No nation is ever conquered until it is defeated from within – Mayan Proverb (Apocalyto)
Father History looks down on mere mortals and laughs, for he has seen this story before. Rwanda is a nation without a history, but for legitimate reasons. It is like a person who was watching a horror movie and pauses it, too shocked by the scenes, except history cannot be paused, the tides of time bow to no man. Now our history is framed in terms of the biggest tragedy – The Genocide Against The Tutsi of 1994, that name in itself is another three hours discussion. We look into our history with that prism of genocide, we look to seek answers for the beginnings of hatred, we judge 2,000 years of Rwandan history on what happened in 100 days. 730,000 days judged on what happened over 100 days. The events of 1994 are so out of proportion that they should be seen as separate, as out of historical context, because it distorts our vision of it. If we look at our history we see a 99-year cycle where things fall apart every 99 years, from 1697, 1796, 1895, and 1994. It is not a coincidence; it also informs our current political debate concerning the 3rd term, because every time, it is a struggle between central powers and elites.
Bad History – the scenes of 1994 were not spontaneous but highly organised, they tapped into an underlying animosity, one caused by bad history – amateka mabi. Kayibanda took over from the Umwami and said that that history had nothing to do with him, it was the history of Tutsis, he was a Hutu so it was not applicable. They not only erased history but demonised the Kings, ironically, if Kayibanda had followed history, he would have seen that Habyarimana was going to kill him. For this is a history of Rwanda, a history of power and administration, not of a tribe. We have long accepted that the ruler has the power to change history, to control the narrative and make it fit their current aims, it is their prerogative in an oral society. However, to distort history, even with the best of intentions has repercussions. Reconciliation cannot come at the cost of history. But what is our history? We know the history of our kings, what about the history of us. Before we say Hutu and Tutsi are reconciled, we need to understand what those terms mean. These words or concepts exist in five countries; Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. Rwanda cannot funny define it without a regional discussion of what they mean.
In around 1600, Ndori came to the central Rwanda crescent of the Nyabarongo and found the smaller kingdoms ravaged by strife. His army managed to establish order, and he tipped the scale locally, he was most likely a cattle-rustler from the north with a herd in the thousands. In those days, cattle-rustling was a legitimate enterprise in wealth-creation, provided it was done outside Rwanda. During this time, most herds in Rwanda were 20-30 at most, so a man with 10,000 cows was the Warren Buffet of his day. His cattle were a new breed called Inyambu, they were so coveted that some herders slaughtered their cattle in shame upon seeing these wonders. He devised a method to keep his mega-herd, which was too big to be maintained through grazing, and cement political power with a system called Ubuhake. It alluded to a cow having a calf in the belly, he would protect them like a calf in uteri, and in return he would have their total loyalty at all costs. In return the clients would get cows, access to power, higher status, and brides. This system was entirely optional, though it has come to mean slavery in our modern parlance but it was between herders, not a way of enslaving farmers. Thus a complex web of social patronage was born, cattle were the version of mobile money, land was static capital, and cattle were liquid capital.
Ndori set up the pillars of state that we can still recognise today.
Firstly, he set up state religion and ideology as the Ryangombe cult, but allowed the continuation of ancestor worship. Ryangombe is otherwise known as “Imana y’uRwanda” but he actually came from Bunyoro, so we have a long tradition of importing religions.
The second pillar was client agreements called ubuhake backed by cattle exchanged for loyalty.
The third pillar was a permanent regular army or armies, loyal families were obliged to send young men to fight in these armies. There was never a central command because the armies were in separate areas and there were poor communications, besides, no king wanted the armies to unite against him.
Forth pillar was the corporations; farmers, workers, smiths, tanners, potters, like Private sector federation.
So people came to see the need to have a king, and a system that integrated all the important elements and modes of production, before many western civilizations had mastered this. Then Ndori dies an old man, but his system battles to stay intact and expands from Central Rwanda, its armies become formidable fighting machines that rapaciously raid cattle from neighbouring countries.
A warrior-god dies in 1796, Ndabarasa “I will shoot you” dies and the country plunges into civil war. In the years since Ndori we see more and more militant Kings, Mazimpaka, Rujugira, Ndabarasa. Translated “I end all discussion” and “The almighty” and “I will shoot you” Kings who wanted to assert their authority in this heroic age. Mazimpaka had 100 sons, and soon these 100 sons had 100 sons, you get the picture, it got crowded. The civil war of 1796-1801 saw the aristocracy become the deciding power in Rwanda. A new cyclical system for divining and succeeding kings was devised; Cyirima, Kigeli, Mibambwe, Yuhi. This was meant to stabilise the chaotic process of succession, which often led to civil war but it had the effect of distorting history, a new royal lineage was devised, certain kings were removed, or fake ones inserted, all to fit the aristocracy’s wishes. This was the effective end of Kings as rulers of Rwanda, from now they were just figureheads, in the 19th century 4 out of 5 kings ascended as children.
The king was no longer a mystical person destined to rule by God, he was just a phase in a cycle, a cog in the wheel. This is what Rwandans have to remember in this 3rd term debate – to create a succession cycle is to render the executive useless, the occupant is just serving for a time, beholden to the interests that put him there. To create a succession system in Rwanda is to bow to the elites and cement special interests forever. The crowning of the baby Gahindiro in 1801 saw the rise of the aristocracy but it also sealed its doom. The king became a judge in disputes, always being told Runaka is conspiring, or said he was stupid. The King would often execute the victim of the rumour and give his herds to the one who accused him. (Sound familiar to people today?) Vendetta upon vendetta weakened the aristocrats, each rumour led to death and was avenged and they ate each other to death. This led to the dissolving of Ubuhake agreements as many of the masters were being killed. They had to create 3 posts of chief for every district, then there was a clash of farmers and herders for the use of land. It is around 1801 that the words Tutsi and Hutu appear in common speech but they have different meanings, they refer to patron and client in a ubuhake contract, not herders and farmers.
The 1801 agreement also saw the rise of the queen-mothers to the fore of Rwandan politics. Nyiratunga installed her baby son Gahindiro, who ruled for 46 years but was a puppet, first to his mother, then to Rugaju, his best friend. Nyiramongi, then installed her son Rwogera, also a boy, she ruled for 30 years unchallenged, she was even the equal to her brother, the Greatest chief – Rwakagara. Mukorerenkwe installed her son Rwabugiri, it took a court conspiracy to remove her by spreading rumours she was pregnant. Finally, Kanjogera installed her son Musinga as king and ruled in his name till her death. These women were nothing short of gangster, to paint them only as wise doting mothers is wrong because they were capable of the utmost scheming, and did what was necessary to get their sons into power. The sons needed the political connections of the mother, generals were loyal to their mothers, so the relationship was Freudian – hating your mother for controlling you, and yet you need her to stay alive. These women often had to eliminate rivals to their sons, often by infanticide, Nyiratunga was considered kind for “only blinding two rival princes so they could never be kings.” For all the vile stories of Kanjogera, we must remember these women were subsequently hated because they were powerful women, and they ruled quite wisely compared to their male rivals. They would need a whole chapter to acknowledge them, they made Rwanda a Matriarchy.
The power of women at court rose as the men destroyed each other with Envy and Vendetta, so by 1885, most of the aristocracy is wiped out. New aristocrats and chiefs appointed by the paranoid and vengeful Rwabugiri didn’t have the same client agreements with herders as before, many herders left to become farmers, as no one could protect you. The death or removal of a chief meant ruin for thousands of people, a chief had 100 clients, who had 100 clients each, and so on. Even in the mafia, there are rules about killing “made” men because there is a whole chain that relies on them. This is when a new pernicious form of exploitation emerged called “Uburetwa.” This, unlike Ubuhake, was not optional and applied to ordinary farmers, who were obliged to work 2 days a week or more for local chiefs. There was a system of communal work called Umuganda before, but this corvee labour was cruel and often at the tip of a spear. These new chiefs tried to assert themselves with harsher measures, giving the famers less time to farm their own fields. Herders were exempt as they had their own agreements, but in 1894, Rwanda was struck by three cattle plagues that wiped out massive herds. The death of these cattle meant the end of these client relationships.
So after 99 years after Ndabarasa dies in 1796, Rwabugiri dies in 1895, shortly after meeting Von Goetzen. He had long traded Ivory and gold from his Congo expeditions with Arabs and Europeans, nevertheless, he never allowed foreigners into Rwanda and he had an arsenal of guns. The cattle plagues of rinderpest, foot and mouth, and add smallpox, were seen as a bad omen and rightly so. When Rwabugiri died, he was half-mad, weakened by illness, paranoid of encroaching colonialists, and tormented by the souls of his dead mother and father (who he had killed). The country is plunged into civil war, Kanjogera, with German help, installs her young son Musinga, after defeating Rutarindwa at Rucunshu, our colonial age begins. She negotiated a good deal for herself and Rwanda at the time, Germans stayed out of her business and they got to claim a colony. The arrival of the Belgians sees them trying to make up for lost time, they copy the Congo model of mass forced labour, and paste it to Rwanda. But who was entitled to do forced labour? Society needed to be classified, Herders were exempt from forced labour as they already had client relations with the king and chiefs, the rest would be liable. Almost 40 % of households owned cows for milk, even more purchased a cow to escape labour, so the limit was set at 15% of the population, or those with 4 cows or more.
They used the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” for the 1934 census, which was just a cobbling up of fake figures. If the colonial clerk had used “Abapagasi” instead of Hutu, and “Abashumba” then history would be different, so the word for a day labourer became an ethnicity. Note that similar cultures exist all the way down the western Rift Valley and Great Lakes, of farmers and herders sharing a language but having general physical differences. Only in Rwanda and Burundi was it codified, only in these countries did they use those words. Until then Rwandans were regional in terms of identity; Mugesera, Munyanduga, Mushi, Mukiga, Mugogwe, Munyabugoyi, all of which had subtly unique cultures and dialects. Thus there was an agglomeration of people into a single group. The reason for classification was mass-labour, to man plantations and massive projects, those with client deals were exempt but the mass were not. Thus chiefs were used to work the population, those who failed to meet targets were whipped by the Belgians. This new prescribed mass identity soon incubated in the seminaries of the Catholic Church, where young scholars read dangerous ideas and re-appropriated them to this new ethnic dynamic, so a class war became a race war.
99 years after the death of Rwabugiri, in 1895, comes the worst cataclysm of all, in 1994, 1 million people die in the fastest genocide in history. There is no link between the two, a mere coincidence, but a tragic one, for in 1895, one million Rwandans died too, of famine and war. Rwabugiri decimated the elite, but in so doing, he broke the fabric of society and the bonds of the economy without an adequate replacement. In 1959, the newly-formed Hutu Nationalists, backed by Belgium, were happy to see the educated elite flee en masse, without an adequate replacement, and thus breaking the economy. These refugees prospered in other countries thanks to the preferential treatment they had before, they returned to prosper again. So we ask “Is Rwanda truly reconciled with its past?” How can it be if it never confronts its past? “Are Hutu and Tutsi reconciled after centuries of enmity?” No, there wasn’t an enmity for centuries because those words and identities haven’t existed that long in their current meaning. What is reconciliation? Is it forgiveness? Is it a mutual understanding after a wronging? Is it a shrug? We have to define what reconciliation is and deal with our past.
I remember once sitting in a circle discussing history, ancient Egypt, the Greeks, the Romans, and then we came to Rwanda and one guy just walked off. I asked why, they said “His father killed his mum in genocide.” That is our history, genocide, it will all leads to that. Our history is much bigger than one event, much bigger than two words; I was going to tell my friend that Rwanda was such a great nation, we would aspire to be that nation today. We had metal works, every single hoe, fork, spear, arrowhead, sword, plough, was made in Rwanda. Today we import all our farm tools from China, we have no complete metal industry except for Batwa pygmies – they dig for ore and smelt themselves. We had names for the stars, individual stars had names, they were used for navigation and astrology, divining the future. Today no university in Rwanda has a department studying outer space, yet 300 years ago, we did. Women knew of plants you could take that work as contraceptives and controlled their bodies, today most don’t use it. If we could go back 300 years but do it on a bigger scale, and with social justice, it would be Vision2020.
History is not taught in our schools, yet we hear reports of genocide ideology resurfacing in schools. Most would even still hold the view that it is the history of the oppressor, of the wealthy, of noblemen. It helps shed light on our current situation, because most Rwandans until recently have been living in conditions similar to those under Rwabugiri, and some still are. No water, no lights, no medicine, no education, no hygiene, superstitious, paranoid, he might wear ragged western clothes but he’d fit in the 19th century. You have to understand history to understand that barefoot man with clothes hanging off his body like old skins. Yet the Parmehutu history has never been challenged, we just paused history, so the pretext for genocide is still there. The myth of the King sticking pikes in the stomach of innocent Hutus to stand up in the morning, has never been challenged as a lie. Then we have the terms themselves, we have three choices; to say those terms don’t exist, to say they do exist but they don’t matter, and to say they exist and they matter. We need to allow for regional identities again, Rwanda has been fragmented into 30 districts to reduce those identities but they are needed to avoid agglomeration of all into one group.
So some Rwandans are calling for reform, we cannot reform until we change our constitution, we cannot change anything in the constitution because our constitution is based on fears of the past happening again. So we go back to history, we have effectively criminalised history with our anti-genocide laws. Many anti-government politicians are being held on genocide ideology charges merely because they misinterpreted history, and yet a legitimate version of history is not there, it is not taught, but if you make a false step then, jail. How can we be reconciled in this way? With terror and fear? With the threat of jail? Without confronting our history? Any claims of reconciliation are false and for a number of reasons. It assumes juxtaposition, that all members of these groups had a problem with the other group. It also paints one side as victim and the other as killer. Let those who were wronged be reconciled with the ones who wronged them, not groups. Lets us allow regional identities that are inclusive and exclusive, that is identity, to be part of a wider collective but have diversity. Being Rwandans is not enough, we need diversity, we will never be a homogenous country because we never were, we got along before and are getting on now.
So the 1994 debacle had the effect of wiping out or exiling most of the elite, what we have seen since then is the reconstitution of this elite, to the point that some feel that they should protect their status at all costs. Some see the current president as the only way to protect their interests, it is not love of the man, Elites are not altruistic. So on to the future, forget history, eh? History shows us the dynamics and forces at play. Individuals change but the dynamics stay the same, Centralisation vs. Decentralisation, Agglomeration vs. Fragmentation, Expansion vs. Consolidation of the elite, the Executive versus the Elite/Aristocracy. The inyambu cows given to favourites is now a Landcruiser Prado, the ritualists are now the cadres, the aristocracy is now the elite, the army is still a pillar of state which has benefits, the corporations are still run according to client-Patron relations. We do not have open corruption in Rwanda because we have patronage, that is sophisticated state corruption, where favourites and connected people get all the spoils in return for silence/loyalty. Nothing has changed in our history, we are far from being a meritocracy because of this patronage system, the two cannot live side by side, merit and nepotism cannot co-exist.
So I will have to stop here because I could go on and on, and I might even have broken a few laws in this article. This is not something you should just read and draw a conclusion, it is meant to garner reflection, on our past and how it relates to the present. Whether we can hold this tide of history back forever? Or how we can come up with identities that allow us to view our past in a non-confrontational way? We can genuinely deal with our past. We haven’t even begun to process 1959 and its consequences, we cannot deal with 94’ because the consequences haven’t been fully played out. We cannot criminalise history or identities, imagine if talking about Henry VIII could get you in prison? So many custodians of our history are old men now, barely able to stand and talk at a Gusaba, and history will die with them. Unless we do something about it, this is a challenge to Rwandans to discover their history, your personal family history, and from that we will get the bigger picture of Rwanda.
I have been reading a lot of books on Rwandan history, especially “Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom” by Jan Vansina.
He says “It is up to Rwandans to elaborate as impartial a history as possible on the basis of data that are uncontested and acceptable to all, a history that could serve as a common foundation for everyone in thinking about the future.”