A BRIEF HISTORY: Monarchy and Colonial Rule

For centuries, Rwanda existed as a centralized monarchy under a succession of Tutsi kings who ruled through cattle chiefs, land chiefs and military chiefs. The king was supreme but the Rwandan people, made up of three ethnic groups—Hutu (approximately 80% of the population); Tutsi (18%); and Twa (2%)—lived in symbiotic harmony.

In the late 1800s, Germany colonized Rwanda as part of German East Africa and established a system of indirect rule through Rwanda’s existing Tutsi monarchy. In 1919, after Germany’s defeat in WWI, Rwanda became a mandate territory of The League of Nations under Belgium who upheld longstanding pro-Tutsi policies, including the Tutsi monarchy, for another 40 years.

Independence and Internal Strife

In 1959 the Hutus gained control of the country’s civil leadership and instituted severe discriminatory policies against the Tutsi. This state-sanctioned persecution escalated with Rwanda’s independence in 1962; for years afterward, deep-seated hatred of the Tutsi by many Hutus intensified, often erupting into violence. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were killed, while almost two million more were driven into exile in neighboring countries.

While in exile, Tutsi expatriates formed a group that became known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with a mission to mobilize against statelessness and put an end to divisive politics and anti-Tutsi ideology at home. Failing to engage Rwanda’s Hutu government in a peaceful political exchange, the RPF sent forces into Rwanda on October 1, 1990, launching an armed liberation campaign against the unyielding government. In retaliation, Hutu extremists in Rwanda set into motion a chain of events that would lead to one of the largest, swiftest and bloodiest mass murders in modern history.


Genocide Erupts: April 6 — July 4, 1994

Upon its start in late 1990, the ongoing civil war between the Tutsi expatriate group Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and the Hutu-led Rwandan government intensified the increasingly volatile relations between the two ethnic groups within the civilian population. Tensions peaked in 1994 when extremist Hutus inside the government, fearing a loss of power in the face of a pro-democracy movement, organized and instigated a calculated campaign of militant pro-Hutu rhetoric and virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda through state-controlled and independent media.

Ethnic hostilities erupted on April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying Rwanda’s moderate Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot down, killing everyone on board. At the time, the RPF was blamed for the murderous act but today many believe Hutu extremists within the government were responsible. Regardless, hours after the president’s assassination, Hutu soldiers, police and civilian mobs throughout Rwanda began slaughtering Tutsi men, women and children throughout the country—up to 10,000 deaths per day.

In less than 90 days, an estimated 800,000 –1,000,000 Tutsis and a number of moderate Hutus opposed to the genocide were killed by gun- and machete-wielding Hutus, many of whom had once peacefully co-existed and shared cultural practices with their Tutsi victims. Of the Tutsis who survived the slaughter, countless were raped, tortured and maimed, and all suffered horrific psychological trauma; even many perpetrators were later beset by .

The unprecedented killing-spree ended on July 4, 1994, when the RPF captured Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, defeating the Rwandan army. Upon losing the protection of their deposed leaders, over one million Hutus—fearing Tutsi retribution—fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC).

Recovery and Renewal

Once in power, the RPF formed a Government of National Unity headed by President Pasteur Bizimungu, bringing together parties that did not participate in the genocide. In 2000, Vice-President and Minister of Defense, Major General Paul Kagame, assumed the Presidency and began to lead the coalition government; he was elected in 2003 and again in 2010 by overwhelming majorities to seven year terms. During this time, Rwanda made unprecedented socio-economic and political progress, bringing peace, stability and social cohesion to all Rwandans. As a result, the Hutu refugees were able to return safely home and take their place in the new Rwanda.

Today, the government of Rwanda continues to work to build a truly unified, harmonious nation. Thankfully, with every Tutsi and Hutu who embraces forgiveness as the pathway to peace, Rwanda is strengthened in that noble goal.