On the shores of Lake Kivu, Rwanda sits to the north of Burundi, the south of Uganda, the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to the west of Tanzania. The small, mountainous country was once renowned for its fertile soils, but is the most densely populated country in Africa, and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization has found that over 50 per cent of its arable land has now been widely degraded by erosion. Population pressure has also led to the intensive farming of marginal lands. Agricultural productivity has been in decline since the 1990s.

The German and subsequently Belgian policy of indirect rule (from 1899 and 1916 respectively), with its corresponding belief in the natural superiority of the Tutsis, served to reinforce Tutsi domination, as well as provoking resistance when Hutu chiefs in the north-west of the country were replaced with Tutsis. Colonial education policy systematically favoured Tutsis, who increasingly came to dominate the civil service and the economy. Only the churches provided a significant outlet for Hutu aspirations.

In the 1950s, under pressure to move the country towards independence, the Belgians began to suspect that long-term minority rule might be unsustainable, and also to view with alarm radical pan-Africanist tendencies among Tutsi political elites. Unlike in Burundi, however, these elites were unable successfully to repress emerging Hutu aspirations. Local elections in 1960, won by the Party of the Movement for Hutu Emancipation (PARMEHUTU), were marred by violent conflict on inter-ethnic lines; hundreds were killed and over 200,000 internally displaced.

Independence era: ethnic killings

Independence in 1962 was accompanied by continuing violence; by 1964 an estimated 150,000 people, virtually all Tutsis, had fled to surrounding countries. Throughout most of the 1960s Tutsi refugees launched attacks from abroad; in 1963 an estimated 15,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were massacred in retaliation by Hutu gangs.

In 1972 widespread killings of Tutsis followed the genocide of an estimated 100,000 Hutus in Burundi. The following year Juvenal Habyarimana, the army Chief of Staff who was suspected of orchestrating the killing of Rwandan Tutsis mounted a successful coup. In 1975 Rwanda became a one-party state under the newly created National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MNRD). Habyarimana’s movement represented a consolidation of Hutu domination and anti-Tutsi sentiment, as well as shift in power from the south to the north of the country.

The economy was badly hit by the collapse of coffee prices in 1987, precipitating a decline which further exacerbated political and inter-communal tensions.

The desire of Tutsi refugees in Uganda to return home gained impetus through their persecution in Uganda in 1982 and 1983, as well as by subsequent recruitment into Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) (see Uganda). In 1990 4,000 NRA deserters launched an attack on Rwanda; though initially repulsed, with the help of troops from France, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), the impact was enormous. Although the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaders insisted they were not bent on restoring Tutsi hegemony, and managed to attract an element of Hutu support, Tutsis within the country were automatically suspected of sympathy or collaboration with the invaders, leading to growing abuses. An International Commission on Human Rights reported that the Rwandan government had killed about 2,000 people between October 1990 and January 1993, most of them Tutsis but including Hutus from opposition parties. The government responded by establishing theoretically autonomous militias, which continued the violence whilst enabling the government to deny responsibility. Despite this, several governments, notably France (via Egypt) and South Africa, continued to arm the rapidly expanding government forces.

The Arusha Accords

The civil war continued inconclusively for three years with the RPF controlling the northeast of the country. The Arusha Accords of August 1993 brokered a power-sharing agreement between the government and the RPF, to be overseen by a UN force of 1,260, but it soon became clear that forces within the government itself, as well as the overtly extremist militias it had spawned, were opposed to the compromise. The October 1993 Tutsi military coup in Burundi played into the hands of Hutu extremists in neighbouring Rwanda, who mobilized supporters by stoking fear of Tutsi domination; the violence in Rwanda continued to escalate, turning by early 1994 into full-scale purges of opposition politicians and human rights activists, Hutus as well as Tutsis. Particularly significant was the anti-Tutsi propaganda disseminated in such media as Radio/TV Libre Milles Collines, which was partly owned by members of the President’s family.

On 6 April 1994 an aircraft bringing President Habyarimana (as well as President Ntariyamira of Burundi) back from Arusha was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, killing all on board. Within two days most leading opposition politicians (both Hutus and Tutsis, including many serving within the new coalition government) and hundreds of Tutsi civilians had been killed by Hutu soldiers and militiamen. Within a week over ten thousand had been killed in Kigali alone.


The war resumed in earnest, with the RPF army advancing from the north on Kigali (where it already had a garrison as part of the political settlement). So did a well orchestrated campaign of genocide against Rwandan Tutsis, in which government officials throughout the country were directly involved. Defenceless men, women and children were killed with machetes, hoes and iron bars, or rounded up and shot. The perpetrators were mostly young Hutu men, though others were encouraged or forced to participate; their victims were often neighbours and sometimes friends. The great majority of Rwandan Tutsis, along with a great many Twa and moderate Hutus – as many as 800,000 to one million people all told – were killed. The killers were convinced that this was the only way to prevent Tutsis returning to reclaim their former powers and privileges – a conviction derived from propaganda orchestrated by politicians and intellectuals. Moderate Hutus were targeted as traitors, and Twa as collaborators with the Tutsi.

UN forces in Rwanda, which had reached 2,539 personnel, became incapacitated by the abrupt withdrawal of the large Belgian contingent, following the deaths of ten soldiers. On 21 April the Security Council cut the remaining force from 1,700 to 270 – a decision causing widespread condemnation, not least because 15,000 Tutsi civilians were already under UN protection in hotels and other refuges in Kigali. The fact that the rump UN contingent (eventually 444 remained) succeeded in protecting its charges in Kigali illustrates what a larger commitment might have achieved elsewhere.

The RPF claimed that only its victory could end the massacres, and its advance precipitated some of the largest and fastest movements of refugees ever recorded. On 29 April an estimated 200,000 Hutus fled to Tanzania; in early July, towards the end of the war, a million refugees crossed to Zaire in a few days. Very few Hutus believed RPF assurances that they were not bent on reasserting Tutsi control, or taking revenge for the genocide.

French intervention

France sent troops to south-western Rwanda in mid-June where they were able to have at least some impact on the carnage and to help to stem the huge flow of refugees to Zaire. An estimated 1.5 million Hutus sought refuge in this zone, which from August was administered by the UN, with RPF forces gradually assuming control over the zone only in October, eventually disbanding the refugee camps in Gikongoro prefecture. Many people were killed resisting their ‘repatriation’. Despite this the RPF government succeeded in imposing a measure of stability. However, it was unwilling or unable to contain extensive reprisals, especially in parts of the country away from journalists or international observers. Amnesty International reported ‘hundreds, possibly thousands’ of extra-judicial killings and executions between April and October 1994. Reports of these abuses had wide circulation in refugee camps; by August 1995 only a tiny proportion of more than 2 million refugees outside the country had been persuaded to return. The Rwandan government has consistently refused to acknowledge and investigate reprisal killings during the post-genocide period, and has strenuously resisted efforts by prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to do so.

In October 1996 Zairean Tutsi militias supported by Rwandan troops attacked the refugee camps in the Zairean province of North Kivu, provoking the repatriation of several hundred thousand Hutu refugees, though leaving hundreds of thousands more in Zaire. By December 1996 the Tanzanian army was pressurizing Hutu refugees in Tanzania to return home as well.

Zaire invasion: 1997  

In 1997, Rwanda and Uganda sent forces into eastern Zaire and installed Laurent Kabila as the head of a rebel movement to topple Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabila marched quickly across the Congo, and Rwandan troops are thought to have taken the opportunity to track down and kill tens of thousands of Hutu militimen, as well as many civilians among whom they were moving. Kabila became president of the newly renamed ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’ (DRC), but quickly fell out with his backers in Kigali and Kampala. The two countries backed new, anti-Kabila rebel movements in the east, and became bogged down in a seven-nation war. While Rwanda claimed its military presence and rebel sponsorship in the DRC was necessary to protect it from extremist Hutu genocidaires, its military also gained a role in extractive industries in the DRC, lending the army and the government in Rwanda a significant disincentive for disengagement. In October 2002, Rwanda claimed to have withdrawn the last of its soldiers from the DRC, although its sponsorship of militias persisted.

Main languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English (all official).

Main religions: Christianity (mostly Roman Catholicism), traditional beliefs, often combined with Christianity.

Minority and indigenous groups include Hutus, Tutsis and Twa (Batwa). Populations of these groups are estimated to be: Hutus 8.3 million (84%), Tutsis 1.5 million (15%) and Twa (Batwa) 33,000. The 2002 national census did not ask about ethnicity, so no accurate current figures on the country’s ethnic breakdown are available.

[Note: population figures for Hutu and Tutsi come from the 2007 CIA World Factbook. Numbers are derived from percentages based on the CIA estimated population of 9.9 million. The Twa population estimate comes from the Batwa NGO, CAURWA’s 2004 national socio-economic survey carried out in conjunction with the Ministry of Finance’s statistics department and with international NGO, Forest Peoples’ Programme

From April to June 1994 Rwanda witnessed the most extensive genocide the world had seen in fifty years. Most of the country’s minority Tutsi population, along with Twa and moderate Hutus – as many as 800,000 to one million people – were systematically massacred by compatriots loyal to the country’s then-ruling political party and other extreme Hutu groupings. The genocide was the appalling climax to long-standing political conflicts exacerbated by economic decline and pressure on the land.

Conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda arose despite a common heritage and a long history of at least comparatively peaceful coexistence, with intermarriage and mobility between the groups quite common. Hutus and Tutsis share a common language and to a considerable extent a common culture. The standard (if disputed) conception of pre-colonial Rwanda, in which Tutsi pastoralists moved from the north to rule over Hutu agriculturalists four hundred years ago, does little to illuminate the complex hierarchies and regional variations within traditional Rwandan society. Undoubtedly, however, Tutsis were in a dominant position, owning most o the land as well as cattle, and developing an ideology of supremacy which reinforced their position.

All Rwandans are acutely affected by the tensions in the country and region, whether as minorities or majorities, oppressors or oppressed. The destinies of Rwandans remain intertwined; for this reason the principal ethnic groupings of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa are considered together, with a more detailed separate section on the Twa to follow.

In March 2000, Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu (a Hutu) stepped down over disagreements with the parliament, and Vice President Paul Kagame, the former commander of the RPF, succeeded him the following month. In 2002, the Kagame government arrested – and later convicted – Bizimungu when he tried to found a rival political party. In February 2006, Bizimungu lost an appeal against this conviction for ‘criminal association’. Human Rights Watch documented flaws in his first-instance trial. He was released from prison in 2007, having been pardoned by Kagame.

Kagame won the October 2003 presidential elections, the first since the genocide, and his RPF party won a parliamentary majority the following month in elections deemed fraudulent by EU observers.

Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated RPF government has pursued policies of playing down ethnicity as a means of overcoming the minority’s endangerment. The official position is that reference to ethnicity is ‘divisionist’, against national law, particularly the Constitution, and counter to the ongoing national policy of unity and reconciliation. This has included such unifying measures as the introduction of a new national anthem and flag in 2001, and a new constitution in 2003 that banned incitement to ethnic hatred. But critics claim that government bans on ‘divisive’ parties and organisations are designed to serve RPF power interests.

In January 2006 the government reorganized the Rwandan state, replacing 12 provinces with five new regions (Kigali, North, South, East, and West). The centralization of the Rwandan state facilitated the 1994 genocide, and while the government therefore seeks decentralization to the new regions, it remains to be seen whether Kagame’s government will relinquish much power in practice.

Minority based and advocacy organisations


African Indigenous and Minority Peoples Organization (AIMPO)
Tel: +250-0857-0524
E-mail: aimpo@yahoo.fr


African Indigenous and Minority Peoples Organization (AIMPO)
Tel: +250-0857-0524
E-mail: aimpo@yahoo.fr

Association pour le Développement Global des Batwa
Tel: +250-0875-7080
E-mail: adbr_2002@hotmail.com

Association pour la Promotion des Batwa
Tel: +250-74671, 75416

Centre d’Accompagnement des Autochtones Pygmées et Minoritaires Vulnérable
Tel: +243-977-06-271
Email: camvorg@yahoo.fr

Communauté des Autochtones Rwandaises (CAURWA)
Tel: +250-0862-52-76
E-mail: caurwa@rwandatel1.rwanda1.com

Union pour l’Émancipation de la Femme Autochtone (UEFA)
Tel: +250-0852-7744, 0863-7014, 0882-9705
Email: uefafr@yahoo.fr

Sources and further reading


African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, 2nd edn, London, 1995.

African Rights, Rwanda: ‘A Waste of Hope’ – The United Nations Human Rights Field Operation, London, 1995.

Dallaire, Romeo, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, New York, 2003.

Des Forges, Alison, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, 1999.

Forest Peoples Programme, The Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Rwanda, Submission of the Forest Peoples Programme to the Human Rights Committee Concerning the Republic of Rwanda and its Compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, October 2006.

Human Rights Watch, Struggling to Survive: Barriers to Justice for Rape Victims in Rwanda, September 2004.

Human Rights Watch, Lasting Wounds: Consequences of Genocide and War for Rwanda’s Children, April 2003.

Human Rights Watch, Uprooting the Rural Poor in Rwanda, May 2001.

Jackson, D, Twa Women, Twa Rights in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Minority Rights Group International, 2003.

Lemarchand, R., Rwanda and Burundi, London, Pall Mall, 1970.

Lewis, J., The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region, Minority Rights Group International, 2000.

Overeem, P., Batwa, draft final report, The Hague, Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization, 1995.


Overeem, P., Batwa, draft final report, The Hague, Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization, 1995.

Forest Peoples Programme, The Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Rwanda, Submission of the Forest Peoples Programme to the Human Rights Committee Concerning the Republic of Rwanda and its Compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, October 2006.

Jackson, D, Twa Women, Twa Rights in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Minority Rights Group International, 2003.

Lewis, J., The Batwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region, Minority Rights Group International, 2000.

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