Rwanda, A Genocide That Isn’t Over: Part I

Rwanda, A Genocide That Isn’t Over: Part I

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John Ahni Schertow
January 3, 2007

By Richard Seymour. Rwanda’s Genocide and the Myth of Western Non-Intervention

The officially sanctioned gesture, when reminded of Rwanda, is to shake one’s head and say “Never Again”. What do you mean “Never Again”? The murder hasn’t stopped – it has slowed down and moved to another country. The murder of up to one million people in 100 days stands out and understandably rivets the attention to that horrendous period in April 1994. What is more, we have a confession from the Hutu leader Kambanda, currently being held in Mali, that there was a plan to exterminate the Tutsis, and that programme was carried out very precisely. But the causes of that genocide were deeper and broader than the plot itself, and the murder didn’t stop there, and it isn’t over, and we’ve got to stop pretending that it is. You can’t talk about Rwanda and Burundi without that leading on to the Congolese Civil War, which leads into the local states system and superordinate powers like the U.S. and Europe, which have interest in the resources and economic capital, and you can’t talk about any of these issues without getting to the bottom line, which is loot.

Take Rwanda. If you politicized sometime after that massacre, you would have come to the topic bewildered by a blizzard of ethnic designations – Hutus, Tutsis and Twa – as if that explained what happened. As if it was a mere recrudescence of some ancient caste hatred or, well, often nothing even as specific as that. I even heard it referred to as “black-on-black violence”. Indeed, according to Mahmood Mamdani (Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror) the use of that phrase goes back as far as the 1970s when it was used alongside “tribalism” to summarize the violence of the far right Renamo in Mozambique or the insurgency of the Inkatha Freedom Party in South Africa.

There were and are Hutus, Tutsis and Twa in both Rwanda and Burundi, with roughly 85% Hutus, 15% Tutsis, and a very small minority of Twa. But how distinct the Hutus and Tutsis really are or were is a matter of considerable debate. For all the talk of physical differences that one has heard, the years of intermarriage between the groups would have effaced that – it is a telling point that no one was killed in that genocide because of their ‘willowy’ physique or height or nose length: rather the genocidaires relied on the possession of ID cards or on information supplied by others in any particular village. Some argue that the Tutsis were an extraneous group that moved into Rwanda several hundred years ago, while others think these are fairly recent developments. But of what significance are these distinctions at any rate? It was certainly true that one Tutsi clan appears to have attained hegemony within a semi-feudal state before the arrival of colonial powers. But there were poor Tutsis and Hutus were involved in the ruling elite: what is more, one could be born a Hutu and die a Tutsi. The anthropologist Richard Robbins in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism put it like this:

If we examine cases of purported ethnic conflict we generally find that it involve more than ancient hatred; even the ‘hatreds’ we find are relatively recent, and constructed by those ethnic entrepreneurs taking advantage of situations rooted deep in colonial domination and fed by neocolonial exploitation.

Obviously, there is a colonial history here, as Linda Melvern discusses in her book Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, and it is rooted in the Scramble for Africa and the Berlin Conference in 1884, in which Germany was awarded Rwanda and Burundi, which were fused under ‘German East Africa’. Their rule was brief and made little impact on the society compared to the Belgian colonists who took over both Rwanda and Burundi after World War I under the rubric of “Wilsonian idealism” and a League of Nations mandate. The new rulers substantially disrupted the old system of governance, intensified exploitation and set up forced labour with institutionalized cruelty. They introduced the first identity cards in 1933, doling out the identifications of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa somewhat arbitrarily. Hutu were particularly disadvantaged and oppressed under Belgian rule.

And it was the Hutu that were to begin an uprising against their subordination in 1957, when the genocide leader Kambanda was only two years old, believing that Tutsi supremacy was the problem. In ending Belgian colonialism, they did not intend to allow the restoration of dynastic Tutsi rule. And there were Tutsi supremacists who felt that Hutus were naturally subservient, a belief undoubtedly encouraged over decades by colonial travelers and observers like John Hanning Speke who thought that they were a superior race with intelligence “rare among primitive people” or the Belgian administrator Count Renaud de Briey, who casually ruminated that the Tutsi could very well be the last survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis.

The UN, in response to the Hutu uprising, called on the colonists to be nice to the Hutu and try to keep the fighting “races” apart. The Belgians seem to have decided to accommodate this into a strategy of dividing and ruling, and began to oust Tutsi from leading positions and systematic violence was initiated against Tutsi families. The UN concluded that it was “Nazism” against the Tutsi minority. It was a successful divide and rule policy. As Charlie Kimber shows in this article, beyond the minority of Tutsi who were part of the state system under colonialism, there was hardly a difference in class status between the two groups, with the Tutsi and Hutu average family income being 4,439 and 4,249 francs, respectively.

And yet: “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.”

There had been no trace of this in precolonial Rwanda and Burundi. But when Rwandan independence was declared in 1962, it wasn’t because of a nationalist revolt inspired by socialism. It was probably the most conservative state in Africa. Postcolonial elites in both Burundi and Rwanda embraced ‘ethnic’ politics, and it became a means of governments retaining control over the populace, especially when fluctuations in the prices of key exports led very directly to instability for the government in question.

In Rwanda, the genocide was an extension of the logic of civil war created by the destabilization of a Hutu nationalist government under President Habyarimana that was entirely at the mercy of international commodity prices (particularly of coffee and tin). The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), a group of largely Tutsi exiles who had been driven out of the country during massacres in the early days of independence and during Habyarimana’s ascent to power in 1973, and had fought with Yoweri Moseveni’s insurgency in Uganda to depose Milton Obote, noticed an opportunity following the global collapse in coffee prices in 1989 that resulted in a famine among small farmers in Rwanda as well as provoking a crisis in elite rule that had been highly dependent on the income from such commodities. Relying on foreign aid, it had to shore up its position internally. Aside from that, it had to cut deals with the IMF in 1990 and 1992 which predictably involved austerity programmes and devaluation of the currency – the latter can be good if you’re an export-led economy, but not if the price of your exports has already collapsed and the effect is to drive up the prices of imported goods like basic foodstuffs. The starving farmers had to simply uproot coffee trees and try to plant food crops and sell those instead – but cheap imports of food undercut them.

The Myth of Western non-intervention in Rwanda

So, in 1990, the RPF launched its insurgency. The French armed the government and put one of their officers in charge of the counterinsurgency operation. The escalation in oppression led to a rising tide of protest which the government dealt with in two ways: 1) introduce some modest democratic reforms; 2) build up death squads in the army (particularly the Interahamwe, who would go on to be central in the genocidal campaign), indoctrinated with anti-Tutsi racism. The government also used radio broadcasts to propagate fairly direct and unsophisticated messages denouncing attempts at making peace with the Tutsi. Yet by 1993, the RPF were marching on Kigali, and only French troops prevented them from reaching the city. Negotiations ensued, and the Arusha Accords were signed under the auspices of the OAU – but since Habyarimana would have substantial power stripped from him under the accords, he frustrated their implementation. In retrospect, it is hard to see how the accords were signed since it called for the Hutu nationalist regime to lose substantial control over the most important levers of state power, especially the army. At any rate, once Habyarimana was assassinated, presumably by individuals from within his own regime who feared that he would slowly acquiesce in a peaceful resolution, the genocide began.

During the genocide, as Linda Melvern has shown (especially in A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide, 2000), the West intervened constantly. The French surreptitiously backed the extremists carrying out the genocide through its Operation Turquoise, while the US and UK acted to suppress attempts by some in the UN to increase the presence and mandate there, despite full knowledge of what was afoot. In fact, they deliberately acted to withdraw the UNAMIR presence.

I have no illusions about the UN, but these actions would at least suggest that we’re beyond the myth of petrified negligence or even indifference – we’re talking about an active attempt to facilitate the genocide by removing an obstacle to it. They couldn’t even bring themselves to “jam” the radio broadcasts, essential to the conduct and expansion of the genocide. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the U.S. was indifferent, however: it supported the RPF’s military battle, and had trained Paul Kagame, the RPF’s leader, at Fort Leavenworth. But the genocide was directed at civilians, not at the RPF, who could defend themselves.

The murder has not yet ceased, and this is so as long as you see that this particular plot was embedded in a deeper and wider war related to the decline in state hegemony brought about by politically imposed economic catastrophe, in which millions already have died without having to see a gun or a machete. Where did the war move next?

The RPF did shortly win its war and deposed the regime, sending about a million Hutus (some of them guilty men) fleeing into neighbouring countries, mostly to what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was still ruled then by the CIA’s local kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko, and he found the regrouped Interahamwe (formed from among the refugees from the RPF advance) useful in terrorising opponents of his crumbling rule. The RPF government, for its part, backed Laurent Kabila’s opposition movement.

Part two of this article will deal with the Congolese Civil War and how it relates to Rawanda’s Genocide and the ongoing Genocide in Darfur.

Richard Seymour edits the weblog Lenin’s Tomb.

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