Conflict in Rwanda – definitions and drivers

The sources of conflict in Rwanda – and in Africa’s Great Lakes region, in general – can be divided into three categories: its colonial heritage, chronic bad governance and conflict-generating political systems.

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By Never Again Rwanda

The Rwandan conflict has been defined in different ways, due to different understandings about Rwandan society and its components. Though the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa communities have been variously qualified as races, tribes or social classes, analysis shows that these categorizations do not correspond to reality. Despite the persistence of divisionist ideologies, it should be recognized that the common language and culture have so far resisted fracture. If the otherness of language and culture is a constructive element of ethnic groups, it should then be admitted that there exists one unique ethnic group in Rwanda – the ethnic group of Banyarwanda. In neighboring countries with an important Rwandophone community, such as Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), all Rwandophone people have been considered as members of the same ethnic group – that of Banyarwanda (people of Rwanda). The distinction between the Hutus and the Tutsis has only been made very recently.

During the king’s reign, Rwandan identity references were first and foremost the clan. When a person was required to disclose their identity, they would mention their clan without ambiguity. Belonging to the same clan implied that the concerned persons were of the same origin, the same distant ancestor. Furthermore, the myths related to their origin made the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa sons of the same ancestral father, called Kanyarwanda. That brotherhood relation placed the three – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa – in the same family; preserved even in folktales which present the myth of Gihanga in the register of inequality and injustice.

Factors that generated conflict in Rwanda

The sources of conflict devastating the countries of Africa reflect the continent’s diversity and complexity – of history, culture, geography, domestic policies and international relations. Some conflicts are the result of internal factors; others depend on regional  dynamics, whilst others have a significant international dimension. Rwanda’s neighbour – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – serves a good example of a conflict with strong international dimensions. Over the past decade, armed conflict in Eastern DRC has escalated and many countries from different continents are allegedly involved. Furthermore, some conflicts originate from historical processes, conflict-generating perceptions and cyclical factors linked to, among other things, a failure to satisfy ontological needs. However, and beyond all the underlying causes, the role of the rulers – and the attitude of those aspiring to rule – are constantly at the heart of political violence and conflict.

Referring to regional conflict affecting the Eastern DRC, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, recently blasted the international community and pointed out that some westerners still treat Rwanda as part of Rwanda-Urundi and Congo Belge. “After lines were drawn by colonizers, we are now asking why there are Rwandaphones in DRC. Rwandaphones in Congo are persecuted every day and the international community condones it but blames Rwanda for DRC’s problems,” Kagame asserted

In spite of their diversity, the sources of conflict in Rwanda – and in Africa’s Great Lakes region, in general – can be divided into three categories: its colonial heritage, chronic bad governance, and inadequate and conflict-generating political systems.  In the regional context, most conflicts are motivated by “ethnicity” and “ethnic conflict” – both of which are are not particularly well understood, either by the public or by scholars.

The artificiality of state borders and identity-based insecurity

During the Berlin Congress of 1895, Western powers arbitrarily divided Africa into territorial units which they then shared among themselves. According to the West’s pre-colonial African conception, states and kingdoms were separated by social environments. Frontiers therefore meant the places where these social environments met. Colonization placed the Great Lakes region at the crossroads of three zones of interest and influence – German, Belgian and British – which fueled territorial appetites and mutual incomprehension. To overcome this situation, they had to conclude agreements and compromises – often signed several thousand kilometers away – which failed to take the realities on the ground into account.

Even if the colonial frontiers do not play a part as a causal factor of conflict, Rwanda was most affected by those colonial legacies. Its borders were the subject of several conventions and arrangements. The 1st August 1885 declaration deprived Rwanda of its western part of the Congo Nile, the volcanoes and the River Rusizi in favor of Congo, which was the private property of the King of Belgium. In the North, in conformity with three German-British arrangements (in 1890, 1909 and 1910, respectively), Rwanda lost the province of Bufumbira to present-day Uganda. In the east, the Orts-Milsner accord of May 1909 (modified by the Treaty of London and approved by the League of Nations in September 1936) established the present border between Rwanda and Tanzania. With the Belgo-German convention of May 1910, Rwanda recovered its present western provinces (to the east of Lake Kivu), but lost the western part of Lake Kivu.

Such border modifications did not displace inhabitants, leaving Rwandan populations distributed in other “states-territories” newly-created by colonization. Rwanda is today the only country in the sub-region whose citizens of are confronted with nationality-related problems inherited from that period. Those Banyarwanda who turned into Congolese or Ugandans because of history have today become the core of insurrection whenever their nationality is questioned. In DRC, which was driven to the brink of statelessness, they were at the heart of a rebellion which toppled Mobutu Sese-Seko in 1997, and remain one of the key sources of conflict. In Uganda, “Rwandophobia” in the seventies and eighties led to those with Rwandan identity being the targets of violence. In Tanzania, meanwhile, some political personalities associated with the Rwandan identity lost their legitimate citizenship, whilst those speaking Kinyarwanda  in the western part of the country have been subjected to threats and rejection.

In the DRC, particularly Kivu, violence against the Banyarwanda was triggered by those intending to take over their land and property. According to the Congolese, the Rwandophone people are known for being a community whose members have succeeded socially, economically and politically. Whether in East Congo or in Kinshasa, they are among those whose businesses flourish. Within a context of social unrest and envy, aided by Congo’s lack of state control of its territory, Rwandophone people have been scapegoated – targeted not only for who they are, but also for what they possess. It is worth noting also that the north of Uganda is prone to insurrection since it is economically underprivileged.

Chronic bad leadership and bad governance

African problems are not only due to a lack of good governance; they are also related to a failure to eradicate negative practices and ideologies inherited from colonial times. Nepotism, clientelism, corruption and exclusion have been practiced by the successive leaders since independence, leading to identity-based fractures and conflict-generating cleavages. The role of politicians continues to exacerbate identity-based conflicts. Identity-based wars would not have occurred in Rwanda if post-colonial leaders had not systematically built their political discourse on divisive community themes. Bad governance as a causal factor revolves around three fundamental structures – a bad start after independence, an unequal distribution of resources, and conflict-generating political systems.

In its new constitution of 4th June 2003, Rwanda has opted for a model of democracy which is close to the consensual model. For democracy to operate, however, the people should define their democracy as a tool which resolves conflicts and enforces equal rights for all, whilst banishing genocide and crimes against humanity, and stimulating human social development through education. It is vital to reduce poverty, particularly of unemployed youth, so that they are not led into violence. Young people who have no training, jobs, incomes or future are easily enlisted by popular, partisan militia, making them potential candidates for violence and rebellious acts. Human underdevelopment, population increases and the pressures of land-related conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi and Kivu also fuel tensions. Furthermore, when significant reductions in social expenditures (due to structural adjustment programs) are associated with feelings that a particular social groups has been wronged during the distribution of diminishing resources, then the risk of conflict might increase.

This can be easily illustrated by the Rwandan genocide perpetrated against Tutsi in 1994, during which the youth were involved in committing atrocities against their own people. These youth were misled, trained and organized into killing squads (Interahamwe), armed and driven to commit horrific acts of murder, rape, looting and property destruction. Under these post-colonial totalitarian regimes, which rejected political diversity and denied citizens freedom of expression, the youth had no voice and felt little obligation as members of a productive society. These youth were often under-educated or not educated at all, making them easy targets for manipulation. In spite of the policy of National Unity and Reconciliation, the risk of exploiting youth continues to hang over Rwanda. Indeed, the wounds left by the genocide and the fear of a repeat constitute a significant threat to which the government must be vigilant.

The internationalization of the conflict and external judgment

The West’s co-option of the discourse surrounding Rwanda, its history and its future is a major challenge for sustainable peace. There are active alliances between negative forces operating in neighboring countries and some foreign actors. International bodies, particularly the UN and EU, have not taken any concrete measures against Rwandan forces operating outside Rwanda’s borders. Indeed, some external actors continue a campaign of conflict-generating misperceptions about Rwandan society. There is external resistance to peacebuilding mechanisms throughout Rwandan society, and the failure of international solidarity during the post-genocide period – particularly a lack of will to cancel the external debt, even one which is “illegitimate and criminal” – is the greatest indication of this sad reality.

 Never Again Rwanda are a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation

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1) John W. Burton, “Human Needs Theory” in Conflict: Resolution and Prevention (London: Macmillan, 1990), pp. 36-48.

2) E. Bertram, “Reinventing Governments: The Promise and Perils of United Nations Peace Building”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 39:3 (September 1995), pp. 387-418.

3) John Paul Lederach, “The Challenge of the 21st Century: Just peace” in People Building Peace: 35 Inspiring Stories from Around the World (Utrecht: European Centre for Conflict Prevention, 1999), p. 32.

4) Stef Vandeginste “Rwanda: Dealing with Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity in the Context of Armed Conflict and Failed Political Transition.




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