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Genocide in Rwanda: The role of the West

Wednesday, June 1, 1994 - 10:00

By David Dorward

The media have reduced the Rwanda atrocities to some inexplicable and primeval "tribal" conflict, obscuring the manipulation of ethnic politics by a ruthless Western-backed military dictatorship. The recent horror in Rwanda and the prospects for renewed ethnic clashes in Burundi are part of a saga of violence stretching back over 35 years. There is nothing inevitable about these atrocities. They were predictable and avoidable — but only if there had been the political will. As in Bosnia-Hercegovina, ethnic tensions have been fanned by politicians who have manipulated "history" to their own ends.

The roots of the problem are ignorance, poverty and land-hunger. Rwanda and Burundi have among the highest population densities in Africa. The vast majority of the nearly 14 million people still eke out a living as subsistence farmers, in an area smaller than Tasmania. Less than half the land is arable. A majority of the people are Catholic and there have been no attempts at birth control or family planning.

Hutu farmers arrived in the region before the 14th century. The Tutsi pastoralists came somewhat later from Uganda, establishing petty chiefdoms. Over the centuries a client relationship known as buhake evolved between the Tutsi "overlords" and the Hutu commoners.

In return for protection, access to land and the loan of cattle, Hutu peasants entered into a complex relationship of dependence with a Tutsi overlord. The overlord expected to draw material advantage in return. In the pre-colonial context, the relationship was not particularly exploitative. Tutsi "overlords" lived much like their subjects. In both countries, the Hutu outnumber the Tutsi ten-to-one.

The region was briefly part of German East Africa but was conquered by Belgium in the first world war. Despite platitudes about development, democracy and human rights, Belgian rule was exploitative, authoritarian and oppressive. At independence government did not need to initiate laws to stifle opposition or arrest critics; such laws already existed.

The Belgians ruled through the Tutsi chiefs, who used Belgian support to consolidate their authority. They claimed ownership of the land and reduced commoners to serfs. Apart from compulsory coffee cultivation, imposed by the Belgians in 1925, the region was a labour reserve for the Belgian Congo: landless peasants were forced to work in the mines of Katanga.

In the 1950s, the missionary-educated Hutu began agitation for independence. The Belgian authorities encouraged ethnic divisions as a means of undermining African nationalism. In 1959, the Tutsi chief of Rwanda died and the new king allied himself with Tutsi extremists who murdered a number of Hutu nationalist leaders. The Hutu rose in revolt, killing thousands of Tutsi. The king, with some 140,000 Tutsi refugees, fled to Uganda. Rwanda gained independence in 1962 with a Hutu government.

Burundi gained independence in 1962 as a constitutional monarchy. While the Hutu dominated parliament, they were divided among numerous rival parties. The king appointed one of his sons as prime minister, but the prince was assassinated within a month. Rumours of a "Hutu conspiracy" fed the fears of Tutsi already terrified by the Hutu uprising in Rwanda.

The king instigated a massive crackdown on rival Tutsi clans, opposition parties, trade unions and anyone who might threaten the monarchy, but he was unable to establish political stability. There were seven governments between 1962 and 1966, several ending in assassination.

In 1966, a 25-year-old Belgian-trained Tutsi police commander, Captain Micombero, overthrew the monarchy and declared himself president, His government, like those of his successors, was dominated by Tutsi from the southern Bahima clan. While the Tutsi as a group may have benefited from the suppression of the Hutu in Burundi, the Bahima were the main beneficiaries. There were tensions within Tutsi society, as well as between Tutsi and Hutu. In 1972 more than 2000 rival Tutsi, as well 150,000 Hutu, were killed. Hutu in the Burundi army were also massacred, leaving it a Tutsi preserve.

In 1973, the Rwandan government was overthrown in a coup by General Habyarimana. Many officials from the Gitarama Hutu clan were arrested, to die in prison. Power passed to the northern Hutu from Gisenyi.

In both countries politicians exploited their authority for their own aggrandisement, while ignoring the plight of the peasants. As frustration and resentment mounted, the ruling elite diverted popular unrest by blaming social and economic problems on opposition ethnic "enemies". Government officials repeatedly incited peasant mobs to attack neighbours. They used ethnic fears to justify one-party rule, military expenditures and the abrogation of human rights. The state sponsored murders of political opponents, rivals groups, anyone who threatened authority.

In October 1990, forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), mainly Tutsi refugees, invaded from neighbouring Uganda. At the request of General Habyarimana, Belgian, French and US-backed Zairean troops came to the aid of the Rwandan government, ostensibly to protect foreigners and secure Kigali airport. Foreign troops were persistently accused of actively siding with the government against the rebels.

Despite persistent reports of human rights violations, the military governments in Rwanda and Burundi continued to receive Western support, including weapons and military training from France, Germany, Belgium and South Africa. Industrial nations were more concerned to strike deals with stable client governments than to promote democracy or human rights.

In February 1992 it was reported that Lt Col Chollet, commander of the French forces in Rwanda, had been appointed military adviser to the president and his army chief-of-staff. French forces were accused of fighting alongside Rwandan troops in a battle with the RPF near Ruhengeri in February 1993.

During peace talks at Dar es Salaam in March 1993, the RPF insisted on the withdrawal of French forces. The French demanded the RPF withdraw from Ruhengeri and other territories captured in the February fighting. France, Belgium and the United States officially condemned the RPF for fighting.

Each RPF military victory was countered by government-orchestrated murder of Tutsi and Hutu opponents. The main perpetrators of the atrocities were members of the Rwanda ruling party militia, the inyarahamwe. Recruited from the uneducated, unemployed landless Hutu peasantry, the inyarahamwe were fed a diet of anti-Tutsi propaganda. Local officials declared that those who were not for the government were enemies and should be driven out.

Following the murder in Burundi last year of the first democratically elected Hutu ruler, 200,000 Tutsi were killed. In revenge atrocities by the Tutsi security forces, nearly a million Hutu were displaced or fled to Rwanda and Tanzania. A Hutu-dominated government has managed to hang on to power, but the security forces are dominated by Tutsi and cannot be relied upon. Moreover, in last year's turmoil, crops were not planted; unless aid arrives soon, thousands will starve.

The Rwandan government signed a peace accord with RPF rebels at Arusha in Tanzania on August 4, 1993. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), established by the Security Council in October 1993 at the behest of France, was to ensure the security of Kigali and the transitional government and monitor repatriation of refugees and resettlement of displaced persons. By late 1992, there were over 1 million displaced persons as a result of the fighting.

Their partisan involvement in the civil war made a mockery of the preponderance of French and Belgian troops in UNAMIR. There were persistent complaints of non-cooperation and delays in the deployment of UNAMIR.

While returning from further negotiations at Arusha on April 6, President Habyarimana's plane was shot down by Hutu extremists in the French-trained Presidential Guard.

Factions in the Rwandan military feared loss of their power and privilege. They blamed the president's death on Tutsi and Hutu "traitors" and sent out inyarahamwe militia with death lists.

Party thugs killed Tutsi, Hutu, anyone identified as opposing the regime. Murder of even the innocent was "'justified' by murderers who saw themselves as potential "victims" of advancing Tutsi rebels. Ordinary people are forced to join in mass murder as a profession of "loyalty", lest they themselves fall victim to the inyarahamwe.

Though the Organisation of African Unity has been criticised for inaction, it sent in a monitoring team of Nigerian,Zimbabwean, and Senegalese officers in July 1992. Their warnings and criticisms were ignored,

The hypocrisy of the UN Security Council is all too familiar, and the UN has lost all credibility. The victorious RPF are unlikely to surrender sovereignty to a partisan UN force. They are insisting upon bilateral agreements on the composition and objectives of any peacekeeping force. The French have been explicitly excluded.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front, which has a reasonable record to date, is about to establish control in Rwanda. Despite turmoil and assassinations, there have been persistent efforts in Burundi over the past year to establish a democratic government which cuts across ethnic divisions.

Peasants throughout Africa have been forced to bear the burden of corrupt governments, self-interested "development" programs and military sales disguised as foreign aid. Instead of neo-colonial military escapades, what is needed are clearly and carefully targeted assistance programs. The burden of refugees is threatening to destabilise Uganda and Tanzania.

Security forces need to be reduced. Their primary function throughout most of Africa has been to suppress domestic opposition, not to defend the nation against external aggression. The role of industrial nations, as the major suppliers of arms, needs to be more widely exposed.

If the cycle of violence is to be broken, those traumatised by the violence must be rehabilitated. Governments should be encouraged to transform mass education to encourage national unity and to implement human right safeguards.

Rwanda and Burundi are a legacy of neo-colonialism and extreme manifestations of the manipulation of ethnic tensions by unscrupulous politicians and community leaders. There are lessons for all of us in their suffering.

[Dr David Dorward is director of the African Research Institute at La Trobe University. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly.]

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