Ibimenyetso byose byabanjirije Revolisiyo ya 59 ni nabyo bigaragara ubu ngubu mu Rwanda! (Sylvestre Nsengiyumva)

6 novembre 2018

Leadership, Multimedia, Rwanda

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On the other hand, this revolution did not have to be violent. Three developments testified to this possibility. The first was that state independence was not just a Hutu demand; it was also made by Tutsi elites. The distinction between the two was not that one called for state independence and the other opposed it, but the perspective each had on the society that would follow colonialism. The second was that, in spite of the divide between Hutu/Tutsi political elites, one could identify political tendencies cutting across the same elites. The third was that most of the violence in 1959–63 occurred not at the time of the revolution of 1959 but in response to subsequent attempts at restoration. (

The root causes of the 1959 Revolution need to be explored in the changes wrought by colonialism, and not in the precolonial legacy. We have seen that when Mwami Rwabugiri centralized the state toward the close of the nineteenth century, he also made it the custodian of Tutsi privilege. Belgian rule had contradictory consequence for the Tutsi: on the one hand, it branded the Tutsi as not indigenous; on the other hand, it consolidated Tutsi privilege by a double move that affected all strata among the Tutsi. Up above, it made chiefship a Tutsi prerogative with the fused authority of the chief accountable to none but the colonial power; down below, it exempted the petits Tutsi from coerced labor. It is precisely because colonialism underwrote Tutsi privilege in law that the Tutsi, beginning with the elite, embraced the racialization of their own identity as nonindigenous. The claim that the Tutsi were nonindigenous Hamites was considered necessary for their privileged treatment in law. Not surprisingly, mainstream Tutsi nationalism presented the colonial construction of custom and customary power—specifically, Tutsi privilege—as authentic “tradition” and demanded that independence be a return to tradition. This was the standard independence rhetoric of nationalism in colonial Rwanda. Unlike in other African colonies, however, standard independence rhetoric, directed only or even mainly at the colonial power, was a marginal phenomenon in colonial Rwanda.

The colonial impetus on Rwanda was contradictory: it tended to stiffen the state while dynamizing society. As an energized society tended to generate new forces, a hardened state structure proved unresponsive to them. These contradictory tendencies led to an escalating and dramatic confrontation between state and society. On the one hand, the state was organized and nurtured as so many localized despotisms. Each of these saw itself as a Tutsi power, lording it over subservient Hutu subjects who were in turn sealed from the world of Tutsi privilege by the requirement to carry an identity card and by the legal impossibility—no matter what their life circumstances—of a ritual rise to Tutsi status. On the other hand, the same colonial power introduced a money economy and school-based education, processes that generated new influences and new opportunities, and in time gave rise to a Hutu elite. Locked into a subordinate status by a legally enforced identity, this socially frustrated group developed—for the first time in the history of Rwanda—into a political counterelite. In the changed context of a post-Second World War Rwanda, the Hutu counterelite was poised to tap the grievances of the Hutu peasantry against local despots who claimed their power was not a colonial imposition but a right by custom. (….)


René Lemarchand has argued that the set of events known as the 1959 Revolution was in reality a confluence of two distinct social processes, one in the north, the other in the center of the country.6While “the revolution in central Rwanda was a social revolution in the sense that it developed its dialectic from the social inequities of the caste system,” he argues that a more “retrogressive” attitude shaped the revolutionary outlook in the north. The difference was this: “In seeking to evict the Tutsi oligarchy from its position of power the northern Hutu did not aim so much at the creation of a new social order as to revert to the social existence prior to the intrusion of Tutsi conquerors.”7 Lemarchand thus distinguished the key impulse behind the revolution in the north as ethnic, from that in the center as democratic.

“Northern Hutu” refers to the Bakiga, who lived in the former territories of Ruhengeri, Gisenyi, and Byumba. In the already-quoted words of P.T.W. Baxter, their “proud boast,” was “that they were never, as a people, subjugated by either Tutsi or Hima.”8 And yet, we need to keep in mind that the fiercely independent spirit of the Bakiga did not always automatically translate into an anti-Tutsi orientation. This orientation was the result of a historical development under specific circumstances.

The context that shaped the “northern Hutu” perspective was marked by at least three features. First, there was the historical difference between the incorporation of the north and that of the south and the center in the Rwandan state. Unlike the Hutu of central Rwanda who had been a part of the central court for centuries, and the southern Hutu who were subordinated to central rule before colonialism, even if only in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Bakiga of the north were subjugated to Rwandan state authority only with the onset of Western colonization. Second, while it is true that the Bakiga experience of colonial domination was coterminous with their experience of Tutsi domination, it is not true that their opposition to colonial and Tutsi domination automatically translated into an anti-Tutsi hostility. To confirm this, one needs to look at the actual historical revolt of the Bakiga against colonial and Tutsi domination at the onset of colonial rule, one that goes by the name Nyabingi. We have seen that this revolt was in reality a coalition of two forces: the section of the Tutsi aristocracy excluded from power at the death of Rwabugiri, and the Bakiga newly subjugated to this hardening Tutsi power. The revolt of the Bakiga was led by members of the Tutsi aristocracy who were bitterly opposed to the usurpation of power by the Abeega clan at the death of Rwabugiri, the most prominent of these being Muhumusa and Ndungutse. Key to its agenda was opposition to forced labor tribute (ubareetwa) freshly imposed on the newly colonized Bakiga. Third, this protracted rebellion against colonial authority and its Tutsi quislings made for a more arbitrary chiefly authority in the north than was imposed anywhere else in colonial Rwanda.


After commiserating aloud on the injustices of buhake, one of the Hutu characters in Naigiziki’s play,L’optimiste, asks his companion, “How long shall we have to wait until our injustices are redressed?” The interlocutor replies, “Until the Hutu no longer has the soul of a serf. For that he must be reborn.” The midwife of that rebirth was a political movement of the Hutu counterelite.

Unsurprisingly, most of the leading personalities of the Hutu movement were former seminarians. They had studied for the priesthood, either at Kabgaye or at Nyakibanda. For the Hutu who managed to ascend the Church hierarchy, every climb up the ladder put them in a context dominated by Tutsi priests. The influence of the Western Church—much like that of the Western school system—was contradictory. As an institution, the Church had been the primary force advocating the “civilizing” role of the Tutsi as Hamites. Accordingly, there was preferential entry for Tutsi into the priesthood, at least until after the Second World War. But as an ideology, Christianity was a source of an egalitarian impulse for the Hutu, not just for the masses who entered the Church, but particularly for the few who did manage to enter the priesthood.(….)

The Church was also the location from which the Tutsi intelligentsia defended “racial” privilege. Though its depth went no further than the colonial period, they defended it as a “tradition.” Members of the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan clergy were among the first to express public anxiety over the spread of egalitarian ideas among the new Hutu elite. The loudest warning came from Abbé Alexis Kagame, then Rwanda’s foremost historian. Without mincing words, Kagame wrote as early as 1945: “Certain egalitarian tendencies are advocated in front of those elements who are sometimes referred to as ‘child-like grown-ups’, without proper intellectual formation, which are bound to run counter to the common sense principles of most if not all of them.” Warning that “the path of progress cannot stray away from our traditional heritage,” he went on to champion a type of progress that would not question traditional authority. “Regardless of the type of socio-political system adhered to, one must avoid humiliating traditional authorities, either by disregarding their claims to leadership or casting discredit upon them in front of their subject under the pretext that everybody is equal. The conclusion the masses are likely to draw from all this is that progress, freedom, in short everything, implies contempt for traditional authorities.”23(…)

When the Hutu graduates of seminaries and of the Groupe Scolaire d’Astrida (now Butare) entered the job market in the mid-’50s and found there were few places open for an educated Hutu, they turned to the Church for opportunities. Literally shut out of jobs in the civil service and the private sector, they looked at their new positions not just as ways of making a living but also as opportunities to articulate their major social grievance: the institutionalized exclusion of Hutu from a Belgian-supported Tutsi monopoly over all avenues of social advancement. With the support of a sympathetic clergy, they took over Church publications—the most important being the Kinyarwanda-language magazine Kinyamateka—and began to address whoever would listen sympathetically, mainly Hutu masses below and visiting United Nations Commissions above.


The first ever visit of a UN decolonization mission coincided with a dramatic reform that promised to abolish the hated ubuleetwa and replace it by a mandatory money payment. That was in 1949, yet respondents in Kinyaga told Catharine Newbury that they continued to perform ubuleetwaservices until the revolution. There was clearly a big difference between the promise of a reform and the fact of its implementation, between the wider propaganda effect of the announcement of a reform and the social impact of its implementation on the ground. The Hutu learned the same lesson when the mwami and the Conseil Supérieur (High Council) decided to issue another reform decree to coincide with the visit of the third UN decolonization mission in 1954.24 The decree provided for the progressive dissolution of ubuhaketies and the distribution of cows held under it to former clients. Once again, the impact of the decree fell short of its promise. In the absence of a corresponding reform redistributing grazing land monopolized by Tutsi patrons, it left Hutu owners of cattle dependent on former patrons for access to pasturage. Just as with the previous abolition of ubuleetwa, the reform of ubuhake did not undo the ties that bound former Hutu clients to Tutsi patrons in a relationship both unequal and coercive. Not surprisingly, peasant protest against the arbitrary use of power by chiefs became the stuff of popular press reports in the postreform period.25

It was the taste of reform, and not the absence of reform, that convinced the Hutu intelligentsia that nothing less than radical change was likely to bring an end to the social plight of the Hutu.


hat taste was developed through an overall encounter with social and political reform. Political reform began with local elections in 1953 and a general election in 1956. The 1953 elections were the result of the decree of 14 July 1952. The elections were wholly indirect: not only was the role of elected councils “advisory,” but the electoral choice was limited to “suitable candidates” nominated by chiefs and subchiefs. In a context where the administrative power of Tutsi chiefs was still intact, the result was not an election but an opportunity for subchiefs and chiefs to register their power. Two tendencies testified to this outcome. On the one hand, Tutsi tended to predominate in the councils, more so the higher one went up the administrative ladder. So that whereas 52 percent of council seats at the lowest administrative level were filled by Tutsi, the proportion reached a whopping 90.6 percent when it came to the Conseil Supérieur du Pays, the highest council of the land. On the other hand, when Hutu were nominated to councils, they were inevitably Hutu abagaragwa (clients) of Tutsi shebuja (patrons).26

The final opportunity for reform from above was squandered in 1956 when Mwami Rudahigwa joined the conservative Tutsi tendency to defeat a proposal to provide separate representation for Hutu on the Conseil Supérieur. To appreciate the significance of this proposal, one needs to recall two facts. One, the Conseil Supérieur was the highest advisory body of the state and was expected to become the legislature of an independent Rwanda. Two, in that crucial period from 1956 to 1959, this body included only three Hutu, comprising less than 6 percent of its membership.27

(….)The contradictory and limited nature of the reform was clear for all to see: it combined participation for Hutu at lower levels with guaranteed power for Tutsi at higher levels. From the abolition of ubuleetwa in 1949 to the general election of 1956, nearly a decade of experience with reform convinced the Hutu political elite that nothing short of political power would crack the Tutsi hold on social, economic, and cultural resources.

(…)The development of a Hutu consciousness was a protracted affair, stretching from the time of Rwabugiri through the entire span of the colonial period. As late as independence in 1962, the “Hutu” of the northwestern region insisted on being considered Bakiga—like their neighbors in southwestern Uganda—not Hutu. Hutu consciousness developed in phases: before the Second World War, it was a consciousness of subjecthood that transcended all locally anchored identities; in the 1950s it became the consciousness of a people reaching for power. This development required a confluence of two movements: a genuinely popular movement of (Hutu) peasants against the local despotism of (Tutsi) chiefs; and, for the first time in the history of Rwanda, the emergence of a Hutu counterelite. Propelled center stage by a series of electoral contests, this counterelite put forth a program for the Hutu to seize power to overcome their identity as a subject people. Branded with a subject identity—“Hutu”—the counterelite emerging from the ranks of the socially oppressed held it up as a badge of pride: Hutu Power! In turning a chain into a weapon, Spartacus-style, it was neither the first nor would it be the last. One only needs to think of a related example: Black Power.

(…)How are we to understand the role of the “external” forces that intervened on the side of the revolution?52 Few would deny the internal significance of three “external” agents: the UN missions, the European clergy, and the colonial government. The triennial UN missions acted as catalysts, each time inviting a regular outpouring of grievances from different quarters. The European clergy came to function more or less as a backup force for the Hutu counterelite, providing it with everything from ghostwriters for manifestos and UN petitions to external contacts. On its part, the colonial government literally surrendered control over local government to the insurgents. Both the opportunity provided by the triennial UN missions and the support rendered by the European clergy and the colonial government were real and, at times, even critical. Without that support, there may have been no revolution, only a peasant revolt, joined to middle-class discontent. Yet, none of this made the 1959 Revolution any less real.53 We shall later see the same explanation surface in hostile accounts of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) capturing power in 1994: as with Belgium and Guy Logiest in 1959, the role of Uganda and Museveni would be highlighted to explain away both the RPF invasion of October 1990 and its capture of power in 1994 as the outcome of an external conspiracy. While the role of external forces was real in both cases, in neither case can it substitute for an understanding of the internal dynamics of social processes.

The year 1962 saw a change in government in Belgium. The new government agreed to cooperate with the UN demand for a fresh general election and a referendum on the monarchy in Rwanda—given UNAR’s rejection of the Gitarama coup. When the UN-initiated general election followed, UNAR decided to participate. By now, conditions had changed dramatically: the machinery that organized and oversaw the election was no longer Tutsi. As one would expect, Tutsi power was routed once again: PARMEHUTU won 77.7 percent of the votes against 16.8 percent for UNAR.54 A referendum held simultaneouslyMany have claimed that the seeds of the genocidal violence that enveloped Rwanda in 1994 lie in the revolution of 1959.68 But the revolution was not a bloodbath. The highest contemporary estimate from a credible source of Tutsi deaths during the revolution is around two hundred. The fact is that it was not the revolution, but attempted restoration and the repression that followed, that opened the gateway to a blood-soaked political future for Rwanda. led to an equally massive rejection of the monarchy in favor of a republican system of government.(…)


Many have claimed that the seeds of the genocidal violence that enveloped Rwanda in 1994 lie in the revolution of 1959.68 But the revolution was not a bloodbath. The highest contemporary estimate from a credible source of Tutsi deaths during the revolution is around two hundred. The fact is that it was not the revolution, but attempted restoration and the repression that followed, that opened the gateway to a blood-soaked political future for Rwanda.


Politically, the invasion gave the upper hand to the Hutu power tendency. And its proponents acted swiftly. Once the invasion was checked militarily, they arrested some twenty leading Tutsi personalities in the country and executed them a week later in the town of Ruhengeri in the northern part of the country. The victims included one of the two UNAR members of government (Etienne Africa), and its president (Rudisitwarane) and secretary-general (Rwagasana) inside the country. It also included the president (Bwanakweri) and vice president (Ndazaro) of RADER. As opponents of Tutsi power who had chosen to return home to work in postrevolutionary Rwanda, they were killed because they were Tutsi determined to participate in post-1959 politics as Rwandans. The repression meant an end to organized Tutsi politics in Rwanda until the political reforms under the Second Republic. But the real impact of the repression touched both Hutu and Tutsi. By killing leading Tutsi champions of the cause of accommodation and reform, those who had fought restorationists among the Tutsi in a tooth-and-nail struggle, the repression strengthened, at a stroke, the proponents of Hutu power within the country and those of Tutsi power in exile. The former heralded a native postrevolutionary republic in which the Tutsi would be tolerated only so long as they remained outside of the political sphere, whereas the latter held on to the notion that the Tutsi were a civilizing influence with a right to rule precisely because they were different. In reality, these postcolonial twins, Bantu and Hamite, were ideological offspring of Rwanda’s poisoned colonial past.

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