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Analyze the causes of the Rwandan Genocide

Category Colonialism, Rwanda
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The term ‘Genocide’ is derived from the combination of the Greek word ‘genos’ (race) with the Latin word ‘cide’ (killing) which was created by Raphael Lemkin who was a Polish writer and attorney in 1941.

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The definition of the tern ‘Genocide’ according to the UN Convention on Genocide of December 1948 states “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such”: this incorporates the following; such as the killing members of a group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring-about its physical destruction in whole or in part or imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Twentieth Century witnessed an unprecedented numbers of genocides. However the most chilling of them all was the Rwandan genocide because it was the most rapidly executed state sponsored mass murder and it could have been prevented. Between April and July of 1994, an estimated eight hundred thousand people were murdered in Rwanda, in what was eventually called a genocide. It was the genocide of the Tutsi by the ruling class Hutus. There were many key contributing elements that culminated in the the execution of a targeted race on such a large scale. The source of the cause of the genocide was a result of ethnic tension between the Hutus and Tutsi race.

Historical factors

One of the main causes of the genocide in Rwanda can be traced back to the period of colonial rule over Rwanda, where numerous policies of the imperialists left the Rwandan society divided with tensions searing among its population during and after this colonial period. Rwanda was originally ruled by the German empire but later by the Germans after World War I until the independence of Rwanda in 1962.

During the Belgian rule, the ruling Belgians had initially favored the Tutsi minority and used them to rule over Rwanda indirectly. For years the Tutsi minority had power and control, this is because the Europeans saw the Hutu as inferior, this in turn saw the systematic oppression of this group. This had lasted until the independence of Rwanda in 1962. (Destexhe, 1995)

For 60 years, the colonial policies of divide and conquer strategy to rule over Rwanda, caused fierce resentment.

Before the colonization, according to Melvern (2000:11) the two ethnic groups, the tutsis and hutus had shared various social commonalities, he pointed out that they shared the same language, way of life, existed and lived alongside each other in the same community , they were said to have also intermarried. However, the Belgian implemented various reforms on its colony Rwanda during the period from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, where they had determined a crucial distinction between the natives, they claimed the Hutus to be the indigenous Bantu and Tutsis as alien Hamites. As the Europeans imperialist came to Africa they developed admiration for the ruling Tutsi group. They were convinced that the success of the Tutsi political and economic sectors revealed their superiority. Europeans concluded that since the Tutsi ruled over the Hutu and Twa, they were also like them. (Destexhe, 1995)

This view held by the colonialists of one race superior above another, was a major cause for the subsequent genocide. The Europeans deduced the Tutsi race were not really sub-Saharan Africans, instead they were those who were likely from the ancient Egyptians lineage. This view led to the creation of a a disturbing and controversial fallacy, the colonialists spread the ‘Hamitic myth’, which supported the view the “Tutsi and everything humanly superior in Central Africa came from ancient Egypt or Abyssinia”. Melvern argued that this Hamitic theory, “explained away every sign of civilisation in tropical Africa as a foreign import.”

The fabrication of the Hutu and Tutsi races were based on categories of different socio-economic positions within Rwandan society. In order to categorise them the Belgians adopted a measure to divide the people of rwanda, they used ownership of cows as the key criteria for deciding which group an individual belonged to. Those with 10 or more cows were Tutsi along with all their descendants in the male line and those with less were regarded as a Hutu. Although it has been argued by some the Belgians did not arbitrarily cook up the Hutu/Tutsi distinction, but what they did was to take an existing socio-political distinction and radicalize it. this also explains that ‘Rwanda’s bloodbath was not tribal. It was rather a distinctly modern tragedy, a degenerated class conflict, according to Pottier (2002:9), The 60 years of such prejudicial fabrications might have ‘ended by inflating the Tutsi cultural ego inordinately and crushing Hutu feelings until they coalesced into an aggressively resentful inferiority complex’. this was an important factor, in-regard-to the causes of the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda because of the resentment that had boiled up among the Hutu populations over the colonial preference of the Tutsis.

The colonization of Rwanda played a major role in the contributing elements that lead to the genocide, for example, the policies implemented by the Belgians saw the adoption of identity cards, which highlighted the ethnic background a person; whether they were a Tutsi, Hutu or Twa. This had the effect of attaching a sub national identity to all Rwandans and dividing the nation into categories. This lead to, a perception of a hierarchy among these race groups, which further added to the resentment, which added to the bitterness; this would later help to fuel the massacre at an alarming rate.

However, during the late 1950s Rwanda witnessed a shift in colonial attitude, the Belgian rulers changed their “policy of discrimination in the to favour the Hutu”, as they had realised that dominance of the Hutu majority was almost certain. Therefore colonial empire took their side and , asserting that they want “to promote a democratic revolution.”

1957 saw a significant development, that highlighted the level of division that was created, in that, a group of nine Hutu intellectuals had published the Hutu Manifesto, which protested against the political, economic and educational dominance of the Tutsi ‘race’ and set apart the Tutsi race as foreign aggressors, it called for Hutu in all discipline, also it insisted that identity cards were to remain in order to keep track of the ‘race monopoly.’ However, theTutsi elite had refuted this Hutu Manifesto and held the colonial rulers for the racial problems within the country.

Rwanda gained independence on 1 July 1962. After independence was declared, The Hutus secured control. This was a major turning point in Rwanda, as this would lead to actions adopted by this Hutu government that would marginalise the Tutsi minority. As the Hutus utilised this moment to weaken the Tutsis by using “false propaganda” of the Tutsis having “usurped Hutus in secondary and higher teaching institutions and in employment, public administration, and the private sector to advance their cause.” The measures employed by the Hutus against the Tutsis was more than spreading propaganda, they used this method to sanction the killing and isolation of the Tutsi race by prohibiting them from teaching themselves and from playing a role in the government, most crucially from the military. This led to the displacement of many Tutsis trying to avoid these measures. The tables had now turned on the once ruling Tutsi people, clearly bringing to light the discrimination faced by them. This was a significant aspect in the years leading up to the genocide.

Environmental factor

Environmental factors have also played a key role in causing and shaping the genocide. “Rwanda, is a small country whose population increased from 1 887 000 in 1948 to more than 7 500 000 in 1992”. In other words, this rapid rise population within a small land area made it densely populated which placed pressures on both the land and population. It has been argued that Rwanda’s overpopulation and poverty problems undoubtedly set in place increasing racial antagonism. The increasing population and subset amongst family members increased, the amount of available land for subsistence purposes decreased drastically, leaving many landless and unemployed. As a result, people were easily encouraged by political leaders to kill the Tutsis so that they could take possession of their land. Therefore it is clear to see that population growth and land scarcity was a major cause for the genocide in Rwanda.


Economic factors have also conditioned and exacerbated the effects the magnitude of the massacre in Rwanda. There are four key socio- economic factors include the following; the price of coffee which fell suddenly along with the 1989 currency devaluation and the subsequent rapid inflation after 1990; the structural adjustment programme combined with a drought in the southern regions which turned into a famine; the 1990 war in the north that had exhausted government funds, the war also created huge refugee camps in the north of rwanda, finally the ‘paradox of democratisation in Africa’ which caused opposition to the already embattled government.

As Rwanda faced a serious food–people–land disproportion. In the first half of the twentieth century, severe food insufficiency were linked with the death and migration of many of the Rwandan population to neighbouring lands. From 1928–1929 Rwanda suffered from famine and famine of 1943 took the life of approximately “30,000 people and forced over 100,000 to leave for the Belgian Congo and Uganda.” In the years leading to the genocide, there had been a noticeable slump in the “availability of kilocalories per person per day and overall farm production.” Famines occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s in several parts of the country. Emergency sources of food in neighbouring countries also were limited.

Another contributing factor that made worse the already dire situation in Rwanda that lead to the genocide was that for two decades before the 1994 mass murder, was ‘land acquisition’ carried out by military personnels and persons with influence with political connections, this led to the formation of a rural elite. However, “only 17 per cent of all Rwandan farms exceeded one hectare, they accounted for 43 per cent of Rwanda’s total arable land.” For most part of the land in Rwanda, the typical family had just about half a hectare of land plot.

What makes clear, that environmental and economic elements, was a route cause for the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was that before all the problems with population and food these various race groups had to some extent lived together by comparison peacefully before the mid-nineteenth century, at a time when their total population was comparatively low and land supply for both farming and cattle grazing was enough. But with rapid population growth in the twentieth century, the situation changed.

A cultural difference between the Hutus and Tutsis had also aggravated the bitterness between the rival ethnic groups. This is due to their documented contrast in-regard-to their practice of “ecological adaptation”; such as the Hutu horticulture approach and Tutsi cattle pastoralism approach, within the context of a society over 90 per cent agricultural, and fast increasing rural population, with no major job opportunities, with dwindling food output and consumption for each person, the Hutu and Tutsi groups turned into natural adversaries. “Those Tutsi still engaged in cattle pastoralism wanted open ranges to graze their herds. In direct opposition, landless Hutu wanted those very lands, marginal as they may have been for agriculture, to build homesteads and to farm.” (Spalding, F, 2009)

The consequence of land shortage saw more than half of Rwanda’s Tutsi population from the early 1960s to 1973, removed from their land, the land was vacated for Hutu settlement and cultivation. This move, had appeared to show that the problems faced by the Hutus could be resolved if the Tutsi were eradicated. For example, the Hutu farmers could have enough territory if the Tutsi were not there.

A development during the 1980s, had again witnessed a population increase which had exceeded the amount of cultivable land. This saw Farmers’ overcompensate and increase food production however this had in effect led to soil exhaustion. This period also saw “over 50 per cent drop in the price of export coffee in 1989 adversely affected the 60 per cent of Rwandan farmers who cultivated coffee for cash income.” On the international level , the Rwandan export stcok market had disintegrated resulting poor farmers facing new levels of anguish. This made it easier for manipulation of the people by the political elite, who were looking for “extreme solutions to their country’s (and their own) growing insecurity”. It was argued by Des Forges that because of this occurrence, “those inciting Hutu civilians to murder Tutsi” were given rewards, this in effect gave the Hutus a permission to target and steal from the Tutsis and giving them hope of attaining land and businesses of the victims’. (Prunier, 1995)

It is therefore made obvious that economic state of despair, and lack of hope, was a major cause and player in the readiness of thousands of poor farmers and urban residents “to fear the possibility of a Tutsi land- and jobs-grab under a victorious RPF regime; to be tempted by more specific hopes for land and jobs, or, more crudely still, to participate in order to grab a share of the victims’ property.” Thus this explanation provides a reason why the massacring of a race was possible and fast.

The 1990–1992 war with the RPF contributed further to the devastation of Rwanda’s economy. It displaced thousands of farmers in the north, which also caused reductions in food and coffee production. (Spalding, 2009)

A “Malthusian” theory of population growth and overpopulation being major causes of environmental degradation, hunger, poverty and war, which in turn lead to the hostility and subsequent killing in large scale of a targeted race, thus it is quite useful in helping to further explain the cause of the genocide in Rwanda. On the other hand an alternative view can be argued in criticizing the Malthusian explanation for the cause of the genocide in Rwanda must be considered. According to Boudreaux’s (2009:85) who provides some useful insights on why Rwanda is not ‘a modern day Malthusian Crisis’. She contends, no reason was provided as to why Rwandans were tied to their land.

These are:

One criticism was that due to Rwanda’s lack of a formal market, that would otherwise enable its people to put their land on the market and migrate to more urban districts, and also the government rules that restricted the movement of the populace from the countryside to city centers, “the government firmly controlled markets that limited entrepreneurial opportunities for people who might wish to leave farms, and a general pro-rural ideology imposed by the pre-genocide Habyarimana government” (Boudreaux 2009:85).

She also argues that land disagreements was not the chief drive for hostility and genocide, against the Tutsis but the policies of the ruling party that limited selling of land, and lack of freedom of movement and work prospect and the fact that many people did not use family planning, which had the effect of rising population at uncontrollable rates. In addition to this carelessness in dealing with conflict, in a peaceful way especially the 1990–1992 war with the RPF were key contributing causes that led to the discontent of people in the country (Boudreaux 2009:85).

Boudreaux also claimed that the problem of land scarcity is insufficient to give explanation of the slaughtering of a race which took place in Rwanda. As she points out those states such as Belgium and Swaziland which are about the same size as Rwanda never witnessed genocide. Therefore poverty and overpopulation are not the decisive causes of the genocide but they are amid the factors which made possible the conscription of militias of young people, ‘who had nothing to lose’, just before 1994 (Semelin 2005:26–30).

Furthermore, African Rights (1995:6), also make claim that on the surface examination of the genocide would point the finger at “poverty, overpopulation, environmental and economic crisis for the tensions which led to the killings”. They also assert that the likely motive for the genocide rest within the socio-political structures that influenced people from sources of bitterness and hopelessness to committing to carrying out brutality (African Rights 1995:6).

Ideological cause

Another cause for the genocide was down to the ideological imposition on the population, persuading the people of Rwanda to accept an ideology that justified the ruling tutsis outlook and convinced them that their interests are being looked after. During 1960s when the Hutus gained control till 1994, the ideology promoted by the Hutu ruling elite was the Tutsi race were foreign intruders, who “could not be considered as citizens.” It was held that the were Hutu had been enslaved by the aristocratic invaders, now as they ruled, they proclaimed that they were now the only inhabitants with the right to live in the country. A Hutu-controlled government was now not only automatically legitimate but also ontologically democratic.’ This political ideology legitimised both the oppression of Tutsi group and the rule by some Hutu elites.


During the devastating genocide in Rwanda, the media in Rwanda had a major role in producing and maintaining an environment which validated the massacre that took place. Rwandan media’s promotion of hatred for Tutsis was magnified; the view that genocide of Tutsis would be the answer for the ethnic issues within Rwanda. Hutus who were once oppressed during the colonization had in essence attempted to be set free by becoming the oppressors themselves. (Thompson, 2007)


Religious point of views also contributed to the country’s deepening division problems. The majority of Rwanda’s population was Catholic. Despite Rwanda’s evident overpopulation, those in the church and government hierarchy not only refused to promote birth-control programmes; they actively opposed them. ‘Radical Catholic pro-life commandos raided pharmacies to destroy condoms with the approval of the Ministry of the Interior.’

it was suggests that the introduction of Christianity during colonization of Rwanda changed the Rwandan culture and helped to shape the mental culture that led to genocide. Rwandans have traditionally viewed people as family, friends, and third parties; but, as the influence of the bipolar Christian social identity increased, Christianity replaced the traditional religions as well as the traditional Rwandan view. Christianity led Rwandans to identify people as either friend or foe, especially when the people in question were Hutus or Tutsis. Semujanga suggests this gave rise to stereotypes and prejudices against Tutsis that labeled them as “power-hungry,” “dishonest,” and “the absolute enemy.” (Destexhe, 1995)


The genocide in Rwanda was a tragedy in which over 800 000 were killed. As with other genocides in the world, the one in Rwanda was complex with multidimensional causes and effects.

In short, the ultimate cause of Rwandan genocide was the increasing imbalance in land, food and people that led to malnutrition, hunger, periodic famine and fierce competition for land to farm. Too many people were relying on rapidly diminishing amounts of arable land per capita for their subsistence level existences. Although it has been clearly argued that the causes of the genocide go beyond this and there is a deeper level which when analysed blames the manipulation by the ruling government at the time of the genocide and also the policies adopted by them goes further to explain the causes of the Genocide in Rwanda.

Destexhe, A, 1995. Rwanda and genocide in the twentieth century. 1st ed. London: Pluto Press
Prunier, G, 1995. The Rwanda crisis: history of a genocide. 1st ed. London: C Hurst & Co
Spalding, F, 2009. Genocide in Rwanda. 1st ed. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group inc
Thompson, A, 2007. The media and the Rwanda genocide. 1st ed. London: Pluto Press (last accessed 4th May 2011)

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