The Hutu and Tutsi: A Conflict Beyond Borders

The centuries-old conflict between Hutu and Tutsi was significant far beyond the borders of Rwanda and Burundi. It also played a critical role in the revolution in Zaire.

By Simon Baynham

On May 17, 1997, Laurent Kabila proclaimed himself president of Zaire and immediately renamed Africa's third largest country the Democratic Republic of Congo. The day before, Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire for nearly 32 years, surrendered power and fled into exile. Mobutu's flight left the weary people of Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, waiting for the arrival of Kabila's rebel guerrillas. On May 20, Kabila entered the capital in a heavily guarded motorcade. By that time, the commander of Mobutu's elite presidential guard--the only force capable of putting up a defense--had boarded a speedboat for Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo across the Congo River.

The forcible overthrow of the Mobutu regime in Zaire was highly significant to far more people than the country's 45 million citizens. The revolt was also a critical development in the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict that has plagued Africa's Great Lakes region--Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)--and nearby Angola for decades.

The ethnic rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi originated when Tutsi entered the lands of the Hutu before 1400 and subjugated the Hutu. The rivalry festered from the 1890's to the mid-1900's as the reigning European colonial powers perpetuated Tutsi rule over the Hutu, who constituted a majority in the region. The rivalry be-came inflamed when Rwanda and Burundi gained independence from Belgium in the early 1960's. The turmoil resulting from the rivalry spread to neighboring states, such as Zaire, when hundreds of thousands of refugees criss-crossed the region in a desperate search for peace and safety. By the mid-1990's, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda and Burundi had poisoned the political atmosphere of the entire Great Lakes region.

The seeds of conflict

Most historians of east and central Africa believe that the Hutu descended from a number of Bantu clans (a large group of African peoples made up of many individual but related tribes) that settled in the area that is now Burundi and Rwanda between A.D. 400 and 700. The agrarian (crop-raising) clans, who came to be referred to as Hutu, cleared much of the forest that had been home for several thousand years to the Twa, hunter-gatherer relatives of the pygmies. By approximately 1400, a group of different tribal and racial stock arrived--the pastoralist (cattle-herding) Tutsi. Successive waves of nomadic Tutsi herdsmen dominated the Hutu and subjected them to the authority of an expanding Tutsi kingdom.

Some historians disagree with this assessment and insist that Hutu and Tutsi are not, in fact, different ethnic groups, but rather different social classes of the same group. These historians argue that Tutsi can be identified solely by their possession of cattle, which allowed them to establish a patron relationship over the agrarian Hutu. These scholars also point out that Tutsi and Hutu share a common Bantu language.

During Burundi's and Rwanda's colonial period, Europeans calculated that 85 percent of the people of Rwanda and Burundi were Hutu, 14 percent were Tutsi, and 1 percent were Twa. The census takers used cattle ownership as a major criterion of ethnic origin. These percentages continued to be commonly accepted by demographers as accurate for the tribal composition of Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1990's.

The creation of Ruanda-Urundi

Rwanda and Burundi are small for African states--only 10,169 square miles (26,338 square kilometers) and 10,747 square miles ( 27,834 square kilometers), respectively, and they were not artificially created by European conquerors. Both countries had existed as established feudal monarchies for several centuries before being discovered by European explorers, and both countries survived Western conquest and occupation.

Rwanda and Burundi--two remote, land-locked, mountainous kingdoms--were first explored by a European, the German Count von Gutzen, in 1894, and both countries became part of the colonial territory known as German East Africa. Following Germany's defeat in World War I (1914-1918), the area--then known as the Territory of Ruanda-Urundi--was mandated (given over for administration) to Belgium by the League of Nations, a now-defunct international peace association that was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ruanda-Urundi after 1945

After World War II (1939-1945), Ruanda-Urundi became a United Nations trust territory, which Belgium continued to administer through Tutsi chiefs. The Belgians relied on the martial Tutsi to strengthen their authority--much to the resentment of the Hutu, who made up the majority of residents.

Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries established churches and schools in Ruanda-Urundi in the late 1890's. In part, ideas about education and equality learned from the missionaries fueled nationalism (patriotic feelings for one's own nation) that, in turn, launched the movement for independence that spread through the territories after World War II. Tutsi traditionalists in both Ruanda and Urundi, however, were determined that independence would not mean rule under a Hutu majority. Similarly, Hutu extremists, resentful of Tutsi domination during the colonial period, decided that they would need to destroy the Tutsi hold on power before Tutsi domination could be finalized with the onset of independence. The views of Hutu moderates, who believed that Hutu and Tutsi could share power in a national government, were ignored.

Violence erupts

In 1959, Hutu farmers in the Ruandan, or northern, region of Ruanda-Urundi, organized by the Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement, revolted against their Tutsi overlords. The Hutu greatly outnumbered the Tutsi in the fierce and brutal revolt. By the time Belgian security forces suppressed the violence, approximately 150,000 people--most of whom were Tutsi--had been killed. The Tutsi king, Kigeri V, along with thousands of his subjects, was forced into exile. A referendum in September 1961 abolished the monarchy.

Both Ruanda and Urundi gained independence in 1962. Ruanda was named Rwanda and was established as a republic, led by President Gregoire Kayibanda, a Hutu. Urundi, which changed its name to Burundi, was established as a constitutional monarchy. Burundi's elected legislature was dominated by Tutsi, and the country's ruler was Tutsi King Mwambutsa IV. Independence did not, however, settle the animosities between the two tribal groups in either country.

Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda

Tutsi exiles, primarily from Burundi, invaded Rwanda in late 1963 in an attempt to restore a Tutsi monarchy. Their invasion unleashed mass reprisals, resulting in the death of 15,000 Tutsi at the hands of Hutu and the flight of an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people, most of whom were Tutsi.

Civilian rule in Rwanda ended in July 1973 when a Hutu--Defense Minister Juvenal Habyarimana--staged a coup d'etat (an overthrow of the government) and established a one-party state. Habyarimana remained in office for the next 21 years.

In 1990, some 10,000 guerrillas belonging to the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, an Uganda-based group of Tutsi refugees and moderate Hutu, invaded Rwanda. Troops from Zaire assisted the small Rwandan army in halting the rebel advance on Rwanda's capital, Kigali, but intermittent fighting continued until 1993.

The plane crash that launched a bloodbath

Renewed violence followed the February 1994 assassination of government minister Felicien Gatabazi--a Hutu moderate who had advocated a peaceful settlement with the Tutsi rebels. The murder was eclipsed in April 1994 by the death of President Habyarimana, who was killed in a plane crash with Burundi President Cyprien Nta-ryamira (also a Hutu). Authorities were unable to determine who or what was responsible for the crash, but the event ushered in an orgy of violence. Hutu militants in the Rwandan armed forces slaughtered some 500,000 people, mainly Tutsi, in three-months. Then-UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali labeled the Hutu violence against Tutsi as genocide. The Tutsi-controlled Rwandan Patriotic Front responded with another invasion and captured Kigali in July 1994.

After seizing the capital, Rwandan Patriotic Front soldiers forced the Rwandan army and huge numbers of Hutu civilians into Zaire. Before the month was out, more than 2 million Rwandans had fled, most into enormous refugee settlements around the Zairian city of Goma. In mid-July 1994, a new Rwandan government was established with Hutus--Pasteur Bizimungu and Faustin Twagiramungu--as president and prime minister. While the Rwandan Patriotic Front leaders emphasized national reconciliation, real power was held by the Front's militia, under the control of General Paul Kagame, a Tutsi.

Tribal tensions in Burundi

Political life in Burundi after independence was also dominated by Hutu-Tutsi tensions and recurrent ethnic violence. UN-sponsored elections in 1961 swept the National Unity and Progress Party, supported by the Hutu majority, into power. Between independence in 1962 and the end of the monarchy in 1966, King Mwambutsa's attempts to extend his constitutional authority and restrict the powers of the government forced the fall of seven consecutive governments.

In October 1965, Hutu police and military officers attacked the palace. King Mwambutsa, fearing for his life, fled the country. However, loyal troops under Michel Micombero, a Tutsi, repulsed the attack, providing a pretext for Tutsi retaliation.

Tutsi terror reigns

The army and police were purged of Hutu, and every Hutu political leader of standing was killed. In November 1966, Micombero deposed King Ntare V, who had gained the throne by deposing his father, Mwambutsa. Micom-bero proclaimed a republic, with himself as head of state.

The abolition of the monarchy removed the last potentially unifying force in Burundi, opening the way for Tutsi domination. With Micombero in power, the Tutsi eliminated almost the entire educated Hutu population. As many as 200,000 people may have been killed. An additional 150,000 Hutu fled the country. In 1976, Micombero was overthrown by his cousin, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, who was overthrown in 1987 by another Tutsi, Pierre Buyoya. A 1988 Hutu uprising led to the death of another 20,000 Hutu and the emigration of 60,000 more people to Rwanda.

A Hutu head of state in Burundi

Nevertheless, President Buyoya indicated some sympathy for the grievances of Burundi's majority Hutu by appointing a Hutu prime minister and moving cautiously toward a democratic constitution. Following the country's first multiparty elections in 1993, Melchior Ndadaye became Burundi's first Hutu head of state. He honored a campaign promise by appointing Sylvie Kinigi, a Tutsi woman, as prime minister. Kinigi was one of Africa's first women premiers.

Four months later, President Ndadaye was killed during an attempted coup staged by elements of the army. His assassination provoked a new wave of bloodletting during which more than 100,000 people died. The military embarked upon a "pacification campaign." This campaign included forcing another 700,000 Hutu to flee Burundi for Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zaire.

In 1994, Cyprien Ntaryamire, who had replaced Ndadaye as president, was killed with Rwanda's President Habyarimana when their airplane crashed. Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, another Hutu, became president of Burundi. The violence continued during Ntibantung-anya's presidency until July 1996 when Burundi's military leadership reinstalled Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, as head of state. Between 1993 and 1996, at least 150,000 people had died.

Refugee crisis

The migration into Zaire in 1994 of at least one million Rwandan Hutu--who left their homes in fear of reprisals for the massacre of some 500,000 Tutsi--was unprecedented in its size and long-term effects. Al-though governments in the Great Lakes region had grown accustomed to disorderly mass migrations since independence in the 1960's, none had been forced to deal with a migration the size of the Rwan-dan immigration into Zaire. In addition to the familiar housing, food, and medical problems of refugees, the Zairian government also had to contend with the presence of Hutu extremists--the Interahamwe--in the Zairian refugee camps. The Interahamwe were intent on undermining Rwanda's Tutsi-led government and used the crowded conditions of the refugee camps to hide their activities and identities. The group intimidated large numbers of Hutu moderates to work with them.

In addition to the danger the Hutu Interahamwe posed to the Rwandan government, their presence in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire helped spark the Zairian revolution. The Interahamwe came to the aid of Mobutu's Zairian security forces in their attacks on a group of Zairian ethnic Tutsi known as the Banyamulenge. While the Banyamulenge had lived in Zaire's diamond-rich eastern Kivu province for at least 200 years, Mobutu had repeatedly called the ethnic Tutsi "foreigners" and urged that they be treated as rebels and expelled. The Banyamulenge were joined by Laurent Kabila's forces--the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire.

Neighboring countries aid the revolution

The revolution gained momentum when Rwanda and Burundi--both led by Tutsi governments that sympathized with the Banya-mulenge--came to the aid of the Banyamulenge and their allies, Laurent Kabila's rebels. The governments of Rwanda and Burundi provided armed assistance in the fight against Mobutu's forces and the Interahamwe.

Uganda also lent support to the rebellion against Mobutu. Uganda was the closest ally of Rwanda's Tutsi government and, therefore, supported Rwanda's efforts to clean out the troublesome Interahamwe camps in Zaire. Observers also believe that President Museveni of Uganda aided Laurent Kabila to induce Kabila to clamp down on Uganda's own Islamic-militant rebels, who used eastern Zaire to launch attacks on Uganda. Observers credited Museveni with supporting Tutsi regimes in Rwanda and Burundi as an expedient way to impose stability in central Africa.

Angola supported Kabila's push to drive Mobutu from Zaire be-cause Mobutu had allowed Angolan rebels--the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola--to export diamonds and import weapons through Zaire. Angolan military support of Kabila's forces west and southeast of Kinshasa helped pave the way for Kabila's assumption of power.

Kabila's troops overrun Zaire

In a series of lightning strikes, the disciplined corps of some 15,000 predominantly Tutsi fighters under Kabila seized the provincial capitals Bukavu and Goma in eastern Zaire by early November 1996. What had begun as a Tutsi-led uprising quickly developed into a popularly supported revolution. Within seven months, the rebel forces had over-run all of Zaire, scoring victory after victory against the unpaid, ill-equipped, and demoralized army of President Mobutu, who had alienated his own people and Zaire's neighbors by threatening to deport the "alien" Banyamulenge Tutsi.

Later in November 1996, approximately 650,000 Hutu refugees left their camps in Zaire and returned to Rwanda. Their return followed a series of conciliatory statements made by the Tutsi government. This left approximately 350,000 refugees in Zaire. As many as 100,000 of the remaining refugees--believed to include many perpetrators of the 1994 massacre--were driven out of camps around Bukavu and Goma by forces under the control of Laurent Kabila. Instead of re-turning to Rwanda, the refugees trekked west, into Zaire's interior, walking through miles of mountainous jungle and surviving on insects and wild plants.

Between April and June 1997, another 45,000 refugees were repatriated (sent back) to Rwanda in what was one of the UN's biggest and most expensive airlifts. At the end of 1997, at least 200,000 refu-gees from the 1994 migration remained unaccounted for.

Fears of new genocide

Laurent Kabila, prior to his May 1997 entry into Kinshasa, had threatened to overrun refugee camps in eastern Zaire because of their use as havens by Hutu extremists. During late 1996 and the first few months of 1997, reports circulated that Kabila's rebels and the Banyamulenge had slaughtered Rwandan Hutu refugees, mainly in the vicinity of Kisangani, in northeastern Zaire. Some news stories reported that earth-moving equipment had been used to bury the bodies in mass graves. In other areas, refugees had simply vanished.

Throughout 1997, President Kabila repeatedly thwarted UN at-tempts to mount on-the-spot inquiries into the atrocities. In October, two human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch/Africa in New York City and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues in Paris, reported that Kabila's troops continued to kill large numbers of civilian refugees. Kabila finally allowed a UN team into the Re-public of Congo in mid-November to begin an investigation.

Prospects for the Republic of Congo's future

When President Kabila took office, he was surrounded by the Ban-yamulenge Tutsi on whose military muscle he had ridden to power. Kabila faced the daunting task of forming a truly national administration in a country with more than 250 tribes. Western powers ap-peared to have accepted Kabila's plan to put off elections until 1999. However, representatives of the United States, the European Union (an organization of 15 Western European countries), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, after a meeting in September 1997, set conditions for Kabila. Unless Kabila provided a plan to reconstruct the economy, granted permission for the UN team to investigate charges of atrocities, and made progress on democracy and human rights issues, no financial assistance would be provided.

Prospects for peace

Prospects for peace and democracy in Burundi remained grim in 1997, as ethnic rivals continued to see extermination as a solution to tribal conflict. President Buyoya's government had done little since resuming power in 1996 to reach meaningful political compromises with the Hutu majority. By mid-1997, many Hutu had begun to support the Hutu militias that mounted widespread attacks against an essentially Tutsi military government. Buyoya's cabinet responded by forcing 250,000 Hutu into "regroupment" camps, making it easier for the army to find and kill Hutu extremist guerrillas.

In Rwanda, Hutu rebels began filtering back into the country from Congo in May 1997 and continued their attempts to overthrow Rwanda's Tutsi-controlled government. By October, some 4,000 people had died in the fighting.

In addition, the return of Hutu refugees to Rwanda created a housing crisis, since many Hutu houses had been taken over by Tutsi who had been similarly displaced during an earlier refugee cycle. As many as 2,000 of the returning Hutu refugees were accused of planning the 1994 annihilation of Tutsi, and some 85,000 other Hutu were accused of lesser crimes. Trials under the jurisdiction of both Rwan-dan courts and the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda began in January 1997.

Although violence in Rwanda increased after the refugees' return, the Tutsi who controlled the country claimed that Rwanda's cycle of bloodletting could be broken. The government's commitment to na-tional reconciliation was generally acknowledged by the international community. However, old tensions over tribal animosities could be quickly rekindled in a country with one of the most densely packed populations in Africa.

Planning a stable future

Many political analysts believe that there are basically three ways by which the Hutu and Tutsi could move toward a stable future. One possible solution would be the formation of a government that acknowledges the right of both the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi to share governing power. Such a system was adopted in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela's Government of National Unity shared power beyond the membership of Mandela's own party, the African National Congress.

Another solution would be the election of government leaders with no regard for tribal affiliation. Ugandan President Museveni espoused such a model. Museveni refused to allow political parties to campaign in Uganda because tribal rivalries were so fierce in that country that Museveni believed multiparty politics would continue to divide people along tribal and religious lines.

Finally, some analysts have suggested that the only hope for peace between the Hutu and Tutsi would be to establish separate countries--a Hutuland and a Tutsiland--for the two tribes. Because of the current lack of consensus on these matters, it may be that an outside peace-brokering mission, such as one sponsored by the Organization of African Unity, could provide a solution. However, political analysts agree that unless the leaders and the people accept the politics of a shared humanity and mutual respect, Hutu and Tutsi--and the countries of which they are a part--will be doomed to an even bleaker future well into the 21st century.


About the author: Simon Baynham, Director of Research from 1989 to 1996 at Pretoria's Africa Institute of South Africa, is currently Consultant at the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, in London.


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