Colonial Influences on the Rwandan Genocide

Colonial Influences on the Rwandan Genocide

The Colonial Roots of the Rwanda Genocide

During a five-week period, between the second week of April and the third week of May in 1994 (Hintjens 241), close to 800,000 Rwandans were massacred (Storey 366-367). This represented a shocking 11% of the total population at the time. The killings continued into June of the same year, probably resulting in the deaths of another 50,000 men, women, and children. The vast majority of those massacred were Tutsi, but dissident Hutu were also killed. Although Belgian colonial rule ended in 1962, the roots for the Tutsi genocide can be traced to that period in the country’s history (“Rwanda: A Historical Chronology”). This report will examine how the colonial powers created conditions that would foster events eventually leading to the 1994 Tutsi genocide.

Why Does Genocide Exist?

Bradley Campbell briefly reviews the many explanations that have been proffered to help understand the phenomenon of genocide (151).1 A number of genocide ‘experts’ have proposed that the perpetrators are evil, insane, or criminal, but Campbell points out that perpetrators tend to characterize their victims using the very same words to justify genocide. Although the evil, insane, or criminal explanations for genocide tend to be viewed as distinct, all three could be grouped together if it can be assumed that they represent a moral vacuum. Campbell, however, argues that the perpetrators of genocide often rely on a collective morality to justify engaging in such a horrendous act. Genocide is therefore a moral act, not an act that can only occur in the absence of morality.

The commission of genocide is dependent on the collective actions of a large group (Campbell 153). Accordingly, centralized control made possible by governments, military organizations, or police agencies tend to increase the risk of genocide. Another common feature of genocide is that it is almost universally unilateral (Campbell 154). Genocide, as defined by Campbell, is therefore a moral, unilateral act committed by a large group of people against an ethnically-distinct group for the purpose of its destruction or elimination from a geographical region.

The other contributing factors to genocide are detailed by Campbell (160-167). Genocide participants need to be confined to a geographic location and the greater their immobility, the greater the risk of genocide. Both participants and victims must therefore live together in close proximity and be unable to easily emigrate or flee out of the area as the threat grows. The ethnicity of the perpetrators and victims must be distinct in some way, such that the greater the difference the greater the risk of genocide. Closely related to cultural distance is relational distance, which is the degree to which each group participates in the day-to-day lives of the other group. When two cultures become so enmeshed in each other’s lives the risk of genocide decreases accordingly. Another prominent contributing factor is functional independence, which is the extent to which each group depends on the other for their social, political, religious, and economic well-being. As independence increases, so does the risk of genocide. Inequality, another genocide risk factor, would have been enforced by the class system.

Moral Justification for 1994 Rwanda Genocide

In a manner surprisingly similar to the justifications used to persecute Jews in Nazi Germany, the Rwandan Hutus claimed that Tutsis were clannish and held too many influential positions in government, academia, and religious organizations (Campbell 155). In addition, Tutsi women were considered more attractive and prone to seducing and manipulating Hutu men, while at the same time treating Hutu men as unworthy of their affections. In 1993, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was blamed for the assassination of Habyarimana, the Hutu president of Burundi. This followed a war waged by the RFP rebel group against the Habyarimana government that resulted in a cease-fire agreement in 1992. The RFP consisted of Tutsi expatriates living in Uganda. Rwandan Hutus responded by claiming that all Tutsis were supporting the RFP in some way and their children would someday join the rebel group. The collective fear that grew out of this logic was that Tutsis would someday exterminate Hutus through genocide (Campbell, 156). Although genocide may be committed for utilitarian purposes, such as the accumulation of wealth, from Campbell’s perspective, most contemporary genocides are justified with moral logic.

Colonial Contributions to the Rwandan Genocide

In 1918, under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany relinquished Rwanda-Urundi to Belgian control because of its new status as a League of Nations protectorate (“Rwanda: A Historical Chronology”). Two Tutsi monarchies took over control of the two territories which later become Rwanda and Burundi; unfortunately, a class system was enforced by the colonial powers. The Tutsis became a minority ruling class and were afforded considerable privileges unavailable to the Hutu underclass. To enforce the class system, ethnic identity cards were introduced by the Belgian authorities in 1926. PARMEHUTU, the Party for the Emancipation of the Hutus, was formed in 1957. In 1959, the Hutus, representing 85% of the population, stood up to Belgian authorities and close to 150,000 Tutsis fled from Rwanda to Burundi and Uganda. The Belgian authorities organized elections in 1960 and the Hutus took over control of the local governments inside Rwanda. Between 1961 and 1962, Rwanda and Burundi split into two separate nations and the Belgians leave Rwanda. At the same time, Hutus organize a revolution that successfully overthrows the Tutsi-led central government in Rwanda. By the end of the revolution, more than 10,000 Tutsis had been massacred in Rwanda (Hintjens 248) and the Rwandan Tutsi population had been reduced by half as they fled the country (Storey 367). The Tutsi refugees, many of whom ended up in Uganda, would later become members of the RFP rebel group.

The blame for the class system existing in Rwanda and Burundi cannot be attributed solely to the German and Belgian colonial powers (Storey 366). Prior to Germany establishing a colonial government in the region, a class system already existed that placed Tutsis in the elite; however, movement between the classes did occur to some extent. When the Belgian authorities mandated ethnic identity cards, any movement between the classes was ended. Another colonial contribution to the 1994 genocide is autocratic rule. When Helen Hintjens visited Rwanda in the 1980s, she viewed first hand a remarkably clean and orderly society deserving of the title “the Switzerland of Africa” (244). There was ample clean water, electricity, health clinics, good schools, and agricultural improvements more commonly associated with Western societies; however, much was left unsaid at social gatherings concerning what was wrong with Rwandan society. From Hintjens perspective, the reason Rwanda eventually became a failed African state in the 1980s is because the central government effectively crushed its citizenry under a system of control networks that reached from the capitol into each household. The roots of this ‘Big Brother’ system of government can be found in the colonial control strategies instituted by the Belgian and German authorities, as exemplified by the ethnic identity cards.

Hintjens reviews the conclusions reached by African Rights, a London-based NGO, to further support her argument (245). Prior to the imposition of colonial power there was the possibility of upward social movement, but this was destroyed when the class system in existence was legally enforced by the colonial powers. This had the effect of creating a deep divide between the Tutsis and Hutus, one that had not existed before to that extent. The class system was in fact relied upon by the colonial powers to control the citizenry, which would have fostered resentment and discontent among the Hutus.

The final development that led to the 1994 genocide was the concentration of power in the hands of a few Hutu elite (Storey 367). In the aftermath of the Hutu revolution in 1959, Hutus from Southern Rwanda took control of the central government. In 1973, state power became concentrated into the hands of a few Northern Hutus, including President Habyarimana. The name given to this group was Akazu, which means ‘little house’ in Kinyarwanda. The Akazu consisted of the political and commercial interests of President Habyarimana and his wife, but the type of rule imposed on Rwandans was deemed corrupt and repressive, contributing to mass impoverishment. Outsiders likened the Habyarimana regime to a criminal organization. When the RFP invaded Rwanda in 1990, the persecution and killing of unarmed Tutsi civilians in Rwanda escalated. The responsibility for these covert actions have since been attributed to the Habyarimana regime, but at the time the genocidal intentions of this small group of Hutu ruling elite were kept hidden behind a wall of secrecy.

In a manner similar to the colonial powers that once ruled the region, Habyarimana and his henchmen were concerned about losing control of the government and began a well-orchestrated campaign designed to foster ethnic divisions between the Tutsi and Hutus (Hintjens 246). As Hintjens notes, this was not too hard given the historical divisions that had already been implemented by the colonial powers. The rumors of genocide that had been circulating inside Rwanda were not taken seriously by the Tutsi population, so when the genocide began in 1994 the Tutsi were caught by surprise. In support of Hintjens argument, Habyarimana’s henchmen also rid the country of Hutu political opponents (Storey 367). A year before the genocide, a power-sharing deal had been struck between Habyarimana and the RFP, but it was never implemented. The spark that seemed to ignite the genocide was the shooting down of the plane carrying Habyarimana in 1994. The RFP eventually defeated the Rwandan military later that year and an RFP-led government was established.


The factors that contributed to the 1994 Rwandan genocide were clearly influenced by colonial rule. Inequality was increased by the formal implementation of a class system. Cultural distance was increased when ethnicity became the basis for the colonial class system. Hutus and Tutsis were both invested in Rwanda so there would have been some immobility, but the greatest contribution to immobility would have been the veil of secrecy the Habyarimana regime maintained as they planned and orchestrated the genocide. Functional independence would likely not have been a contributing factor among the general public, since both Tutsi and Hutus had been living side-by-side and intermarrying since colonial rule ended; however, under President Habyarimana there would probably have been an increasing division between the ethnic groups economically and politically. These divisions would have been fostered by the periodic mass killings of unarmed Tutsis which they orchestrated. In the end, the Habyarimana regime took a page from the colonial rule book by fostering these divisions in the years leading up to the 1994 genocide. Together with the propaganda campaign denigrating Tutsis, a small group of powerful Hutus exploited the resources at their disposal and massacred over a tenth of their population to try and maintain political control of Rwanda. From a historical perspective, this would not have been possible without the German and Belgian colonial powers showing how a minority ethnic group can be manipulated into controlling a majority ethnic group.


1. Genocide is the mass killing of people based on their ethnicity (Campbell 150). The United Nations, however, defines genocide as the intentional destruction of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group through any number of means, including violence, repression, persecution, or eugenics (Campbell 152).

Works Cited

Campbell, Bradley. “Genocide as Social Control.” Sociological Theory 27.2 (2009): 150-72. Print.

Hintjens, Helen M. “Explaining the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.” Journal of Modern African Studies, 37.2 (1999): 241-86. Print.

“Rwanda: A Historical Chronology.” Frontline. n.d. Web. 7 May 2014.

Storey, Andy. “Structural Adjustment, State Power & Genocide: The World Bank & Rwanda.” Review of African Political Economy 28.89 (2001): 365-85. Print.

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