- Re-imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Twentieth Century
Following World War I, Belgium was handed the north-western corner of German East Africa as one means of compensating her for the losses suffered during the German occupation of the homeland. This became the Trust Territory of Ruanda-Urundi and it was administered according to the fashionable principles of 'indirect rule' via native customs suitably modified. The Germans had never put into practice their intention of connecting this area to their colonial railway system. It was remote, commercially undeveloped and experienced only by a tiny stratum of European officials. However, much of it consisted of fertile, volcanic soil and the population density was very high; unsurprisingly it became a major source of migrant labour, an economic strategy that went well with retaining powerful chiefly prerogatives. A striking feature of the local society was the prestige accorded to cattle-owning lineages identified as Tutsi; the origins of the Tutsi and the extent to which they constituted a caste or class apart before colonialism has been chewed over repeatedly by scholars for decades. Certainly Tutsi superiority was enshrined and utilised under the Belgians in the inter-war period.
Given the involvement of the UNO, this territory could not be shielded from nationalist movements and the transition to self-government in the way the Belgians tried to do in their huge adjoining colony, the Congo. As they moved towards devolution into 'restored' independent kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi, however, the Belgians found a rapidly shifting situation under their noses. The Tutsi elite began to flirt with Patrice [End Page 116] Lumumba, Congolese nationalists and NATO's Communist enemies. As a result, it was not uncongenial to resort to an emerging alternative: the Bahutu cultivators, who felt repressed in the colonial system, constituted a majority in a democratic dispensation and were likely to turn against the Tutsi. Indeed educated Hutu consciously challenged the Tutsi and the introduction of elections was accompanied by unrest and violence that threatened the power of Tutsi chiefs in the countryside of Rwanda. In Rwanda, independence was accompanied by the exodus of many frightened and angry Tutsi, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic which identified itself as the voice of the repressed Hutu majority.1 This new state was uninterested in the radical ambitions of Ghana or Tanzania and promoted itself as a worthy recipient of Western development aid, especially aimed at agriculturalists. One result was the production over time of a scholarly literature by sympathetic foreigners who explored the inequities of the old social system and the way Belgium had manipulated the Tutsi-Hutu divide. Alison Des Forges, Ian Linden, Catherine and David Newbury and, amongst French authors, Claudine Vidal, are all familiar to me through producing excellent studies along these lines.
Then astonishingly, after a generation and more, history began to reverse itself. Armed Tutsi exiles in Uganda, deeply involved in Museveni's successful guerrilla war against the Obote II regime, were able to mount an increasingly significant armed rebellion on the Rwanda fringe. The Rwandan government had become corrupt and dominated by a small oligarchy and experienced growing pressure to institute multi-party democracy; a sticking point was the reluctance to re-absorb Tutsi exiles, many of whom had no right to settle in Uganda except as camp-dwelling refugees. Within Rwanda, Tutsi suffered considerable discrimination but continued to be numerous within the small minority of the highly educated and to a limited extent benefitted from a policy of limited reconciliation. In 1994, however, the rebels began to make major territorial gains and the potentially compromising Rwandan president and prime ministers were separately assassinated. The whole post-1960 political order was in question. For its ideologues and beneficiaries, it was much as though the world would look to the ANC if the Boeremag were on the verge of seizing power in Pretoria.
The result were the terrible massacres of defenseless Tutsi civilians within Rwanda as well as non-Tutsi thought to be hostile to the collapsing Hutu...