Behind the recent tragedy in Rwanda uri icon


  • Until the mid-1980's, Rwanda was considered a rare example of an African country successfully adapting to difficult circumstances. Food production had risen at the same rate as population growth. The government had developed an effective nation-wide system of services reflected in rising literacy rates, a high vaccination rate of children and perhaps the densest paved road network on the continent. The government was stable and considered not tainted by corruption. After the mid-1980's the portrayal changed. It was then seen to be a victim of extreme over-population suffering from declining per capita food production and soil degradation. Since the events following the death of President Habyarimana on April 6, Rwanda has been portrayed as the victim of suddenly-released brutal ethnic hatreds. The situation of Rwandans is indeed critical, with an estimated one million people having been killed, nearly 1.7 million currently living as refugees outside the country, and 1.5 million displaced within the country out of an initial population of 7.4 million (UNREO, quoted in Bedford 1994). But which of these portrayals is accurate and helps to explain the recent events? Was the violence entirely unexpected, was it a foreseeable consequence of population pressure or of ancient hatreds, or was it a reflection of the refusal of vested interests to relinquish their access to power? The situation is quickly evolving with the new government struggling for legitimacy, few refugees returning to their homes, and the threat of renewed conflict between the old and new regimes. It is difficult to stand back at this point and take a broad view of the events in Rwanda. We are still reacting emotionally to the recent turbulence and the violence, and not all the facts are yet known. Nonetheless this piece will attempt a brief summary of the long history and complex causes behind the recent eruption of violence at the certain risk of getting some facts wrong, of presenting interpretations that will need to be revised in the future, and of appearing to favor one faction of the conflict over another

publication date

  • 1995