Constructed Identity or Elite Manipulation? Ethnicity in Rwanda

History Sep 02, 2019

By Millaray Freire-Archer
Published 2018-12-12

One of the most pervasive popular explanations for the devastating violence of the 1994 Rwandan genocide has been that of ‘ancient tribal animosities’, but this explanation lacks depth of under-standing of the region. To demonstrate why a constructivist approach to ethnic identity better ac-counts for the events of 1994 in Rwanda, I will first examine the existence of ‘ancient tribal ani-mosities’ in Rwanda, and their links to ethnic identity. I will further identify the processes by which ethnic identity, and subsequently ethnic tensions, were reinforced by the colonial state pow-ers. Finally, I will examine the timing and context of the genocide, as well as the processes by which it was carried out.

According to Geertz, tribalism finds its roots in primordialism, a theory of ethnicity contending that there are certain immutable and innate characteristics of social groups that form their ethnic identity, and indeed, can exert coercive power over the group to the extent of contributing to civil violence and threatening the state. Primordialism is widely criticized for being unexplainable and unfounded. Eller and Coughlan suggest that rather than being immutable and inherent, ethnic identities are flu-id, renewable, malleable, and ultimately socially constructed.

While the theory of ancient tribal animosities is now often rejected in academic work (see Hintjens 1999, Newbury & Newbury 1994, Weiss-Wendt et al 2008, Powell 2011, Waugh 2004, Mamdani 2001), it was an explanation promoted by international media coverage of the genocide, and as such became ingrained in popular thought (See Li’s 2007 article). This is not unique to Rwanda – in fact, tribalist explanations for violence in sub-Saharan Africa have littered the media for decades, pronouncing that Africans’ “modern loyalties still often go first to the tribe.” More contemporary media reports are less explicit. They tend to talk about longstanding ethnic tensions without suffi-cient context, which is neither an accurate nor helpful analytical framework.

To determine if ancient tribal animosities can explain the 1994 genocide, the ostensible ‘tribes’ must be examined: in this case, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Importantly, it is difficult to determine historical facts because Hutu and Tutsi history was traditionally passed down orally, and most of the early writings on the Hutu and Tutsi were authored by nineteenth-century European colonists and theorists (who contemporarily are subject to extensive criticism due to the rampant scientific racism dominating the writings).

Some scholars maintain that there is a historical ethnic difference between the Hutus and the Tutsis, especially in origin, social and political role, and class. This narrative holds that the Tutsis were set-tler-colonial invaders who subjected the indigenous Hutu population, exploiting them (and poorer Tutsis) through clientelism, while systematically excluding them from power. Within this narrative, there are varying degrees of recognition of the fluidity of ethnicity in the pre-colonial period. How-ever, most theorists recognize that the high rates of intermarriage, the difference in political struc-tures, and the ambiguity surrounding the Tutsi/Hutu/Twa designations and their linkage to occupa-tion and wealth, mean that ‘ethnicity’ may be too anachronistic a term to use. Thus, even this pri-mordialist-inspired approach incorporates a constructivist line of thinking in considering the fluidi-ty of ethnicity.

Other scholars take a more explicitly constructivist approach by emphasizing that the Hutu/Tutsi difference was tantamount to a class and labour distinction, rather than an origin or race distinction. From this perspective, the Hutu majority were generally agriculturalists, and poorer than their mi-nority Tutsi cattle-owning counterparts. This approach also places significantly more emphasis on the role of the European colonizers in creating Hutu/Tutsi distinctions. In her article “Explaining the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda”, Hintjens retells an (unverified) account of how the Belgian colonial administrators created a system to ethnically label the population: people with nine cattle or fewer were Hutu, and people with ten or more were Tutsi. Prunier highlights the institution of ubuhake, a contract whereby a Tutsi would give a Hutu a cow, and share the reproductive fruits of the cow such that the Hutu lineage could become Tutsi. At the very least, intermarriage was a notable con-tributor to the fluidity of the identities prior to colonization – Jefremovas writes that wealthy Hutu were known to marry Tutsi women, such that their children also became Tutsi. From this perspec-tive, Hutu and Tutsi as ethnic identities were essentially created during the colonial period.

While the primordialist-inspired ‘historical difference’ approach and the more constructivist ‘class-distinction’ disagree on the extent of the ethnic divisions in the pre-colonial period, it is difficult to refute that colonization deepened and solidified those divisions psychologically and physically. The Germans, and later the Belgians, exerted colonial rule over Rwandan territory from 1894 until de-colonization in 1962. Uvin documents how, like many contemporary colonial rulers, both nations used indirect rule to reorganize the Rwandan political structure and empower existing local authori-ties to exert control that would benefit colonial interests. This strategy is the easier and less costly method of exerting control, because it does not require the establishment of a strong state, but it exploits existing social structures to allow for the manipulation of resources and wealth.

The Belgian colonial rulers employed several methods to empower the Tutsis and in doing so, ra-cialized the Hutu/Tutsi groups and cement social experience into an ethnic one. Mamdani identifies three strategies as most effective in doing this. First, racial ‘education’, namely the propagation of the Hamitic hypothesis and the separate English teachings for Tutsis but not Hutus, created educa-tional divisions that heavily impacted their future opportunities. Secondly, state administrative poli-cies were reformed to shift power to local Tutsi authorities and reduce accountability to the com-munity. Finally, conversion was used to “Christianize Tutsi rule”, and thus lend it legitimacy. Per-haps the most infamous additional strategy was the introduction of identity cards, which froze eth-nic identity in time and dismantled whatever social mobility may have been available between groups.

However, colonial rule did end in 1962, while extreme ethnic violence was not seen until nearly a generation later. The divisions that took root during the colonial era not only persisted, but deep-ened, which led to the mass violence of the late twentieth century. Three major contributors to deepening divisions post-colonialism were the colonial legacy, credible commitment problems, and the logic of the minimum winning coalition.

The effect of the colonial legacy was twofold. Colonialism exploited what divisions existed, while contributing to the creation of an immutable ethnic identity out of what were decidedly more flexi-ble economic, social, and political divisions. The impact of indirect rule on Rwanda is more convo-luted. Migdal writes that civil conflict can occur when there is a failure to create a strong state in the wake of independence from colonial rule; he terms this the ‘strong society, weak state’ condition in which local leaders empowered during colonial rule can provide viable survival alternatives to pub-lic support of a centralized state. This hinders the creation of the state, and creates a (sometimes violent) struggle for government control. Yet, Rwanda was an example of a fairly strong and pros-perous country during colonial rule and after independence compared to neighbouring regions. This was perhaps because the government in power was Hutu-dominated, and thus had the faith of the majority-Hutu population (rather than having to defer to the colonial hierarchy of local leaders). The legacy of Belgian rule in Rwanda represents a hybrid model of what Migdal describes: in cre-ating and/or deepening ethnic divisions and backing the establishment of an essentially ethnocratic strong state (via Belgian support of PARMEHUTU in the first Rwandan election), the colonial legacy was a factor in the incidence of a full-blown genocide, instead of a more mixed civil conflict.

The second contributor was that of the logic of the minimum winning coalition; as described by Posner. Political elites will activate cultural identity to create group cleavages if doing so will create a coalition strong enough to secure them political power in a competitive political environment. In Rwanda, this meant activating a ‘historical’ Hutu identity, and mobilising against an out-group (Tutsi) on the basis of historical oppression and suffering. Hutu-dominated politics and periodic violence incited by Hutu extremists and by the Tutsi resistance persisted for the following decades. So, political and social exclusion beginning immediately after independence deepened the existing colonial division, and tainted it with ethno-nationalist ideology.

The final contributors to deepening divisions were issues with credible commitment to reparations on either side. The Tutsis could not credibly commit to use political power benevolently despite their oppression and exclusion, while the Hutus could not commit to giving them that power for fear of retaliation. And thus, while power sharing and accommodation on both sides might have avoided the growing ethnic tension and division, neither group could take the first step.

These three mechanisms exploited existing divisions among the Hutu and Tutsi, and effectively consolidated those differences into an undeniable ethnic identity that then set the stage for the ex-treme ethnic violence of the genocide. To round out an understanding of how the genocide arose in Rwanda, an examination of why violence occurred when it did must be undertaken.

Though ethnic tensions were ripening throughout the post-independence period, there were several contextual factors that contributed to the timing of the genocide. During the 1980s and 1990s, three major threats to the Hutu regime incentivized the elites in power to further activate Tutsi/Hutu iden-tities in order to retain their hegemony.

The first threat to the regime was the economic crisis caused by the collapse in coffee prices in the 1980s. This caused a sharp drop in the quality of life for lower- and middle-class Hutu and Tutsi and deterioration of social conditions, as existing welfare systems were put under extreme stress (See Hintjens). While the explicit threat was a public loss of faith in the regime, implicitly, it is clear that without welfare, poor Hutu and Tutsi would have a common experience to rally around. This was especially true in the southern part of Rwanda, where there was already some solidarity be-tween ethnic groups in opposition to the concentration of wealth in the north. Thus, the wealth that the regime retained went to reinforcing the existing patronage networks – namely, the military in-vestment – concurrently with inciting processes of scapegoating certain Tutsi-dominated profes-sions. This was an ideal situation in which activating ethnic identities could temporarily dismantle growing solidarity, and allow retention of Hutu political power.

The second threat was the push towards democratic change. In 1991, the new Rwandan Constitu-tion was introduced that allowed for the creation of political parties; that is, a move towards a multi-party election system. This new avenue to power for poor Rwandans, Tutsi or Hutu, only rein-forced the threat of southern opposition to the northern concentration of power.

The Arusha Accords comprised the third threat, in that they exacerbated the political threats to the regime by introducing explicit Hutu/Tutsi power sharing in government and in the military. This was clearly problematic on both sides due to the credible commitment issues, but especially to the increasingly fragile Hutu regime. The government response was the creation of increasingly milita-ristic Hutu cultural and youth groups, and anti-Arusha Accord sentiments wielded against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Even the mechanisms by which mobilisation and implementation of the genocide occurred indicate the necessity for explanations other than ancient tribal animosities. One of the clearest examples is the death rates of the Hutu population: by the end, nearly 100,000 had been killed. This included Hutu moderates and those who refused to participate, as well as Hutu who were mistaken for Tut-si. The slaughter of Hutu moderates, especially, suggests that there were more deeply held con-cerns than straightforward ethnic hatred motivating the genocide. A second example is the coercion to participate in violence that many Hutu were subjected to, often under threat to their own lives. For many Rwandans, there was not enough ethnic hatred existing to motivate participation in communal violence; the hatred, then, was exacerbated through the media, propaganda, and blatant coercion.

To conclude, ancient tribal animosities are, at best, a reductive and inaccurate way of understanding the genocidal violence in Rwanda. At worst, the argument carries patronizing neocolonial over-tones. While there are conflicting opinions on the salience of the Hutu/Tutsi division pre-colonialism, there is strong evidence for the exploitation of divisions under colonial rule through racial education, state policy, the Church, and physically in the form of identity cards. These divi-sions were deepened post-independence through the colonial legacy, the regime’s use of a mini-mum winning coalition (and associated patronage networks), and political credible commitment issues. These divisions were exploited by the regime under pressure from economic collapse, dem-ocratic threat, and the Arusha Accords. Primordialist ‘ancient tribal animosities’ can do little to ex-plain the timing, the political atmosphere, the classist divisions, or the mechanisms by which the genocide was carried out; clearly, an understanding of this kind of political and ethnic communal violence requires a more holistic analysis.

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