Colonial echoes to national rebirth: Rwanda’s century-long narrative

On 24 January 2024 at 09:49

Approximately 100 years ago, Rwanda underwent profound changes with the arrival of European colonizers. Since then, the country experienced numerous transformations, often influenced by leaders who unfortunately favored policies of division, hatred, and violence. This tragic history culminated in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis claiming the lives of over a million people.

In 1895, the Germans, led by Gustav Adolf von Götzen, arrived in Rwanda, making it one of the last African nations to be colonized. Initially, the German colonizers focused on supporting King Musinga, who was in power at the time.

The German presence in Rwanda saw periods where Rwandans lost their lives merely for supporting their king, leading up to the outbreak of World War I, which saw the king’s departure for the front lines.

In 1900, Catholic priests entered Rwanda, introducing religious teachings and other knowledge. However, these teachings were marked by discriminatory principles, both regionally and ethnically.
Figures like Mgr Léon-Paul Classe and André Perraudin were prominent in the Catholic Church in Rwanda, teaching at institutions like the Saint-Léon seminary in Kabgayi and the Nyakibanda seminary. Despite their contributions, history reveals divisions and schisms.

In June 1916, towards the end of World War I, the Germans, led by Captain Wintgens (Tembasi), retreated before superior Belgian forces, placing Rwanda under Belgian colonial control.

Dark moments for Rwandans

Unlike the German colonizers, the Belgians adopted a radically different policy upon their arrival in Rwanda. Ignoring the king, they directly imposed their orders on Rwandans, compelling them to engage in various forced labor activities.

During Belgian rule, religious leaders supported by the Catholic Church favored the Tutsis, elevating them to positions of power, especially in tea and coffee plantations where Rwandans were coerced into labor. Severe punishments, known as "shiku," were imposed for incomplete work.

This policy, encapsulated in the phrase "divide to rule," allowed the Belgians to convince the Hutus that the Tutsis had long oppressed them, sparking the need for change.

Racist ideologies advocated by figures like Mgr Classe, finding favor among the Belgians, spread in schools and other spheres of public life.

The so-called revolution of 1959, led by the Hutus with the support of the Catholic Church, resulted in persecutions against the Tutsis. Their homes were set ablaze, their belongings looted, and some were killed. This marked the prelude to Rwanda’s independence in 1962, an independence still influenced by Belgian colonialists.

Dr. Gakwenzire Philbert, President of Ibuka, criticizes past Rwandan leaders for their short-term vision, highlighting their continued adherence to colonial principles at the expense of unity and national development.

He states, "When the colonizers arrived in Rwanda, they established schools. The school, called Indatwa in Kinyarwanda, formed an official group of scholars. However, the graduates of these schools were mainly ’assistants,’ meant to serve the Whites. As a result, leaders of the First and Second Republics, benefitting from an education, regarded other Rwandans as their assistants rather than contributors to the country’s development."

A striking example is Minister Nzirorera Joseph, who, as the head of MINITRAPE, prohibited the Central University of Rwanda, particularly its SCAP branch, from awarding degrees in "Engineering" to prevent graduates from competing with his own level of education.

The state’s role in ethnic segregation in schools

In 1969, under President Grégoire Kayibanda’s leadership, the Central Council of the Parmehutu Party decided to implement ethnic dominance controls in Rwandan schools. The policy’s implementation began during the 1972-1973 school year.

Antoine Mugesera, a former student at Christ-Roi School in Nyanza, reports that the school’s director, Father Canon Ernotte, addressed President Kayibanda in a letter dated February 21, 1973. He questioned the reasons behind the ethnic dominance surveillance in secondary schools and raised concerns about the killing of Tutsi intellectuals.

In response, Kayibanda affirmed that this inspection program had been approved by the national administration and must be implemented without hindrance.

During this period, several Tutsi students, including Yosiya Senyonga, who had passed the entrance exam to the National University of Rwanda, were denied access to higher education.

Starting from February 1973, it became extremely difficult for Tutsi children to access the Central University of Rwanda. Tutsi high school students began to be persecuted, and those working for the government or in the private sector were gradually dismissed.

This policy led to a true national tragedy: the elimination of educated Tutsis and the flight of survivors to neighboring countries such as Uganda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Simultaneously, another phenomenon emerged: the replacement of positions by individuals from families favored by the leaders, a process marked by corruption and nepotism. This situation represented a significant loss for the country, as competent individuals were sidelined in favor of less qualified people.

Discrimination policy is a dead end

From the Belgian colonial era to the First Republic, Rwandan political parties were primarily based on ethnic criteria, predominantly favoring the Hutus, often referred to as ’the people.’ With the exception of the UNAR party, most politicians of this period favored discriminatory and divisive policies, ultimately leading to theGenocide against the Tutsis.

The Second Republic, established in 1973 under President Juvénal Habyarimana, claimed to correct the mistakes of its predecessor, Grégoire Kayibanda. However, it continued to follow a similar political line.

Apart from 13 politicians and a few other notable figures who opposed the genocide plan against the Tutsis in 1994, denouncing injustice and fighting for truth, the majority aligned with the government’s deadly policies.

During the closing of the 29th week of commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi, the Minister of National Unity and Civic Education, Jean Damascène Bizimana, emphasized that few politicians, not involved in the persecutions, had the courage to oppose the murderous policy. He stated that without the ’Hutu Power’ extremists, it would not have been possible to kill more than a million Tutsis across the country.

In addition to the victims of this genocide, many Tutsis were also killed in earlier attempts at genocide in the years before 1994.

The Rwandan economy, between 1973 and 1980, experienced a slowdown in its growth, dropping from 6.5% to 2.9%, a trend that continued until 1990. From 1990 to 1994, the economy underwent an average recession of 40%, severely affecting the country’s well-being.

After the country’s liberation, the RPF-Inkotanyi stopped the genocide and faced a nation depleted of its resources. Since then, Rwanda has embarked on a long path of reconstruction and now displays hope for development on the international stage.

The Second Republic, established in 1973 under President Juvénal Habyarimana, claimed to correct the mistakes of its predecessor, Grégoire Kayibanda. However, it continued to follow a similar political line.