Benden, Adam


For roughly one hundred days in 1994, a mass genocide took place in Rwanda whose complex origins are inextricably linked with colonial expansion by European powers into the African continent. The Hutu majority systematically killed between 500,000 to 1,000,000 members of the Tutsi minority and more moderate members of the Hutu. Historians differ in opinion on the origins of racial division between the Tutsis and Hutus; some attribute it to distinct racial differences while others cite it as only a class distinction that arose well after both groups had settled in the country. Regardless of the origins of the division, it was firmly established when Germany took control of Rwanda in 1884 following the Berlin Conference. The European colonists believed the Tutsis were migrants from Ethiopia and therefore more Caucasian. This retroactive attribution of descent allowed the Germans to view the Tutsis as racially superior and more worthy of power and control in the Rwandan political system. The development and implementation of a racial ideology by the colonial power would come to have staggering effects on Rwandan society over the next century. Primarily, it would sow the seeds of an antagonistic relation between the Tutsis and Hutus that would have with dire consequences.

After a League of Nations formal mandate in 1919, Belgium took over Rwanda and began to exercise a more direct form of colonial rule as opposed to governing through the existing monarchy that was a feature of German rule. This change had a direct effect on a number of social structures within the society. Belgium reorganized the economic structure by seizing and privatizing the Hutu farm and grazing lands and provided miniscule compensation for the Hutus. Political power was restructured by simplifying the chieftain system in place and concentrating power into the hands of Tutsi leaders. Class and racial structure was further concretized by Belgium through the issuing of identity cards in 1935 that defined one as either Hutu or Tutsi. While it was theoretically possible for a Hutu to become an honorary Tutsi, the identity cards solidified class status and firmly linked it to racial distinction.

After World War II, a movement for Hutu social power began to take hold. In 1959, the Rwandan Revolution began with various attacks from each group on the other but the Hutus had full support and backing by the Belgium colonial powers. Belgium wanted to cripple the Tutsis and remove them from their positions of power and used the Hutus as the means to do just that. Yet again, racial antagonisms between the two groups were continually influenced and contained within the colonial context established by Belgium. Over the next 30 years, the Hutus continued to escalate their violent retribution on the Tutsis. The ideology of race, class, and resentment whose inception lies in colonial expansion continued to destructively fuel the rage of the Hutus and its final climax came with the genocide of Tutsis in 1994.

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