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Do the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda nurse ancient hatred?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

In the summer of 1995, former US president, Jimmy Carter, organised a conference on Rwanda in Tunis to ‘convince the RPF to be more ethnically inclusive by appointing Hutu politicians to cabinet’. In attendance were the presidents of Rwanda’s neighbours: Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Tanzania’s Ali Hassan Mwinyi. Rwanda’s Pasteur Bizimungu was in attendance as well as former Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere. During the coffee break, they sat down for an informal chat with Carter.

The former US president turned to Bizimungu: ‘Why don’t you appoint a few Hutu into your cabinet?’ he asked. Bizimungu requested Carter to direct the question to Nyerere. ‘Julius,’ Carter asked pensively, ‘why can’t the RPF appoint at least one Hutu to cabinet so that the government can reflect ethnic inclusion?’ Nyerere answered in his characteristic sarcastic style: ‘I do not answer questions about tribes. You ask Mobutu over there; he is the master of tribal politics.’

So a frustrated Carter turned to Africa’s iconic predator. ‘Mr President,’ he began in measured words looking intensely in the eyes of Mobutu, ‘why can’t the RPF appoint at least one Hutu politician to cabinet? Isn’t there at least one who was not involved in the genocide?’ Then Mobutu answered: ‘But this Bizimungu here is Hutu. The Prime Minister [Faustin Twagiramungu] is also a Hutu.’

Some Rwandans seated at a table beyond immediately drew up a list of the cabinet and gave it to Carter. More than 60 percent of ministers were actually Hutu. Carter was shocked and turned to all the other leaders and asked: ‘Why then are we holding this conference?’ This farce tends to characterise a lot of political discussions about Rwanda in Western media (understandably so) but most worryingly in Africa.

The narrative on Rwanda about Hutu and Tutsi as nursing hatred spanning centuries is one of those grand distortions of history that has left an indelible mark on its politics. There is nothing in the legends, myths and poems of pre-colonial Rwanda that shows Hutu-Tutsi to have constituted an antagonistic relationship. Indeed, even the broader story of deeply entrenched ethnic hatreds between African tribes is part of this distorted narrative fostered by 19th century European sociology and political anthology.

Political tribalism in Africa is as modern as the ipad; created and recreated by elites daily. It is reflection of attempts by elites to gain access to the benefits of modernity; benefits that are coveted but scarce. Elites find it more profitable to appeal to ethnicity than public policy largely in political competition. This is because it carries strong emotive appeal and can achieve ‘quick wins’ whereas the benefits of public policy promises are difficult to deliver. It is not surprising therefore that an Afrobarometer survey of 2009 found ethnic consciousness strongest among elites than ordinary peasants.

Sadly, many African intellectuals and elites accept European anthropology as a fact not knowing that some of our continent’s largest ‘tribes’ like Kikuyu and Yoruba were created by the colonial state. While people sharing these language groups existed before colonialism, they did not possess a consciousness of a shared ethnicity. But once created these identities took on a life of their own. In their internal competitions for power, African elites find them useful in rallying ordinary people behind them.

Identities can be made and remade depending on circumstance and opportunity. Take the example of Fortirwari Karamira: He was a Tutsi and member of the MDR party of Faustin Twagiramungu in Rwanda. In 1992, he renounced his Tutsi identity, declared himself a Hutu and became one of the extremist Hutu supremacists. He split from MDR to lead its extremist wing. Karamira then orchestrated the worst massacres of the Tutsi. The head of the Interahamwe that masterminded the genocide was Kajuga, a Tutsi who had made himself Hutu. This shows the fluidity of these categorisations.

Even basic knowledge of Rwanda would show 500 years of intermarriage and other social mechanisms of status change, made it difficult to separate Hutu from Tutsi. That is why the Habyarimana government had to rigidly enforce an Identity Card system.

More critically, many Hutu supremacists have actually been married to Tutsi women. For example, former president Gregory Kayibanda was married to a Tutsi. Karisiti Habimenshi was one of the leaders of the 1959 Hutu revolution and till his death took pride in having helped defeat Tutsi rebels in the 1960s. His wife is Tutsi. Therefore, Kayibanda’s ethnic revolution and acidic campaign against the Tutsi could not have been because he hated them but because it was politically functional for him.

Social relations across the Hutu-Tutsi divide are even more complicated when you dig deep into Rwanda’s social terrain. Take the example of Michel Makuza, father of the current prime minister of Rwanda Bernard Makuza. He was the intellectual leader of the 1959 ‘revolution’ and a close Kayibanda ally. He was married to a Tutsi; some claim that his wife was a distant relative of President Paul Kagame. The wife of the late Seth Sendashonga is also said to be Tutsi and distantly related to Kagame.

The point here is that one’s ethnicity is not cast in stone and concrete; it is hard to find a ‘pure’ Hutu or Tutsi or one without relatives in the other group. The story of deeply entrenched primordial ethnic hatreds between Hutu and Tutsi is a myth that lives in the imagination of many outsiders that is difficult to find in Rwanda itself. In Rwanda, it exists as a fringe. Politicians may use it to garner votes. But this is only dependant on many other intermediate factors that they cannot control.

Take the example of Rwanda in 1994. The Habyarimana regime had sought to create a mass consciousness among the Hutu against Tutsi ever gaining power in that country with a considerable measure of success. However, the Hutu were not homogenous themselves. Habyarimana came from the north which under colonial rule had provided soldiers to the army. He had overthrown Kayibanda from the south which under colonial rule had produced the educated strata. So Habyarimana began his rule by purging the southern intellectuals including starving Kayibanda to death. This set divisions among Hutu of the north against Hutu from the south.

As Habyarimana’s rule consolidated, Hutu were divided further this time along clan. Habyarimana was a Mushiru and his regime was seen in that light. As power increasingly went into the hands of his village mates and in-laws from Gisenyi in north-western Rwanda, Hutu from other districts began accusing him of creating akazu (kitchen cabinet). So the contours of division now went along clan lines and districts of origin.

When the first political parties were created in 1991, they split Rwanda along these lines of grievance. There emerged the MDR which was the old Premahutu party of Kayibanda and led by Faustin Twagiramungu. In fact Twagiramungu’s wife is a daughter to Kayibanda. There came the PSD party. Then came the PL led by Lando Ndasingwa, the only Tutsi in Habyarimana’s cabinet. These political parties became signatories of the Arusha Peace Accords signed in 1993.

The accords had three elements: First to secure a ceasefire, second to establish a government of national unity composed of all parties to the accords and third to organise a general election on a multiparty basis. The ceasefire had been secured. Problems began when it came to swearing-in a government of national unity. For here all positions; cabinet, army, intelligence and civil service were to be shared.

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