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A common narrative about the Rwandan genocide and Rever’s alternative narrative
The Rwandan genocide
Oxford University Press

The author argues that the Rwanda-Burundi’s dark colonisation past helps us understand the deep-rooted causes of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. 

A common narrative about the genocide in Rwanda is that between 7 April and 15 July 1994, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis were killed. [1] Following this, a Tutsi group, led by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), killed over 100,000 Hutus, but also thousands of Tutsis. The scale and brutality of the genocide shook the world. [2] Sexual violence was rife, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women raped during the genocide.[3] 

In her book, Judy Rever gives details of the human carnage during those 100 days. Although here and there Rever gives figures of Tutsis killed, the bulk of the book is a chilling account of how the Tutsis killed the Hutus.

In this review I want to make only two points.

One is that Rever’s analysis suffers from what I call “historiographical amnesia” – a fault common to most western historical narratives on Africa.  Rever’s thesis is seriously flawed because she has not gone into Rwanda-Burundi’s colonisation and its dark side – a case of historiographical blankness. Furthermore, she puts the blame only on the Tutsis, in particular on the person of Paul Kagame and his RPF.  This is a one-sided analysis.  My point is that without coming to grips with the historical roots of the Rwandan genocide, especially the pre-colonial and colonial periods, it is impossible to understand the deep-rooted causes of the 1994 genocide, and a series of genocides preceding 1994, and also succeeding years – during the First Congo War (1996 - 1997), and the Second Congo War (1998 - 2002). Rever has totally overlooked the historical roots of the genocide. This is what I seek to provide in the first part.

Secondly, because Rever’s narrative is one-sided, it does not help the people of Rwanda to move forward. I prefer an inquisitive analysis rather than accusative. Finger-pointing does not help. In my writings - even when I write about the Empire or Imperialism - I put my questions inquisitively (why have certain things happened?) not accusatively.  Only with an inquisitive approach, we have a clearer view of how to move forward –towards a future strategy.  I tackle this difficult question in the second part.

Part One: An historiographical awareness on Rwanda’s genocide

To understand the complexity of this issue would require another 500 pages book. I give only a brief survey of this complexity - something that Rever has missed out.

Human occupation of Rwanda is thought to have begun shortly after the last ice age. That was a long, long time ago. Coming to our times, say a thousand years ago, these lands were occupied by peasant farmers who did not own the lands but cultivated these in small holdings. In addition, there were also those who had cows – the cattle-owners. The origin of the Tutsi and Hutu people is a difficult issue, not just for Rwanda but for the whole of the Great Lakes region.  However, most anthropologists and historians would say that the Hutus were the farmers, whilst the Tutsis, who migrated from probably the Horn of Africa, were the pastoralists. The Kenyan historian, Bethwell Ogot, in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation General History series, notes that the number of pastoralists in Rwanda increased sharply around the 15th century. [4]

By the 16th century, the inhabitants of Rwanda were organised into a number of kingdoms, like in many parts of Africa – such as Buganda and Bunyoro in present-day Uganda. The Mwami’s (king’s) power lay in the control of over large estates spread through the kingdom.  The estates - including banana trees, food crops, and cattle - were the basis of the ruler’s wealth. All the people of Rwanda were expected to pay tribute to the Mwami; it was collected by a Tutsi administrative hierarchy. Beneath the Mwami was a Tutsi ministerial council of great chiefs - overseeing land, cattle and security.  Below them were lesser chiefs, who would today be called “the bureaucracy”.

Eventually, the Tutsis settled amongst the Hutus, adopting their language, beliefs and customs. The Tutsis as cattle-herders were often in a position of economic dominance over the Hutus, the peasantry. But the division between the Hutus and the Tutsis was not strictly based on class or ethnicity.  If a “Hutu” acquired a lot of cattle, he/she became a herder, and thus a part of the “Tutsi” - looking for grazing lands and water. Likewise, if a “Tutsi” lost his/her cattle, he/she would go and settle amongst the cultivators. Also, over hundreds of years, the inter-marriage between the two peoples and the exchange of parental genes complicated the issue of neat ethnic divisions between them.

This rather fluid situation was destroyed by the imperial invasion of Africa. It was not until German, and then Belgian, colonisation that the tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis became focused on race. These European racists measured the height and skulls of the “native” people, and concluded that the Tutsis had a “Caucasian” ancestry, and were thus “superior” to the Hutus. Just imagine the damage the Imperialists did to the people who had lived relatively peacefully for centuries. In the precolonial times, there were occasional fights over land or water, of course. But these were settled by gacaca - a judicial system whereby the contending parties were given an opportunity to present their case in the umudugudu (village). It was open to the entire community. The elders served as judges.

It is hard to say how the system would have worked in the absence of the 1994 massacres. The massacres had created an extraordinary situation that the population had not faced during the pre-colonial period.  So, we are dealing with a situation, in our time, that was compounded by the racial and ethnic classification of the people. Each citizen was issued a racial identification card, which defined one as legally Hutu or Tutsi.  The “superior” Tutsis were given political control over Rwanda and Burundi. Over time, the Hutus and Tutsis began to absorb and internalise the myths propagated by the imperial “race” – the colonisers. The German-Belgian colonial system destroyed institutions such as the gacaca, which, in my view, was a superior system of social engineering than what the people of Ruanda-Urundi inherited from the Empire. I would call it “cultural genocide” by the imperialists. In the second part I return to the application of the Gacaca system for trials of the 1994 massacre, which raises more questions than answers.

Following the Second World War, a wave of nationalism swept over the whole of the global South. In Africa, visionaries like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Patrice Lumumba talked about freedom from colonial rule, and pan-Africanism. But visions do not translate into reality instantaneously. What has made the realisation of pan-Africanism so difficult is that the colonisers divided Africans into inchoate “nations”, tribes, religions, races, and classes.  These divisions persist to this day as I write this.

In 1957, Grégoire Kayibanda founded the Parmehutu (Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation Hutu), to lead Hutu “emancipation”. The Catholic Church in Belgium and Germany was closely involved with Parmehutu.  In 1959, the Tutsis formed UNAR (LUnion nationale rwandaise) party, lobbying for immediate independence for Ruanda-Urundi, based on the existing Tutsi monarchy. In the same year, rumours of the death of a Hutu politician triggered the Hutus killing the Tutsis - estimated between 20,000 and 100,000. This was the year of the Hutu revolution. Some 150,000 Tutsis were exiled to neighbouring countries. Thousands of them, including the Mwami, fled to Uganda. In 1960, Belgium divided Ruanda-Urundi into two separate countries - Rwanda and Burundi. This also ended the Tutsi monarchy.

During 1961 and 1962, Tutsi guerrilla groups attacked Rwanda from neighbouring countries. Rwandan-based Hutus responded, and thousands were killed on both sides.  In 1962, the economic union between Rwanda and Burundi was dissolved, and tensions between the two countries worsened. In 1963, a Tutsi guerrilla invasion into Rwanda from Burundi unleashed another anti-Tutsi backlash by the Hutu government killing an estimated 14,000 people.

Between 1965 and 1972, there were continuous but sporadic Hutu-Tutsi violence. The two worst years were 1969 and 1972 [in Burundi], when the Tutsis crushed Hutu uprisings, killing thousands.  In 1988, Hutu violence against the Tutsis resurfaced. The Tutsi army massacred approximately 20,000 Hutus; thousands fled to Congo and Tanzania.

Uganda, on the other hand, was a refuge mainly of the Tutsis from Rwanda. Many of them joined the rebel forces of Yoweri Museveni Uganda fighting against Obote’s regime. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Museveni won the guerrilla war in 1986 mainly because of the support from the Tutsis from Rwanda, including Fred Rwigema and Paul Kagame. In return, Museveni allowed the Tutsi forces to use Uganda as a base for incursions into Rwanda. For example, on 1 October 1990 Tutsi forces invaded Rwanda from Uganda, blaming the Rwanda government of ignoring the fate of some 500,000 Tutsi refugees living in the diaspora. This went on intermittently until 1993 when, in August, a “cease-fire” was declared under the Arusha Accords power-sharing agreement.

In the meantime, the situation got worse in Burundi. In October 1993, the first elected Burundian president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated by the Burundian Tutsi-dominated army.  The Tutsi-Hutu tensions rapidly intensified. On 6 April 1994, Juvénal Habyarimana, the President of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, President of Burundi (both Hutus), died in a plane crash. Accounts differ on how and why this happened, but the general view is that the plane in all likelihood was shot down by the RPF. [5] 

This triggered the April –July 1994 genocide.  I started this review essay with figures of the people killed during those hundred days.  

Let me summarise this first part before I go to the second.  

  • Rever’s “historiographical amnesia” played havoc to her analysis of the Rwanda situation. The 1994 genocide had deep roots going back to the colonial days. The imperial masters (first the Germans and then the Belgians) had decided - by some weird racist arithmetic of their own - that the Tutsis had “Caucasian ancestry” (!) and were therefore “superior” to the Hutu. They ruled using the Tutsis.
  • Over time, the Hutus and Tutsis began to absorb the myths propagated by the imperial “race”. The Tutsis thought they were the “bosses”, and the Hutus felt oppressed. Under the colonial rule, each citizen was issued a racial identification card, which gave a “legal” definition of Hutus and Tutsis.
  • During the precolonial era/epoch, the division between the Hutus and Tutsis was not class or ethnicity-based.If a “Hutu” acquired a lot of cattle, he/she became a herder and thus a part of the “Tutsi”. Likewise, if a “Tutsi” lost his/her cattle, he/she would go and settle amongst the cultivators. Also, during the pre-colonial era of over hundreds of years, the inter-marriage between the two “races”, and genetic transfer between them, complicated the ethnic division between them. The pre-colonial relatively peaceful relation between the “Hutus” and the “Tutsis” was destroyed.
  • In the precolonial times, there were occasional fights over land, water, etc. But these were settled by gacaca – described above. The colonisers killed this system. It was “cultural genocide”. I deal with the issue of gacaca in some detail Part Two.

Conclusion: If the above is not understood, as apparently is the case with Judy Rever, then nothing is understood about Africa, let alone Rwanda.

Part Two: How to move forward

In her book, Judy Revers has overlooked the institutional and cultural carnage left behind by the imperialists. [6] Furthermore, by adopting an accusative approach – rather than inquisitive – and by pointing a finger at the Tutsis, and especially against the person of Kagame, Revers lost an opportunity of joining forces that are seeking to leave behind the Hutu-Tutsi genocidal recent history in order to move forward. Indeed, the genocides should be a kind of a lighthouse - warning people against moving in that direction. This applies not only to Rwanda but to the whole of Africa.

It is a continuing tragedy of Rwanda and the region that their political elite are not seeing the “lighthouse”.  In 1996, in order to protect Rwanda against the Hutu Interahamwe forces, which had fled to Zaire, RPF forces invaded North Kivu (Eastern Zaire).  Ugandan forces also came in to assist Laurent Kabila, who was battling against Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. This was the “First Congo War”.

In the midst of this war, Mobutu died of prostate cancer. Kabila captured Kinshasa and then became president of Zaire, which he renamed as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Kabila no longer needed Rwanda/Ugandan forces. He asked them to leave Kivu. But they refused. Uganda refused because their political and business elite had (still have) an interest in Kivu’s wealth. Rwanda had an additional reason for refusing to leave Kivu. Kagame was concerned about the poor treatment of the Banyamulenge, the Congolese Tutsis living in Kivu. He wanted to annex Kivu to Rwanda to incorporate the Banyamulenge, but also to take control of Kivu’s rich resources, including gold, in competition with Uganda. This was the context of the “Second Congo War”.

By this time, the DRC had become a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Kabila sought help from SADC.  Angola and Zimbabwe sent troops and beat back Uganda/Rwanda forces.  But Rwanda and Uganda have not stopped their incursions in Kivu in pursuit of their interests.

Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him. After five years as interim President, in 2006, he was elected as President. Meantime, Ugandan and Rwandan forces within Congo continued with their battle for territory, gold, and other resources.  In Kivu, the community-based local militia group, known as Mai-Mai, was formed to resist the forces of Rwanda and Uganda. But some of these fighters also resorted to looting, banditry and cattle-rustling. Kivu became chaotic.

In 2000, the Rwandan troops left Kivu creating more chaos. Left behind were not only the Tutsi Banyamulenge, but also the remnants of Hutu forces that could not return to Rwanda without facing charges of genocide. They battled for survival for many years. In 2007, over 260,000 Hutus and the Congolese were displaced, in the midst of increased banditry by elements of the Mai-Mai.   As I write this, the region is still in chaos. 

You might ask why I am going into the two Congo Wars, and the chaos in Eastern DRC, especially in North and South Kivu. The reason is two-fold. One is that the borders between Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC were drawn during the process of colonisation - without regard for the peoples’ tribal affinities and sensitivities. These borders remain fragile to this day, and yet they remain a stubborn obstacle to peace in the region.

The second reason follows from the first. The way forward (which is the title of this part) has to be a regional settlement, but I suggest a regional settlement with a difference. It must, of course, bring in the “ruling” elites in the process, or else they would sabotage it. But more importantly, the process must involve the various community-based organisations in the region. This is a big challenge.

And this is where you and I (and I hope Judy Rever?) could provide a detached but helpful role. The following is an indicative list of actions and principles that might help the peoples of Rwanda and the region to take on this massive challenge.

  • Most importantly, of course, following from the above discourse, is to refrain from playing a “judgmental” role from outside, to refrain from an accusative finger-pointing. Rwanda (and the region) needs a period of peace and time to resolve some of the very difficult problems they face. The SADC, the African Union, and the United Nations can play a role, but that too is secondary to the main responsibility of the common people in the region.
  • Today the people of Rwanda struggle to heal and rebuild. I have been to Kigali several times and I have seen some encouraging signs. The RPF has encouraged local communities to set aside one day a week to clean up the surrounding streets with the minimal resources they have. I hope that is still the case. Sympathetic organisations outside Rwanda could help raise resources, but without interfering with the community processes.
  • The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established by the United Nations Security Council on November 1994. It winded up its work 14 December 2015. During that one year, it convicted 61 individuals - 32 of whom are currently serving sentences, 22 of whom have completed their sentences, and seven of whom died while serving their sentences. The Tribunal acquitted 14 individuals and transferred the cases against 10 individuals to national jurisdictions. I have mixed feelings about it. What I liked about it is that for the first time the ICC has tried the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime. However, overall I think it failed to carry out its mission.
  • By 1998, around 130,000 prisoners were crammed into space meant for 12,000 that claimed thousands of lives. The Government faced an enormous challenge: choosing a system that could quickly process 1000s of cases and be broadly accepted by the people. So, it resurrected the Gacaca system described above.
  • Since 2005, just over 12,000 community-based gacaca courts have tried approximately 1.2 million cases. During my visits to Rwanda I talked with several people – both Hutu and Tutsi. The critics argued that trials were seriously flawed - not all perpetrators were arrested or punished adequately. I noticed that though the tension between the two people remains, the Gacaca courts’ swift work and extensive involvement of local communities had eased the tension. The precolonial judicial system, which suffered from the colonial what I called “cultural genocide” came to the aid of the nation where the ICC had failed.As one report says: “Conventional courts since December 1996 but had only managed to try 1,292 genocide suspects by 1998. At that rate, genocide trials would have continued for more than a century.” [7]
  • At the macro-economic level, Rwanda is showing signs of rapid economic development. Economically, the major markets for Rwandan exports are Belgium, Germany and China. Besides markets, these countries also provide development aid and investments. But these come with strings attached, the conditionalities they impose. Non-governmental organisations that have the skills might help Rwanda to negotiate better deals with these countries. For example, the Southern African Trade Information and Negotiations, which I founded in 1997, could help negotiating trade and investment deals, such as the Economic Partnership Agreements with Europe.[8]
  • There is growing international concern about the decline of human rights and curtailment of the freedom of the press in Rwanda. I share this concern, but I distance myself from the so-called “International Community” (which is a euphemism for Western Empire), led by the United States, whose record on human rights and press freedoms are atrocious. You only have to look at their policies in the Middle East, Africa and South America to really understand how little they care for human rights. Even within America, human rights and press freedoms are compromised – of course, by more subtle means than in Rwanda.

In lieu of conclusion

Phil Taylor, host of CIUT Radio in Toronto, interviewed me on my book Trade is War on 12 August 2019. He presented me a copy of Judy Rever’s book. At the time I had thought I would write a short review of the book.  However, once I started reading it, I could not put it down. I had not expected the book to provide a completely different narrative on the genocide in Rwanda from my own memory of it. 

In 1964 I had joined Makerere University in Kampala as a lecturer. People were still talking about how the Tutsi-Hutu clashes in 1961-62 had expunged thousands of Tutsis who had taken refuge in Uganda.  People also talked about Patrice Lumumba who was brutally murdered on 2 July 1961 by forces close to Belgium and the United States. For many of us, Lumumba was a hero – a revolutionary who led the resistance against Belgium and its agents in Congo. The destinies of the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi have been intertwined since their colonisation by Belgium. To this day.

Judy Rever challenged my memory of the wars in Rwanda-Urundi and Congo. It set me thinking about my position as a pan-Africanist. But as I ploughed through Rever’s book, I realised that she was not only on a wrong track but seemed to relish it (even though she had put her life and limb in danger). My planned “brief” book review morphed into a lengthy thesis.  I took the opportunity to cast the net wider to raise bigger issues that challenge us as pan-Africanists in the region surrounding Lake Victoria.

In fact, the indicative list of six actions and principles that might help peoples of Rwanda and the region was to be the concluding section of my piece.  However, as a final concluding part that I might add on how Rwanda and Uganda might abandon their internecine and mutually destructive path, and agree to patch up their differences - plough a common furrow towards peace and positive development. They should respect each other’s sovereignty and agaciro. [9]

I come from Uganda. In my book, Common People’s Uganda, 2019, I have challenged President Museveni’s continuing rule (over 33 years). In the public launch of the book in May 2019 in Uganda, I advised the President to step down, and make room for the younger generation. Kagame has been President for nearly 20 years now. Since I am not a Rwandan, I cannot take a position on Kagame as I could on Museveni.  But it might be wise for Kagame also to pass on the heavy responsibility of managing state affairs to the younger generation.


[1]  See, for example, “OAU sets inquiry into Rwanda genocide”,  Archived 14 June 2018 at the Wayback Machine, Africa Recovery, Vol. 12 1#1 (August 1998), p. 4; and “Rwanda: How the genocide happened” Archived,  22 October 2018 at the Wayback Machine, BBC.]

[2] The scale and brutality of the genocide shook the world]

[3] Nowrojee, Binaifer (1996). Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its After. New York: Human Rights Watch. ISBN 978-1-56432-208-1.

[4] Bethwell Allan Ogot, ed. (1992). “Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century”. General History of Africa.,  Vol. 5.

[5] Rever devotes one whole chapter (Ch. 13) to “The Assassination of Habyarimana”, as well as the consequences of this in several other chapters.

[6] By the way, you would look in vain to find the terms “Empire” and “Imperialism”, in Rever’s book.  This is not just a “Freudian slip”; it is a wilful denial of the reality of Imperialism.  She might take comfort in the fact that she is not alone. Look at the textbooks in economics, sociology, political science, and history at Western universities, rarely would you find the “professors” directing the students to take the phenomenon of imperialism seriously.  I would argue that the students should not only take the reality of imperialism seriously, but they should study it, if they want to understand the reality of Africa, or for that matter, the Middle East, most parts of Asia, and South America and the Caribbean.

[7] See:

[8] I am concerned about the manner in which the European Union has divided the East African Community and, more or less, imposed the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) on them. Some countries have signed the EPAs (like Kenya and Rwanda), others not (especially Tanzania).  Those that have signed face the prospect of importing heavily subsidised agricultural and dairy products from Europe that have put to risk the livelihood of millions of small peasant producers in East Africa. There are other downside effects of the EPAs. I have written about this in my book, Trade is War: The West’s War Against the World, 2015, 2018.  In my separate meetings with President Museveni and President Kagame I have cautioned them against the EPAs. However, Rwanda has signed the EPA for its own reasons, and Uganda is still, at the time of writing, sitting on the fence.

[9] “Agaciro” is the Kinyarwanda word for dignity.

* Professor Yash Tandon is from Uganda and has worked at many different levels as an academic, a teacher, a political thinker, a rural development worker, a civil society activist, and an institution builder.