Belgian And French Influence On The Rwandan Genocide

On April 6th, 1994, an assassination of an 8 million populated country resulted in its tribesmen killing fellow tribesmen just because their ID card stated they were Tutsi. This horrific turnout of events throughout the period of 100 days demands a lot of questions as to WHY all of these things happened. My self-research had led me to the colonial roots of Rwanda, but I never had chance of presenting my thoughts in written form till I read a South African IB students essay on this subject. It inspired me to write my extended essay on it.

This essay therefore will deal with the colonial legacy of Rwanda. It will discuss the history and the origins of the tribes involved after which the impact of colonialism will be discussed on Colonial and post-colonial Rwanda. Towards the end, I will greatly emphasize on the fact that the influence of the Belgians was truly great in the 1994 genocide.

April 6th 1994, marked the beginning of the most recent and terrific genocide that took place in Rwanda, a country located in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. [1] Rwanda, colonized by Belgians during the 20th Century, was populated by 8,139,270 [2] people at the time. In a span of 100 days, Hutu extremists mercilessly butchered between 500,000 to 1 million [3] Tutsis and moderate Hutus. [4] Their aim was ‘ethnic cleansing’ – to literally eradicate the entire Tutsi population even if it meant killing innocent women, children and men. The killings were against Tutsis by Hutus who lived together, whose children schooled together, spoke the same languages, followed the same religion, and had inter-marriages between themselves for a very long time.

Shortly after 8:20 pm local time, on the night of April 6th, 1994, a surface-to-air missile struck the Rwandan President’s plane causing it to erupt in flames before crashing into the garden of the presidential palace, exploding on impact. [5] The Rwandan president was killed in this alleged assassination and this event triggered the 1994 Genocide. It was the most immediate causes occurring amidst high tension between the RPF [6] and the Rwandan government. The high tension resulted from the Rwandan Civil War, where 4 years ago, the RPF tried to invade Northern Parts of Rwanda. The president’s assassination therefore, amidst this very unstable relationship between the two parties, outraged extremist Hutus who then began the genocide.

The Rwanda genocide therefore, is an event of extreme terror. It leads us to wonder as to why a group of people, who were practically neighbors for years, would mercilessly try to eliminate fellow Rwandans and promote Hutu power over all. Moreover, expect to begin developing Rwanda as Hutus alone.

This question demands answers and this demand is not aimed at cleansing ones conscience because nothing had been done. Yes, a lot could have been done to prevent this massacre. 350 American marines stationed in Burundi, just half an hour’s helicopter’s flight away could have helped stop these killings. [7] Several French and Belgian soldiers stationed in countries neighboring Rwanda could have helped secure refugee which in turn could have saved a lot of lives. The international community could have helped make a difference in reducing the death toll, but their lack of response is not the aim of this investigation.

For the sole purpose of this investigation, we need to look for answers so as to get an understanding of what actually happened in Rwanda and also to help solve similar conflicts in similar countries such as Rwanda so as to avoid a Rwanda part II.

To understand the intentions behind the killings therefore, it is necessary to critically analyze the occurrence of events before the genocide so that we understand that this wasn’t an overnight planned event, instead, it was preplanned long before 1994. This critical analysis of events will lead us into investigating the short term and the long term causes of the genocide.

When investigating the short term causes, apart from the shooting of the president’s plane, we are also led to the Rwandan civil war and also the events that occurred right after the civil war till 1994 and this leads us to the role the French played in this massacre. In the long term causes however, we are led back into history where the impact of colonialism in this country is observed. When summing up the two, we could say the Rwandan genocide was greatly influenced by the Belgian and the French and for investigational purposes, the question as to what extent did the French and the Belgians influence the 1994 Rwandan genocide is formed.

To carry out this investigation, we will need to look at pre-colonial times in Rwanda to analyze the influence of the Belgians in this massacre and also, we will need to look at post-colonial Rwanda, mostly after the 1980’s where we can analyze the influence of the French and understand what role they had to play in this massacre. A brief description of the 1990 civil war will also be presented to show how it impacted the genocide. Throughout this entire investigation therefore, my aim is to show to that the Rwandan genocide was indeed greatly influenced by the Belgians and French.


To begin this investigation, we first need to look at Pre-colonial Rwanda, after which we can describe the colonial practices in Rwanda, and finally, the impact it had on Post-colonial Rwanda and thus evaluate the influence of the Belgians in the genocide. Hutus and Tutsis were present as separate tribes even before colonialism. This implies that the two were different, and so their origins need to be studied.


The Rwandan population to date consists of Hutus, Tutsis and the Twa. [8] The Twa comprises of 1% of the Rwandan population [9] and due to their small numbers, won’t be mentioned in this investigation. The Hutus and Tutsis however make up 90% and 9% of the entire Rwandan population respectively.

There are many theories regarding the origins/differences between the Hutus and Tutsis. Mahmoud Mamdani, a Ugandan scholar, famous for ‘When victims become killers: colonialism, nativism, and the genocide in Rwanda’, presents the different theories that lead to the fact that the Hutu and the Tutsi are indeed different. The theories are numerous but can be classified into 3 main categories; the phenotype argument, the genotype argument and the migration theory. We will explain each briefly.

The Phenotype, The Genotype and The Migration Theory

The phenotype argument deals with differences in physique of the tribes. The phenotype argument was introduced by colonialists in the 19th century who described Hutus as ‘short and thickset with a big head, a jovial expression, a wide nose and enormous lips’ [10] and Tutsis as ‘very tall, very thin with a high brow, thin nose and fine lips framing beautiful shining teeth.’ [11] Mamdani states that the physical differences were confirmed scientifically.

The genotype argument deals with differences in genetic composition between the Hutus and Tutsis. In a 1987 study on genetic characteristics and history of the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa, it was discovered that Tutsis, despite the fact they were surrounded by populations identified as ‘the Bantus’, they (the Tutsis) were still closer to Cushites [12] and Ethiosemites [13] as far as genetic heritage was concerned. A different study was carried out and they came to a conclusion that the majority Hutus’ genes contained the sickle cell trait but this was hardly or never observed in the Tutsis. [14] This is evidence therefore that even genetically, Hutus and Tutsis are different.

The migration theory deals with where the Hutus and Tutsis come from. According to most experts, Hutus are believed to have been the founders of Rwanda and were always a part of this country. Tutsis however were the immigrants and we will therefore deal with where the Tutsis came from. The migration theory or the Hamitic theory has been used in determining the origins of Tutsis. The Hamitic theory is a racist ideology developed by Europeans that promotes the fact that all ‘better looking Africans’ [15] were actually a result of the influence of an outsider race. It also states that the origins of the Hamites [16] lie in the Horn of Africa. [17] . The Horn of Africa is a peninsula in East Africa that juts for hundreds of kilometers into the Arabian Sea, and lies along the southern side of the Gulf of Aden. [18] This is where Tutsis are believed to have come from.

After having discussed the theories above, we have now come to a full understanding of the differences between the two tribes, in terms of physique, genetic heritage and where they come from. We can now move to analyze the history of Rwanda; or, the monarchial system of this country.


Rwanda, like other African countries, was founded on a monarchial system which began systemizing during the 15th century. [19] Before the 15th century however, Rwanda was based on a leadership system that divided her into different Bantu states with Hutu chiefs as leaders. The migration of Tutsis during the 15th century however changed everything. Tutsis conquered Rwanda and a monarchial system began forming.

The kings were known as ‘Mwamis’ and were mostly Tutsis. [20] Beginning with ‘Ndahiro I’ as the first king during the 14th century, to ‘Samembe’ during the 15th century (possibly the first Tutsi king) to ‘Kigeli V’ (the last Tutsi king), the Rwandan monarchial system had been formed.

The Tutsis established a monarchy headed by a Mwami and a feudal hierarchy of Tutsi nobles and gentry where even though the closest ‘spiritual advisors’ of the king were Hutus, Tutsi kings did technically rule Rwanda. [21] A system, by the name of ‘Ubuhake’ was introduced where Hutu farmers pledged allegiance of them and of their descendants to a Mwami in return for loans that included cattle, pastoral and arable land. Through the course of time however, a new and much more abusive system by the name of ‘Umuheto’ was introduced where land that belonged to lineages many of whom were Hutus, were now the property of the royal family. [22] The new system was designed to exploit the Hutu tribesmen. [23] Rwanda was now fully under the control of the Tutsis.

Towards the end of the 19th century, all land that once belonged to a Hutu would now belong to the royal family. The highest posts in the kings system of ruling were given to Tutsis as opposed to Hutus who were small time chiefs. By the end of the 19th century, the Hutus and Tutsis were no longer separated by their biological differences; the separation was more in terms of class and ‘political’ status.


After having looked at the origins of the Hutus and the Tutsis, we can now look at the extent to which colonialism or the Belgians influenced the genocide. This can be done by analyzing the colonial practices that defined the relationships between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.

Even though Rwanda had been placed under the Germans during the Berlin Conference in 1889, [24] colonial practices had not begun in Rwanda till she was placed under the Belgians in 1919. [25] The Belgians chose the Tutsis to rule over Hutus. One must understand that the Belgians choice of Tutsis rule, over the Hutus was not a result of the monarchial state of Rwanda present at the time; a racial ideology namely the Hamitic theory was behind this decision.

The Tutsis or the Hamites were known as ‘better looking African’s due to their light skinned nature. The Belgians believed that Tutsis were ‘superior’ to Hutus because they looked more like them. On this ground therefore, Tutsis were chosen to rule over the Hutus. Together with choosing of Tutsis to rule over the Hutus, Belgians also created further separations by favoring Tutsis over Hutus in many other factors. The colonial-government, for reasons of development, formed laws that made it compulsory for Rwandans to grow certain cash crops. To imply this, the colonialists threatened to whip the Tutsis if their laws weren’t abided even if it meant that Tutsi chiefs whipped Hutus. [26] The Tutsis who were in power at the time abided by the laws but some and this further broke down relations between Hutus and Tutsis.

In addition to the whipping, Belgian colonialists also worsened relations by granting only Tutsis rights to education. The Belgians, at the beginning allowed Tutsi chiefs and their families to enter schools. Through the course of time, more Tutsis were admitted into schools. Even though a few Hutus were admitted, the amount of Tutsis admitted was much more than Hutus thus showing ‘Tutsi superiority’.

Once again, Belgian colonialists worsened relations by introducing I.D cards where a Rwandan was now identified by the tribe he belonged to. This completely destroyed relations between the two tribes as one wouldn’t identify his neighbor as a citizen of Rwanda, instead by the tribe he belonged to.


After having discussed the history of Rwanda and the impact colonialism had in this country, we now need to look at how the Belgian colonial legacy lived and affected Rwanda, to the extent of being a major influence in the genocide.

Rwanda and independence

The key factor in knowing how the Belgians influenced the genocide is to understand what they did right before they left Rwanda. An incident in 1959 involving members of the Tutsi army attacking a Hutu political leader caused riots leading to fights between the two tribes. The Hutus however were more than the Tutsis and because of fear of further coups, the Belgians transferred power from the Tutsis to the Hutus. [27] This changed everything in Rwanda. Hutus who had suffered years of suppression by the Tutsis had taken over and wanted revenge. They claimed that Rwanda was now ruled by its actual and most original people [28] and it was no longer under the rule of outsiders – the Tutsis. [29] The Hamitic theory in regard to Tutsis being outsiders was first developed by Belgians and on them leaving, we see Hutus using the same racial ideology against the Tutsis and considering them as an ‘alien’ race that should go back to where they it first come from. This was the beginning of ‘Hutu power’.

Rwanda, in 1962 under the leadership of the Hutu Grégoire Kayibanda, like other activists in Africa, fought for independence and got the Belgian colonialists to leave. He was replaced however by Juvénal Habyarimana in 1973, who overthrew Kayibanda’s government because of Kayibanda’s anti-Tutsi policies. Even though Habyarimana was a Hutu, he was a moderate. After having won the presidential elections, Habyarimana promoted peace and unity between the two tribes where he claimed to lead Rwanda with its government protecting Hutus and Tutsis all together as one. [30] 

The influence of the Belgians in the 1994 Genocide

Even though Habyarimana promoted unity between the two, the fact that the Hutus lived under suppression of the Tutsis for all that time before independence was the cause of hatred of the majority Hutus towards the minority Tutsis. Educational institutions promoted ethnic differences between the two. Tutsis were now completely considered as an outsider race and because of this, Hutus and Tutsis were considered separate rather than one and Habyarimana’s implementation of a peaceful Rwanda wasn’t taking shape. Some sources state that the church promoted the same ideology as the educational institutions where the encouraged Hutus to get even with the Tutsis for the wrongs that had occurred in history.

These institutions were greatly influential in Rwanda and the encouragement of racism against the Tutsis increased throughout the years as a result of the schools and churches. This racism was a result of the Belgians separating the two tribes in terms of ethnicity rather than the political status that had already been present. It was also because of the constant favoring of the Tutsis over the Hutus during colonial times and worst of all, transferring power to revenge wanting Hutus right before they left. With evidences from the investigation so far, we can conclude that the Belgians were indeed a great influence in the genocide as a result of the colonization of this country.

We have now evaluated the influence of the Belgians in the genocide. As mentioned in the beginning of this investigation, the Belgians were a long term cause for the genocide. The short term cause was the Rwandan civil war in 1990 and the help the French had given to the Hutus to carry out the massacre.


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