The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict? The cultural and colonial background to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 Key questions: Does ethnic conflict cause genocide? What are the varying interpretations? Introduction

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The Myth of Global Ethnic Conflict? The cultural and colonial background to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994

Key questions: Does ethnic conflict cause genocide? What are the varying interpretations?


To what extent are ethnic conflicts inevitable? Are they based on age old conflicts and is it only strong nation states that can contain them?

This is probably a myth: we need to understand the origin of conflicts more carefully to see if they are really ‘ethnic’. More often than not, they will involve getting more power, land or other resources. They do not result from ethnic diversity.

“In speaking about local group conflicts we then to make three assumptions: first, that ethnic identities are ancient and unchanging; second, that these identities motivate people to persecute and kill; and third, that ethnic diversity itself inevitably leads to violence. All three are mistaken.” (John R. Bowen, The Myth of Ethnic Conflict)

Ethnicity is a product of modern politics – identities formed during colonialism and state-building.

The Legacy of Colonialism

Our view of conflict in Africa is clouded by the vision of ‘ancient tribal warfare’ e.g. journalist during the Genocide wants to discuss the ancient tribal hatreds that are fuelling the conflict – African UN official reminds journalist that mass conflict only began when the Belgians gave Tutsis a monopoly of state power.

Before the modern era, Rwandans did consider themselves Hutu or Tutsi, for example, but these were not the main source of everyday ethnic identity. This came from where you were born, lineage, and wealth. Tribal or ethnic identity was rarely important and could change as people moved around.

Colonial powers gave everyone “ethnic identities” to determine their place within the colonial or postcolonial system. Colonisers needed local ‘partners’ due to their small numbers and therefore separated ‘partners’ from the mainstream, creating a privileged group.

In Rwanda and Burundi, the Belgians admired the taller people called Tutsis (a minority in both colonies) – therefore privileged rights to jobs and education (minimum height requirement for college entrance). They also required identity cards with tribal labels.

BUT much intermarriage so people could not be forced into neat categories – same language and religious beliefs. They became economic labels – could change between them depending on fortune.

This created what had not existed before: a sense of Hutu collective identity / a cause.

Late 1950s – Hutus began to rebel against Tutsi rule (encouraged by outgoing colonisers) and then created an independent, Hutu dominated state

This created Tutsi response – RPF – rebel army. Independence 1962 then 3 year civil war.

Fear from the Top

To what extent do people commit atrocities in response to manipulation / preparation from leaders?

“It is fear and hate generated from the top, and not ethnic differences, that finally push people to commit acts of violence”. Bowen

Juvenal Habyarimana – attempts to wipe out political opposition (Hutu and Tutsi) – massacres 1990-1

Armed gangs of militia – Interahamwe – masscres 1992-3 of Hutu moderates and Tutsis

Plane crash April 1994 – Habyarimana killed – presidential guard began killing Hutu opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists, others critical of state, most of them Hutus.

Then mass killings in countryside focused on Tutsis – why did people obey the order to kill?

Radio broadcasts prepared them for it – Tutsis portrayed as bloodthirsty killers who would kill if they were not killed. Land promised. Hutus organised into killing squads and those who would not join in were killed. Personal scores settled. Not random mob violence, though influenced by mob psychology.

One party state that had practised mass indoctrination.


“What the myth of ethnic conflict would say are ever-present tensions are in fact the products of political choices. Negative stereotyping, fear of another group, killing lest one be killed – these are the doings of so-called leaders, and can be undone by them as well.”

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