Ethnic bigotry in Rwanda was born of history, amplified by an elaborate system of myths built up around that history, and broadly accepted by Hutu and Tutsi alike. It has often been remarked that Hutus and Tutsis—the latter make up just under 15 percent of Rwanda’s population—meet none of the conditions normally associated with tribes. For centuries they have spoken the same language, lived on the same hillsides, and intermarried to such an extent that the physical characteristics stereotypically attributed to each—tall, thin, and lighter skinned for the Tutsi; short, stocky, and darker skinned for the Hutu—are often blurred. Specialists on the region commonly protest that the distinctions between the two groups are artificial. But sixty years of colonial rule followed by thirty-five years of Hutu domination (1959-1994) produced real distinctions: deep-seated stereotypes and even deeper reservoirs of envy, fear, and mistrust that were ripe for exploitation. The fact that leaders manipulated ethnic divisions for their own cynical ends does not change the fact that the divisions were there to be manipulated, in the hearts and minds of those below. Yes, Rwanda was a land of followers, but they were followers prepared to hate and fear.
Rwanda was a textbook example of the destructive legacies of “indirect rule.” Before colonialism, it was a highly organized feudal kingdom. Tutsi chiefs were overlords, but ethnic distinctions were fluid and social mobility commonplace. First the Germans and then the Belgians introduced a system of rule from a distance, whereby the Tutsi chiefs controlled the Hutu majority and extracted its labor on behalf of the colonial power. Across the continent, indirect rule in the colonial era was a means by which minority groups and traditional chiefs were invested with power and privilege, educated, trained, and subcontracted to do the dirty work on behalf of the white man. Resentments grew accordingly, nowhere more so than in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi.
In Rwanda, the malignant consequences of indirect rule were magnified by an explicit racial ideology known as the “Hamitic Hypothesis.” European racial theorists concocted the “scientific” notion that “white Africans” from the northeast had brought civilization to the rest of the primitive continent. The Tutsis of Rwanda were held up as just such a superior race: intellectually gifted, morally uplifted, born to rule. The Hutus, by contrast, were dumb beasts of burden, ill-suited to be anything more than soil-tilling subjects. Educational privileges for the Tutsis reinforced these stereotypes. A system of population registration—including ethnically based identity cards—cemented them.
Tutsis, not surprisingly, embraced these myths as justification for their privileged position. Generations of European and Rwandan Tutsi intellectuals elaborated on a pseudo-anthropology of Tutsi superiority and Hutu incompetence. Elitism e...
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