Rwanda: The Politics of Turmoil
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On April 6 a plane was shot down as it sought to land at the airport in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in central Africa. Among the dead were the presidents of two central African states, Rwanda and Burundi, returning from Tanzania, where they had been involved in negotiations to end a three-year war in Rwanda. The plane was shot down near the camp of the specially-recruited, specially-trained Presidential Guard of Rwanda.
The incident set off a horrific confrontation in Kigali in which many thousands of Rwandans have been killed. Because of the scale of the tragedy many westerners have withdrawn intellectually and morally from the problem by saying that it is simply the product of "ancient tribal animosities"—too deep to fathom, let alone resolve. To those close to the situation, however, it is not unfathomable; rather than repelling us, the very scale of the tragedy makes it the more imperative to understand.
Four elements help to situate this event in context. First, over the last several years pressure from within and outside the country had forced President Juvenal Habyarimana to broaden the political base in Rwanda, to allow more open debate and to include members of other parties in the government. The pace had been slow and not without obstacles, and this was a source of concern to members of the democratic movement. But the fact that such initiatives had taken place at all angered members of his own regime, which had been in power since 1973.
Second, from October 1990, the government had been at war with an invading force from the north; a peace accord reached in August 1993 had never been implemented, blocked by hard-line members of Habyarimana's government. The core of the invading force was formed by descendants of refugees who had fled Rwanda during the revolution of 1959-62, when a monarchy under a Tutsi dynasty was overthrown and a republican regime under Hutu leaders was established in its place. The invasion of 1990 was perceived by many as an attempt to reimpose the earlier political system on Rwanda, and it therefore aggravated ethnic tensions in the country. This led to tightened political control within the country, and widespread human rights abuses followed, as the government tried to mobilize the country for war and snuff out any opposition. In addition, the fighting eventually resulted in over 700,000 displaced persons (of a total population of something over seven million), straining the resources of what was already one of the poorest countries in the world.
Third, the fact that President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was on the doomed plane was a coincidence; nonetheless, his death is a reminder of how closely linked the fortunes of these two countries have been. Ethnic struggles in Burundi in 1972—different from at least the early stages of the Rwandan crisis—had resulted in the deaths of 200,000 to 300,000; half a million more had fled as refugees. Violence recurred in 1988 and again on a massive scale in 1993, when many scores of thousands of refugees from Burundi moved into Rwanda, again straining the resources of the country, and sparking off conflicts over land, in this, the most densely populated country of Africa.
Finally, over the past five years the country has gone through a series of serious economic shocks. In 1989, the price of coffee dropped by nearly 50% on the international commodity markets. Rwanda relies for a very significant portion of its foreign exchange earnings on coffee exports; since coffee is produced by small-scale producers, hundreds of thousands of families were directly affected. Partly as a result, a "Structural Adjustment Program," drawn up with the collaboration of the World Bank, was imposed on Rwanda; the effect was again to reduce the value of a family's income. Furthermore, in the early 1990s several areas of the country were hit by a serious drought. With the increased emphasis on private commercial food distribution networks and the financial stringencies of the recent years, people could not afford food, and several hundred people died from hunger.
Thus the government was embattled from many directions, and the events of this past week both drew on and deepened these multiple stresses. One notable feature of the early fighting was that it was carried out principally by the Presidential Guard; rather than trying to calm the population after Habyarimana's death and establish a successor government, the Guard very deliberately targetted those who were outspoken on human rights issues and those who were prominent participants in the multi-party initiatives. These were both Hutu and Tutsi, and included even the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, herself a Hutu—press reports to the contrary were misinformed—and one of the first women Prime Ministers of Africa. The killing was not limited to these victims, to be sure, but it is clear that, at least over the first 48 hours or so, this was not blind "tribal warfare." Second, though the fighting included at least three organized groups—the Presidential Guard, opposed alike to any negotiations to end the war and to all multi-party initiatives; the Rwandese Patriotic Front, the invading force from the north; and the Rwandan army—it is important to note that the early fighting largely focused on the Rwandan capital. This was not a case of instantaneous chaos, an "orgy" of ethnic violence throughout the country, as many early reports implied. To the great tragedy of Rwanda, the fighting has now gone far beyond the capital, and has brought in many other elements to the turmoil, including various "militias" organized in part by the government. Nonetheless, its early character is clear.
That the fighting has now expanded out of the capital is a cause of deep concern. For some time there have been large amounts of small arms circulating in the countryside, some of them distributed by the government in response to the invasion of 1990. In addition, because of the economic and demographic crises faced by Rwanda there are now large numbers of youth with no land, no jobs, and no chance of ever gaining access to either; they form fertile ground for the expansion of violence. During the early days Rwandan radio, under the control of the Presdential Guard, broadcast intense hate messages intended to encourage people in the rural areas to engage in violence along ethnic lines.
But more importantly, this is organized violence. Initially, many Rwandans resisted the call to take up arms and join in the killings. Even some governmental authorities did. But now those prefects who refused to promote the agenda of slaughter have been replaced by others, more willing to further the carnage. The record is now clear that systematic killings continue to spread in rural areas—even those areas where historically there had been close and harmonious ethnic interaction. In some cases of the greatest carnage the prefects involved were also identified by Africa Watch as having been directly implicated in the Human Rights abuses of 1992.
Finally, the character of the crisis has changed from a clearly defined political struggle to a more diffuse tragedy, including pronounced class and ethnic elements. But it is also rapidly becoming a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale. Before the death of President Habyarimana there were already 700,000 persons displaced by the war in the north; separated from their fields, they were dependent on daily distribution of food. Food deliveries have not taken place since April 6, and these people now face the threat of famine. In addition, hundreds of thousands have fled the violence in Kigali, in the middle of the rainy season. They leave with no food. Third, even for the people in the rural areas, the situation is critical. It is now the middle of the most important growing season in many parts of the country; normally Rwandans would expect to harvest their crops in the next few weeks. For most areas of the country there will be no subsequent harvest until December at the earliest. We have no way of knowing the extent of the loss, but much of the current harvest is likely to be seriously jeopardized if the conditions in the countryside do not dramatically change immediately. People cannot now get to their fields; most markets have not been open for two weeks; and many people, especially those in the towns, have little food left at home.
This is not simply a Rwandan crisis; it is an international problem of great magnitude. Regionally, there are now milllions of refugees and displaced persons from Sudan south through Uganda, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. In some areas, a whole generation has grown up as refugees, with legal status in no country, and little hope of building lives of their own. The current crisis in Rwanda will greatly exacerbate this regional problem, in an area already dangerously insecure.
Each of these factors makes it imperative to retain an international presence in Rwanda. To withdraw United Nations forces now would be to remove the single remaining political space where reliable and regular contacts can be made for discussion to emerge between the various forces now killing off the civilian population. Second, many people are at risk from hunger; it is critical that the UN stay in the country to serve as the nucleus of a food distribution network as soon as conditions allow. Third, to withdraw now would be a powerful symbol of the abandonment of these people—the vast majority of whom wish only for peace—in this region lacking the political infrastructure or material resources to address regional problems at a regional level. Only a transnational presence can provide the arena for such a task—a task which nonetheless must be carried out by the people of the region. To remove UN troops now would be to remove the last filament of an international presence in Rwanda, to withdraw all international witness.
How does this affect the U.S? For those who approach issues of the Third World with a life-boat mentality—sauve qui peut—it will mean nothing; for these people the interpretation of such events as simply "ancient tribal animosities at work" is an attractive excuse for inaction, even complacency. But we live in an interdependent global community, one in which the West, and more particularly the U.S., has been a prominent actor. Apparently it is acceptable to benefit from policies such as arms sales or the imposition of such economic structures as the World Bank's Structural Adjustment program and the favorable commodity prices which result; it is acceptable to train elite fighting forces and to support friendly autocrats. In such matters the West is involved, and attentive to its role as a member of the global community. But when the hurt and the cry comes up from people who seek only decent, dignified lives, but who are impeded in this goal by the policies in which they had no input and to which they are in no position to respond, when the cry comes for help, we have for too long turned a deaf ear, we gaze in other directions, and our attention is elsewhere. Is it so surprising that these cries for help turn inward in anger and blame—or outward against others?
It may be that the West has not directly caused the problems under which Rwandans suffer today, and the terrible killings which result. But we are implicated nonetheless. There are things that can be done by the UN and the West to facilitate a resolution, starting with the creation of safe zones in Kigali, Gitarama, and Butare, where the political process can be taken up again, and continuing with assistance in moving to real democracy, not just regime change among shifting elites. We may not have the political will to do so. In any case it may be too late, as it is indeed too late for the many thousands of Rwandans who have already lost their lives. Nonetheless, for those still alive, we owe these people better treatment than we have given them so far.
Their lives depend on it; our humanity does.