Decolonisation & Independence

Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi were colonised by Germany and later Belgium, both of which played on ethnic differences to divide and conquer the population. Power was concentrated in the hands of the minority Tutsi, with the Tutsi mwami (king) playing the central role in political and legislative decision-making.

In 1956 Mwami Rudahigwa called for independence from Belgium, which influenced Rwanda’s colonial occupiers to switch allegiance to the Hutu majority. The Tutsis favoured fast-track independence, while the Hutus wanted the introduction of democracy followed later by independence.

After the death of Rudahigwa in 1959, tribal tensions flared as the ‘Hutu Revolution’ resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 Tutsis. Another 150,000 Tutsis were driven from the country, and forced to resettle as refugees in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Following independence in 1962, the Hutu majority came to power under Prime Minister Gregoire Kayibanda, who introduced quotas for Tutsis that limited their opportunities for education and work. In the fresh round of bloodshed that followed, thousands more Tutsis were killed, and tens of thousands fled across the borders.

Intertribal tensions erupted once again in 1972 when tens of thousands of Hutu were massacred in Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated government in reprisal for a coup attempt. The slaughter reignited old hatreds in Rwanda, which prompted Major General Juvenal Habyarimana to oust Kayibanda in 1973.

During the early years of his regime, Habyarimana made progress towards healing tribal divisions, and the country enjoyed relative economic prosperity. However, events unfolding in Uganda in the 1980s were to have a profound impact on the future of Rwanda.

In 1986 Yoweri Museveni became president of Uganda after his National Resistance Army (NRA) fought a brutal bush war to remove General Tito Okello from power. One of Museveni’s key lieutenants was the current Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who capitalised on the victory by joining together with other exiled Tutsis to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

The Civil War Erupts

On 1 October 1990, 5000 well-armed soldiers of the RPF invaded Rwanda. All hell broke loose. Two days later at Habyarimana’s request, France, Belgium and the DRC flew in troops to help the Rwandan army repel the invasion.

With foreign support assured, the Rwandan army went on a rampage against the Tutsis, as well as any Hutu suspected of having collaborated with the RPF. Thousands of people were shot or hacked to death, and countless others indiscriminately arrested, herded into football stadiums or police stations and left there without food or water for days.

Many died. Congolese Hutu troops joined in the carnage. Once again thousands of Tutsi refugees fled to Uganda. However, the initial setback for the RPF was only temporary as President Museveni was keen to see the repatriation of the now 250,000 Tutsi refugees living in western Uganda.

While he fervently denied such allegations, Museveni allegedly helped to reorganise and re-equip the RPF. In 1991, Kagame’s forces invaded Rwanda for a second time, and by 1993 were garrisoned only 25km outside of Kigali.

With Habyarimana backed into a corner, the warring parties were brought to the negotiating table in Arusha, Tanzania. Negotiations stalled, hostilities were renewed, and French troops were flown in to protect foreign nationals in Kigali, though they were accused by the RPF of assisting the Rwandan army. A report released in 2008 by the Rwandan government accused the French government of committing war crimes, though all allegations were fervently denied by the French.

Meanwhile, with morale in the Rwandan army fading fast, the RPF launched an all-out offensive on the capital. Once again backed into a corner, Habyarimana invited the RPF to attend a conference of regional presidents. Power-sharing was on the agenda.

Tragically, on 6 April 1994, the aeroplane carrying Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while on approach to Kigali airport. It will probably never be known who fired the missile, though most observers believe it was Hutu extremists who had been espousing ethnic cleansing over the airwaves of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines.

Regardless of who was responsible, the event unleashed one of the 20th century’s worst explosions of bloodletting.

The Genocide

In the 100 days that followed, extremists among Habyarimana’s Hutu political and military supporters embarked on a well-planned ‘final solution’ to the Tutsi ‘problem’. One of the principal architects of the genocide was the cabinet chief of the Ministry of Defence, Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, who had been in charge of training the Interahamwe (‘those who stand together’) militia for more than a year.

One of Bagosora’s first acts was to direct the army to kill the ‘moderate’ Hutu prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, as well as 10 Belgian UN peacekeepers. The killing of the UN peacekeepers prompted Belgium to withdraw all of its troops – precisely what Bagosora had calculated – which paved the way for the genocide to begin in earnest.

Rwandan army and Interahamwe death squads ranged at will over the countryside, killing, looting and burning, and roadblocks were set up in every town and city to prevent Tutsis from escaping. Every day, thousands of Tutsi and any Hutu suspected of sympathising with them or their plight were butchered on the spot. The streets of Kigali were littered with dismembered corpses, and the stench of rotting flesh was everywhere.

Those who attempted to take refuge in religious missions or churches often did so in vain. In some cases, it was the nuns and priests themselves who betrayed the fugitives to the death squads. Any mission that refused the death squads access was simply blown apart.

Perhaps the most shocking part of the tragedy was the willingness with which ordinary Hutu – men, women and even children as young as 10 years old – joined in the carnage. The perpetrators of the massacre were caught up in a tide of blind hatred, fear and mob mentality, which was inspired, controlled and promoted under the direction of their political and military leaders.

The UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was in Rwanda throughout the genocide, but was powerless to prevent the killing due to an ineffective mandate. Although UN Force Commander Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire had been warning senior UN staff and diplomats about the coming bloodshed, his warnings went unheeded.

The international community left Rwanda to face its fate. While the RPF eventually succeeded in pushing the Rwandan army and the Interahamwe into the DRC and Burundi, around a million people were killed, while another two million were huddled in refugee camps across the borders.

UNAMIR was finally reinforced and given a more open mandate in July, but it was in the words of Dallaire, ‘too much, too late’. The genocide was already over – the RPF had taken control of Kigali.

The Aftermath

Of course, that is far from the end of the story. Within a year of the RPF victory, a legal commission was set up in Arusha, Tanzania, to try those accused of involvement in the genocide. However, many of the main perpetrators – the Interahamwe and former senior army officers – fled into exile beyond the reach of the RPF.

Some went to Kenya, where they enjoyed the protection of President Moi, who long refused to hand them over. Others – including Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, the principal architect of the genocide, and Ferdinand Nahimana, the director of the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which actively encouraged Hutus to butcher Tutsis – fled to Cameroon where they enjoyed the protection of that country’s security boss, Jean Fochive. However, when Fochive was sacked by the newly elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, the Rwandan exiles were arrested.

Of greater importance were the activities of the Interahamwe and former army personnel in the refugee camps of the DRC and Tanzania. Determined to continue their fight against the RPF, they spread fear among the refugees that if they returned to Rwanda, they would be killed. When Rwanda began to demand the repatriation of the refugees, the grip of the Interahamwe on the camps was so complete that few dared move.

What was of most concern to the RPF was that the Interahamwe was using the refugee camps as staging posts for raids into Rwanda, with the complicity of the Congolese army. By 1996 Rwanda was openly warning the DRC that if these raids did not stop, the consequences would be dire.

The raids continued, and the RPF held true to its threat by mounting a lightning strike two-day campaign into the DRC, targeting one of the main refugee camps north of Goma. The Interahamwe fled deep into the jungles of the Congo, which allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to return home to Rwanda.

Events changed in October 1996 when a guerrilla movement known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaïre, led by Laurent Kabila, emerged with the secret support of Rwanda and Uganda. The rebels, ably supported by Rwandan and Ugandan regulars, swept through the eastern DRC, and by December were in control of every town and city in the region.

The Congolese army, alongside the Interahamwe and former Rwandan army personnel, retreated west in disarray towards Kisangani, looting and pillaging as they went. However, the grip the Interahamwe had on the refugee camps was finally broken, which allowed the remaining refugees to stream back into Rwanda, not only from the DRC but also from Tanzania.

Faced with a huge refugee resettlement task, the government began to build new villages throughout the country. Huge tracts of Parc National de l’Akagera were de-gazetted as a national park and given over to this ‘villagisation’ program, along with much of the northwest region, which had previously hosted some of the most intense battles of the civil war.

The Healing Begins

Rwanda has done a remarkable job healing its wounds and has achieved an astonishing level of safety and security in a remarkably short space of time – albeit with considerable help from a guilty international community that ignored the country in its darkest hour. Visiting Kigali today, it is hard to believe the horror that swept across this land in 1994.

On the international front, however, things have been rather less remarkable. In 1998 Rwanda and Uganda joined forces to oust their former ally Laurent Kabila who was then president of the DRC. What ensued was Africa’s first great war, sucking in as many as nine neighbours at its height and costing an estimated three to five million deaths, mostly from disease and starvation.

Rwanda and Uganda soon fell out, squabbling over the rich resources that were there for the plunder in the DRC. Rwanda backed the Rally for Congolese Democracy, Uganda the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo and the two countries fought out a brutal and prolonged proxy war.

Peace treaties were signed in 2002 and foreign forces were withdrawn from the DRC, though, if and when an international inquiry is launched, Rwanda may find itself facing accusations of war crimes. Rwanda’s motives for entering the fray were to wipe out remnants of the Interahamwe militia and former soldiers responsible for the genocide, but somewhere along the line, elements in the army may have lost sight of the mission. A leaked 2010 report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has even accused the current Rwandan administration of committing genocide against Hutus in the DRC. And in 2012 a rebel militia in the DRC, the M23, took over large tracts of eastern DRC, including the Congolese side of the Virungas and even, briefly, Goma. Both Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of supporting and equipping the M23 rebels.

Back on the domestic front, Paul Kagame assumed the presidency in 2000 and was overwhelmingly endorsed at the ballot box in presidential elections in 2003 and 2010 that saw him take 95% and 93% of the vote respectively. However, his rule has become increasingly autocratic, with opposition groups silenced, civil society being stifled and many journalists being harassed and even imprisoned. A 2015 referendum gave Kagame a mandate to run again for election until 2034, with an incredible 98% of voters supporting a side-stepping of the constitution. While it's undeniable that Kagame is hugely popular in Rwanda, many commentators have suggested that the move is incompatible with the country's otherwise impressively progressive politics.