More than two decades on, Rwanda continues to be haunted by the genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people – three-quarters of the Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, as well as moderates from the Hutu majority – were killed in 100 days between April and July 1994. While this small landlocked country’s population density, the highest in Africa, may have contributed to social tensions, ethnic differences had long been manipulated and exploited for political purposes in Rwanda. Belgian colonial policies favoured the Tutsis until independence in 1962, when the Hutu majority began to dominate.
In the run-up to April 1994, Hutu extremists from the political class, the security forces and the main political party’s armed militia used radio broadcasts from Kigali to incite ethnic hatred, playing on Hutu fears of a Tutsi uprising and coercing ordinary Hutus into taking part. Though orchestrated from the capital, the genocidal campaign took advantage of the hierarchical structures of social organization that permeated the countryside to reach throughout the country. The slaughter was only ended by the advance from Uganda of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), made up of significant numbers of Tutsi refugees. By July the RPF had defeated the Rwandan army, forcing hundreds of thousands of Hutus, including génocidaires (perpetrators) to flee.
Paul Kagame has served as President since 2000 and during the almost two decades of his rule has overseen a period of remarkable economic growth, with Rwanda making great strides in rebuilding its devastated institutions, infrastructure and services. The country has also avoided renewed outbreaks of large-scale ethnic violence, due in part to the restrictions placed on discussions around ethnicity in the wake of the genocide, and important social measures such as those promoting gender equity have been put in place. The impact of some legal and judicial steps, however, has been mixed. While community-based trials (gacaca) and other platforms have dealt with thousands of cases against alleged génocidaires, claims of RPF abuses have generally not been investigated. In addition, new measures banning identification on ethnic grounds in favour of a common national identity have effectively denied the indigenous Batwa their right to their own identity and culture, and have prevented positive measures to redress the inequalities they clearly face.
Kagame has also been criticized for Rwanda’s past military interference in neighbouring territories – including allegations, denied by Kagame himself, of covert support for insurgencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo – as well as what critics have regarded as an increasingly authoritarian approach to his opponents. He has been accused of using the post-genocide prohibitions on ‘divisionism’ to effectively silence dissent. Following a referendum to amend the Constitution in December 2015 to allow Kagame to extend his presidency beyond two terms – a move condemned by international observers – he ran for re-election in 2017 and won with 98.8 per cent of the votes. Under the amended rules, Kagame could rule as president until 2034.
Rwanda has taken steps at a policy level to address the inter-ethnic issues that led to the 1994 genocide. The Constitution rejects ethnic classifications; it commits itself to ‘fighting the ideology of genocide’ and to ‘the eradication of ethnic, regional and other divisions and promotion of national unity’. New laws have prohibited ‘divisiveness’ along ethnic lines. Experts have expressed concern that the non-recognition of ethnicity contravenes the individual’s right to identify with a specific ethnic group, and ignores such groups’ specific needs and situations.
The Rwandan state has recognized the particular challenges facing what it terms ‘historically marginalized peoples’, namely, its roughly 33,000 indigenous Batwa citizens. Traditionally forest-dwelling hunters and gatherers, over past decades they have been expelled from their ancestral lands without compensation to make way for agriculture or conservation. Through discrimination and difficulties in accessing services, Batwa communities have largely missed out on Rwanda’s progress, with the result that they have higher infant mortality rates, shorter average lifespans and higher rates of disease and malnutrition than their neighbours. Among other challenges, access to education remains difficult despite the government’s investment in reducing barriers such as distance and affordability through subsidies and construction of new facilities. Hunger and poverty in particular continue to affect the ability of Twa children to engage effectively in education, resulting in missed attendance and dropouts. Until these issues are addressed, it is likely that the educational exclusion faced by previous generations – some estimates suggest that up to 90 per cent of Twa adults have never been to school – will persist.
In the wake of the genocide, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, predominantly Hutu, fled to neighbouring countries and mass returns of former refugees continue to this day. These returns, alongside rural–urban displacement due in part to fears of ongoing insecurity caused by armed groups based in the DRC, for instance, have led to one of the world’s fastest urbanization rates: Rwanda’s urban population grew from 385,000 in 1990 to almost 2.5 million today. To cope with pressure on land, the government has developed a national land use plan and framework for land registration and management. Meanwhile the authorities have embraced urbanization as a means of achieving their goal of making Rwanda a middle-income country by doubling the country’s urban share of the population, currently around 18 per cent, to 35 per cent by 2020. Critics say, however, that Rwanda’s urban development to date has benefited its upper and middle classes to the detriment of its poor.
Updated October 2020
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.
While Hutu and Tutsi inhabited territories in what is now Rwanda for many centuries, the more recent history of extreme ethnic violence is strongly rooted in its experiences of colonialism and their lasting legacy of division. 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). 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 contingent of 1,260 UN troops, 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.
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 strenuously resisted efforts by prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to do so.
Hutu militia based in the refugee camps in Zaire launched attacks on Tutsi communities in Uganda and Zaire, as well as across the border into Rwanda. 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 militia-men, 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 génocidaires, 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.
The rise of Paul Kagame
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.
In the course of 2006, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) – established by UN Security Council resolution and mandated to prosecute those responsible for genocide and other human rights abuses during 1994 – continued to hear top-tier genocide cases. It did not take up serious allegations of crimes committed by the RPF’s predecessor, the Rwandan Patriotic Army, during the genocide: the prosecutor faced the implicit threat that if he did so the government would rescind all cooperation with the tribunal. In 2007, the country abolished the death penalty, allowing abolitionist countries to extradite genocide suspects back to Rwanda and paving the way for the eventual transfer of some ICTR cases to the national court system. In 2008 most genocide cases were shifted from the conventional courts to Rwanda’s traditional community-based gacaca courts; by 2012, when the courts began to close, thousands of people accused of genocide had been released. The first transfer of cases from the ICTR to Rwandan jurisdiction took place in 2011. The ICTR was closed at the end 2015; trials of accused génocidaires also took place in third party courts such as France, Germany and Sweden.
In January 2009 hundreds of Rwandan troops entered DRC to back an operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels in the east of the country. According to IRIN reports, a government spokesman, Lambert Mende, said that the operation’s aim was to ‘disarm the Interahamwe’ (referring to the militia that had played a key part in the genocide) and repatriate them ‘voluntarily or by force’. Amidst ongoing reports, including from the UN, of Rwandan involvement in armed conflict in the DRC, in 2013 leader of rebel armed group M23 Bosco Ntaganda surrendered in Kigali and was transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face pending charges.
A new law criminalizing ‘genocidal ideology’ and making it punishable by 10 to 25 years’ imprisonment was promulgated on 1 October 2008 and began to be implemented in 2009. Like a similar one prohibiting ‘divisionism’, the law was ostensibly intended to outlaw behaviour encouraging ethnic hatred. Both texts, however, were criticized for impinging on freedom of expression by failing to define clearly which specific acts they penalize, amidst fears that they could be used to stifle freedom of expression and limit political space for peaceful opposition. In December 2009, Rwandan opposition presidential candidate Bernard Ntaganda was summoned to answer charges under the law at a Senate committee inquiry. He denied promoting genocide ideology and ethnic ‘divisionism’.
Two prominent government critics were killed in the months preceding presidential elections in 2010, contributing to a climate of tension and fear: André Kagwa Rwisereka, former supporter of the party in power who left in 2009 to help found the Democratic Green Party, and journalist Jean Leonard Rugambage, who had been investigating the attempted murder a week earlier of a former military chief-of-staff who had become an increasingly outspoken critic of the government.
In August 2010 President Kagame was elected to a second seven-year term. International observers reported that the elections were peaceful, but they expressed concerns about the stifling of dissent that preceded them. Numerous media outlets were closed in the months before the polls, some of them under a 2009 law restricting media freedom. None of the main opposition parties were able to participate on polling day. Some had been obstructed from holding the meetings required to register their parties while others were blocked by the detention of their leaders, along with key journalists, under the 2008 ‘genocide ideology’ law.
The government announced a review of the legislation in April 2010, but despite international criticism continued to use it to prosecute government critics, including journalists and opposition politicians, for what in many cases appeared to be the simple exercise of free speech. The authorities claimed that a new law in 2013 clearly defined the crime of genocide ideology and provided assurances for fair processes in its investigations. However, observers including the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association expressed concern that some articles could still be used to criminalize the exercise of fundamental freedoms.
A 2015 constitutional amendment approved by popular referendum in a context of limited political space for opposition views set the stage for Kagame to run for a third term in 2017, as well as potentially for two subsequent terms; Kagame announced his intention to run in 2017 and subsequently won with 98.8 per cent of votes cast.
Main languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English (all official).
Main religions: Christianity (mostly Roman Catholicism), traditional beliefs, often combined with Christianity.
Ethnic and indigenous communities include Hutus, Tutsis and Twa (Batwa). Populations of these groups have been estimated previously to be: Hutus (84 per cent), Tutsis (15 per cent) and Twa (Batwa) 33,000, amounting to around 0.3 per cent. As part of government policy to promote reconciliation, unity and social cohesion by rejecting ethnic classifications, the 2012 population census did not take into account the ethnic composition of the population.
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 of 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.
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 organizations 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
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in