Encounters with conflict and peace

Independence: a messy power shift

The balance of power and influence between the Tutsi, Hutu and the Belgians in Rwanda began to change quickly in the years before independence…
Fergal Keane
The Belgians switch sides

The moves towards self-determination were under way across the continent of Africa, and the Belgians began to look warily at their current partners in the ruling and exploitation of Rwanda.

The Tutsis who had served their purpose well in the heyday of colonial power began to look very unpromising as potential rulers of a future independent Rwanda. Anything like a free vote would mean the end of Tutsi rule and the influence of the Belgians. To add to their fears the Belgians found themselves facing an increasingly confrontational attitude from the Tutsi-dominated National Rwandese Union. This party was also positioning itself for the post-independence battle for power and was keen to create a distance between itself and the former colonial masters.

The Belgians came to recognise the inevitability of Hutu rule, promptly switched sides and began to support the PARMEHUTU (The Party for the Emancipation of the Hutus). Thus when the Tutsi monarch Mwaami Rudahigwa died in 1959 and Hutus rose in rebellion the Belgians did little or nothing to save the lives of the besieged Tutsis.

From Season of Blood. A Rwandan Journey

For Rwanda, independence in 1962 was not a ‘clean’ change of power. Many political opponents were killed. The new Hutu elite were not elected by the people they claimed to represent. For most Hutu peasants, life did not improve.

PETER UVIN: "The Kayibanda regime imprisoned, chased or killed most former Tutsi powerholders and all Tutsi politicians, even the most moderate, as well as a quite a few opposition Hutu politicians…

The second Republic (eleven years later) was an equally autocratic, military dictatorship. It killed many of the powerholders of the first Republic, and its internal security kept a tight lid on any opposition or dissent for more than a decade. The legal system was independent only in name and impunity (not being punished for crimes) was the norm ; regular popular elections were a farce in which Habyarimana was always re-elected with more than 95 percent of the vote; any form of critical press put the author's freedom at risk."

The system of “ethnic” identity papers introduced by the Belgians was carried on by the new Hutu regimes. In normal times, the discrimination against the Tutsi was relatively low level - more a built-in reminder that they were considered separate and second-class.
Peter Uvin

“In crisis times, it did provide a tool that could be activated to discriminate against Tutsi. That happened in 1972-3… Unhappy with the slow speed of development, popular unrest broke out. Mass anti-Tutsi campaigns were orchestrated… thousands of Tutsi youth were kicked out of schools, adults lost their jobs, people were killed, others fled the country....”

Selling a racist ideology

Despite their policies of discrimination, the pressure was on each new regime to be recognised by Hutus, Tutsis and mzungu (whites) as a legitimate government. To maintain their hold on power, they needed to sell their racist ideologies to each group in different ways…

selling it to the Hutu majority...
To the Hutu (the people they claimed to represent) they said, “we are the people best suited to lead this country - your life will be better under us. We are your only defence against the Tutsis evil attempts to enslave you again.”

selling it to the Tutsi minority...
To the Tutsi (who they had overthrown) they said, “ we are in control now. This is a ‘social revolution.’ For the good of all Rwandans, we will not tolerate any opposition or dissent.”

selling it to the mzungu...
To the mzungu (the whites still in Rwanda, and in foreign agencies and governments) they said, “ this is a healthy move from the old colonialism to new independence - a transition to democratic rule by the majority. We will be your best partners in working for the development of Africa.”

It put an attractive spin on ugly discrimination, and, for some, the tactic worked...
Peter Uvin

“This ideology was backed by the Church as well as many foreigners, who accepted its claims to progressiveness and democracy… In the words of a Physicians for Human Rights report: "Habyarimana fostered ‘ethnic’ politics to divert attention from the nation's poverty and intra-Hutu political divisions.”

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