Belgians rammed through a series of measures which utterly transformed the social structure. Christianity became the state religion and the church controlled education. The elite Tutsis flocked to become Catholics as a badge of their new identification and to get a chance of decent schooling. The previous system of having three chiefs for each area, one at least of whom was normally a Hutu, was replaced by having a single chief for every locality. By the end of the Belgian presence in 1959, 43 out 45 Rwandan chiefs were Tutsi as well as 549 sub-chiefs out of 559. [23]

This control of the state meant the Tutsi elite could grab economic wealth. Common grazing areas and collectively held land could be taken by the state after ‘due compensation’. With the backing of the Belgians, the Tutsi elite grabbed much and paid out little. At the same time the Belgians were demanding huge amounts of forced labour from the peasantry. Various compulsory work activities for the state could absorb over half of a man’s time. Those who refused such work were abused and attacked. A UN delegation to Rwanda in 1948 found that, of 250 peasants they interviewed, 247 had been beaten up, usually many times. [24]

The European presence ‘froze’ the movement between groups by instituting identity cards and increased the class identification by favouring the Tutsis for powerful positions and access to wealth. The majority of Tutsis however, remained poor. A survey in the mid-1950s of a representative section of the population excluding holders of political office showed: [25]



No. of


Average income
(Belg. Fr.)










Thus there is almost no difference between Hutus and Tutsis. However, as Gérard Prunier writes:

The racialisation of consciousness affected everybody, and even the ‘small Tutsi’, who did not benefit from the system in any way, started to believe they were indeed a superior race and that under the same rags as their Hutu neighbours wore, a finer heart was beating. The Hutu, deprived of all political power and exploited by both the whites and the Tutsi, began to hate all Tutsi, even those who were just as poor as they. [26]

Prunier points to a process whereby colonialism laid the basis for horror. ‘Although Rwanda was definitely not a land of peace and bucolic harmony before the arrival of the Europeans, there is no trace in its pre-colonial history of systematic violence between Tutsi and Hutu’. [27] Afterwards such conflict was common and murderous.

A similar but less clear cut process occurred in Burundi. The Belgians again employed divide and rule, but the existence of a separate princely caste meant the division between Hutu and Tutsi was not the sole or defining element in society. Instead it meant that the Belgian rulers both gave privileges to the Tutsi elite and also worked alongside a group which was hostile to both Hutus and Tutsis. The result was a series of anti-colonial revolts – Rubengebenge (1912–22), Inamuvyeyi Nvavyinshi (1922), Runyota (1922) and Inamujandi (1934). These were not the revolt of one ethnic group against another but (mainly) the revolt of subject peoples against the Europeans.

These Burundi revolts often had ethnic elements (for example some explicitly raised the question of the rich Tutsis selling out to the Belgians, but then went on to target all Tutsis), but they were not simply ethnic. Unlike in Rwanda, it was not the period of colonial rule itself which sealed the ethnic division, it was the manoeuvres that accompanied its end.

Independence and new rulers – Rwanda

As the rest of Africa began to achieve independence, the Tutsi elite in Rwanda became supporters of swift removal of Belgian control. This seemed a strange reversal for a group who had prospered mightily from colonialism. But they believed that the longer independence was delayed, the more likely it was that the Hutus would demand majority rule.

The shift meant the Belgian colonialists began to see their Tutsi allies as dangerous and communist-inspired supporters of national freedom. Of course the Tutsi elite were nothing of the sort. They were not at all interested in transforming the conditions for the vast majority, Tutsi or Hutu, but they were determined to hang on to their privileges in a new world and the only way they could see to do it was to take the radical step of rapidly bundling the Belgians out.

Equally remarkably, the tiny numbers of the Hutu elite, whose group had suffered most from Belgian colonialism, were less keen on quick independence. Instead they stressed ethnicity and a big role for the Belgians in policing the transition. The first manifesto of PARMEHUTU (Party for the Emancipation of the Hutu people) ‘was a curious mix of racial enfranchisement, social justice, the extension of economic privileges and anti-communism’. [28] The Belgians, after backing the Tutsis for decades, decided that the easiest route to protect their economic interests was to back PARMEHUTU. Their resolve was intensified by a series of Hutu led farm workers’ revolts in 1959. The departing colonialists now wanted elite Hutus in power in order to hold down the majority of Hutus.

In 1959 open fighting began and Belgian paratroopers fought side by side with Hutu militias to oust Tutsi rule. The Belgians also replaced Tutsi chiefs with Hutus, leading to persecution of poor Tutsis by rich Hutus. Over 125,000 refugees fled to neighbouring countries. Local elections in 1960 saw PARMEHUTU win two thirds of the seats and it took 78 percent of the votes in legislative elections a year later. The Hutu elite had taken charge.

This process is known as the ‘1959 Revolution’; in reality it was simply the replacement of one elite by another, and with the help of the colonial power and the Catholic church. There was no significant land reform – the peasants remained peasants who did not own their land. Only their landlords changed. [29] The new Rwanda was an incredibly conservative country. While socialism and revolution were discussed in much of Africa, Rwanda’s leaders were celebrated by Tories in Europe, particularly in Belgium.

The government’s only basis of support was to play the ethnic card. Tutsis were 9 percent of the population, said President Kayibanda, so they should not have more than 9 percent of schoolchildren, teachers, etc. This policy caused huge suffering for the Tutsis without in any way helping the vast majority of Hutus.

Throughout the 1960s Tutsi exiles formed guerilla bands and attacked from Zaire, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania. They were always soundly beaten by an army that was still led by Belgians and could call on Belgian troops in time of need. In 1963 Hutu gangs killed an estimated 10,000 Tutsis while the government executed prominent Tutsi leaders. Another round of killing followed in 1967 and the UN commission of inquiry found the rural areas ‘in a state of high tension, a barely suppressed collective panic’. [30]

By 1972 the Kayibanda regime was politically and economically bankrupt. In a desperate effort to survive, the government called for yet another programme of ‘purification’ to drive the Tutsis from schools, universities, the civil service and even private business. The regime believed this would strike a chord in the wake of the butchery of Hutus by the Tutsi led army in Burundi. The call for ethnic cleansing was taken up most eagerly by richer Hutus who hoped to gain by driving out their Tutsi business and professional rivals. But in the countryside the campaign was virtually ignored. Few people were killed during the crusade, but another vast wave of Tutsi migration followed.

However, the government’s strategy backfired. The Hutu vigilante committees, set up to attack the Tutsis, split on regional lines. Peasants even started to fight their landlords – and to settle grievances without considering ethnicity. This was much closer to the prospect of real revolution than anything that occurred in 1959–61. It was extremely dangerous for the rich and in 1973 Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana took power in a coup. He was pledged to give new impetus to Rwanda’s development and justice for all.

Independence and new rulers – Burundi

The end of colonialism was clearly going to be extremely destabilising. In Burundi the main challenge to Belgian rule was UPRONA (Union for National Progress) led by the very popular Prince Louis Rwagasore. The colonialists feared UPRONA which they saw as radical and anti-Belgian, dangerously similar to the movement around Lumumba in the Congo. So the Belgians backed the rival PDC (Christian Democrat Party) with money and resources while imposing crippling restrictions on UPRONA.

The UPRONA-PDC rivalry was not a Hutu-Tutsi split. Both parties were led by groups based on different sections of the princely caste. They appealed to people on a political basis – UPRONA was for kicking the Belgians out and reform, PDC for working alongside the Belgians for a long time. When full elections were finally held in September 1961, UPRONA won spectacularly with 58 seats out of 64. Rwagasore became prime minister but was assassinated by a Greek gunman hired by the PDC supported by the Belgian authorities. [31] The murder led to the crystallisation of ethnic tensions and triggered a bitter struggle for the leadership of UPRONA between Hutu and Tutsi elites. [32]

The details of this process are carefully described in René Lemonchard’s book, although he overstates ideological factors and underplays material questions. He does show powerfully that after 1961 both group elites turned away from ‘national development’ and instead sought support by embracing ethnic politics. Tutsi elites gradually used the privileges they had won under colonialism to entrench themselves in the new state. By 1964 they held 83 of the top 133 high ranking civil service posts. [33] Even trade unions and student organisations were also split between Hutu and Tutsi groups. Most crucially, the Tutsi elite held control of the army, which was to prove very important as elections became secondary to guns in determining who would govern.

Developing tensions reached fever pitch in January 1965 when Burundi’s president, Pierre Ngendandumwe (a Hutu), was assassinated. Elections a few months later returned a Hutu majority (23 out of 33 seats) in the national assembly. But the king refused to appoint a Hutu prime minister. In response a group of Hutu army officers shot the new prime minister and Hutu troops revolted against the Tutsi officers. The ensuing Tutsi purge led to ‘the physical elimination of the entire first generation of Hutu leaders’. [34] General Michel Micombero, a Tutsi army leader, proclaimed Burundi a republic under the slogan of ‘Unity and revolution’. Rarely has a declared theme been so false. Micombero accelerated the purges of Hutus from the army and the state and he consolidated the hold of the Tutsi elite over the country’s economy.

In 1972 a rebellion by Hutus broke out in the Imbo plain region. There was some organisation in advance, but it was certainly not the national uprising backed by foreign powers that Micombero alleged. In the first phase of the revolt some thousands of Tutsis were killed. But, just as in 1965, the repression was out of all proportion. Estimates of the number of Hutus killed range from 100,000 to 300,000. ‘The carnage continued until almost every educated Hutu was either dead or in exile’. [35] Part of the motivation for the killings was economic. [36] The result was that:

For the next 15 years, only Tutsi were qualified to gain access to power, influence and wealth. To an even greater extent than before, what was left of Hutu society was systematically excluded from the army, the civil service and the university. [37]

It is very important to note that, just as in Rwanda 20 years later, there was opposition from members of all groups to the slaughter. The US deputy chief of mission cabled home, ‘We have reliable reports that some Tutsis urging restraint on the basis that the situation has gone too far are being arrested and immediately executed’. [38] This Tutsi heroism contrasted sharply with the attitude of foreign powers. The US ambassador was brazen – ‘The United States simply should not interfere in any way with the internal affairs of another country’, [39] he declared as the body count rose.

The 1972 killing meant the Tutsi elite were firmly established, but they were not a wholly united group. [40] In November 1976 Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza took power in a bloodless coup. Bagaza was keen on rhetoric which stressed national unity and the struggle against ‘the reactionary bourgeoisie, which stands as the principal enemy of our struggle’. [41] He instituted very limited land reform and allowed the formation of trade unions. But Tutsis still controlled every aspect of society and government sponsored repression continued.

As economic crisis came in 1986, it had the same destabilising effect as it did in Rwanda. Bagaza responded by forcing though a range of cuts, but undermined his own authority by attempting to to cut spending on the army. In September 1987 Bagaza was deposed by a coup led by Major Pierre Buyoya. In the middle of 1988 a revolt by Hutus prompted the familiar terrible retaliation from the Tutsi led army. There were massacres by both sides, although the army’s were much worse.

In 1972 the rest of the world had ignored the killings: in 1988 the West told Buyoya that he must prevent the continuation of the ethnic hatreds. He appointed a Hutu as prime minister and added Hutus to his cabinet. By the end of 1990 politics and the civil service had been opened up to Hutus. However, the make up of the army hardly altered at all. Coup attempts in February 1989 and March 1992, rather reluctantly put down by the army, reminded Buyoya that he had better not go too far.

In elections in June 1993 Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, won almost two thirds of the vote. In what appeared a remarkably democratic response to the result, Buyoya immediately admitted defeat, called for calm, embraced his successor and stepped down. However, the Tutsi elite refused to be displaced without a struggle. Ndadaye’s task was made the more difficult by his decision to implement the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme, which led to price rises for basic goods, devaluation and privatisation. The mass of peasants saw that democracy was combined with a harsh austerity programme. Disillusion with the regime made mass risings in its defence less likely.

In October 1993 the army removed Ndadaye from office. Some Hutus rose to defend the elected government. The army responded in its ‘normal’ murderous way. Up to 50,000 people died, roughly the same number of Hutus and Tutsis. About 700,000 people, mainly Hutu, fled to neighbouring countries. Almost half a million went to Rwanda where they provided ready recruits for the militias.

The Burundi coup left the country in anarchy. By June this year the number of killings had reached 1,000 a month at least. In July 1996 the Hutu president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya was overthrown and Pierre Buyoya returned once more to take power. After losing the election in 1993, he benefited from a great deal of US funding designed to encourage ‘moderates’. Buyoya’s return led to widespread sanctions against Burundi (including by the US – against their own protege), which continue as this article goes to press.

The violence in Burundi is not some unfathomable blood feud based on tribalism. It flows from the way divisions were developed by colonialism and then further institutionalised by the post-colonial governments. Economic crisis has made scapegoating by the ruling class more effective. The domination of politics by elites of both groups has made it hard for an alternative to emerge which could appeal to all of the poor against all of the rich. Appeals for unity must be framed in terms of throwing off the fearful conditions that all the exploited and oppressed face, not simply in terms of ‘fairness’.

Countdown to the present – Rwanda

Major General Habyarimana’s ascent to power in 1973 was generally welcomed. He seemed ‘cleaner’ than his predecessors. Discrimination against the Tutsis continued. ‘Throughout the Habyarimana years there was only one Tutsi officer in the whole army, two Tutsi MPs out of 70 and only one Tutsi cabinet minister out of 30 members’. [42] However, despite the discrimination the Tutsi rich could prosper and were content. [43] Class tensions were held down.

There was very little democracy. Every Rwandese citizen had to join Habyarimana’s MRND movement. The president was triumphantly re-elected twice (as sole candidate), once with of 99.98 of the vote and, in a closer contest, with only 99.96 percent. Habyarimana’s government was described by one of his European fans as a ‘development dictatorship’. [44] Public works such as irrigation, drainage ditches and school building were carried out through the use of forced labour. These work parties, known as the interahamwe, would later become death squads.

But from 1973 to about 1990, Rwanda was relatively peaceful. This had little to do with Habyarimana himself and much to do with the generally stable price of coffee and tin. The economic blizzard of the later 1980s caused havoc. The striped blazer brigade on the London commodity exchange traded Rwanda’s coffee and tin. As they settled the claims of supply and demand, matched the purchasing power of the multinationals against the weakness of African countries, they were sealing the fate of peasants 6,000 miles away. Gérard Prunier, writes:

The political stability of the regime followed almost exactly the curve of coffee and tin prices. For the elite of the regime there were three sources of enrichment: coffee and tea exports, briefly tin exports and creaming off foreign aid. Since a fair share of the first two had to be allocated to running the government, by 1988 the shrinking sources of revenue left only the third as a viable alternative. There was an increase in competition for access to this very specialised resource. The various gentlemen’s agreements which had existed between the competing political clans started to melt down as the resources shrank and internal power struggles intensified. [45]

Internal battles meant not only further pressure on the Tutsi elite, but also more clashes between regional leaders who were Hutu. These battles were projected onto the much bigger screen of the tensions created over a century by colonialism and its aftermath. The countdown to murder had begun.

In 1989 the government budget was cut by 40 percent. The peasantry faced huge increases in water fees, health charges, school fees, etc. Land became scarce as farmers tried to increase their holdings to make up for the fall in raw material prices. [46] The peasantry (both Hutu and Tutsi) were on the verge of open rebellion by 1990. The state absorbed more and more of the land which parents hoped to pass on to their children. State tea plantations opened up new sources of foreign exchange but restricted family holdings. The IMF’s structural adjustment programme for Rwanda was imposed in 1990. As usual it meant the removal of food subsidies, privatisation and devaluation – and job losses. [47]

The World Bank and the IMF took no account of the likely effects of their shock therapy on a country that was ripe for civil war and had a history of massacres:

A second devaluation followed in June 1992. Just as the war began, these [economic changes] saw urban living standards cut and a dramatic decline in the standards of health care and education. Inflation accelerated ... By 1993, there was acute hunger in much of southern Rwanda. [48]

Habyarimana’s moves towards multi-partyism after 1990 paradoxically also increased the tension. The elites prepared for a new round of power battles while the state employees anticipated more job cuts if their patron was ousted. In Rwanda:

the government used its well-established technique of scapegoating. The grievances of the rural Hutu population were redirected to the Tutsi minority. [49]

This process was made much easier by the lack of a political force which offered a class fight of poor against rich rather than Hutus against Tutsis. The Hutu opposition politicians were almost all smeared with participation in elite politics. Nobody believed they were after anything but their own interests.

Those who fled faced a grim future. In Burundi, although the Tutsis continued to run the state machine, the Rwandese Tutsis faced discrimination at every level and were never fully accepted. In Zaire the dictator, Mobutu, was very close to Habyarimana and had no time for his opponents. Tanzania was the least hostile and offered citizenship which many refugees took, but they were still discriminated against. In Uganda many refugees became integrated into the local society, but they were then scapegoated by Ugandan president Milton Obote in the early 1980s as he sought a target to deflect attention from his own problems. This convinced many refugees of the need to return to Rwanda, and increased their willingness to work with Ugandan opposition politicians. Many joined the National Resistance Army of Yoweri Museveni, which succeeded in overthrowing Obote in 1986.

The Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), originally formed by refugees from the 1959–1967 wave of killings, thus had a secure base to launch military raids against Habyarimana, but it was incapable of making an appeal to the Hutu masses. The RPF also ‘counted among its members a considerable number of Tutsi supremacists for whom the Hutu were a despicable and backward mass of peasants’. [50] It was therefore quite easy for Habyarimana to paint the RPF as simply dedicated to restoring Tutsi dominance.

In October 1990 elements of the RPF tried to invade from Uganda but the attack was beaten back with heavy losses. Partly this was because the French (Socialist Party) government gave Habyarimana full support, despite his human rights defects. In 1990 troops were sent to ‘protect French nationals’ – in reality they helped the Rwandese government beat the RPF. ‘This blind commitment was to have catastrophic consequences because, as the situation radicalised, the Rwandese leadership kept believing that no matter what it did French support would be forthcoming’. [51] The French intervention throughout was like ‘giving brandy bottles to an alcoholic’, says Prunier. [52]

The defeat of the RPF did not solve Habyarimana’s problems; in February 1993 the RPF launched a very serious attack that reached the outskirts of the capital, Kigali. It was halted only by the intervention of French troops. Habyarimana was forced to sign an agreement (The Arusha Accords) providing for a transitional government and elections.

Had the elections gone ahead, the Habyarimana regime was very unlikely to have survived. It therefore faced a deep crisis. Habyarimana himself might not have contemplated genocide as a ‘scapegoating’ way out, but he had created a machine which was quite ready for such work, and had been preparing for it for some time. Killing a million people requires organisation. Since the RPF incursions of 1990, a whole set up of roadblocks, gendarmerie and local militias (the interahamwe) had been created. These were honed in a series of massacres during 1991 and 1992. Mass killing also requires the efficient targeting of victims. The system of identity cards, which had been rigidly kept and updated, made it easy for Tutsis to be selected.

Throughout 1993 more and more of the population were armed. Many of the arms were ‘low-tech weapons’ like machetes, studded clubs, knives and spears. A large number of machetes were imported from China in the years before the 1994 killings. But more advanced weapons were also important. [53] The major arms suppliers to the Rwandese government were France, Egypt and South Africa. Before 1990 Belgium was a leading supplier. In 1991-1992 France supplied at least 6 million dollars worth of equipment, training and 700 troops up to 1993. President Habyarimana was supplied with a personal plane by Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of the French president.

Habyarimana was also being pushed by international pressure to allow reform. In April 1994 he flew to Tanzania and, much against his will, was persuaded by neighbouring governments to pledge almost immediate implementation of the Arusha Accords. On the next evening his plane was shot down as it neared Kigali airport and Habyarimana was killed. The government blamed the RPF, or the Belgians, or even the United Nations. Most commentators believe that Hutu extremists, who had of course been encouraged by Habyarimana for decades, were responsible. They had turned on the president for ‘selling out’.

Whoever fired the crucial missile, Habyarimana’s death was the signal for the killing to begin. In the next three months around 1 million people died.

Did everyone take part?

In one respect the Rwandan slaughter seems to be even worse than the Holocaust. The Nazis’ murder of the Jews was (despite recent efforts to prove the contrary) carried out by a tiny minority of the population, almost all of them state functionaries. The reverse was apparently true in Rwanda. Fergal Keane describes the April 1994 killings as ‘a crime of mass complicity’ in which the educated elite shared with the ragged peasants and the soldiers the fact that ‘they were drowning in the blood of their fellow countrymen’. [54]

Radio stations called for genocide; on 6 April 1994 Radio Télévision Libres des Milles Collines,

told the Hutu population ‘the Tutsis need to be killed’. It called on people to ‘hunt out the Tutsi’. It asked Rwandans ‘the grave is half-empty, who will help to fill it?’ [55]

An earlier programme had featured the president of the radio station, Felien Kabuga. He reminded his listeners of the myth that Tutsis had originated in Ethiopia and urged them to ‘send the Tutsi home by the rivers’. [56] Radio Rwanda, the equivalent of our BBC, was even more disastrously effective. An opposition journalist says:

Radio Rwanda was more veiled and ambiguous. But of course all Rwandans knew the message. They would make statements like, ‘The enemy – we know him. We only have one enemy; it is he who has never accepted the fact of the republic. The majority of the population, rise up and make sure that the enemy and his accomplices are not around you’. [57]

Many ordinary people ended up taking part in the killings. But immense intimidation, terror and pressure was used by the small core of dedicated murderers to achieve this. Those who initiated the bloodshed wanted to create ‘a community of murderers’ so that all were implicated. The first targets of the killers on 6 April were not Tutsis but opposition Hutus.

In the first two days of the killing, the great majority of victims were prominent politicians, senior civil servants, wealthy businessmen with ties to the political opposition, critical journalists and human rights activists. Most were Hutu. [58]

The intention was to physically remove the threat of Hutus resisting the butchery.

All the leading figures of the opposition parties were wiped out, except for the cases where they embraced the carnage. When state officials (mostly Hutus) or civil servants were regarded as suspect or refused to organise slaughter, they were themselves killed. Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana, [59] the prefect of Butare, was opposed to unleashing the killers in his area. He was removed and subsequently killed, together with his family.

Journalists were also early targets. The regime had repressed dissent for years but after 6 April ‘censorship and harassment took their ultimate form: mass murder’. [60] Human rights activists and lawyers were also hunted. Hundreds of those in ‘subversive‘ groups like the Association of Peace Volunteers and the Christian League for the Defence of Human Rights in Rwanda were killed. Their views had to be smashed. It is essential to emphasise that even after the killing had become widespread:

Under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances imaginable, many ordinary Rwandese did their utmost to resist the genocidal slaughter ... Throughout the country ordinary Hutu people concealed Tutsi. They knew that the price of being discovered was probably death. [61]

The penalties for those who aided Tutsis were indeed barbaric. Boniface Ndekezi, a peasant from Gitarama, recalls:

The interahamwe came to search our house. They found a Tutsi my father had hidden. They not only killed the Tutsi, they also killed seven members of our family, my father, my brother and five sisters. They killed everybody they found in the house. [62]

Even the slightest respect to Tutsis could lead to death. [63]

There was also an important class element. ‘Among a wide range of Tutsis there was a consensus that uneducated farmers were far more helpful and courageous than those “who sat in offices and understood the politics at hand”.’ [64] It is the great strength of the African Rights book that it insists on the way in which ordinary people frequently reacted against the massacres and only took part after the most ferocious pressure. Fergal Keane seems much less aware of this critical point. In contrast to the heroism of peasants, the hundreds of French and Belgian troops were ordered by their governments not to stand in the way of genocide. As mass killing began, some Tutsis were slaughtered under the eyes of the French or Belgian soldiers, who did not react. The French embassy’s Tutsi personnel were abandoned to certain death. Leading figures of the Habyarimana regime were welcomed into sanctuary by the French authorities. Ordinary people clinging to the gates were pushed back by the gendarmes.

The killings continued for three months before France again decided to intervene. In June Mitterrand launched Operation Turquoise, stressing ‘humanitarian motives’. A powerful armada was sent – 2,500 men with more than 100 armoured vehicles, artillery batteries, ten helicopters and jets for air cover. The force was hugely welcomed by the retreating government forces which by this time were on the verge of total defeat by the RPF. Prunier writes that enormous French tricolours were displayed everywhere on government vehicles:

They proved to be an embarrassment, not only because of the press, but because, on seeing French flags, hidden Tutsi would come out of hiding only to be immediately killed by the soldiers of the militiamen. As a French solider protested, ‘I am fed up with being cheered along by murderers’. [65]

An eyewitness in Kigali in 1994 says it was common to hear the French president called ‘Mitterahamwe’. The sole effect of the French force was to protect some of the most bestial organisers of the genocide.

The killings stopped after the victory of the RPF forces, which had invaded as soon as the massacres began. Almost everyone who had been targeted was either dead, had fled or was in hiding. As the RPF swept to victory, another vast human tragedy unfolded. Millions of refugees moved into neighbouring countries, encouraged by the Hutu leaders to believe they would be massacred if they stayed. The RPF took over a country large parts of which were deserted.

The West made conditions especially hard for the new government in Rwanda. New loans were available, once the old ones had been cleared, so, for example, £100 million of World Bank money was held back because £3 million had not been paid by Habyarimana. [66] The new regime was initially a mixed Hutu-Tutsi administration, but last year several Hutus resigned or were sacked. Ostensibly in the search for those who led the genocide, 80,000 people have been locked up; nobody has yet been brought to trial. The Economist reports:

In one town, Cyangugu, all the Hutus were recently rounded up and forced to stand in a stadium without food or water until they identified the killers among them. Beneath its veneer does the RPF stand for Tutsi survival – or for Tutsi domination? [67]

Waiting for the next massacre

This tragedy has resulted from the development of capitalism, but capitalism itself has no answers to it. Perhaps if there was a sustained upturn in the world economy then the pressure towards violence might be lessened, but there is no sign of such an upturn and, if it comes, it is unlikely to last long. International capital has virtually abandoned any interest in Rwanda and Burundi. The death of a million in Rwanda did not cause the slightest tremor to the stock markets. Reformism also offers nothing. Even had the rulers of Rwanda and Burundi had noble motives (and they did not) they would have been broken by the markets, the demands of the IMF and the collapse of coffee and tin prices in 1986. The only hope for Rwanda and Burundi lies in developing the unity of ordinary people which has survived even in the most hostile conditions and despite the immense pressure from the top against it.

The only way that the unity will be realised is through common struggle in order to improve the lot of all the poor whatever identity card they carry, by battling against the rich, whatever group they come from. That will have to be a revolutionary fight. It is hard to see such an alternative emerging in the near future. Perhaps it will take the example of successful struggle by workers in Nigeria or South Africa or Zimbabwe to give it real impetus. Rosa Luxemburg’s account of the choice facing the world between socialism or barbarism is no longer a prediction. It is reality today in central Africa. Capitalism has indeed produced barbarism. Only workers’ struggle could end it.


1. F. Keane, Season of Blood, a Rwandan Journey (Penguin 1996), p. 29.

2. R. Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide (Cambridge University Press 1996), p. xxv.

3. As I wrote this article in the middle of October 1996, there were reports of fighting in eastern Zaire. The key elements in the conflict are the attempt by President Mobutu to deflect attention from his own problems and his theft of a country’s wealth by refusing to grant ‘foreigners’ citizenship and playing them off against other locals; Mobutu’s aid to the Hutu militia leaders who fled Rwanda in 1994; the hundreds of thousands of Rwandese refugees who remain in terrible conditions in refugee camps in Zaire and are bitter at their suffering over the last two years; the willingness of the Rwandese and Burundian governments to arm their Tutsi supporters in Kivu; the desperation of all ordinary people in the area who feel on the brink of starvation and in competition with each other. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Zaire spoke recently of ‘government sponsored massacres’. The UN also claims that several murderous militias have already committed terrible crimes. See, for example, The Economist, 19 October 1996.

4. There is a fierce debate about practically all the elements I describe here. For example, W. Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Dar-es-Salam 1971), D. Newbury in The Invention of Rwanda: The Alchemy of Ethnicity (University of North Carolina 1995). There is a good discussion of these issues in M. Mamdani, From Conquest to Consent as the Basis of State Formation: Reflections on Rwanda, New Left Review 216.

5. African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance (London 1995), p. 3.

6. Ibid.

7. G. Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (London 1995), p. 19.

8. Ibid., p. 15.

9. Ibid., p. 3.

10. F. Reyntjens, Burundi: Breaking the Cycle of Violence (Minority Rights Group 1995), p. 7.

11. P. Gourevitch, The Poisoned Country, The New York Review of Books, 6 June 1996.

12. F. Reyntjens, op. cit., p. 7.

13. African Rights, op. cit., p. 5.

14. M. Mamdani, op. cit., p. 5.

15. African Rights, op. cit., p. 648.

16. G. Prunier, op. cit., p. 25:‘Thus from the start the European presence was a determining factor in reinforcing the mwamiship, the chiefly hierarchy and the court’s increasing hold over the lightly-controlled peripheral areas’.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., p. 26.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p. 6.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., p. 8.

23. Ibid., p. 27.

24. Ibid., p. 35.

25. Ibid., p. 50.

26. Ibid., pp. 38–39.

27. Ibid., p. 39.

28. African Rights, op. cit., p. 11.

29. African Rights, op. cit., pp. 11–12.

30. Ibid., p. 13.

31. R. Lemarchand, op. cit., p. 55.

32. Ibid., p. 59.

33. Ibid., p. 66.

34. Ibid., p. 72.

35. Ibid., p. 97.

36. Ibid., p. 102.

37. Ibid., p. 103.

38. Ibid., p. 97.

39. Ibid., p. 130.

40. Ibid., p. 107.

41. Ibid.

42. G. Prunier, op. cit., p. 75.

43. Ibid., p. 76.

44. Ibid., p. 77.

45. Ibid., p. 84.

46. Ibid., p. 88.

47. African Rights, op. cit., p. 20: ‘The structural adjustment programme not only choked off any possibility of new recruitment into the bureaucratic pyramid, but threatened the jobs of those who were already there. Low ranking officials in the villages – including administrators, teachers, agricultural extension workers, health workers and policemen – saw their prospects of promotion vanish, and even faced the possibility of losing their jobs altogether.’

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid., p. 24.

50. G. Prunier, op. cit., p. 151.

51. Ibid., p. 107.

52. Ibid., p. 352.

53. Guns were quite scarce in 1994. Victims were sometimes offered the choice of being chopped to death or paying a large sum to be shot.

54. F. Keane, op. cit., p. 29.

55. African Rights, op. cit., p. 80.

56. Ibid., p. 79.

57. Ibid., p. 85.

58. Ibid., p. 178.

59. This Habyarimana was no relative of the country’s leader. In Rwanda and Burundi parents choose surnames for the children as well as first names, so people are often named after leading figures.

60. African Rights, op. cit., p. 201.

61. Ibid., pp. xxvii/xxviii

62. Ibid., p. 1017.

63. Ibid., p. 1022.

64. Ibid., p. 1024.

65. G. Prunier, op. cit., p. 292. Given how clear Prunier is about the French invasion, it is remarkable that in November 1996 he saw French intervention as the only way forward in eastern Zaire.

66. Ibid., p. 336.

67. The Economist, 19 October 1996.

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