How Colonialism Affected the Rwandan Genocide


By Troy Riemer

The events that took place in the heart of Rwanda during 1994 were atrocious. More than 800,000 Tutsi were hacked and massacred at the hands and machetes of extremist Hutu while the entire world stood by and watched. How did it come to this? How could such hatred lead to the slaughter of nearly 1 million Tutsi? The roots of the carnage can be tied to European colonialism in Rwanda. Through racist ideologies that led to a distinct classification of Hutu and Tutsi and a falsified history of Rwanda, Europeans successfully birthed an ethnic divide that ultimately led to the Rwandan Genocide.

Hutu and Tutsi

Before the Tutsi ever inhabited Rwanda, there was the Hutu. Though Hutu are commonly portrayed as the long-standing inhabitants of the area, the Twa pygmies in fact hold this title. In the 11th century the Hutu arrived in the region from Chad and forced the majority of Twa out of the area (Johnson, Hutu life was mainly agricultural with organization based in clans with petty kings possessing rule over limited domains (History and Society: Hutu).

Then came the Tutsi. Traditionally identified as, “the cattle owning political elite” (“Hutu”). The Tutsi prided themselves on their knowledge about and control of cattle, looking down on the cultivators lacking in both (The Ungodly Missionary Legacy). They were aliens from the north that swept in and subjugated the Hutu to their rule (History and Society: Hutu). But not until the arrival of colonialism did this subjugation become more clearly demarcated by the Europeans. Despite these differences, classifications of the Hutu and Tutsi were not immutable, nor did they define disconnected races.

Hutu and Tutsi could best be described as working classes rather than separate races. The categories of Hutu and Tutsi remained flexible before the arrival of Europeans allowing individuals to move between the two with relative ease. They have intermarried, they speak the same tongue, and they share numerous cultural practices (“Hutu”). Furthermore, according to historical, linguistic, and cultural definitions, the Hutu and Tutsi are not distinct groups (“Hutu”).

Though the Rwandan genocide in the late spring of 1994 can be classified as an ethnic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi, many geneticists have failed to find marked ethnic differences between the two groups (Johnson, The one thing that can be said to physically differentiate the two is that Tutsi have been known to be taller and more narrow-featured. In reality, the principal source of ‘ethnic’ differences between Hutu and Tutsi can be ascribed to colonialism.

The Role of European Colonialism

So exactly what role did European colonialism of Rwanda play in the ethnic divide of Hutu and Tutsi? A new kind of racism was brought to Rwanda upon the arrival of Europeans in the 20th century. Colonists assumed their own superiority and valued those physically and geographically close to themselves. From this racism the Hamitic hypothesis was born.

According to the Hamitic hypothesis pastoralists from the north had brought civilization to the rest of the continent through conquest or infiltration (History and Society: Hamitic Hypothesis). In other words, the Tutsi (more commonly tall, narrow-featured and elegant) came in from Ethiopia and brought civilization to the Hutu (The Ungodly Missionary Legacy). The Tutsi were the ideal Hamites. Additionally, Tutsi even wore togas as a part of their daily attire. This in itself was confirmation to Europeans of a faint connection with the Roman colonies of North Africa (Dikötter, 1485).

Thereupon, pigeonholed intellectual and moral qualities were ascribed to the Hutu and Tutsi. The Tutsi, being most like the Europeans, were labelled the more intelligent of the two and were naturally born to rule. While on the other hand, the Hutu were labelled as dumb, but good-natured and loyal subjects. Once in practice these postulations limited posts in office along with the higher education necessary to fill the positions. This gave the Tutsi unavoidable admission into occupations in the administration. And to further ensure that entrance was limited to Tutsi alone, each person was branded Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa at birth. Even though these political ethnic groups existed before the colonial period, the racist ideology of the Europeans had sweeping ramifications, breeding the idea of a superior race. This was solidified by European colonial policies and internalized by Rwandans themselves (Michelle,

In the initial classification of tribal groups, authorities used cattle ownership as the criterion for sorting. Those with ten or more cows were branded Tutsi, and those with fewer were labelled Hutu. This classification process produced profound effects that echoed later in history. During the Rwandan genocide, these identification cards told Hutu extremists who to kill and who to reprieve (The Ungodly Missionary Legacy). Thus from the application of the Hamitic hypothesis to the Hutus and Tutsis not only did a great ethnic chasm emerge but a hatred of Tutsi by Hutu.

Over a series of decades this rift was further developed by the implementation of a collaboratively dubious history of Rwanda. Europeans and Rwandan intellectuals contrived a history of Rwanda that assimilated to European assumptions and moreover harmonized with Tutsi interests. As Alison Des Forges says in The Ideology of Genocide, “the Tutsi, politically astute by training not by birth, readily understood the prejudices of the Europeans and exploited them fully to their own benefit” (Des Forges). So that is exactly what they did. A new history was written with the Tutsi as the supreme being, second to the European of course.

The first inhabitants of the area were the Twa, hunters and gatherers. Then came the Hutu with agriculture and loose political organizations in the form of clans and petty kings. Next came the Tutsi, a superiorly intelligent minority swooping in from Ethiopia and usurping the majority. Some said by offering the grant of their cattle, others said by their eminence alone. And finally, the Europeans, the most advantageous minority of them all, established control over all the others. Subsequently packaged and delivered to the masses as fact, the perverted past backed by substantial data became the accepted account of the growth of the nation. By cleverly offering up a history that outlined the supremacy of the Tutsi, both groups developed a belief that Tutsi were seemingly worthier while the Hutu simply were not (Michelle,

Belief in this racialized Rwandan history can clearly be seen in the 1957 Hutu Manifesto drafted on the eve of independence. It demands democracy and freedom from the oppressive rule of the Tutsi aristocracy. Additionally it refers to Tutsi rule as ‘colonialism,’ an idea rooted in the erroneous Hamitic hypothesis that the Tutsi came from Ethiopia and usurped the Hutu majority. This in itself reveals the internalization of this dubious history and the characterizations of the Hutu and Tutsi identities (Michelle,

Thus a bloody revolutionary uprising ensued in 1959. What began as a peasant revolt transformed into a political upheaval and comprehensive restructuring of the government by 1962 into Hutu hands (History of Rwanda, In the minds of the Hutu, they had liberated themselves from the oppressive rule of the Tutsi. In the mind of the Tutsi, after 160,000 had fled to outlying countries and nearly 20,000 had been killed, they had become the victims. In 1964, more violence ensued and for years after a system that described Tutsi as ‘cockroaches’ was instituted. Hutu could freely murder their Tutsi neighbor without fear of prosecution and even more were executed and exiled (History of Rwanda, Tutsi subjugation had ceased, and extremist Hutu ideals had come to the forefront of this ethnic conflict creating violent civil war within Rwanda.

Beginning in 1973, military rule succeeded the Kayibanda government that had governed following the bloody revolt in 1959. Under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Juvénal Habarimana, though still Hutu dominated, a new order was instituted and a constitution was eventually drafted along with political elections. Habyarimana remained president until his death in April 6th, 1994. It is widely believed that the presidents plane was shot down by extremist Hutus who did not want a peace he was organizing at the time to become effective (History of Rwanda, The subsequent weeks that shadowed were flooded with Tutsi bloodshed by the hands and machetes of Hutu. United Nations activity was quite questionable over this period that came to be known as the Rwandan genocide. According to Pancrace Hakizamungili, a Hutu, “rule number one was to kill. There was no rule number two. It was an organization without complications” (Hatzfeld, 10).

Over the course of European occupation in Rwanda, elitism was successfully refashioned into racism. By preventing Hutu access to higher education and administrative jobs, they were essentially closed off from the political arena and representation in such. Moreover, the documentation of ‘ethnic groups’ enhanced the importance of these rigid classifications. No longer was there flexibility between groups. Ethnic boundaries were clearly defined. So Hutu, excommunicated from power experienced the solidarity of the oppressed. Over time this rift, this pronounced separateness between Hutu and Tutsi, blossomed into hatred. Why? Because of the Europeans who came to colonize and bring the wealth of western knowledge, but instead brought racist ideologies. Though the roots of this ethnic hatred and in turn ethnic genocide can be tied to European colonialism that does not mean that Europeans can be blamed for these atrocities. According to UN staff members, “the whole world failed Rwanda…” (Gourevitch).


Des Forges, Alison. “The Ideology of Genocide”. Issue: A Journal of Opinion 23 No. 2 (1995). 44-47. Print.

Dikötter, Frank. “The racialization of the globe: an interactive interpretation”. Ethnic and Racial Studies 31.8 (2008). 1478-1496. Print.

Gourevitch, Phillip. “Annals of Diplomacy: The Genocide Fax”. New Yorker, 11 May 1998. Print.

Hatzfeld, Jean. Machete Season. Trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005. Print.

History and Society: Hamitic Hypothesis. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010.

History and Society: Hutu. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010.

History of Rwanda., 25 April 2010. Web. 25 April 2010.

“Hutu” Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African & African American Experience. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. 2005. Print

Johnson, Bridget. Why is there conflict between Tutsis and Hutus?, 2010. Web. 25 April 2010.

Michelle. False History: Real Genocide: The Use and Abuse of Identity in Rwanda., 2010. Web. 25 April 2010.

The Ungodly Missionary Legacy. Web. 25 April 2010.

Vanesa, Jan. Antecedents to modern Rwanda: the Nyiginya Kingdom. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Print.

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11 thoughts on “How Colonialism Affected the Rwandan Genocide

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  2. You could definitely see your skills within the article you
    write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

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  5. This is wonderfully written and researched article. So much of what goes on in African nations is misunderstood, if reported at all.

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  7. I recently met a Rwandan woman and her story inspired me to learn more about the colonial past of Rwanda and how it contributed to the genocide. This is one of the most well-cited articles I have found. However, I wish this website would say more about what it is and who the authors are, it would be helpful in oder to recommend it as a credible source.

  8. Wargod in action hey? What I mean to say is It’s seems like this kind of thing happens and has happened over and over forevery right? Graham Hancock sort of postulates that or put forward the possibility that there has been some sort of force that has been behind all of the horrible wars and conquests in history. Prime example would be Cortez who felt who thought he was being guided by Saint Peter to conquer the new world and then how Montezuma was receiving visions of a white God that was come to bring them salvation… So again The Art of war just like the Hutu Tutsi distract to keep from looking up? This makes little to no sense but would love to hear your input

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