During the horrific genocide in Rwanda, 1994, the Rwandan media played a major part in supporting, or creating an atmosphere to sanction the terrible human suffering that ensued. A detailed report from Human Rights Watch in 1999, looked into how the killing campaign was executed, using oral testimony and documentation from a wide variety of sources. It explained how this was planned for a long time and how the international community was aware of what was going on yet ignored it, and were even present during the systematic killings.
“At least half a million people perished in the Rwandan genocide,” the report notes. “Perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were slain because they opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it.”
But one issue about the whole tragedy was how it was portrayed in some of the mainstream media of some western countries. The genocide was often attributed to ancient tribal hatreds. However as Human Rights Watch notes, “this genocide was not an uncontrollable outburst of rage by a people consumed by ‘ancient tribal hatreds.’” Instead:
Richard Robbins, professor of anthropology at the State University of New York also agrees, saying “If we examine cases of purported ethnic conflict we generally find that it involve more than ancient hatred; even the ‘hatreds’ we find are relatively recent, and constructed by those ethnic entrepreneurs taking advantage of situations rooted deep in colonial domination and fed by neocolonial exploitation.” The case of Rwanda is instructive he adds. In his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), pp. 269-274, he looks at some of these deeper political and modern causes of the genocide in Rwanda, a summary of which is provided here.
The Rwanda area had been dominated by hunter gatherers (the Twa) since 1000 A.D. Hutu speakers began to settle in the area, with farms and a clan-based monarchy that dominated the Twa. Around the sixteenth century, new immigrants from the Horn of Africa, the cattle-raising Tutsi arrived and set up their own monarchy. Hutu and Tutsi were a type of class distinction, rather than based on physical differences. Tutsi were typically more dominant and controlled wealth such as cattle, while Hutu were without wealth and not tied to the powerful. But, people could move from being Hutu, to Tutsi, and the other way round, depending on their wealth and status. In addition, inter marriage was not uncommon, and power was attainable by both groups.
“When the Germans assumed control of the area after the Berlin Conference of 1884” as Robbins goes on (p. 270), “they applied their racist ideology and assumed that the generally taller, lighter-skinned Tutsis were the more ‘natural’ leaders, while the Hutus were destined to serve them. Consequently the Germans increased Tutsi influence.”
As Human Rights Watch also detailed, revisionist history was written by the Europeans:
After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Belgium took over colonial control, intensifying the split between Hutu and Tutsi “by institutionalizing racist doctrines.” Bullet-pointing Robbins mostly (p.270):
They replaced all Hutu chiefs with Tutsis and issued identity cards that noted ethnic identity, making the division between Hutu and Tutsi far more rigid than it had been before colonial control. Human Rights Watch also noted this:
The Belgians also gave the Tutsi elite the responsibility to collect taxes and administer the justice system.
The Tutsi chiefs used this new power granted them by Belgian rule to gain Hutu land. However, excluding the wealth and status of Tutsi chiefs, the average financial situation of Hutus and Tutsis was about the same.
Both groups were subject to the harsh colonial rule of Belgium in which forced labor was common, taxes were increased, and the beating of peasants by Belgian colonists became standard practice.
Furthermore, the colonial rulers transformed the economy, requiring peasants to shift their activities from subsistence or food crops to export crops, such as coffee.
Coffee production had the effect of extending the amount of arable land, since it required volcanic soil that was not productive for other, particularly food, crops.
As we shall see, this had far-reaching consequences and would contribute to the conditions that precipitated the genocide.
The colonial break for freedom also had its effects as former colonial powers played off Hutus and Tutsis between each other:
Tutsis campaigning to break from colonial rule in the 1950s meant that Belgium started to favor Hutus more so because Belgium believed they would be easier to control. The Belgians began replacing Tutsi chiefs with Hutu.
“In 1959, when clashes between Hutu and Tutsi broke out,” Robbins writes, “the Belgians allowed Hutus to burn down Tutsis houses.” (p. 270)
Furthermore, “Belgians allowed the Hutu elite to engineer a coup, and independence was granted to Rwanda on July 1, 1962.”
Anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 Tutsis were killed in violence preceding independence, while some 120,000 to 500,000 fled the country to neighboring countries such as Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). From there, Tutsi guerillas engineered raids into Rwanda.
Within Rwanda, Hutu rulers established ethnic quotas limiting Tutsi access to education and government employment.
A military coup d'état in 1973 bought Juvenal Habyarimana into power, promising national unity. He did this by establishing a one-party state, totalitarian in nature. Yet, “foreign powers appreciated the fact that Habyraimana ‘ran a tight ship,’ even requiring all Rwandans to participate in collective labor on Saturday.” (p. 271). Many reforms were also put in place, such as modernizing the civil service, making clean water available to virtually everyone, raising per capita income, and seeing an inflow of money from Western donors.
Some projects, however, “often imposed by multilateral organizations, were fiascoes and probably contributed to Hutu-Tutsi enmity” Robbins adds. For example,
But more economic woes would result in more social problems, in particular the coffee price collapse:
The cheap coffee is good for consumers, but for producers, such a quick drop had a devastating effect. “If you are a coffee consumer,” continues Robbin, “especially one who likes the new premium, freshly roasted varieties, you will pay between eight to ten dollars per pound. Of that, fifty to seventy cents represents the world market price of which thirty to fifty cents goes to the farmer who produced the coffee. The remainder goes to mid-level buyers, exporters, importers, and the processing plants that sell and market the coffee. For Rwanda, the consequences of the collapse of coffee prices meant a 50 percent drop in export earnings between 1989 and 1991.”
The elite suffered from this too, which required additional means to maintain power.
While economic collapse was looming, military threats emerged from a group of Tutsi refugees known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). “While the economy was collapsing, the RPF … invaded the country to overthrow the Habyarimana regime. Thus the state was confronted with crisis from two directions: economic collapse precipitated by the fall in coffee prices and military attacks from Tutsi who had been forced out of the country by ethnic rivalries fueled by colonial rulers.”
The Habyarimana regime was able to parley the invasion by the RPF into more foreign aid. Former colonial powers were to still have a part to play in the events that then unfolded.
By now, various human rights groups were warning of the existence of these death squads. However, the limited response by the international community gave Rwandan extremists the belief they could get away with massacres. As Human Rights Watch adds:
Various propaganda techniques were being used by Habyarimana’s inner circle, such as setting up a radio station (“a potent source of power in a country that is 60 percent illiterate,” Robbins notes (p.272)) to denounce attempts at peace between the government and the RPF, while also inciting more hatred. “Acts of violence against Tutsis increased,” as Robbins continues, “after the president of neighboring Burundi was killed in an attempted coup by Tutsi army officers. Hutus were incited to kill Tutsis, and the RPF responded by killing Hutus: some 50,000 peasants were reported killed, slightly more Tutsis than Hutus.”
The shooting down of a plane which killed Habyarimana provided the final step to start the genocide:
As Human Rights Watch also adds to Robbins points above, major powers did not act when they knew what was happening, in advance:
Declassified documents from the U.S. show that the U.S., contrary to their own claims otherwise at the time, knew of the coming genocide, but chose not to do anything about it. Many critics have long said the U.S. knew about this and as Radio Netherlands also commented:
Human Rights Watch’s description of how the major powers reacted and explained the situation to the world is worth quoting at length:
Yet, as professor of economics, Michel Chossudovsky notes, the U.S. had strategic and economic motives in Central Africa, and “Washington’s objective was to displace France, discredit the French government (which had supported the Habyarimana regime) and install an Anglo-American protectorate in Rwanda under Major General Paul Kagame. Washington deliberately did nothing to prevent the ethnic massacres.” If true, this would suggest that France, Belgium and America have a lot of blood on their hands, too. In addition, this might also shed light on some hostilities and differing stances in the U.S.’s build up to the war on Iraq (2002-2003). There, France and Belgium (who Chossudovsky also mentions), along with Germany were strongly opposed to an invasion. It is commonly believed that they had their own interests in Iraq. It would be a long time before historians will eventually uncover whether this was another “great game” between powers being played out at the expense of other people.
It is interesting to note how various leaders and elite of the “core states” as Robbins calls them, referring to the colonial and imperial past which created a European-centered world system, almost continue, subtly, the beliefs and old stereotypes common to that era. Whether this attitude itself had a bearing on the lack of response or not, is hard to tell, but that it was used as justification or reason for slow action or uncertainty while also simplifying the complex causes provides a glimpse at how certain world issues are explained or understood in the mainstream.
The genocide only ended when the RPF eventually defeated the Rwandan government’s armies and took control of the country. But fleeing Hutu elite used radio broadcasts to incite fear in Hutu that chose to remain, saying that they faced retaliation and reprisals from returning Tutsi and RPF forces. As a result millions of Hutu fled Rwanda ending up in refugee camps in various bordering countries and as Robbins describes (p.273), “becoming a country in exile for the Hutu extremists who fled with them, using their control over the fleeing army to maintain control of the Hutus in the refugee camps.” Some 80,000 Hutus died in cholera epidemics in the camps. It was a couple of years later, in 1996, that Hutus began to return, when the RPF formed a government of reconciliation.
The Human Rights Watch report has a lot more details on the events at the time of the killings. The Propaganda section of the Human Rights Watch report, for example, provides some in-depth analysis of how the media in Rwanda was used and played a role in the genocide, and how propaganda was employed in a variety of ways.
Noted near the very top, by Robbins, was how some attributed the conflict to “over-population” yet Rwanda, the size of Belgium, had a population some 3 million less than Belgium. A “Malthusian” theory of population growth and overpopulation being major causes of environmental degradation, hunger, poverty and war is quite common, perhaps because of the simplicity in its model. While some important research is to be understood from this perspective, most cases around the world finds environmental degradation, poverty, war and hunger to be found in geopolitical and economic causes, as has been the case throughout much of the history of recent centuries. For more on this aspect, see this site’s section on population.
One of the causes of the “core-initiated economic collapse” was structural adjustment, mentioned further above. In this case, this contributed to a terrible result. The world over, those similar structural adjustment policies have been pressured onto third world countries, leading to predictable economic, political and social problems. This site’s section on structural adjustment, details that aspect more so.
And as Robbins summarized, “the Rwandan disaster was hardly a simple matter of tribal warfare or ancient hatreds. It was the case of an excolonial, core-supported state threatened with core-initiated economic collapse and internal and external dissension resorting to genocide to remove the opposition that included, in this case, both Tutsis and moderate Hutus.”
Very rarely do we find these detailed accounts and context in mainstream explanation, and colonial style stereotyping still appears to be prominent as some of the quoted leaders above prove.
The Rwanda example then, is both an example of how media was used to push a propaganda of hatred for the purpose of genocide, but also how understanding the issue was typically explained in simplified terms omitting many of the deeper causes, which are also common contributing causes of problems elsewhere in the world.