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Ethnicity in Rwanda Essay

In April of 1994, a small group of hardliners within Rwanda’s ruling part organized what is now recognized as the twentieth century’s most rapid extermination campaign. In the span of 100 days, a staggering 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered at the hands of their fellow countrymen. From the outset, I dismiss the notion that the genocide resulted from the tribal chaos of Kaplan’s wildly pervasive, and historically inaccurate, “ancient hatreds” thesis.

In this vein, Prunier’s insistence that Tutsi and Hutu, “have not been created by God as cats and dogs, predestined from all eternity to disembowel each other” is prototypical of a growing body of Constructivist literature which eschews primordialist interpretations of the violence which dominated Rwanda in the early 1990s. Proponents of this school of thought emphasize the fluid and, ultimately malleable, nature of ethnic identity. A host of Constructivists have developed some iteration of an ethnic entrepreneur driven explanation, framing opportunistic elites seeking to maximize political gains as the primary architects of the nominally ethnic conflict.

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To better explore viability of this phenomena as a credible explanation, I will first delineate the historical events precipitating the genocide, before examining the motivations and mechanisms of elite manipulation. Finally, I will identify the shortcomings of a pure statist, top-down model of the genocide. I argue that though ruling elites stoked ethnic rivalries in a bid to shore up dwindling support, and thereby legitimized the violence, identity explanations fail to account for the micro-level motivations which primed civilian participation.

Before proceeding to the body of this work, it should be noted that this paper’s analysis of the conflicts is indebted to Brubaker’s conception of “groupness as an event”. Though Tutsi and Hutus are referred to throughout, at no point should those labels be thought of as omnipresent, static actors. An overarching aim of mine is to identify those factors driving manifestations of increased groupness in the years leading up the genocide, at which point I evaluate if individual participation within group action is in fact motivated by a unifying interest.

While Hutu and Tutsi classifications pre-date the colonial era, there is no trace of systematic inter-ethnic conflict in Rwanda’s pre-colonial history. Belgian rule firmly shifted the terms’ meaning from a flexible social and economic designation to an institutionalized, racial hierarchy which “translated into perfectly real administrative policies” overtly favoring Tutsis. In 1962, over a century of Tutsi domination later, a Belgian-backed overthrow of the old-guard elites by an emergent Hutu counter-elite purged Tutsis from positions of power. The dramatic reversal of political fortunes and the widespread anti-Tutsi violence which accompanied it, known as the Hutu Revolution, was a seminal event in the crystallization of ethnic nationalism.

Though the 60s were dotted with the periodic massacres of small Tutsi populations, the 70s and 80s under President Juvenal Habyarimana’s totalitarian regime were characterized by a far greater degree of tolerance. In fact, owing to their “political castration”, the Tutsi were allowed to do business and flourish. That said, despite the relative protections offered to Tutsi citizens in this era, Habyarimana and his party, Mouvement Révolutionaire National pour le Développement (MRND), insisted on the ideological slogan of rubanda nyamwinshi (the majority people), therein “equating democracy with demography”. But how did an administrative awareness of ethnicity shift to a politics of collective categorization and violence?

To answer this question, I draw upon De Waal’s analysis of the politicization and subsequent militarization of Sudanese identities. He writes, “trapped in a set of identity markers derived from historical experience…educated non-Arabs chose ‘African’ as he best ticket to political alliance building”. Much the same, as internal and external pressures on the Rwandan government mounted in the early 1990s, an ethnic-centered elite agenda emerged as matter of political expediency.

These are the factors to consider. A 50% drop in international coffee prices, compounded by drought, food shortages, and donor demands for austerity measures, triggered an economic crisis in 1989. Abroad, the fall of communism in 1991 placed international pressure on President Habyarimana to liberalize his regime and introduce a multiparty system. Immediately thereafter, internal Hutu opposition rose to challenge the MRND. And in the mix of this elite scramble for resources, Tutsi exiles from Uganda attacked under the banner of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The descendants of families who had fled during the Hutu Revolution, members of the RPF waged a limited-scale civil war with the government for a right of return.

In a number of ways, the RPF invasion in late 1990 had a deeply radicalizing effect. For one, hate speech against the Tutsi can be traced to this period, often used to justify the wartime massacre and arrest of Tutsi civilians. Faced by threats to their status quo from all sides, elites who had profited under Habyarimana’s regime explicitly linked the RPF to the Tutsi population in Rwanda; in December of 1991, the commission released a memo that labeled “Tutsi inside or outside the country” as the “principal enemy”. Moreover, the birth of Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) in 1993 enabled elites to propagate their ethno-political war against the RPF through fear-mongering rhetoric, denouncing the Tutsi as foreign invaders, parasites on the economy, and accomplices to the Ugandan-born RFP. In response to the purported joint threat, hardliners and military officers funded several thousand youth militias (“interhamwe”) which became vehicles of civilian radicalization and, eventually, instruments of genocide.

In line with these observations, Fearon and Laitin note that in-group leaders often reinforce an external security threat in order to “increase their co-ethnics demand for protection from the out-group and at the same time make sure there is no alternative set of leaders to protect them”. In doing so, they minimize internal dissent, silence moderate voices, and consolidate group support by capitalizing on the environment of wartime uncertainty. The evidence lends credence to a second theory as well: that the via their participation in a “cycle of attacks and counterattacks”, both elite and civilian actors engaged in a “reification” of ethnic groups.

The civil conflict came to an end in late 1993 with the signing of the Arusha Accords, a series of power-sharing agreements in which the government conceded to the return of Tutsi refugees and integrated army and cabinet posts. Snyder’s theory of transition democracies serves well to contextualize the combustibility of the peace: MRND elites, who stood at the precipice of an untenable loss of power, redoubled their efforts to fan the flames of ethnic hostility in order to secure their voter base. Just six months later, the assassination of President Habyarimana provided the fodder for MRND hardliners to give the orders to kill and finally recapture power. Crucially, entering into the peace talks, the government delegation was itself fractured between Habyarimana’s regime and the internal, democracy-seeking Hutu opposition. I stress this fact as the fragmented state of Hutu politics, often lost in the binary of Hutu/Tutsi discourse, discredits the premise of a cohesive Hutu political front.

Could the same be said for the civilian participants?

Undoubtedly, variable to the degree of party support and exposure to the RPF, some civilians must have internalized the hate-rhetoric employed by elites. However, juxtaposing the (1) escalation and (2) sheer brutality of the violence with the reality that “almost every single perpetrator interviewed had a Tutsi neighbor before the genocide… nearly 70% had a Tutsi family member,” I remain unconvinced that elite persuasion alone could have had sufficient hold over the millions of participants who had no prior history of violence. Explanations ranging from a “deeply imbibed” myth of Tutsi superiority to a political indoctrination resulting in a culture of obedience all suffer from an overriding belief in the existence of a shared, group mentality and do not account for the 10,000-30,000 inter-Hutu killings. Far more compelling, I find, is the argument that “communal violence” is a composite of many micro-level explanations. After interviewing thousands of former participants of the genocide, Straus distills three: wartime uncertainty and fear, social pressure, and opportunity. Demonstrably, Hutu elites were bedrock to the legitimization of violence and the eventual orchestration of the genocide. But to neglect a multiplicity of complex, individual motives in the name of a blanket identity-based explanation is to treat genocide as a purely aggregate event, rather than the thousands of separate instances of violence which it more truthfully is.

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Ethnicity in Rwanda Essay
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In April of 1994, a small group of hardliners within Rwanda’s ruling part organized what is now recognized as the twentieth century’s most rapid extermination campaign. In the span of 100 days, a staggering 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered at the hands of their fellow countrymen. From the outset, I dismiss the notion that the genocide resulted from the tribal chaos of Kaplan’s wildly pervasive, and historically inaccurate, “ancient hatreds” thesis. In this vein, Pr
2022-06-03 05:48:02
Ethnicity in Rwanda Essay
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