What Was the Cause of the Rwanda Genocide?

what was the cause of the rwanda genocide

What Was the Cause of the Rwanda Genocide? During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east-central African country of Rwanda murdered up to 800,000 civilians, the majority of whom were Tutsi. The genocide began with Hutu nationalists in Kigali’s capital and spread across the country with alarming pace and violence as ordinary people were incited to take up arms against their neighbors by local officials and the Hutu Power government.

Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans had died and 2 million refugees (mostly Hutus) had fled Rwanda by the time the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front took control of the country through a military offensive in early July, exacerbating what had already been a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

The death of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana triggered the genocide. Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by an unknown missile on April 6, 1994. The genocide started on April 7th, after government-aligned forces used (Hutu) Habyarimana’s death as an excuse to start a slaughtering campaign they had been preparing for some time. It lasted approximately 100 days. So, what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide and How did it happen?

Colonialism and Ethnic Tensions in Rwanda

what caused rwanda genocide? By the early 1990s, Rwanda, a small nation with a predominantly agricultural economy, had one of the highest population densities in Africa. Around 85 percent of its population was Hutu; the rest were Tutsi, along with a small number of Twa, a Pygmy tribe who were the original inhabitants of Rwanda.

Rwanda, along with neighboring Burundi, was part of German East Africa from 1897 to 1918 until becoming a Belgian trusteeship under a League of Nations mandate after World War I. The colonial era in Rwanda, when the ruling Belgians favored the minority Tutsis over the Hutus, aggravated the propensity of the few to dominate the majority, resulting in a legacy of a conflict that erupted into violence long before Rwanda’s independence.

The animosity generated by colonial divide-and-conquer bred violence after independence. Since Hutus made up such a large majority in the region, they easily won the country’s first elections in 1961, and the regime that followed was a firmly Hutu nationalist. Violence between Hutus and Tutsis became a characteristic of Rwanda’s post-independence era.

what was the cause of the rwanda genocide
what was the cause of the rwanda genocide, “Rwanda genocide” by gil.serpereau 

In 1959, a Hutu revolt drove 330,000 Tutsis out of the region, making them an even smaller minority. The Hutus had driven Rwanda’s Tutsi monarch into exile and proclaimed the country a republic by early 1961. Belgium granted Rwanda independence in July 1962, following a United Nations referendum the same year.

In the years following independence, ethnically based violence persisted. Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, was placed in power by a military coalition in 1973. Habyarimana formed a new political party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Progress, after becoming Rwanda’s sole leader for the next two decades (NRMD). He was elected president in 1978 under a new constitution that was ratified the following year, and he was re-elected in 1983 and 1988 as the sole nominee.

The Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), mainly made up of Tutsi refugees, invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990. Hundreds of Tutsi residents were detained after Habyarimana accused them of being RPF collaborators. Hundreds of Tutsi people were killed by government officials between 1990 and 1993. In 1992, the government and the RPF signed an agreement on a cease-fire in these hostilities.

Habyarimana signed an agreement in Arusha, Tanzania, in August 1993 that called for the formation of a transition government that included the RPF. This power-sharing arrangement outraged Hutu radicals, who retaliated with swift and heinous abuse.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Colonialism and Ethnic Tensions

The Genocide in Rwanda was a Pre-Planned Extermination Campaign

The Rwandan genocide was unlike anything that had gone before it in terms of violence. It wasn’t just a case of wartime violence; it was a calculated, premeditated effort to wipe out an entire population.

From 1990 to 1993, the Hutu government fought a war with Tutsi rebels based in Uganda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). By early 1994, several Hutus, including several high-ranking government officials, had concluded that Rwanda’s Tutsi minority was the real problem. They formed armed paramilitary gangs and began training them to eliminate Tutsi civilians.

President Habyarimana had agreed to a peace deal with the RPF that would be upheld by the United Nations. The agreement was broken when a missile shot down Habyarimana’s aircraft. We don’t know if the missile was launched by Tutsi rebels or Hutu extremists opposed to the peace agreement, but it soon became meaningless. The Hutu ethnic supremacists saw this as a green light to launch their genocide.

The assassination started on April 7th. Hutu militias, most infamously the government-backed Interahamwe, slaughtered Tutsis with weapons and machetes from city to city and village to village. The militias were terrifyingly efficient, using a radio station to organize the start of the campaign across the country and to inform people where “the graves had not yet been filled.” They were slaughtering about 8000 Tutsis every day.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Preplanned

what was the cause of the rwanda genocide
what was the cause of the rwanda genocide skull, “Rwanda Genocide Memorial” by configmanager 

How the Rwanda Genocide Began

A plane carrying Habyarimana and Burundi’s president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down over Kigali on April 6, 1994, with no survivors. (The identity of the perpetrators has never been proven.) Hutu extremists have been blamed by others, while RPF leaders have been blamed by others.)

Within an hour of the plane crash, members of the Rwandan armed forces (FAR) and Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have the Same Goal”) set up roadblocks and barricades and began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus with impunity.

On April 7, the moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and ten Belgian peacekeepers were among the first casualties of the genocide. This violence created a political void, which was filed on April 9 by an interim government made up of radical Hutu Power leaders from the military high command. Meanwhile, the murder of Belgium’s peacekeepers forced the country’s troops to withdraw. The United Nations have mandated that peacekeepers only protect themselves after that.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: beginning

Killing Spreads across Rwanda

The mass killings that started in Kigali rapidly spread across Rwanda. Local authorities in central and southern Rwanda, where the majority of Tutsi lived, fought the genocide for the first two weeks. National officials expelled the resisters after April 18 and killed most of them. Some opponents either stayed silent or actively participated in the murder. Officials bribed killers with food, alcohol, narcotics, and cash. Ordinary Rwandan civilians were being urged to kill their neighbors by government-sponsored radio stations. About 800,000 people were killed in just three months.

Meanwhile, the RPF resumed fighting, and the genocide was followed by civil war. RPF forces had taken control of the majority of the region, including Kigali, by early July. As a result, nearly 2 million people, almost exclusively Hutus, fled Rwanda, settling in refugee camps in the Congo (then known as Zaire) and other neighboring countries.

Following its victory, the RPF formed a coalition government with Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, as president, and Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, as vice president and defense minister, similar to the Arusha agreement.

Habyarimana’s NRMD faction, which played a key role in organizing the genocide, was banned, and the country’s ethnicity was removed from the constitution in 2003. Following the adoption of the new constitution, Kagame was re-elected to a 10-year term as Rwanda’s president, as well as the country’s first-ever parliamentary elections.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Spreading

How was the genocide carried out?

And careful planning. Militias were given lists of government opponents, who were then killed along with their entire families.

what was the cause of the genocide in rwanda
what was the cause of the genocide in rwanda, “UNMISS Commemorates 21st Anniversary of Rwanda Genocide” by United Nations Photo 

Neighbors were murdered, and some husbands murdered their Tutsi wives after threatening to kill them if they refused. Since people’s ethnic groups were listed on their ID cards at the time, militias set up roadblocks where Tutsis were slaughtered, often with machetes that most Rwandans kept around the home.

Local groups were given weapons and hit lists, and they knew exactly where to find their targets. Hutu extremists founded RTLM, a radio station, and newspaper that broadcast hate propaganda urging people to “weed out the cockroaches,” or kill Tutsis. On the radio, the names of famous citizens who would be killed were readout.

Priests and nuns have also been found guilty of murdering individuals, including those who sought sanctuary in churches.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: carried out

International Response

The international community largely sat on the sidelines during the Rwandan genocide, as it had done in the case of atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia around the same time.

A vote by the United Nations Security Council in April 1994 resulted in the withdrawal of the majority of a United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMIR), which had been established the previous fall to assist with the Arusha Accord’s governmental transition.

As news of the genocide spread, the Security Council voted in mid-May to have a larger force of over 5,000 soldiers. However, by the time the force arrived in full, the genocide had already ended months before.

In late June, French troops invaded Rwanda from Zaire, in a separate UN-approved French invasion. Faced with the RPF’s rapid advance, they restricted their involvement to a “humanitarian zone” formed in southwestern Rwanda, saving the lives of tens of thousands of Tutsis while also assisting some of the genocide’s plotters – allies of the French during the Habyarimana administration – to flee.

Following the genocide in Rwanda, many prominent members of the international community lamented the outside world’s general lack of knowledge of the situation and inability to intervene to deter the atrocities.

“The failure of Rwanda is ten times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia,” former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the PBS news program Frontline. Since the international community was interested in and active in Yugoslavia. Nobody was interested in Rwanda.”

Later, attempts were made to correct this passivity. The UNAMIR operation was re-enforced after the RFP’s victory, and it remained in Rwanda until March 1996, as one of the world’s largest humanitarian relief efforts.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Aftermath

what was the cause of the rwanda genocide -
what was the cause of the rwanda genocide, “Serious faces as members discuss the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide” by European Parliament

There’s a strong possibility the rest of the world might have stopped the Genocide

Unlike previous mass shootings, such as the Holocaust, the international community was aware of the impending genocide in advance. They had proof of where it was going after it launched, but they did nothing.

In January 1994, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the small UN observer force tasked with upholding the peace agreement, received news that the Hutus were preparing genocide. He told the UN’s higher-ups, but he was not allowed to take action.

The international community did little even after the genocide began and the facts of slaughter became undeniable. The US aggressively sought to keep the UN Security Council from accepting a more rigorous deployment.

There’s a fair chance the UN might have done something in retrospect. With an additional 5,000 soldiers and a stronger UN mandate, General Dallaire claims he could have saved “hundreds of thousands.” Bill Clinton’s inability to interfere, which he considers one of his biggest regrets as president, sparked the new movement in support of humanitarian military action to avoid genocide. Because of America’s inaction in Rwanda, two key Obama administration officials, Susan Rice and Samantha Power became converts to the cause of humanitarian intervention.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Possibility

Only after Tutsi rebels defeated the government did it come to an end

The Tutsi rebel group RPF, led by Paul Kagame, launched an offensive aimed at toppling the Rwandan government the day after the genocide began. The RPF defeated the government forces in around a hundred days. In all but name, Kagame, a Tutsi, became the country’s leader: a Hutu was elected president while Kagame served as vice president, but Kagame commanded the army.

Though the RPF prevented the genocide from being completed, their victory was not without flaws. Human Rights Watch concluded that the campaign resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Hutus as a result of “systematic” RPF killings. After incidents of mass killing, displaced people frequently carry out “vengeance killings,” which is one of the reasons why the absence of foreign peacekeeping forces can be so devastating.

Furthermore, the Rwandan genocide’s aftershocks exacerbated the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The war was sparked in part by 2 million Hutus fleeing Rwanda attacking Tutsis, making it the worst since World War 2. Some of the 2 million were militiamen in the DRC who targeted Tutsis. The conflict grew as the Kagame government-backed local Tutsi forces.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Change

what was the cause of the rwanda genocide
what was the cause of the rwanda genocide “UN Commemorates Twenty-first Anniversary of Rwanda Genocide” by United Nations


In July, the RPF finally took Kigali. When the regime fell apart, the RPF called a cease-fire. Approximate two million Hutus fled to Zaire as soon as it became clear that the RPF had won (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Many of the refugees have since been involved in the massacres.

Initially, a multi-ethnic government was formed, with a Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu, and Mr. Kagame as his deputy. However, the two fell out, and Bizimungu was imprisoned for inciting ethnic violence, while Mr. Kagame was elected president. Even though the genocide in Rwanda was over, Hutu militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo have caused years of violence and up to five million deaths.

Rwanda’s current Tutsi-led government has invaded its far larger neighbor twice, claiming to want to expel Hutu forces. A Congolese Tutsi rebel group is still involved, refusing to lay down weapons, claiming that if they did, their community would face genocide. The world’s largest peacekeeping force has failed to put an end to the violence.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Aftermath

Rwandan Genocide Trials

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was created in Tanzania in October 1994 as an extension of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. It was the first international tribunal since the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 and the first with the mandate to prosecute genocide.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) started indicting and prosecuting several high-ranking individuals for their involvement in the Rwandan genocide in 1995; the procedure was complicated by the fact that many suspects whereabouts remained unknown.

Over the next decade and a half, the trials proceeded, resulting in the prosecution in 2008 of three former senior Rwandan security and military officials for orchestrating the genocide.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Trials

Rwanda Today

Kagame is still in charge of Rwanda today; he has been the country’s president since 2000. His track record is extremely mixed; he has done a fantastic job helping Rwandans rebuild their lives after the genocide, but he has also supported violence in the region, killed political opponents, and strengthened authoritarian control.

In the last decade, Rwanda’s life expectancy has doubled, and infant mortality and HIV rates have decreased significantly. Rwanda’s economy has expanded at an astonishing rate of 8% per year since 2008, making it the most attractive African country to invest in, according to one estimate.

what was the cause of the rwanda genocide
what caused rwanda genocide “Executive DIrector Visits Rwanda Genocide Memorial” by UN Women

His opponents, on the other hand, characterize Kagame’s government as an ethnic autocracy. Most official positions, particularly in the military, are filled by Tutsis (who make up 10% of the government). Kagame has aided and abetted murderous international militias, such as the M23 in the DRC, and may have participated in retaliatory killings.

Perhaps most worrying, a statistical evaluation of the likelihood of state-led mass killing places Rwanda among the top 15% of countries most likely to witness such brutality. Sadly, even 20 years after the genocide, there is no excuse to stop thinking about Rwanda.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Rwanda Today

Lessons Learnt

Silence and inaction in the face of such heinous crimes embolden the perpetrators and allows for even more heinous crimes. If the international community had acted more forcefully to deter or avoid the atrocities of 1959, the 1960s, and the 1970s, the 1994 genocide may not have been necessary or even considered. Despite promises made after the Holocaust to “never do it again,” these atrocities occurred. They took place even though the 1948 Genocide Convention, as well as other international instruments such as the UN Charter, obligated states to avoid such crimes.

International law and other political obligations will only be implemented or enforced if we have the political will to do so. International law and other agreements are useless without political will.

#what was the cause of the Rwanda genocide: Lessons

Conclusion, What Was the Cause of the Rwanda Genocide?

What Was the Cause of the Rwanda Genocide? The timeline for the Rwanda genocide says worse about the events. Ethnic Hutu extremists killed about 800,000 people in Rwanda in just 100 days in 1994. They were going after members of the Tutsi community as well as their political rivals, regardless of ethnic origin.

Cover image “Annual Commemoration of the Rwanda Genocide” by Africa Renewal

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