There’s an unfortunate temptation when talking about racism to think of it in simplistic terms. Too often, we conflate what is undoubtedly a hugely diverse issue into a simple case of white skin versus black, brown or Asian. In 1994, in the sub-Saharan country of Rwanda, an estimated one million people lost their lives; a tragedy that could have been intercepted but wasn’t, because the global community didn’t recognise the country’s ethnic divisions were more than just a remnant of colonialism.
With the conflict between the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) still fresh in our minds, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Genocide approaching next April, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the reality of ethnic racism, an issue which still rears its ugly head all over the world.
Rwanda’s ethnic conflict has its roots in the country’s colonialist phase and derives mostly from the developing racial science of late nineteenth-century Europe. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Hutu and Tutsi clans were amongst Rwanda’s most prominent ethnic groups; their differences were trivial, although Tutsis were perceived to have more pronounced bodily features and physical strength than Hutus. During the country’s occupation by German colonists, the Tutsi, whose ancestors had ties to the Rwandan monarchy, were held up as racially-superior and were favoured for high administrative roles. This divide was further consolidated during Belgian rule, taking effect during the First World War.
Rwanda started to develop as a military and economic power, the Tutsis remained superior, while the Hutu people experienced disenfranchisement. In 1935, the introduction of identity cards labelling citizens by their ethnicity, essentially institutionalized racism, whilst providing a basis for people to prejudicially categorise one another. On the verge of independence, the ‘Bahutu Manifesto’ was drafted by Hutu intellectuals, arguing that the privilege of the Tutsi elites was the singular reason for Rwanda’s indigenous racial problem. The Rwandan Revolution cemented the country’s independence and resulted in a Hutu-dominated republic, enlightened by their emancipation and experience of internationally fostered marginalization.
The Genocide itself sprung very suddenly to end a period of relative peacefulness following a lapse in the country’s civil war. While it is arguable whether or not the resumption of conflict was inevitable, there is no doubt that the ethnic issue had received no resolution.Amongst rural communities, co-operation and fraternity (even intermarriage) between Hutu and Tutsi families was commonplace, but in political circles, the idea of Hutu superiority remained popular. Drummed up by propaganda from the infamous ‘Radio Television Libre de Mille Collines‘ (RTLM), heated chants of ‘Hutu Power’ echoed through the night. The assassination of the Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana by unknown forces ignited the Hutu-Tutsi tensions, culminating shortly in the Rwandan Genocide, which lasted from April to mid-July 1994. The RPF, led by future Rwandan President Paul Kagame, put an end to the civil war and restored relative stability to the country, which has been subject to international investigation and retribution ever-since.
So, what can the tragedy of the Rwandan Genocide teach us about ethnic racism?
The tensions between Hutus and Tutsis prove just how devastating and powerful the idea of ethnic superiority can be, and the ability for prejudiced propaganda to catch fire should remind us of the ever-threatening potential of the written and spoken word. Events like those taking place in Rwanda evidence the progress that still needs to be made in conquering racism worldwide, and the role we must all play. To put it simply, racism isn’t just a ‘black and white’ issue.