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‘Kwibuka’: Remembering the Genocide in Rwanda Reflections

As the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda is commemorated this month, Roger Bromley reflects on the ways in which moral disengagement - the readiness to slaughter with impunity – was produced by discourses of ideological justification.

New in Ceasefire, Reflections - Posted on Sunday, April 20, 2014 17:32 - 1 Comment


The Kwibuka Flame on its arrival in Burera town carried by two 20-year-olds. (Photo: Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti/http://www.newtimes.co.rw)

The Kwibuka Flame on its arrival in Burera town carried by two 20-year-olds. (Photo: Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti/http://www.newtimes.co.rw)

Preparing for Genocide

As the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda is commemorated this month, I want to reflect on the ways in which moral disengagement – the readiness to slaughter with impunity – was produced by discourses of ideological justification. Radio and print media in Rwanda helped to construct verbal and visual caricatures of the minority Tutsi by a process of cultural and social exclusion, and what has been called ‘emotional disidentification with its accompanying affect: hate’.

I will not argue that the media caused the genocide, but that both broadcast and print communications helped to facilitate it through the endless repetition of propaganda which gradually became internalised and took on the force of common sense. By creating symbolic forms and ethnic absolutes, and by the use of repeated invective, fantasies, and de-humanised stereotypes – beast, vermin, insects – reminiscent of Nazi ideology, the media helped to mobilise Hutu militias, and others, to massacre and rape hundreds of thousands of Tutsi men, women and children, and their Hutu supporters, in a period of three months from April to July, 1994.

All the evidence suggests that far from being a spontaneous and savage outbreak of violence by ‘warring tribes,’ (a standard Western framing) the genocide in Rwanda was a carefully orchestrated, planned, and systematically implemented strategy designed to eliminate a particular ethnic minority – the Tutsi – together with those Hutu who were opposed to the ‘Hutu Power’ extremists drawn from the ruling elite. If this was not carried out with the active connivance of the West (although some claim French involvement), many Rwandans still feel that they were abandoned by the United Nations and the Western powers which failed to intervene.

To arrive at an understanding of how, and why, more than 800,000 women, children and men were killed in the space of 100 days would require a full analysis of the complex and varied history of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial Rwanda in the context of the wider Great Lakes Region which I do not have the space to undertake in this column. However, something Fernand Braudel said about nation formation is of value here:

A nation can have its being only at the price of being forever in search of itself, forever transforming itself in the direction of its logical development, always measuring itself against others and identifying itself with the best, the most existential part of its being; a nation will consequently recognise itself in certain stock images, in certain passwords known to the initiated; it will recognise itself in a thousand touchstones, in beliefs, ways of speech, excuses, in an unbounded subconscious, in the flowing together of many obscure currents in a shared ideology, shared myths, shared fantasies.(Braudel, 1988:23))

It was this which the genocide sought to ‘hijack’ and channel in the direction of an ethnic monopoly designed to break up the shared nature of the nation. It was an attempt to arrest the search and transformation which Braudel describes and to place a whole ‘ethnic’ group of people beyond the politics of recognition.

As Philip Gourevitch has said, ‘Genocide is, after all, an exercise in community building; a utopia in which there is no longer any need for social exchange with an outside.’(Gourevitch, 1998: 95). This leads immediately to an initial problem, the slippage from the concept of nation to that of nationalism – a presumed identification with traditions, characteristics, and qualities which defines ‘us’ as against others.

There are three main ‘ethnic’ groups in Rwanda: Hutu (85% of the population), Tutsi (12%) and Twa (3%), but it is important to remember that there was considerable intermarriage, category flexibility and shifts in belonging (Tutsi and Hutu may well have both been part of one of the 27 clans prior to colonialism), so that telling the groups apart was not easy. They also shared a common language, a common religious affiliation (primarily Catholic), and the same historical experiences, over at least six hundred years, and lived in the same areas despite concentrations of ‘ethnic’ (more accurately ‘clan’) power in particular regions.

From 1894 to 1918, Rwanda was a colony of Germany and, thereafter, until independence in 1962, came under Belgian rule. Briefly, the Belgians sidelined the traditional monarchs but built upon the existing Tutsi hierarchy to establish indirect rule through this elite. It is important to remember, however, that 90% of the Tutsi were pastoralists with little or no access to the privileges or power of the elite. In terms of professional occupations, administration, the judiciary and education, there was clear ethnic segregation (including even the primary schools) in favour of Tutsi.

The Belgians introduced a classification system which codified, registered and identified the population patrilineally (many more Hutu men sought Tutsi wives than Tutsi men Hutu women). This whole process was systematized through mandatory identity cards, introduced in 1933, which were to play such a crucial part in the genocide of 1994. They were to become the ‘yellow star’ for the Tutsi.

In order to produce these classifications, the Belgians drew upon the ‘scientific’ racism of the 19th century, which enabled them to distinguish between the Tutsi, classified as a superior ‘race’ of Nilotic origin, and the inferior, ‘slow-witted’ Bantu Hutu. The so-called Hamitic Hypothesis foregrounded the social-racial order which helped to sustain European rule: ‘colonial style feudalisation was accompanied by a racialisation of society.’(Chrétien, 2003: 285)

In everyday life, distinctions were made between the various clan groups, of course, but these were mainly based upon differentiated relations to the land and production, whereas the colonial ‘thesis’ racialised ethnic divisions and lent credence to Hutu claims to ‘indigeneity’, with Tutsi being seen, by the Hutu, as foreigners and, more negatively, as ‘invaders.’ This colonial codification produced ultra-nationalism, ethnic chauvinism and racism, all conditions reproduced by the ideologies of Hutu Power and transmitted by the media.

The discourse deployed by both print and broadcast media laid stress upon ‘we-they’ oppositions, grossly caricatured and vilified the Tutsi as enemies, and repeatedly emphasised longstanding grievances going back to earliest times. But the ‘ancient hatreds’ idea has little basis in fact and, as I have argued above, the ‘we-they’ oppositions were, to a large extent, manufactured from much more recent historical and political circumstances, in particular, the fears of a ruling Hutu elite (the akazu) about losing privileges and power gained in the postcolonial period.

It was this racialisation which was used by the ‘Hutu Power’ elite in the years leading up to the genocide to construct the Tutsi not as an ‘ethnic’ other sharing the historical, social and political space of Rwanda, but as a foreign invader (inkotanyi), with no right to exist in the country. It should be mentioned at this stage that, in the latter years of colonialism, particularly after the Hutu Social Revolution of 1959, the Belgians decided to cultivate the Hutu elite as more likely to be complicit and compliant after independence than the ‘aristocratic’ Tutsi.

Hence, at independence in 1962, and for the following thirty-plus years, the Hutu dominated the political sphere, massacred Tutsi at periodic intervals, and brought about an extensive displacement to neighbouring countries, and to Europe, to form a Tutsi Diaspora which became increasingly organised and militant. The Tutsi-dominated RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front), demanding the right of return of Tutsi refugees, carried out a subsequent, and absolutely crucial invasion, by its army, the RPA (Rwanda Patriotic Army), of Northern Rwanda in October 1990.

Under international pressure from 1989 onwards, the one-party Hutu-led nation-state was forced to make some concessions to democracy and a multi-party system. A burgeoning opposition (composed of both Hutu and Tutsi working together at times), combined with the RPF incursion, were the catalyst for the emergence of so-called ‘Hutu Power’ which, by training and arming militias and by setting up media outlets, prepared to eliminate all Tutsi as well as the Hutu opposition.

The armed conflict between the RPF and the governing regime was temporarily halted by the Arusha Accords of 1993 which provided for power-sharing, a multi-ethnic military, and democratisation. These conditions were anathema to the power elite (akazu), who represented them as treachery and as signalling the return of Tutsi domination. The presence of the RPF in the north, the Arusha Accords, and the assassination of the Hutu President in April 1994, were all used as pretexts to generate an image of the need for an exclusively Hutu nation, pure and uncontaminated by the verminous, polluting ‘inyenzi’ (‘cockroaches’, as the Tutsi were described). As Laclau has argued, ‘Cleansing of entire populations is always a latent possibility once the discursive construction of the community proceeds along purely ethnic lines.’(Laclau, 2005: 24))

In summary, what I am trying to describe is an anomalous situation in which an already existing hegemonic formation, perceiving itself – at its elite levels – to be under threat by multi-partyism and power-sharing, had to plan and direct a genocide predicated upon an emerging configuration articulated through a populist logic which reconstituted that hegemony, a new ‘heartland.’ This heartland was generated from a set of discourses which were both racialised and racist, framed and articulated anew by both print and broadcast media, radio in particular. These discourses were converted into calls for action by the setting up of militias (interahamwe) in every neighbourhood which carried out the bulk of the massacres.

My final points are an attempt to summarise a number of theoretical issues relating to the role and function of propaganda in the period under review. Detailed analysis has been impossible, but some generalisations must suffice as a conclusion. One is that it has been argued that genocidal violence – killing with impunity and indifference – is ‘killing the other at the cost of killing one’s own former self’(Baumann, 2004: 18). Hence the extensive propaganda narratives designed to reconstitute a newly invented Hutu identity. Genocidal violence is a refusal to sustain encompassment, an unequal distribution of self and other into majority and minority. It is designed to eliminate the systematic categories of the former selves and others altogether; in short, it destroys the basis of exchange and dialogue which constituted a neighbourhood.

Arguably, at the heart of the Hutu identity, at least at the level of ideology, was a despised self, derived from a binary relation with a ‘superior’ other, Tutsi. To exterminate the Tutsi effectively expels the former self. As Mamdani has shown, seeing the Tutsi as a race, alien to Rwanda, rather than an indigenous ‘ethnic’ group, enabled Hutu Power to initiate and direct the genocide.

Furthermore, as Gerd Baumann has demonstrated, ‘a perverted language use will seduce even the initially innocent into complicity with genocidal policies and a politics of language that de-humanises the other – until there is no grammar left in which the other can be construed as a legitimate other.’(Baumann: 43). If you are repeatedly told that your neighbouring Tutsi is treacherous, less than human, and will cut your throat if you do not cut his first, then it is possible to see how a genocidal narrative is produced and then translated into systematic slaughter. A similar narrative was constructed in Bosnia in the same period when streets which had accommodated mosques, churches, and synagogues were turned into ethnocidal killing fields.

One of the principal effects of hate, or more accurately perhaps, ‘fear’ propaganda is to de-legitimise the other, to evacuate the other, not only from the universe of moral obligation, but from the community of language itself. Repeated brutalisation of language, exclusion even from the ‘grammar of difference’, and the ‘implosion of all legitimate grammars of othering’ was a necessary rehearsal at the level of discourse for the physical extermination of the obstacles to pure Hutu identity: ‘the denial of the right to be different turns into a denial of the right to be’(Baumann: 47).

This total exclusion, the end of the possibility of dialogue, and the grammatical implosion of ethnic cleansing or genocide were all designed to remove the victims from the possibility of a narrative of humanity. If, as Catharine Newbury has claimed, the 1994 genocide was founded on ‘mental maps of history’ (Newbury, 1998), it was by constructing a new, de-ethnicised and de-racialised cartography of the imagination and by re-opening the entrance to narrativity that the work of healing, identification and reconciliation had to begin.

Post-genocide Rwanda

What progress has been made towards peace and reconciliation in the past twenty years? In the years since 1994, the reconciliation process has involved the establishment of a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), numerous workshops, re-education camps for former perpetrators, as well as a proliferation of monuments, museums, memorials, national commemoration days, novels, films and art installations. There are a number of debates about the contested versions of national unity and reconciliation produced by the RPF-led government, which seeks, at least at the level of its rhetoric, to transcend the politics of ethnicity and to end, once and for all, the culture of impunity seen as one of the root causes of the genocide.

However, a number of academic critics including Pottier (2002), Mamdani (1996), Newbury (1998), Jefremovas (1997) and Zorbas (2004), have argued that one of the principal obstacles to effective reconciliation has been the dominant RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) narrative which has attributed the genocide mainly to its roots in the colonial period (1894–1962), constructed a harmonious version of pre-colonial Rwanda and rubbished the findings of historians in the postcolonial era since 1962.

Pottier has produced the most extensive critique of what he calls ‘re- imagining Rwanda’, a master narrative of knowledge construction orchestrated by the RPF government and its president Paul Kagame, and absorbed and reproduced in its simplifying forms by journalists, NGOs and members of the international community (Pottier, 2002). It is, Pottier claims on the basis of empirical research, a narrative without complexity or context in which the 1994 genocide, the Kibeho massacre of 1995 (described in a UN Report as a genocide of Hutu civilians – men, women and children) and the conflict in eastern Zaire, 1996-7 (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where, it is alleged, the Rwandan government is supporting the rebels), are all re-written in ways which are designed to silence dissenting voices and to represent the RPF and the post-genocide government of ‘national unity’ as above ethnicity and ‘divisionism’ and a morally superior force acting in defence of Rwanda’s interests.

Jefremovas has developed the most cogent and succinct argument about the ways in which interpretations of history, especially in respect of ethnicity and statehood, have been used to sustain claims about legitimacy and to sanction policies of inclusion and, more importantly, exclusion from the onset of colonialism in Rwanda up to the present. She claims that contested identities in Rwanda have been subject to reductionist analyses in what she calls ‘a series of fictions: fictions of ethnicity, ethnography and history in Rwanda’ (Jefremovas, 1997: 91).

Much of the debate has centred around the nature of the pre-colonial state and what can be described as conflicting reductionisms: in one version, it was a relatively harmonious state based on reciprocity and the ‘mild dominance’ of the minority Tutsi (Basil Davidson, quoted in Jefremovas, 1997: 92); in the other, it was an exploitative state dominated by Tutsi invaders (Nahimana, 1987), a perspective which was based on the ‘Hamitic hypothesis’ and which fuelled the ‘Hutu Power’ rhetoric and practice of the genocide.

Serious research by reputable and informed scholars of Rwanda in the post-independence period has challenged these simplifications and argued for an understanding of the pre-colonial state as a complex, dynamic and varied phenomenon. It is this scholarship (both Rwandan and Western) that is used by Pottier to locate, and question, the ideological foundations of the RPF ‘official’ narrative. The debate described here is not just a matter of scholarly argument but, more problematically, is related to perceptions, both within and beyond Rwanda, about the nature and causes of the genocide and about ways forward to peace and reconciliation – in particular what ‘being Rwandan’ means.

Rather than colonialism creating a Tutsi-dominated state, Jefremovas’s survey of the scholarly literature shows that it inherited and built upon a state already centralised and consolidated by Murami Rwabugiri (1865–95), based upon conquest, assimilation, a Tutsi elite, hegemony and a dependent peasantry, all brought about over an extensive period. ‘Ethnic’ categories already existed in embryonic form but there is no dispute that these were deepened, systematically classified and racialised under Belgian rule. Nor is there any real argument about the fact that, post-independence, the First Republic was shaped by pro-Hutu, anti-Tutsi ethnicised ideology, or that anti-Tutsi pogroms took place which produced large numbers of refugees.

The Second Republic, under President Habyarimana, was characterised much more by regional power differentials than by ethnicised practices or policies. Most Tutsi remained as poor as most Hutu, as class and wealth determined status and power. Given the scale of the crimes committed in the genocide, the absence of an effective legal infrastructure, and a grossly overcrowded prison system, a certain amount of dirigisme by the RPF-led government is understandable.

However, it is also claimed by a number of critics that such dirigisme has crystallised into authoritarianism and that ministerial offices, government administration and non-governmental agencies have become dominated by Tutsi membership, particularly by those from the diaspora. It has been argued, by Webley and others, that the ‘genocide effect’ has been manipulated by the RPF government to criminalise the majority Hutu population, to produce guilt in the international community, and to frame a state-sponsored discourse of reconciliation, a government-sanctioned script, which is at odds with the day-to-day realities of those in Rwanda trying to live with the pressures and tensions of an uneasy co-existence.

On the other hand, it is also acknowledged by many observers and NGO officials that Rwanda has made significant progress in terms of health, education, housing, poverty and women’s rights, and is relatively peaceful and secure. These improvements, it is argued, may well be a prelude to the reconstruction of a unified political community, with the RPF acting as midwife in ‘the process of healing the traumas of both victims and perpetrators after violence’ (Galtung, quoted in Webley, n.d.: 14). However, critics argue that ethnicity is still an issue in Rwanda and that there is an official RPF narrative – ‘we are all Rwandans now’ – which many academics, journalists and NGO officials have bought into, while at the same time ignoring the elements of authoritarianism, the human rights abuses, the dissolution of oppositional parties, the imprisonment and banning of electoral candidates, alleged assassinations, and the suppression of dissent which have been charted extensively and, it is claimed, mark the behaviour of the ruling, Tutsi-dominated elite.

These conflicting accounts of the complexities of the reconciliation process should not, in any way, interrupt or interfere with the vital need to commemorate the genocide – with its culture of hate, indifference and impunity – but they do provide a context for a reflection upon the contradictions and tensions manifested in the attempts to find top-down solutions to problems which, as Susan Thomson has shown in her detailed ethnographic study of peasants in Southern Rwanda, have left many of the destitute and poor, without land or jobs, voiceless and resistant to the official version and locally implemented policies of the RPF regime’s national unity and reconciliation process which, in their view, has provided few benefits to poor peasants and done little to help them re-adjust to life since the genocide (Thomson, 2013).

Working in a framework of what she calls, ‘locally situated knowledge’, Thomson argues that the RPF national unity and reconciliation narrative simplifies and generalises about the genocide in ways that ‘police’ acceptable ways of speaking about it, leaving her peasant respondents only able to articulate their everyday resistance to the dominant models of reconciliation by whispering their truth to power. How representative her findings are remains very much a matter of debate, but at the very least they do indicate that, perhaps, reconstruction in Rwanda might require more sensitive deployment of local knowledge, local needs and local resources, together with an understanding of the experiences of everyday life, not just in the capital Kigali where so much attention is focussed, but in still predominantly rural Rwanda.

As Mamdani and others have stressed, the genocide was political and unity and reconciliation can only be brought about by the reconstitution of a political community, unified but multicultural, fully participating in the structures of power.

*Kwibuka” is the word for ‘remember’ in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda.

[Commemoration events are being held in Nottingham at St Mary’s Church from 11-12pm, in the Ballroom of the Council House from 3-4pm on Friday, 25 April, and at the New Art Exchange on Sunday, 25 May from 2-4pm]

F. Braudel, The Identity of France, New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
G. Baumann, Grammars of Identity/Alterity: A Structural Approach, New York: Berghahn Books, 2004
P. Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families New York: Picador, 1998.
J-P Chrétien,The Great Lakes of Africa, New York: Zone Books, 2003.
V.Jefremovas,’Contested Identities: Power and the Fictions of Ethnicity, Ethnography and History in Rwanda’,Anthropologica, 39 (1/2),pps. 91-104
E.Laclau, On Populist Reason, London; Verso, 2005
M. Mandani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda, Oxford: James Currey, 2001
F. Nahimana, Le Blanc est arrivé, le roi est parti, Kigali: Printer Set, 1987
C. Newbury, The Cohesion of Oppression: Citizenship and Ethnicity in Rwanda 1860-1960, New York: Columbia University, 1988
J. Pottier, Re-Imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the late Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
S. Thomson, Whispering Truth to Power: Everyday Resistance to Reconciliation in Postgenicide Rwanda, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2013
R. Webley, Report on Rwanda, University of California at Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center, n.d.
E. Zorbas, ‘Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda’, African Journal of Legal Studies, 1 (1):29-52, 2004

Roger Bromley

Roger Bromley is an academic and author who has published widely on a range of topics and, in recent years, has written mainly on postcolonial culture and diaspora, refugee and asylum issues, particularly in relation to cinematic representations, and on post-conflict cultures. He has worked in UK higher education for 44 years until his retirement in 2010. Currently, he is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, Visiting Professor in the Centre for Transnational Writing and Research at Lancaster University, and Associate Fellow in Politics at Rhodes University, South Africa.

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Amdani Juma
Apr 22, 2014 11:57

Thanks Prof Roger!
The process of reconciliation and healing from Genocide that took place 20 years ago and many other killings that took place in the last three decades will take more just RPF government efforts. It is an exercise that far many people especially academics, politicians and philanthropists who really want peace in our region to continue to shed light on what is important to Rwadans.
Ethnicity was tried before now and it has failed to deliver peace in the region. RPF and Kagame are trying development and implementation of Rwandan values like Gacaca for justice and participation and Gaciro for dignity and resilience.
It won’t be an easy task at hand. What more could be done to help. Technology with Internet communications has been sought to ease Rwandan access to all sources of information and transformation as a land lock country. Women’s participating in all facets of Rwandan life including political, governance academic sectors. Again I think much more need to happen to end legacy of wasting time in violence but Rwanda has done well so far it now needs an international community that truly believe in Rwandan future generations. Rwandan new political line targets younger people who represent over 70% and can work hard to succeed in life rather than concentrating on hutu vs Tutsi business of yesterday. They want to continue to teach a past of Génocide against Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 and ealier for lessons only . Rwandan Community can get on well with one another if people have security to a better life.

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