Rwanda: could state-led mass killings ever happen again? – By Bert Ingelaere & Marijke Verpoorten


Visual representation of what seems to be on a peasant’s mind in Rwanda based on a word frequency count executed on over 350 life history interviews.

April 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsi, were killed by the Hutu-dominated government. The Rwandan conflict cycle of the 1990s included civil war, reprisal killings and rural guerilla warfare. Prior to the 1990s Rwanda had experienced several outbursts of violence, with the Hutu revolution in 1959 marking the first episode of large-scale ethnic violence. This history of violence raises the question: could such state-led mass killings of civilians happen again in Rwanda?

To answer this question, in this essay we discuss the factors that mean Rwanda remains at risk of this type of violence. We will argue that the international community – heavily involved in contemporary Rwanda – is currently confusing the consequences and origins of mass violence. This could result in renewed mass violence and consequently there needs to be a drastic change of policy.

Drivers of Violence

Rwandan society is bi-polar, with a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority. The crystallization of ethnic identities started before colonialism at the time of the Rwandan monarchy, when a Tutsi identity became associated with the wealth and power linked to royal status, while a Hutu awareness developed in relation to their subordination to this elite. The colonial rulers (first Germany and later Belgium) further institutionalized and rigidified ethnicity, for example by favoring Tutsi elites and by issuing ethnic identity cards. During the genocidal months of 1994, ethnicity took on a very specific meaning, operating as a dividing force and an organizing principle for violence.

Economic hardship accelerated the pace and contributed to the  intensity of  violence in Rwanda. The combination of land scarcity, high rural population growth and slow uptake of fertilizer use in agriculture caused food production per capita to decline and land conflicts to rise. Land scarcity also added to the frustration of young men, as they increasingly failed to acquire sufficient land to start a family. Economic reforms and a drop in global coffee prices in the 1980s further aggravated the hardship.

The political situation at the time and its historical background are both key to understanding the onset of mass violence in 1994. The 1959 Hutu revolution marked the end of the Tutsi monarchy, the start of a decolonization process and the establishment of a Republic vested on the idea of Hutu supremacy. In the 1980s, this Hutu power monopoly with its authoritarian character gave rise to the Uganda-based Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), comprised of descendants from Tutsi who had fled Rwanda in the years since the 1959 Hutu revolution.

In October 1990 the RPF attacked Rwanda and demanded a return to their country of origin and a share of power. At around the same time, multiparty politics was introduced in the context of an international call for democratization at the end of the cold war. Both war and multipartyism constituted a threat to the privileges of Rwanda’s Hutu political elite. To close ranks and safeguard their monopoly on power, the elite played the ethnic card. By early 1994 intensive media and government propaganda identified every single Tutsi citizen living in Rwanda as the enemy.

That this call to ethnic violence gained extensive support can be explained by the “fear, uncertainty and insecurity” caused by political upheaval and war, Hutu ideology pervading Rwandan society for decades, economic hardship and because the call was channeled through longstanding hierarchical state structures with little institutional barriers or countervailing powers. The political, ethnic and economic aspects underlying the outburst of mass violence are thus interlinked.

One can nevertheless establish a hierarchy of drivers: the political factors – ranging from ideology over autocracy to war – were crucial since they made the mass killing of civilians thinkable, justifiable and executable. Ethnicity and economic factors were drivers that shaped the violence and added to its scale and intensity. It is this multi-causality in a context of strong state control that made the killings viciously efficient once the violence was set in motion after the shooting down of president Habyarimana’s plane on the 6th of April 1994.

Change and Continuity

The post-genocide Rwandan state is driven by a strong and appealing vision focused on the reconstruction of the country. First, the new leadership has attempted to rally its people around the idea of a single Rwandan national identity free from the spirit of sectarianism and ethnicity. The few studies that have focused on ethnicity suggest that feelings of ethnic belonging are not redundant, and that they remain a central factor in Rwandan “˜social identity’.

A second component of the RPF’s vision is the emphasis on and strong commitment to economic development. After the period of violent conflict, Rwanda experienced steady economic growth, contrasting strongly with the stagnation of GDP per capita in the 1980s. Recent trends in education, health and income poverty are also encouraging. Several factors seem to have played a role including, but not exclusively: good technical governance of development programs, massive international aid, increased budget shares for agriculture and social sectors, as well as post-genocide catch-up and the rise of global coffee prices.

At present, it is unclear whether these factors will sustainably transform the Rwandan economy, or whether progress will stall, for example when aid dries up and coffee prices decline. Even if these changes turn out to be transformative, the question is whether they can enable Rwanda to accommodate its dense and growing population despite a considerable decline in fertility. It is estimated that population density will reach over 800 inhabitants per square km by 2050 – three times as high as on the eve of the genocide.  Additionally,  systemic transformations in the structure of the rural economy may lead to widespread discontent as they bring about (relative) winners and losers, and in the case of Rwanda, involve coercive measures and policies that peasants find difficult to adapt to (such as mono-cropping, land consolidation and villagization). This may explain why objective economic progress  is not always fully experienced as such by those it is thought to most directly effect.

The top-down implementation of economic policies points to the Achilles’ heel of the post-genocide reconstruction: the authoritarian character of the current regime. State control, a key ingredient of the genocidal efficiency in 1994, remains strong. The working of (state) power within Rwandan society also portrays remarkable continuity with the pre-genocide era with a deep penetration of authority in Rwandan society and chains of accountability which mainly go upwards, not downwards as in democratic political systems.

There is, furthermore, little space or tolerance for expressing discontent or alternative projects for society. Such a project lies with the “˜democrats’, a political current that emerged in the beginning of the nineties. The “˜democrats’ were however gradually side-lined, exiled or killed after the RPF took over power in 1994, just like political opponents today.  As a result, countervailing civic powers, a culture of multi-ethnic political dialogue and strong independent institutions – which could function as barriers to violence in times of crisis – remain absent.

That such factors are important is underscored by comparative research on mass violence in Africa. For instance, despite war and crisis, Ivory Coast did not experience genocidal killings of civilians on the scale of Rwanda. This was because a political culture had developed that encouraged dialogue and embraced a vision of a multi-ethnic society. Another comparison shows that Botswana did not experience mass violence against civilians despite similarities with Rwanda due to less path dependency with respect to the historical politicization of ethnicity, preparedness for economic volatility and, importantly, a higher degree of democratic governance with less control of the state over society and a political culture marked by sufficient locally owned conflict resolution capacity.

In sum, change occurred, but some of it has been cosmetic. It means that many Rwandans still identify with ethnic markers, continue to feel poor and have little room to voice frustration or participate in the decision-making process that shapes their lives and livelihoods.

Looking Ahead

As this overview of explanations for the Rwandan genocide demonstrates, the risk of mass violence against civilians remains high.  This is not necessarily because of the continuity in the (hidden) awareness of ethnicity, or economic uncertainties, but is largely due to the visionary authoritarian character of the regime with its peculiar political culture and the path-dependency of a society that went through episodes of mass violence.

Not all authoritarian regimes resort to large-scale killings. According to comparative theories on genocide, it is the almost utopian inspiration to alter society that makes authoritarianism prone to mass killings. If such a visionary ambition gets frustrated, leaders may strategically use mass killings of civilians to nevertheless accomplish their goals, eliminate threats or reduce losses to their societal and political projects.

In the Rwandan case: a minority is in power that wants to defend its existential security as well as its visionary project, of which the main features were highlighted above; and Rwandan politics and mentalities are influenced by layers of historical episodes of mass violence. One only needs a spark to initiate a political crisis, even a war. As history has shown in the Rwandan case, and as comparative research on genocide and politically motivated mass murder suggests; it is under these circumstances that mass violence against civilians become thinkable, justifiable and executable. Recent attempts to forecast state-led mass killings continue to situate Rwanda in the risk zone.

Based on this overview of the drivers of mass violence in Rwanda, it becomes clear that policy-makers within and outside of contemporary Rwanda tend to confuse the consequences of past violence with its origins. The current regime – heavily supported by the donor community – primarily focuses on policy initiatives that seek the unity of Rwandans as well as economic reconstruction and development of the country. Most visible in the first domain is the attempt to “˜re-educate’ the population and “˜erase’ ethnic awareness. This happens through a plethora of initiatives, ranging from history education in schools to the organization of so-called “˜solidarity’ camps for all Rwandan adults. The autocratic nature of these undertakings justifies and entrenches RPF rule while not initiating values of mutual understanding or a culture of multi-ethnic political dialogue.

Since the primary driver of mass violence lies in the political domain, it means that the aid industry and international community will need to radically reconsider its involvement in Rwanda. Waiting to intervene until mass violence erupts is a dangerous bet. While – in the meantime, and primarily in response to the Rwandan tragedy – the world has witnessed a dissemination of international norms, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the creation of global institutions, such as the United Nations Office of the Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG), recent cases such as Syria and Darfur demonstrate the complexities of interventionism and the weakness of these norms.

In theory, aid conditionality can provide considerable leverage: donor support grants represent over 40% of Rwandan government expenditures. In practice, donors have not used this leverage to demand changes in Rwanda’s domestic political landscape, and operate under the assumption that economic progress is the main route to peaceful cohabitation in Rwanda. This assumption is wrong. We believe that we will only be able to say that state-led mass violence against civilians in Rwanda will never happen again if there is also a gradual change in the governance strategy.

To prevent such violence, the benchmark should be the restructuring of power and a gradual change in the political culture. This is going to be a delicate undertaking. As demonstrated in the 1990s, a too rapid democratization process can increase the risk of polarization, as political elites may seek to close (ethnic) ranks to cling onto or access power. But political opposition, civil society and the media can only mature if given room to grow. Concrete steps should be taken to influence and monitor change in the political system and civil sphere in the three-year window leading up to the 2017 presidential elections when Rwanda’s visionary leader, Paul Kagame, reaches the end of his final presidential term. Donors should make budget support conditional on the development of a political and civic culture with genuine and institutionalized checks on authority that can channel grievances in a peaceful way and – in times of crisis – absorb and neutralize a call for mass violence.

Therefore, donors need to signal the support for certain political values over others in their actions and programs. One short-term concrete step is acting against a potential change of the constitution that would allow Kagame another run at the presidency. As argued by William Easterly, in doing so, donors will stop making “false bargains” with autocrats and start embracing the idea that “the poor should have the same rights as the rich”.

Exclusionary rule, the high presence of authority in the lives of Rwandans, the functioning of the state and a peculiar political culture brought about the violence of the 1990s and the successes of post-genocide Rwanda. These are essentially two sides of the same coin. This might sound paradoxical for those unfamiliar with the hierarchy of drivers of mass violence in Rwandan history. This insight will, however, redirect preventive policy towards the origins instead of the consequences of mass violence in the Rwandan case without downplaying the successes of post-genocide Rwanda.

Bert Ingelaere is postdoctoral research fellow at Yale University, University of Antwerp and KU Leuven:

Marijke Verpoorten is Assistant Professor at the University of Antwerp, and free researcher at the University of Leuven:

Bert Ingelaere’s article ‘What’s on a Peasant’s Mind?’ can be accessed here. The article is part of a Special Issue of the Journal of East African Studies:   Rwanda under the RPF: Assessing twenty years of post-conflict governance.

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