‘It is difficult to understand Rwandan history’: contested history of ethnicity and dynamics of conflicts in Rwanda during Revolution and Independence
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This thesis explores the question of what factors shaped Rwandan ethnicity in the late 1950s and early 1960s; in particular, how and why was ethnicity transformed into ‘political tribalism’ in decolonising Rwanda? The Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the subsequent post-genocide peace-building have drawn our attention to the problems of ethnicity and nationalism. While ethnicity and nationalism in Africa have been a matter of debate amongst the primordialist, instrumentalist and constructivist schools, it has become more or less accepted knowledge that ethnicity in Africa was constructed by dynamic interactions between Europeans and Africans in particular colonial contexts. This constructivist approach may have advanced our understanding of ethnicity in pre-colonial and colonial Rwanda, but our perception of Rwandan ethnicity in the 1950s and 1960s has not benefited from this academic trend. Instead, the literature on this issue, most of which was written several decades ago, tends to take a primordialist approach towards the Rwandan Revolution and the ethnic conflict that emerged at the end of colonial period. By theoretically adhering to a constructivist approach, and relying on John Lonsdale’s ‘political tribalism’ model in particular, the thesis argues that to take a nuanced hybrid-constructivist approach is essential, because primordial ethnic conflict was not the cause of the Revolution and other historical events, but the other way round. Ethnicity in Rwanda was not simply invented by the Europeans during the colonial period, nor was it so primordial that the conflict between the Tutsi and the Hutu was inevitable; in fact, several conflicts (and not always along ethnic boundaries) existed, and even some alternatives were suggested for ethnic cooperation. Ethnicity went through a dynamic transformation into ‘political tribalism’ through interactions between Rwandans and non-Rwandans, as well as through relationships amongst different groups of Rwandans. Various domestic factors – including intra-Tutsi leadership rivalry, the alliance among the political parties and the inter-ethnic power struggle – affected the process of the Revolution, and politicised ethnicity. External factors, such as factions within the Belgian administrations as well as the heated debates in the Cold War-era United Nations, also provided opportunities for Rwandan ethnicity to become politicised. Contingency, the mass movement of people, violence and the processes of revolution and decolonisation had a synergistic impact on the spread of ‘political tribalism’ over Rwanda. Primordial perceptions on ethnicity, as well as interpretations of the past, and visions for the future held by each actor, were factors that shaped ethnicity and forced the ethnic split into the foreground. In this sense, Rwandan ethnicity cannot simply be understood through the dichotomised debate of primordialists and constructivists. Rather, it was a more dynamic process of ethnic transformation with unaccomplished alternatives and inter/intra-group relationships, strongly bound by the historical and political contexts of the time. ‘Political tribalism’ and interpretations of the past have influenced and, even today, continue to influence post-colonial Rwandan politics.