In 1994, the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana sparked a civil war that would, by its end, claim the lives of over a million Rwandans.
Ensuing interpretations and understandings of why and how the civil war had happened, especially by the media, largely fell into one camp. The violence occurred along what seemed to be ethnic lines. – many of the victims were “Tutsi” and most of the perpetrators were “Hutu.” Hutus had gained power upon Rwanda’s independence from Belgium, after a long history of Tutsi rule over the Hutu people, both in precolonial and colonial times. During President Habyarimana’s rule, a rebel Tutsi group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), organized in neighboring Uganda, bringing together displaced Tutsis who had sought refuge in Uganda from President Habyarimana’s ethnic rule, and seeking ultimately to overthrow his government. Recognizing this threat, President Habyarimana signed the Arusha Accords, in which he agreed to hold multiparty elections with RPF. On his way back, however, his plane was shot down, and Hutu militia groups blamed the killing on the RPF, initiating massive violence against all Tutsis in the country. The genocide, therefore, was the culmination of thousands of years of built-up ethnic tensions. (“Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened,” BBC)
Closer study of the “Hutu” and “Tutsi” identities reveals a much more complex picture – a picture, in fact, that is contrary to the prevailing understanding of these identities as “ethnic groups” and the genocide as an “ethnic conflict.”
Ethnic groups are identities with distinct claims to cultural artifacts, such as place of origin and language. The Hutu and Tutsi distinction, however, does not seem to be based on cultural lines. Rwanda, in fact, is largely culturally homogeneous, bound under a single language – Kinyarwanda (Mamdani, 51-53). Even if these groups were perhaps culturally disparate at an early point in history, extensive levels of cohabitation and intermarriage have blurred these distinctions. Thus, ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ are not ethnic categories.
The political nature of these sub-Rwandan identities suggests that they are racial, rather than ethnic. The Hutu and Tutsi identities surfaced in the centralization of the Rwandan Kingdom. Prior to the Kingdom, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi were vague at best. During the reign of Mwami Kigeri Rwabugiri, the Rwandan state expanded geographically, and simultaneously underwent a process of political centralization (Mamdani, 69-70). Tutsis were often the ruling elite, while the term ‘Hutu’ emerged as a general term for administrators and other subjects (Mamdani, 71). Centralization, and the unequal distribution of political power, led to the formation of Tutsi and Hutu identities.
Rwanda’s colonial experience further racialized the two identities. Belgians employed a system of indirect rule, placing Tutsis as rulers over Hutus. The political identities that emerged in the process of centralization then became solidified as racial categories during Belgian rule through differential education, censuses, and identity cards (Mamdani, 99-102). Furthermore, in order to justify such a system, Belgians claimed that the Tutsis had phenotypical characteristics similar to Europeans and unlike the African features of Hutus. Whether these phenotypical distinctions were true, their assignment imply correspondence of the two Rwandan identities to the white-black racial distinction prominent in Western states.
One way that Rwandan racial relations diverge from racial relations in other countries is that tensions did not occur on strictly racial terms. Given the racial order in Rwanda, one would predict the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide to have lashed out at Tutsis only. However, Tutsis were not the only victims of the genocide, as Hutus who did not cooperate with the genocide were also killed (Reyntjens, 178).
One explanation for this is that race was a tool for obtaining power. The Rwandan state had become so centralized that the division between those who did, or did not, have political power overtook the division between races. In other words, the perpetrators of the genocide were more concerned with power-grabbing than with racial conflict. Language of racial hatred certainly dominated the genocidal campaign, but political power, not race, was the primary motivation for these killings.
In more recent years, the post-genocide Rwandan state has sought to de-racialize Rwandan society. In an attempt to create a unified Rwandan national identity, the government has declared anything that invokes racial divisions as illegal (Hintjens, 6; Lacey). It would be interesting to see whether these efforts will inadvertently engender the formation of a new racial order, in which Rwandans band as one race group, and those not included (such as those who come from the neighboring countries of Congo or Uganda) become another, inferior race group.