Rwanda, the Genocide, And a History of International Interference: A Look into the EPW Archives

The West, including world leaders and international organisations, needs to be more accountable for its seeming reluctance to stop the violence in Rwanda.

Between 7 April and 15 July 1994, approximately 8,00,000 were killed in Rwanda, most of whom belonged to the minority Tutsi tribe (who then accounted for less than 15% of the Rwandan population). They were massacred by Hutu extremists, who were enraged by the assassination of then President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, who had been in power since orchestrating a coup in 1973 and had subsequently installed a dictatorship. Between 1990 and 1993, Rwanda also fought a bloody civil war between the dominant Hutu Rwandan government and a coalition of Tutsi rebels called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame. Both Tutsi rebels as well as Hutu extremists have been accused of shooting down the plane that carried Habyarimana. While there is no conclusive evidence to prove either side's claim, the ensuing violence is beyond dispute. 

Even today, 26 years after the genocide, scars of the killings run deep: A mass grave of around 30,000 bodies has recently been discovered. People convicted for their culpability in the genocide are being released from prison, and the scale of violence has been compared to the horrors of the Nazi regime. Today, it is even illegal to talk about one’s ethnicity in Rwanda.

While it is perhaps convenient to see the genocide as a fallout of ethnic strife in an underdeveloped part of the world, the West’s cuplability for the suffering endured by Rwandan people must be recognised. When independent Rwanda came into existence in 1962, the state structure was a leftover apparatus by the Belge colonisers who ruled by exacerbating fault lines between communities. The years preceding the civil war saw economic policy being shaped by the free-market ideology of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which impoverished an already poor nation. Most damning, however, is the apathy the West showed in the face of violence—France funded the Habyarimana regime with money that was used for arms to silence the Tutsi rebels, appeals to the United Nations went unanswered, and whatever peacekeeping forces were in the country left before the genocide occurred.  

This reading list looks at the events that shaped the violence of 1994—the domestic factors, the culpability of the international community, and the nature of the violence unleashed. 

1) The Fallacy of Free Market Economics

After gaining independence from the Belge in 1962, the newly formed independent Rwandan government continued with the colonial economic model of coffee exports as a primary source of income, which saw a 50% decline between 1987–91. Michel Chossudovsky writes that the World bank intervened in the Rwandan economy in 1990 with a series of measures to enable a “transition to the free market,” which involved significant devaluation of the Rwandan franc. 

From a situation of relative price stability, the plunge of the Rwandan franc contributed to triggering inflation and the collapse of real earnings. A few days after the devaluation, sizeable increases in the prices of fuel and consumer essentials were announced. The consumer price index increased from 1% in 1989 to 19.2% in 1991. The balance of payments situation deteriorated dramatically and the outstanding external debt which had already doubled since 1985, increased by 34% between 1989 and 1992. The state administrative apparatus was in disarray, state enterprises were pushed into bankruptcy and public services collapsed. Health and education collapsed under the brunt of the IMF-imposed austerity measures. 

Chossudovsky argues that under this free market arrangement, no locally produced cash crops were “economically viable.” By 1994, the state marketing system had also completely failed. International “aid,” when it did come, went straight to the central government who used it to buy arms to fight in the civil war. The decision to privatise electricity during the civil war led to public services grinding to a halt due to the ballooning costs of keeping them functional. Chossudovsky says that while the international donor community cannot be held directly responsible for the outcome of the civil war, their role must not be ignored—devaluations were the beginning in a series of policy changes that impoverished Rwandans at the time of a political and social crisis.

No sensitivity or concern was expressed as to the likely political and social repercussions of economic shock therapy applied to a country on the brink of civil war... The World Bank team consciously excluded the non-economic variables' from their “simulations” ... To lay the blame solely on deep-seated tribal hatred not only exonerates the great powers and the donors, it also distorts an exceedingly complex process of economic, social and political disintegration affecting an entire nation of more than seven million people. Rwanda, however, is but one among many countries in sub-Saharan Africa (not to mention recent developments in Burundi where famine and ethnic massacres are rampant) which are facing a similar predicament.        

2) Reporting on the Tragedy

While different Rwandan rulers have used violence as a mechanism to discriminate against different tribes, an EPW column published in 1995 argues that the killing of Tutsis by Hutu militia transgressed “all bounds of human sanity.” Equally worrying, however, was the possibility of a backlash by the Tutsi community against innocent Hutu refugees of the civil war, and the rest of the world’s seeming apathy towards the situation.

The Rwandan quagmire has posed grave ethical questions before the international community. The RPF leader, General Paul Kagame, has complained that none of the international agencies responded promptly when the Tutsis were being butchered by the Hutu government and army. Instead, various countries sent planes to evacuate their own people. And now by setting up refugee camps, mostly housing Hutus (and hiding Hulu militia), the international community is helping the killers rather than the victims. It has been reported that uptill now $700 million have been spent on the Hutu refugees while less than $300 million have gone to rehabilitate the victims and to reconstruct the strife-torn economy of Rwanda. Further, the aid material that has been distributed is hardly of any long-term benefit to the refugees.

3) The French Connection to the Civil War

In 1973, Habyarimana engineered a coup and assumed the presidency of Rwanda, which signalled the beginning of his dictatorship. Under Habyarimana, Rwanda and France shared close relations, and the presidents of the two nations were known to have a personal relationship. Vinay Lal writes that even though France signed a pact with Rwanda in 1975, which prevents it from taking part in Rwandan combat, training, and other military operations, this agreement was blatantly violated during the civil war.

There is ample documentation to support the view that France offered a constant stream of arms to the Hutu forces, helped in interrogation of RPF prisoners, and trained members of the ruthless militia known as the ‘interahamwe’. Indeed, as the killings mounted in the spring of 1994, French armaments poured into the hands of the Hutu killers at a frenzied pace, and French military spokespersons aired the idea that the RPF was as much responsible for the killings as the Hutus and constituted a ‘khmer noir’. A RPF press release at that time sought to “remind the international community that these French troops not only participate in the president’s efforts to make war, but also train the security agents who are responsible for the genocide that has been taking place in Rwanda”.

Lal argues that France’s involvement in the civil war could be due to the fact that the Rwandan educated elite could speak French due to Belgian occupation, and with “French culture” being seen as the “barometer of sophistication,” the French government believed it had to discipline recalcitrant natives (Tutsis) for their own good.

[Paul]  Kagame has since held firm to the view that French complicity in the killings is profound, and on his visit to Britain last month affirmed that “it’s France that supported the genocidal forces, that trained them, that armed them, that participated in fighting against the forces that were trying to stop the genocide”. As he told the BBC, “France did not at any one time attempt to stop the genocide. On the contrary, they actually participated in the period leading to that genocide in supporting the government of Rwanda.” 

4) The World Stood Still while Rwanda Burned

Two books, We Wish to Inform you That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda and Sacrifice as Terror: The Rwandan Genocide of 1994, trace the events that led to the 1994 genocide. Vinay Lal, in his review of these books, is scathing in his criticism of the international community for their failure to prevent the killings and also protect the minority Tutsis.

Clinton himself has gone on record saying that his administration was negligent in the performance of its duties, not only as the selfappointed policeman of state morality around the world, but as a signatory of the Genocide Convention, which obligates parties to the treaty to take all measures to prevent genocide. This, too, has become the way of the world: evil perpetrated or condoned is after the safe interval of many years sought to be exculpated by an empty ‘apology’, and the likes of Albright, Clinton and others confidently presume that they stand exonerated … Though the Rwandan genocide merely takes its place alongside the catalogue of other monstrosities in the 20th century, and is condemned to oblivion in the near future so long as there is no concerted lobby to speak for a poor central African nation which has almost nothing to offer to a world enthralled by globalisation and the digital revolution, it should have a centrality in our awareness of the affairs of humankind.

Furthermore, Lal emphasises the culpability of the then colonial Rwandan state, which was ruled by the Belgians who enacted policy that deepened the ethnic divide against communities and proved to be the grounding for years of ensuing violence.

Under the Belgians, Tutsis were favoured for government jobs, and given much greater access to educational institutions. The first Bishop of Rwanda, writing in the 1930s, openly advocated discrimination against Hutus and stated that the colonial state had “no chiefs who are better qualified, more intelligent, more active, more capable of appreciating progress and more fully accepted by the people than the Tutsi” [Gourevitch:56] ... the Belgian administration began to gravitate towards the numerically preponderant Hutu community following second world war, and a number of Hutu intellectuals felt encouraged enough to issue the Hutu Manifesto of 1957. Deploying the Hamitic hypothesis, the manifesto argued that as the indigenous majority, the Hutus were inherently entitled to exercise power [Gourevitch:58]. With the disintegration of colonial rule in 1959-60, the achievement of this power became a political reality.

Lal also highlights how an independent Rwandan state sought to institutionalise the differences between communities—identity cards were issued, census figures were manipulated to deny the Tutsis state benefits, and also a policy was enacted to keep the Tutsi intellectual community away from positions of authority.

As the events of 1994 were to show, the Hutus and Tutsis had been taught only too well new ways of hatred. Gourevitch tells a gripping tale, but his narrative is only one of the collective histories and memories, and of the manner in which hatred inserts itself into veins and arteries of the body and the body politic alike. His account is capacious enough to trace the lives and harrowing experiences of a number of individuals, so that we are ever mindful of the language in which genocidal violence speaks and disrupts patterns of everyday life, erodes the trust upon which human relations are founded, generates a stench of fear that hangs heavily in the air, and creates a momentum in which bodies relentlessly pile upon each other.

Read More:

  1. Terrorism and Genocide | Amir Ali, 2004

  2. India and the Autumn of the African Patriarch | S Arun Mohan, 2012

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