The Rwanda Genocide & Never Again in Africa

by Horace Campbell

During April 1994, the peoples of South Africa celebrated the end of apartheid and centuries of institutionalized racism and white supremacy. The promise of a new era – the end of apartheid and crimes against humanity – was, however, shattered by the news, that same month, of the start of genocide in Rwanda, in central Africa. For 100 days the news from Rwanda overwhelmed all other news in Africa as the fastest genocide in history unfolded with the murder of over one million citizens.

Ten years later, the lessons of the Rwanda genocide have not been fully absorbed as the formation of the African Union seeks to move the African continent and its peoples beyond the traditions of genocide. Within South Africa the political leadership embarked on the establishment of a new institution, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in order to make the concept of Truth central to the politics of Africa. The idea of the Truth Commission came from the African principle of Ubuntu, meaning forgiveness, willingness to share, and reconciliation.

History of Genocide in Africa

The history of mass murder in Central Africa has been traced to the colonial era when the Belgian colonialists massacred more than ten million people during the colonial occupation and pacification of the Congo. Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost documented what is known in Africa: that the colonial period was one of genocide. Genocide was a central aspect of the civilizing mission of colonial rulers.

The same colonialists that carried out mass murder implanted the idea that the issues in the region were ones of tribal hostility. This is the element of racism in colonial history. Colonial powers carried out genocide in Africa. The genocide and mass murder in the Congo was followed by a century of mass slaughter throughout Africa, with the slaughter in the German protectorate of Namibia providing the rehearsal for the Nazi Holocaust. The Nazi Holocaust brought the issue of genocide to the center of international concern.

Hutus and Tutsis

By framing the issues of the war and genocide in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in ethnic terms, the international media successfully reinforced the racist notion that Africans come from savage tribes prone to war. The historical record will show that the Tutsi/Hutu identities were political identities that developed over hundreds of years as a result of colonial policies of divide and rule.
In both Rwanda and Burundi the forms of Belgian colonialism nurtured Tutsi and Hutu identities to shore up the colonial power. This deformity at the political level exploded on the eve of independence.

Genocide in Rwanda and Burundi

In the era of decolonization when the US and Belgium were conspiring to derail the decolonization process, the Belgians shifted their support away from the so-called Tutsis when the Tutsis joined in the call for decolonization. Belgium supported a group called the Paramehutu to try to hijack the decolonization process and the first massacres took place in 1959. Between 1959 and 1994 there were systematic pogroms against the so-called Tutsi in Rwanda.

The politics of the region was seriously split in the Cold War. The military forces that ruled in Rwanda said they were defending the Hutu and carried out genocide against the Tutsi, while in Burundi the militarists carried out pogroms against the so-called Hutus. Tutsi refugees in Uganda and Hutu refugees in Tanzania ensured that the questions of Rwanda and Burundi were militarized issues for central Africa.

During the Cold War, the militarists who ruled Rwanda and Burundi were supported by Mobutu in the Congo and by France and Belgium. Mobutu had been elevated to power after the Belgians and the US assassinated Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in January 1961. In 1990 some of the refugees from Rwanda started to wage armed struggle for their return home and for an end to the pogroms. The organization which launched this armed struggle was called the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).

The Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed in a plane crash in April 1994 while returning from a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania. There is still controversy over who shot down the plane. Notwithstanding this controversy, the reality was that the plans for genocide had already been made. Weapons had been distributed for the mass slaughter.

In his 2003 book, Shake Hands With the Devil, General Romeo Dallaire detailed his warnings to the UN Security Council of the elaborate plans for genocide. Opposition politicians were the first to be targeted. Most of those killed were Tutsis, but all those who opposed genocide were marked. The United Nations pulled out troops just when they were needed. There are now a number of books that detail the complicity of France and the US in betraying the peoples of Rwanda and Africa. It is important to highlight the role of France in supporting the authors of the genocide.

France Protects the Authors of Genocide

At the time of the genocide in 1994 (when scenes of the bodies in the lake made good footage for CNN), there was no force on the horizon to stop the killings. The RPF resumed the war to stop the killing. At the point when the RPF was close to defeating the killers who were called the Interahamwe, France intervened on a so-called “Humanitarian Mission” called “Operation Turquoise.” The French “humanitarian” mission provided military assistance so that those who were carrying out the genocide could escape into neighbouring Zaire (formerly Congo, renamed Zaire in 1971, changed to Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997) – ruled by Mobutu. Before they escaped, the perpetrators of the genocide incited millions of ordinary Rwandese to flee, saying that they would be killed.

The US government lobbied other governments to withdraw from Rwanda amid the genocide and then flew into Goma in Zaire to provide camps for the nearly two million Rwandans refugees. Such was the level of disinformation in the West that ordinary citizens were called upon to provide donations for the refugees in the camps in Zaire (now renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In 1996 more than a million refugees returned to Rwanda. This left over 40,000 Interahamwe fighters in the DRC. These fighters were supplied with weapons by France. It is their presence in the Congo that has precipitated the wars in that country since 1996.

Ten years later the whole of central Africa suffers the legacy of this genocide as the unfinished questions engulfed Rwanda and the Congo in two wars. There are reports of more than three million persons dying in the war between 1998-2002. The impunity with which the Interahamwe roam capitals around the world forces us to ask: what are the future implications of this silence for would-be perpetrators and victims of genocide?

Democratization and Demilitarization in Rwanda and Central Africa

There will be destabilization in the region until the peoples of central Africa embrace the politics of healing and reconstruction beyond militarized identities. The reality is that even after the overthrow of Mobutu, the end of war and the formation of the African Union, there are vested interests in the capitalist world that want to see the region destabilized and the peoples exploited. The economics of warfare in this region perpetuate violence and crude extraction of resources. This is the region of blood diamonds and coltan – a mineral used in cell phones. All cell phone users should reflect on the link between this region’s mineral resources and the realities of warfare.

Those committed to demilitarization and justice in their own societies will support the call for the authors of the genocide to be brought to justice. It would be unthinkable that ten years after World War II the Nazi killers could be roaming around Europe mobilizing support for their crimes. This travesty is possible because for many in Europe and the US, Africans are not human beings but savage tribalists.

One of the many challenges for the peace movement is to be able to oppose genocide in all parts of the world. There are many who continue to embrace the view that genocide does not happen in Africa. That the genocide nevertheless happened and other mass murders and crimes against humanity continue in Africa (now in Darfur, Sudan) reflects the reality of militarism, warfare, torture and war crimes in international politics.