top of page
  • Writer's pictureNicky, Digital Researcher, Africa Analyst

Rwanda Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

Rwanda, officially known as the Republic of Rwanda, is a landlocked country in East Central Africa lying south of the Equator and is considered one of the smallest countries in Africa. Kigali is the capital city of Rwanda and is the political and economic center of the country. Rwanda has a population of 10 million people and is bordered by Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country is blessed with amazing scenery and is referred to as Land of a thousand hills. The Rwanda population is predominantly mono-cultural and is drawn from the Banyarwanda, with Hutu, Tutsi and Twa as subgroups. The Hutus make up 85% of the Rwandan population and the Twa are less than 2%. The official languages of Rwanda are English, French, Kinyarwanda, and Swahili.

Early history of Rwanda

The earliest human presence in the territory now known as Rwanda is believed to be about 15,000 years ago. The first group to settle in the country were probably the Twa group, consisting of Pygmy hunter-gatherers who can still be found in Rwanda today.

The Hutus, a Bantu-speaking group, migrated into the territory partially supplanted the Twa group. The Hutus being mainly farmers, cleared forests to settle permanently in the territory. It is not really known when the Tutsi pastoral group settled in the territory.

However, by the 15th century the Hutu and Tutsi organized themselves and formed small distinct kingdoms. As of 1700, there were about 28 recognizable chiefdoms in Rwanda.

One of the chiefdoms succeeded in incorporating several of its neighboring territories into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Rwanda. The peasants, mostly from the Hutu formed almost 85% of the kingdom's population while the Tutsi minority were the nobility.

Between 1860 and 1895, King Kigeli IV Rwabugiri enacted certain anti-Hutu policies which saw the Tutsi chief imposing manual labor on the Hutus before they could be given the right to occupy land. The Hutus became like slaves in their own land, serving the Tutsi. The term Hutu ended up becoming the identity for most conquered people in Rwanda, even those conquered from outside the territory.

The Tutsi subjugated and disenfranchised the Hutus socially, politically, and economically. The Twa clan were made mainly dancers and entertainers in the Royal Court of the Tutsi chief. The poor among the Tutsis were grouped as Hutus, while prosperous members of the Hutu group were acknowledged as Tutsis; and so, the distinction between the Hutus and Tutsis was socio-economic and not ethnic. This social mobility ended with the colonization of Rwanda.

Arrival of the Europeans in Rwanda

The German Explorer, Gustav Adolf Von Gützen, was the first European to enter the territories of Rwanda in 1893. He traveled through the kingdom and met with the king of the Rwanda Kingdom.

The dissension and division within the kingdom provided room for German colonialists as well as missionaries to penetrate Rwanda. Some of the indigenes were apprehensive over the entrance of the Germans, while some considered it a better alternative to the dominance of the neighboring powerful Buganda kingdom. Therefore, it was not difficult for Germany to colonize the region, as the resistance was weak and half-hearted.

Colonization of Rwanda

The Berlin conference of 1885 designated most African territories to different European countries. However, Rwanda was not among the territories decided. The region was divided in 1890 and part of it was given to the German empire for renouncing its claim over Uganda. Belgium held claim over the remaining half of Rwanda.

In the early years of the colonization Germany exerted its influence by supporting the existing king and his nobles, and by delegating some administrative powers to local chiefs. The Germans collected cash taxes from the locals hoping this would encourage the farmers to produce more profitable cash crops like coffee and cocoa in a bid to generate the cash they needed to pay the taxes levied on them.

In addition, the colonial administrators further enhanced the racial superiority of the Tutsis by granting them more privileges. Both the German administrators and the Roman Catholic missionaries favored the Tutsi ruling class because of their impressive physical stature, eloquence, and willingness to convert to Roman Catholicism. The Tutsi, who were mainly cattle herders, drank milk and so they were much taller and of lighter skin than the other groups. The Europeans believed they were of Caucasian ancestry and so were superior to the other two clans. The Germans granted the Tutsis basic ruling positions.

The power of the Tutsi nobles was weakened by the capitalist policies of Germany and with the integration of outside markets and economies. The number of cattle owned by an individual was no longer used as the yardstick for measuring economic prosperity, or for acceptance into the social status of Tutsi.

Furthermore, German introduction of head tax on all indigenes of Rwanda made the Hutus to feel on a par with the Tutsi monarch group.

Belgian League of Nations mandate

In 1916, during the World War 1, Belgium took control of Rwanda and Burundi and ruled both by League of Nations mandate. The territory was called Ruanda-Urundi, and its power structure was centralized.

The Belgians improved and developed the agricultural, health, and education sectors of the country. They introduced new crops, including coffee, which they intended to use to drive foreign exchange for the colony. The colonial administrators used the system of forced labor to cultivate the cash crops, and the peasants were also forced to devote a certain percentage of their land for coffee cultivation. This forced labor was unacceptable to many Rwandans and thousands of the locals immigrated to the neighboring British Protectorate of Uganda.

In a ridiculous manner, Belgium forced an ethnic divide between the Hutus and the Tutsis by bringing in scientists who measured the skulls of the indigenes; bigger skull meant one is of Tutsi lineage. Based on this criterion, ethnic identity cards were issued defining one as legally Hutu or Tutsi. However, the identification reverted to what it used to be, and a Hutu person who had up to ten cattle, even though he lacks the physical features, was classified as a Tutsi.

Belgian United Nations Trust Territory

Shortly after the World War II, Ruanda-Urundi was made a United Nations Trust Territory, and Belgium retained its administrative authority over the colony. Around the late 1990s Belgium made reforms that redistributed cattle and land, thus destabilizing the age-long Tutsi superiority.

Meanwhile, as the wave of Pan-Africanism swept through other parts of Central Africa in the 1950s, the Hutus were emboldened to emancipate themselves from the grip of the Tutsi elite class and the Belgian colonialists. Gregore Kayibanda led the Hutu Emancipation Movement in 1957 and the Tutsi lobbied for the Independence of Ruanda-Urundi, with the intention of continuing their influence and rulership; and in 1959 formed their own party.

In November of 1959 there was a major clash between the Tutsis and Hutus, the Hutus vented their pent-up resentment on the Tutsis, killing tens of thousands of them and sending more than 100,000, including the King fleeing into Uganda and Congo. This Revolution marked a major change in the political affairs of Rwanda. The Hutus took over political power and extruded the few remaining Tutsis from the corridors of power.

When all efforts made by Belgium to create an independent Ruanda-Urundi with power shared between the Hutus and Tutsis failed, the Belgian government had no option than to divide the territory into two separate countries, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Independence of Rwanda

On September 25, 1961, a referendum was held, and Rwanda was declared a Republic, with Gregore Kayibanda as its prime minister and Dominique Mbonyumutwa as president. In 1961, Tutsi guerrilla groups staged attacks into Rwanda from where they were exiled. Rwandan Hutu-dominated troops retaliated, and thousands of lives were lost. In July of 1962, the countries of Rwanda and Burundi were granted full independence from Belgium. Tensions continued to exist between the Hutu and Tutsi, with the latter launching guerilla attacks Kayibanda's administration which was later overthrown in 1973 by the Defense Minister Juvénal Habyarimana.

In 1990, a Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded Rwanda accusing the Rwandan government of neglecting Tutsi refugees and thus triggering of the Rwanda civil war. Three years into the war, the Arusha Accord was signed between RPF and Habyarimana; and there was a ceasefire.

However, the ceasefire was short-lived, and a fresh war ensued when Habyarimana's plane was gunned down. This incident heralded the Rwandan Genocide which saw the death of more than 1 million people. In an ironic twist of fate, the Tutsi got control of the country and it was the Hutus turn to flee the country. With the establishment of international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, a period of reconciliation and justice began, the economy picked up, poverty reduced, and life expectancy increased.

Economy of Rwanda

Subsistence agriculture is the major contributor to the Rwandan economy of 10 billion-dollar GDP. Coffee and tea are major cash crops, and the major market for exports include Belgium, Germany, and China. The agricultural industry constitutes 29% of GDP and employs almost 60% of the population and is 80% of the governments export income. The mining industry is one of the largest producers of tantalum and the industrial sector contributes 16% of GDP and employs 9% of the workforce. The services sector constitutes 50% of GDP and employs 25% of the workforce. The main drivers of the service industry are banking and tourism.

bottom of page