1. Before colonialism
During more than two thousand years of cohabitation, the population which lived on today’s Rwandan territory developed strong cultural communities based on the complementarity of food production, exchange, and intermarriage. Their communities were closely held together by a clan system.
It is on this cultural and social landscape that, starting from a small principality located to the east of the capital Kigali four centuries ago, Rwanda gradually developed to form a centralized state which reached its peak on the eve of the colonial eruption towards the end of the 19th century.
However, in spite of strong mores, at the turn of the 19th century, the increased clearing of land coupled with the growth in population and cattle, caused a hardening of social relations around access to land that was later exploited by colonizers.
2. Colonial Period
Imbued with the ideology of race, Belgian colonizers reorganized the Rwandan colonial state and society along racialist lines, inculcating that ideology into the new educated elites of Rwanda, who started to see themselves as divided into racialized ethnic groups.
In the 1950s, when the Tutsi elite broke the pact that linked it to the Belgian colonial administration by advocating for independence, the colonial administration allied itself with a Hutu counter-elite that it had previously been discriminating against. On the eve of independence, the departing colonial administration transferred power to its new allies through an engineered bloody uprising, the so-called 1959 Hutu revolution, that saw thousands of Tutsis killed and uprooted, hundreds of thousands regrouped into internal settlements and others becoming refugees in neighboring countries.
3. Independent Rwanda
Independent Rwanda became a sectarian state divided along ethnic and regional lines. The first Republic (1962-1973) totally neglected the development of the country, focusing almost exclusively on erecting a violently anti-Tutsi state while marginalizing people from outside the central region of the country. The second republic (1973-1994) adopted a development strategy geared toward creating a nation of self-sufficient peasants, meeting their needs for food and shelter through their labor alone, and centered around the local community, thus not beholden to the world. This strategy was underpinned by an official system of ethnic and regional exclusion. Structural socioeconomic issues exacerbated by the exclusionary politics of then President Habyarimana’s regime led to the social and economic collapse of the country during the second half of the 1980s, a time of widespread hunger and mounting non-ethnic community violence.
Crisis in the early 1990s
In 1990, Rwandan refugees in neighboring countries organized under the banner of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and launched an armed struggle to profoundly transform the discriminatory and economically failing Rwandan state. At the same time, an internal opposition led by marginalized elites from the center and the south also challenged the government and advocated for the democratization of the country. To fend off the opposition, the Habyarimana regime tried to redefine the terms of the political conflict against the RPF, turning it into an ethnic confrontation. To do so, it created a grand Hutu-power coalition, bringing in a large part of the former internal opposition.
The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi
After failing to dislodge the RPF’s army from the north, the Government of Rwanda agreed to peace talks with the RPF and signed the Arusha Peace Agreement on 4 August 1993. This stipulated an end to the war and the establishment of a broad-based Government of National Unity that would include the RPF and other opposition parties. The contending armies were also to be integrated.
The Hutu Power coalition virulently opposed the peace process. To abort the peace, retain power, and preserve the sectarian identity of the state, hardliners of the regime shot down President Habyarimana’s plane, and with the support of the Hutu Power coalition, used the death of President Habyarimana as a pretext to unleash the Genocide against the Tutsi. In one hundred days, more than a million Tutsi were killed indiscriminately all over the country while the international community looked on. After three months of combat, the RPF put an end to the genocide by defeating the genocidal forces and liberated the country.