The original population of today’s Rwanda was Twee, a pygmy people who make up about one percent of modern Rwanda’s inhabitants. The two people (also called batwa) are found in the forest areas of Equatorial Africa and are considered to be the descendants of the indigenous forests. This hunter and gatherer was gradually displaced around 1000 by immigrant bantu, later known as hutu (bahutu), who established themselves with aboriginal agriculture.
In the 1400s, a new immigration took place, when a cattle people later known as tutsi (batutsi) came from the north and settled in the area. Before the 1994 genocide, Hutus and Tutsis constituted approximately 85 and 14 percent of the population, respectively; two made up the remainder (one percent).
Rwanda’s ethnic and social history is complicated, but at the same time central to the country’s modern history – characterized by the contradiction between Hutu and Tutsi. See AbbreviationFinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Rwanda. When the Tutsis settled in Rwanda from the 1400s, they developed a partly federal system of government, where they themselves seized power by establishing a military and political organization with the king, mwami, as sole ruler.
Under the royal court, a complex social and political structure led to a gradual weakening of the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi and ultimately could not be considered a clear ethnic divide, more a social one. Among other things, through constant warfare, belonging to Rwanda was created as a state formation, and the entire people was considered as banyarwanda, a people with one king, one language and one religion. Although some Hutu-ruled principals maintained, the different ethnic backgrounds were weakened when European colonialism began towards the end of the 19th century; the contradictions were more between the center and the periphery of the state than between hutu and tutsi.
Equally, the vast majority of Hutus belonged to the peasantry, and taxes were levied by the Tutsi king and later by the colonial authorities.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Provides latest population data about Rwanda. Lists by Year from 1950 to 2020. Also includes major cities by population.
The colonial past
In 1899, Rwanda and Burundi were admitted into German East Africa, but the German presence did not leave any trace. Already in 1916, the German regime ended when Belgian forces conquered the two countries from their bases in the Belgian Congo. From 1920 Belgium was given the responsibility to govern Rwanda and Burundi as a mandate area under the League of Nations, under the name of Rwanda-Urundi.
The Belgian government strongly favored the Tutsi group and by far created the contradictions between Hutu and Tutsi which in 1994 led to the Tutsi genocide. Through the favoring of the Tutsis and the parallel suppression of the Hutu, Hutu and Tutsi identities were created and a contradiction between the two groups. Above all, the contradictions created a hatred from the majority group of the Hutu against the Tutsi minority, regardless of the real social position of the individual Tutsis. This led several times to brutal actions against Tutsis from 1959 onwards.
The Belgian colony administration placed Tutsis in the most central positions. During the 1950s, however, there was a partial shift in the administration’s attitude, including after the church spoke about the Hutu case where it had previously promoted Tutsis – and several Hutus were given leadership positions.
At the same time, political parties were formed based on the two peoples groups. The foremost party of the Hutu was from 1959 the Mouvement démocratique rwandais/Parti du Mouvement et de l’émancipation hutu (MDR/PARMEHUTU). In 1959, the Tutsi Party Union National Rwandaise (UNAR) was formed. In November 1959 came the first comprehensive riots based on ethnic/social divides, ruled by a new Hutu elite – aimed at the Tusi dominance and the Tutsi elite. These acts of violence accelerated Belgium’s withdrawal from Rwanda.
From 1960, Tutsi chieftains were replaced by Hutu chieftains and a new persecution of Tutsis began; From 1959 to 1963, about 130,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries. At the 1960 local elections, PARMEHUTU won by an overwhelming majority.
An attempt at mediation between the two conflicting groups did not go ahead, and in 1961, Hutu leaders declared a democratic Rwanda republic as independent. The UN, which had the formal responsibility for the country, had to accept the development. In the fall of 1961, elections were held for a national assembly, where PARMEHUTU received 78 percent of the vote, UNAR 17 percent.
On July 1, 1962, Rwanda became an independent republic with Grégoire Kayibanda as president. The monarchy was abolished following a referendum in 1961. In 1963, a Tutsi guerrilla entered Rwanda from Burundi, but was defeated, and the attack led to new acts of violence against the Tutsis, killing 10,000-20,000 and leading Tutsi politicians becoming executed. In the 1969 election, Kayibanda was re-elected and PARMEHUTU won all the seats in the National Assembly.
The contradictions between Hutu and Tutsi again came to the surface in 1972–1973, and in July 1973, the commander of the army, Major General Juvénal Habyarimana, seized power in a military coup. All political activities were banned. In 1975, a new, state-bearing, party was formed: the Movement Revolutionary National pour le devolution (MRND). In 1983 Habyarimana became elected to Rwanda’s president without a counter candidate; re-elected in 1988. Discrimination against Tutsis continued under the new regime, where Tutsis were strongly underrepresented both in political bodies and in the officer corps. As Africa’s most densely populated country, Rwanda has a large deficit on land, which intensified the contradictions and led the government to refuse Tutsi refugees in Uganda to return home.
In Uganda, many Rwandan refugees joined Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) in the first half of the 1980s. When the NRA seized power in Uganda in 1986, about 20 percent of the force consisted of exiled Tutsis from Rwanda, and several of them gained prominent positions in the new Ugandan army. Some of them formed the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR), which invaded Rwanda in 1990. The invasion happened with tacit consent from the Ugandan authorities, and with weapons from the Ugandan army.
The main motive was to overthrow the regime of President Habyarimana, thereby ensuring the refugees’ right to return to their home country. FPR forces quickly occupied several cities in northeastern Rwanda, and Habyarimana asked for military assistance from Belgium and France, which sent soldiers to the country. With the help of Congolese (Zaire) forces, the FPR was stopped just seven miles from Kigali. After that, FPR switched to guerrilla warfare from bases at the Ugandan border.
The invasion led to a democratization process in Rwanda. A constitutional amendment in 1991 introduced a multi-party system. The following year, four opposition parties were included in a coalition government led by a transformed state-carrying party, the Mouvement republican national pour la democratie et le développement (MRNDD). This transitional government was to govern in anticipation of free elections and entered into a dialogue with FPR.
A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1992 in Arusha, Tanzania. A military observer group from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was deployed. But later negotiations did not go ahead and new clashes broke out in February 1993. This led to about one million people fleeing south into the country and to Tanzania and Uganda.
In June 1993, the UN decided to send an observer force to Rwanda; UN Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR), deployed on the Ugandan side of the border to ensure that the FPR did not receive military supplies that way.
In August 1993, a new Arusha agreement was signed between the Rwandan government and the FPR, which meant the formation of a new transitional government with the participation of the FPR and the holding of multi-party elections. The agreement was not complied with by the government, and the FPR continued the war. In July 1994, the FPR occupied the capital Kigali.
Prior to FPR’s takeover of power, Rwanda was the scene of a genocide. After exercising the 1993 peace treaty, President Habyarimana was forced into new negotiations in April 1994, where a new agreement for the incorporation of FPR into the government and the army was signed. On the way back to Kigali on April 6, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and the president killed. This incident – for which the FPR was blamed, but which was extremely likely to be behind Habyarimana’s own security forces – was the prelude to systematic attempts to exterminate the Tutsi population.
Over the next three months, nearly one million people were murdered. Although this was attempted from an extreme Hutu team as a spontaneous reaction to the shooting down of the President’s aircraft, it subsequently emerged that it was planned and systematic political actions that also targeted moderate Hutus who supported a peace settlement and reconciliation with Tutsis. The massacres were carried out by parts of the government army and the president’s bodyguard, but most by militia groups belonging to extreme Hutu factions; above all, the Interahamwe militia group – equipped with weapons from the government army. The abuses against Hutus in neighboring Burundi helped create a climate for persecution of Tutsis in Rwanda.
UN set in 1993 a peacekeeping force, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). After the genocide, the force was expanded to 5500 men. Meanwhile, in June/ July, France deployed a force of 2,500 men in a UN-backed mission to create a “safe zone” southwest of the country. The intervention was strongly criticized by the FPR, which accused the French of wanting to protect the Hutu regime, which managed to flee to Zaire. A few days after Habyarimana was killed, France and Belgium sent forces to Kigali to evacuate foreign nationals.
By FPRs takeover became a unity government formed, led by Hutu Faustin Twagiramungu as prime minister, and another Hutu, Pasteur Bizimungu, appointed president. At the same time, FPR leader General Paul Kagame assumed the new post of Vice President. In the winter of 2000, Bizimungu resigned as president, and parliament and the government elected Kagame as his successor – the country’s first Tutsi head of state since independence.
The genocide led to one of the most dramatic refugee situations of our time. As a result of fear of reprisals following the FRP’s takeover of power, over one million hutus fled to Zaire. Already, many had fled to Burundi and Tanzania, and in total – including internal refugees – fled over three million Rwandans in 1994; of a pre-war population of 7–8 million. In 1996–1997, the majority of refugees returned to Rwanda, partly under duress.
The UN established a tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTR (see International Criminal Court in Rwanda) to place those responsible for the genocide responsible. The Court has its seat in Arusha, Tanzania. At the same time, the Rwandan government started its own trial against nearly 120,000 prisoners, suspected of participating in the genocide. Authorities estimated that another two million had been involved.
Rwanda was criticized for unworthy conditions in the overcrowded prisons, and for suspects having to sit for years without having their cases tried. Criticism was also raised against the way the lawsuits were brought, in part as well as the sentencing with several death sentences. In the absence of capacity in the ordinary courts, a system based on a traditional legal form, gacaca, was introduced as a trial system in 2001 – with widespread use of play judges.
Ten years after the genocide, some 80,000 prisoners were still in prison without law; many were released the following year. At the same time, Rwanda requested several countries, including Norway, to expel suspected war criminals.
In 2000, the UN Security Council explicitly assumed responsibility for the unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Rwanda genocide when council members expressed that their governments had lacked the political will to stop the massacres. This happened after an independent inquiry commission, led by Sweden’s former prime minister Ingvar Carlsson, had submitted a report in December 1999.
The report stated that the UN had overlooked evidence that the genocide was planned and that the organization had not wanted to act when it erupted. The commission also criticized Belgium, which unilaterally withdrew its UN soldiers from the country when the genocide broke out, after ten Belgian soldiers were killed. In the winter of 2000, Belgium also officially apologized for its part in the responsibility for the genocide not being prevented. France, which was instrumental in training and equipping Rwanda’s then government, has not wished to assume a similar partial responsibility.
UN Secretary – General Kofi Annan regretted in 2004 that he personally had done nothing more to stop the massacres ten years earlier, when he was the head of the UN peacekeeping department. New official figures were presented in connection with the 10-year anniversary of the genocide, which estimated the number killed at 937,000. President Kagame then accused France of assisting in the preparations for the genocide; France rejected such participation. A French report, on the other hand, claimed that Kagame had ordered the plane to be shot down with President Habyarimana in 1994.
Military activities in eastern Rwanda continued after 1995, both by attacks against civilian targets from Hutu militia on both sides of the border, and countermeasures by the government. The latter was also criticized for being behind serious human rights violations, including in the form of rape and civilian killings. In addition to the Interahamwe militia and units of the old government FAR, organized, among others, in the Forces Democratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), several military organizations with the aim of overthrowing the new regime emerged in the second half of the 1990s, including Peuple en armes pour liberer le Rwanda (PALIR) and Armée pour la libération du Rwanda (ALIR).
At the change of power in 1994, a transitional period was introduced to lay the foundations for national reunification. It ended in 1999 when a national unity government was set up for a period of four years. In 2003, a new constitution was passed and elections were held. Paul Kagame was elected president; two opposing candidates received minimal support. Eight parties voted in parliamentary elections; FPR got a clear majority. Former President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000 and went into exile. In 2004 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for manslaughter and for having established a militia group. Bizimungu is a hutu, and his departure was a setback for the national rally following the genocide.
The development in Rwanda in 1994 has been of great importance to the region, especially in relation to the Congo. The new Rwandan regime participated actively in 1997 during the uprising in eastern Congo, which led to the country’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko falling and Laurent-Désirée Kabila being deployed that year. The FPR government’s stated motive for participating in the uprising – and in subsequent years’ conflict in Eastern Congo – was that Rwandan refugee camps there were bases for the deposed Hutu regime and its army, as well as the Hutu militia that escaped there in 1994 and fortified his position. From 1995, there were fears that these forces would attempt to invade Rwanda to regain power and seek revenge.
Rwanda’s main regional interest was to secure its own security – and by extension this security to Tutsis living in eastern Congo, who were also threatened by exile Hutus. When a new uprising broke out in August 1998 against the Kinshasa government in eastern Congo, Rwanda once again engaged militarily and politically on the rebels’ side, this time against its former ally Kabila. The Rwandan government did not want to rely on Kabila’s ability to secure stability in eastern Congo. Another reason Rwanda changed sides was Kabila’s decision to send home the Rwandan officers who were engaged to build Congo’s new government army.
Uganda was also involved in Eastern Congo, and in 1999, conflict developed between Rwanda and Uganda in the view of military tactics in the intensified conflict, which involved forces from several African countries. In a split in the Mouvement national de libération du Congo (MLNC) organization, Rwanda and Uganda each supported their own faction. This led to several direct military clashes between Rwandan and Ugandan forces in the Congo from mid-1999, especially in and around the rebels’ headquarters, Kisangani. New fighting between units from the two countries broke out in 2000, after which the UK negotiated a peace agreement between them.
A peace agreement between Rwanda and the Congo was signed in 2002, following the mediation of South Africa, among others. The agreement involved a Rwandan withdrawal from the Congo against the Congolese government’s commitment to disarm the Hutu militia. Rwanda withdrew, but made it clear that they would intervene again if the country’s security was considered threatened. The disarmament of Hutu soldiers in Congo was only partially implemented, and Hutu militia continued to attack targets in both Rwanda and Congo, as well as Burundi. Rwanda supported factions in the civil war in eastern Congo, and Rwandan forces took action in Burundi in 2004 following an attack against Tutsis there, from a Hutu militia in Congo. The FDLR announced in 2005 that it had abandoned the armed struggle.
The Rwandan (and Ugandan) army has been accused, including by the UN in a 2004 report, of exploiting Congo’s vast natural wealth for its own merit during the intervention; this has been rejected by Rwanda’s government.
After independence in 1961, Rwanda maintained close relations with Belgium and at the same time became part of France’s cultural and economic sphere of interest in Africa. The country’s geographical location also provided connections with Congo, Uganda and Tanzania. Relations with these countries were characterized by the large number of Rwandan Tutsi refugees who were living there and whom the Hutu government refused to return.
After Yoweri Museveni’s takeover of power in Uganda in 1986, the FPR rebellion was built in Uganda, and from there attacked the Hutu regime. Despite this, relations between Rwanda and Uganda became tense in the late 1990s because of conflicting policies in the conflict in Eastern Congo, where forces from the two countries fought on each other on several occasions. The situation improved after a ceasefire was concluded in 2001, and the two countries’ presidents met in 2002, after which a cooperation agreement was signed.
Relations with the large neighbor in the west, Congo, have been strongly influenced by the Hutu militia’s presence there, which in turn prompted Rwanda’s active military participation in the Congolese conflict, with support for several groups, especially from 1997. Rwanda has mainly had a good relationship with the sister state of Burundi, which has also engaged in Congo. The relationship with Kenya after the genocide was not as good, partly because Kenya has allowed prominent hutus, many of whom are suspected of participating in the genocide, to be arrested there.
Through the intervention in Congo, Rwanda gained a regional position far more important than the size of the country – supported by close relations with the United States, which assisted the new Rwandan regime both politically, economically and militarily. In 2004, Rwanda contributed soldiers to the African Peace Force in Darfur, Sudan. An agreement with the United States on cooperation between the US and Rwandan army, including for peace efforts, was signed the same year. While Rwanda’s relationship with France remained strained in the years following the genocide, Rwanda and Belgium maintained close relations.