Ethnicity and the Origins of the Rwanda Genocide (under revision)

Ethnicity and the Origins of the Rwanda Genocide


This article does not set out to be comprehensive or definitive, rather to share some thoughts on a very complicated subject.

In Rwanda names have been given to three groups of people. I believe it is generally accepted that the (ba)Twa were the “original” inhabitants – that is those whom the people later called (ba)Hutu and (ba)Tutsis found there (in Rwanda, Burundi, and neighbouring parts of modern day DR Congo) and that they are related to other ‘pygmy’ groups, including those across the border in DR Congo and elsewhere. There is disagreement as to whether it can be demonstrated that the Tutsis and their Hima relatives (see my comments on “baHima” below) arrived in the region separately and later than the Hutus. It is thought that the Hutus may have started joining the Twa as early as 1000 AD, some saying that the people now known as Tutsis came in the 1500s. Many people would agree that there are observable physical differences between these groups, even today after quite a lot of inter-marriage has taken place.

Issues of ethnicity and race before and during the colonial era.

Ethnicity is hard to define, but is generally said to include the racial, religious and linguistic aspects of a people group. KinyaRwanda is the first language of most Rwandans, many speak kiSwahili to a passable level and, until 1994, French was the only European language used in education and was the language of government.

Race generally refers to the physical aspects of a people – skin colour, facial features, average height, etc.

About the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, it is often said that the Tutsis are on average taller, lighter skinned and their facial features are closer to those of Caucasians; whereas the Hutus tend to be shorter and darker skinned with broader bodies and features. Of course we should never let such observations become caricatures and within any racial group there is huge variety. Variety could be something to be celebrated. My experience in Uganda over 20 years is that there are certain physical features (facial, height, skin tone, other) that generally distinguish different tribes, notwithstanding periodic inter-marriage. I am not suggesting that the physical differences have any meaning per se except for being part of the whole spectrum of physical differences amongst human beings we see today, variety being the spice of life. Nor am I suggesting that those differences should ever be used as a justification for treating them differently or for national or local leadership to assign them different roles.

But, unlike other ethnically different people groups in Africa where a significant part of ethnic difference is language and a degree of physical separation, since recorded history began the Hutus and Tutsis have lived in the same communities, spoken the same language, worshipped the same god(s), and usually given their children the same names. So, at the onset of colonialism, to what extent were these two groups observably different? Were the colonial powers merely seeking tools to enable them to divide and rule? Did they create arbitrary definitions based on the observable differences and the numbers of cows owned? Did they find Hutus already cast in the role of crop-growers, and Tutsis as cattle owners (with all the potential for land-use conflict which that implies, as seen in Darfur and Abyei (Sudan), Karamoja (Uganda), etc.) or did they create those differences? Was conflict caused by the tendency for animal herders to believe they are superior to arable farmers, which goes back to the dawn of humanity (cf. Cain & Abel story)?

There is a large body of opinion that believes they had broadly different and complementary roles in the society. These two groups have probably always needed each other, though I am not sure about how that works for today in terms of careful use of land resources (that is another topic altogether). Did the Tutsis at some point begin to see themselves as superior and the ‘natural’ rulers?

What the colonialists did find was an organised monarchy, probably established in the Fifteenth Century as the result of one chiefdom gaining ascendancy over others. The kings and associated nobility were apparently mostly, but not exclusively Tutsi.

According to Human Rights Watch (who have researched far more extensively than I am able to do) the terms Hutu and Tutsi were used to describe occupational or status groups prior to the arrival of Europeans on the scene – people having larger numbers of cattle having higher status. They suggest that the precise definitions of Hutu and Tutsi may also have evolved to have meanings more directly associated with power or lack of it, a situation easily open to abuse by the colonialists. See: for a comprehensive view.

So it is not clear to what extent the peoples now known collectively as banyaRwanda, baRundi (and their relatives in today’s DR Congo) actually thought of themselves in terms of “them and us” and how much they might have used the terms Hutu and Tutsi and with what meanings. What is clear is that the original German colonialists, claiming their “spheres of influence” after the 1884/5 Berlin Conference, chose the people they called Tutsis – those who had lighter skin-colour and were more “European” looking, to be their sub-administrators with or without regard for their positions in the society of the time. (In neighbouring Uganda the British chose the baGanda to be their administrators.) But it may be asked, for example, how come most of those people had more cows? How come many of them had high positions in the monarchy administration? There was apparently some kind of class- or caste-like distinction between these people who also looked different. Some Europeans interpreted this (in a form they could understand) as a feudal society, probably wrongly. The Belgians, when given the Administration of the Ruanda-Urundi Protectorate by the League of Nations after World War I, continued along the same road and I believe it was they who conducted the Mengelian style “medical” experiments, measuring facial features etc.

There is a suggestion that physical differences may in part be explained by economic and dietary factors, the cattle keepers having a high protein and lactose diet which encouraged their growth, and the peasants having a diet with less protein accompanied by more physical work.

Ruanda-Urundi became a United Nations Trust Territory by the same name after World War II, and existed until Rwanda and Burundi were created as separate independent states in 1962.

There has been much discussion about the origin of the Tutsis – I have come across less discussion about Hutu origins (possibly because they are the larger of the two groups and so it seems less important to find out? or because they probably arrived further back in history and so it is more difficult to find out? I’m not sure). There is a body of thought, and perhaps some evidence, which suggests the Tutsis came from Ethiopia which would almost certainly make them ethnically Nilotic in origin – whereas the Hutus are almost certainly part of a huge sweep of Bantu tribes residing in many parts of western, central and southern Africa (the kinyaRwanda language belongs to the Bantu language group). So the suggestion is that the Tutsis arrived later than the Hutus, were assimilated, and adopted the language, which became kinyaRwanda.

There is considerable oral and other evidence that the Hutus (or baHutu) are related to the Hima (or baHima) of Uganda. The Hima are part of the banyaNkole tribe and within this tribe there are similar distinctions made between the baHima and baIru, as there are with the Tutsi and Hutu of Burundi and Rwanda. That is, the baIru have traditionally farmed the land, and the baHima have traditionally kept cattle; the baHima are the smaller group in number, and the baIru larger. Also there are similar differences of physical features between the parallel groups. Interestingly, unlike other Bantu tribes in Uganda, the baHima have names beginning with “Te”, a feature found also in Ethiopia, which suggests a possible linguistic connection.

Post-colonial considerations

In 1959, after the setting up of a strong Hutu-based political party there was severe unrest which led the killing of hundreds of Tutsis and their first major exile, largely to Uganda. The colonial administration, which by now knew its time was limited, had switched its support to the Hutu majority and did little to prevent these killings.

In 1961, following a referendum in which the majority Hutus voted to abolish the monarchy, a republic came into being and the last Mwami, Kigeri V was deposed and went into exile in the USA.

Ethnic tensions increased after independence in 1962, which is partly linked to the failure of an agricultural economy imposed by the growth of cash crops versus a more sustenance based agriculture.

However, many believe that significant blame for the factors leading to the Genocide must be taken by post-independence governments for perpetuating the differences previously exacerbated by the colonialists. As in colonial times National identity cards stated the ethnicity of the bearer. Ethnic-based discrimination in both directions was said to be rife in the first Hutu-led government, under (initially Provisional President Dominique Mbonyumutwa, and then) President Gregoire Kayibanda, which lasted until 1973. Tutsis may well have done better after Independence due to the advantages given them before. But they would have been understandably unhappy at programmes instituted by that government to reduce their numbers in the civil service, schools and universities to numbers proportionate to their size in society at large, however fair this might seem to the majority.

Nevertheless Kayibanda’s First Republic and Habyarimana’s Second Republic which followed were governments by the elite of an ethnic group (rather than by the group itself), and the majority of Hutus remained poor while the northern part of the Hutu population seemingly had little representation. Ethnic violence erupted again in 1972 resulting in more killings of Tutsis and their going into exile.

The Government of Juvenal Habyarimana from 1972 to 1994 pursued an active policy of discrimination against the minority Tutsis, whose administrative and professional dominance was gradually eroded, sometimes by force. National identity cards continued to state the ‘tribe’ of the bearer. By and large refugees were not allowed to return. This government also created a northern-based elite.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s agriculture and the economy were affected by the global economic situation of the time (especially the collapse of the coffee price), the related effects of the World Bank Structural Adjustment programmes and increasing pressure on land use as the already dense population increased.

By 1990, the Habyarimana regime had been weakened by a number of factors – economic and financial crises, food shortages, increasing unpopularity of what was seen by many as a non-performing regime; there were demands for democracy from a sub-elite no longer prepared to tolerate the widespread corruption and growing regionalism, as well as pressures from overseas for western-style multi-party democracy. To revitalise its flagging popularity, the regime placed fresh emphasis on the question of ethnicity. During the next three years extremist Hutus, who felt that Habyarimana was in fact being too weak on these issues, began to encourage a groundswell of action against Tutsis. Many of these were in the Rwandan Army; there were also disenfranchised youth who became the feared Interahamwe bands of marauders, and many others. Arms imports increased, and machetes (known locally as pangas) were imported in far larger numbers than usual, supposedly for agricultural activity.

Under these two regimes, a highly centralised political and administrative system was set up in which ethnicity continued to be used as a tool of power and control. This enabled the systematic organisation of the Genocide in 1994 by hard-liners including the extreme Akayzu faction of Mme Habyarimana who were against any form of co-operation with the (then rebel) Rwanda Patriotic Front and were seeking to retain a hold on power by planning the Genocide not only for Tutsis, but for uncooperative Hutus. The killing of the latter was no spin-off.

The Twa were also involved in the Genocide: about 30 per cent of them died and it is said that some killed also.

The question of the Rwanda Patriotic Front

The shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane on the evening of 6th April 1994 sparked off what has become known as the Rwanda Genocide. The Presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi were killed in the incident. Who did it is a vexed question and far beyond the scope of this article. In terms of its effect it probably doesn’t matter who did it. If it had not happened, the Genocide would not have been averted, but without such a shock-trigger, might not have evolved as it did, and would probably have started a little later. The speed with which it did begin and spread after this incident suggests that the planning for it was in place, down to the organisation of disposal of the bodies.

I will not offer here details of the formation of the Rwanda Patriotic Army / Front (RPA /RPF) except to say that it was a rebel force, initially composed almost entirely of second-generation Tutsi refugees in Uganda, which began a guerrilla war in northern Rwanda in October 1990. It is possible that by conducting its operations at the time and in the manner in which it did, it encouraged the Hutu hard-liners to become more so and thus could be said to be a contributory factor to the Genocide. This may well be true, but conversely, that the RPF became a significant political player brought the Habyarimana government to the negotiation table over issues of democracy and the rights of refugees to return. But then this itself could also have contributed to the encouragement of the hard-liners to plan the Genocide. But it is doubtful if such an outcome could have been foreseen in 1990.

The formation of the RPF and its entry into the Rwandan political scene does however add an additional strand to the question of ethnicity. The fact that its composition is mainly of Tutsis who were born or grew to adulthood in anglophone Uganda meant that its members often used English to communicate. Most but not all of them would have spoken kinyaRwanda as their first language. Some would have spoken more luGanda, kiSwahili or English. So the entry into Rwandan public life of a large group of people, very few of whom had more than a smattering of the French language (and most none at all), and who had spent their formative years in a foreign country with only kiSwahili as a mutually intelligible language (mostly for trade), could be view by some as similar to being invaded by foreigners, and certainly another strand to the ethnic equation. This was increased by the additional influx of Ugandan-born Rwandans after the RPF gained control of Rwanda (and not a few other Ugandans eager to trade on the recovery period after the Genocide; most of these however did not stay long).

What is truth?

There is a body of thought (led in part by an advocate who worked at the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide in Arusha) which not so much denies that the Genocide took place, but states that more Hutus were killed by Tutsis (largely the RPA) than the other way round. To the current regime in Rwanda, this is an unwelcome view, but reports of RPA atrocities including many killings in Rwanda and in the Refugee camps in Zaire/DR Congo post-Genocide have been around for a long time and it is difficult to ignore them. I doubt the RPA/RPF is ‘squeaky clean’. A little can be found on this in the Human Rights Watch report mentioned above. The current regime has now taken to referring to the Rwanda Genocide as “The Genocide against the Tutsi”. To the extent that it was planned (and there is significant evidence that it was – e.g. the hate radio broadcasts encouraging the killing of the ‘cockroach’ Tutsis), this is semantically accurate – the planning of a genocide against the majority population would be very hard either to execute or prove. However, even discounting the issues of what happened in DR Congo in succeeding years (far beyond the scope of this article), few would disagree that Hutus numbered in the hundreds of thousands were murdered in 1994, whether for resisting the Genocide or in revenge attacks, and it seems inhumane to deny them recognition purely for the sake of observation of the strict interpretation of the word genocide.

This illustrates a part of the difficulty in establishing historical fact after the event. We know a lot of killings took place – we can talk to people who saw it or saw the bodies and we can see the skeletons; this has rightly been called a Genocide. Establishing who killed who may not always be as easy, especially as we tend to want to comfort ourselves with an impossibly uncomplicated understanding.

But we no longer have living witnesses to the pre-colonial societies in Africa. We have to look in our history books, likely biased, to tell us about that. We may investigate the availability of locally written history books about Rwanda. These are also likely to be biased. Otherwise we rely on oral history/tradition, received wisdom, and occasionally archaeology. To one degree or another all these can fail us, especially when influenced by more recent events, and the desire of politicians to put across a particular view.

Recommended Reading

Gourevitch, Philip (1998) We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. New York: Picador.

Kinzer, Stephen (2008) A Thousand Hills; Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It. New Jersey: Wiley.

Umutesi, Marie Beatrice (2004) Surviving the Slaughter: The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire. University of Wisconsin Press.

June 2011: this article is under revision.


In most African languages, prefixes are used to indicate person/people/language/land. In modern English usage we sometimes tend to drop the prefix and refer to the root only. In my initial mention of ethnic names of people or places I have usually used the form used by people who use the associated language but with the root capitalised, rather than the initial letter. This form was quite common in writings in English of the 19th and 20th Centuries and I find it helpful.

 © Nicholas Robert Jewitt and, 2009, 2010, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Robert Jewitt and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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