Rwanda: Tragic land of dual nationalisms Book Chapter

Clark, JF. (2006). Rwanda: Tragic land of dual nationalisms . 71-106.

cited authors

  • Clark, JF



  • Since the hour of its independence, Rwanda has proven to be a land of horror and fascination. The birth of the independent republic was accompanied by a terrible episode of communal violence, and the Rwandan people have known oppression, fear, and genocide during the postcolonial period. Indeed, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was an event of historical and global significance, representing as it does one of only three (true) genocides of the twentieth century.1 Some one-tenth of the entire population of Rwanda died in the killings that took place over about three months in 1994.2 Given the suffering and tragedy that Rwanda's people have endured-and inflicted upon one another-one feels a strong sense of necessity to understand what forces have given rise to such terrible outcomes. Yet the need for answers about Rwanda surpasses the mere academic: we want to understand the violence there not only as scholars but also as ordinary, moral human beings. Not surprisingly, the scholarly community, both Africanist and otherwise, has devoted considerable effort to the analysis of Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. Among many other scholarly efforts, a number of journals have given over entire issues to the question of Rwanda and the crises of the "Great Lakes," or of "Central Africa."3 Similarly, a notable number of books quickly appeared in print soon after the genocide, and many others have continued to appear in subsequent years.4 All these studies record a natural human revulsion toward the genocide in Rwanda, and many demonstrate a great sophistication about the ongoing dilemmas of reforming the Rwandan polity in such a way as to reduce the possibility of more tragedies in Rwanda's future. The lessons that one may derive from Rwanda's sad experience are not ones that apply only in Africa, either, as the historical nature of the 1994 genocide suggests. In fact, Rwanda is hardly a "typical" African country, and the "ethnic" violence that has recently unfolded there is most typical of ethnically generated bloodshed elsewhere on the African continent. Only Nigeria, during its civil war, perhaps, has seen ethnically related killing on the scale of Rwanda, but both the context and nature of the killing there were different and perhaps more usual. Unlike most African countries, Rwanda does not have a plethora of ethnic, or "tribal," peoples but rather only three identity communities and only two of major significance.5 Of these two, the Hutu represented some 84 percent of the population and the Tutsi some 15 percent in the late 1950s; by the early 1990s, following several waves of migration, the Tutsi represented about 12 percent of the population.6 Unlike most other African countries, Rwanda is quite densely populated and intensively cultivated. In contrast to many, it has very few resources of international interest. Finally, in Rwanda, those who identify with one of the two dominant identity communities have long lived in near-total interspersion with one another; that it is to say, there are no Hutu or Tutsi "homelands" in Rwanda.7 Most studies to date have also treated the Hutu-Tutsi dichotomy in Rwanda as an ethnic phenomenon, which it certainly is, in part. Most (contemporary) scholars have emphasized, however, the incredible fluidity of the fundamental Hutu and Tutsi identities, leaving one to marvel that so much blood could have been spilt on the basis of such apparently fragile social signifiers. Thus, the great paradox of Rwanda is that the bases for Hutu and Tutsi identity are most ephemeral, and yet the Hutu-Tutsi dichotomy is far and away the most important social cleavage in the society, forming the main axis along which political forces in the country divide. The innovation of this study is to test the limits of a new designation for Rwanda's two outstanding identities; namely, this chapter proposes that Rwanda is a land of two nationalisms, that of Rwandan Hutu nationalism and Rwandan Tutsi nationalism. It further proposes that the rival nationalisms first appeared during the political crisis that led to Rwanda's independence and that both were consolidated during the regime of the country's first president, Grégoire Kayibanda. To date, the nature of the Hutu and Tutsi identities has been characterized in a number of different and compelling ways, but never before as national identities.8 Most notably, the Hutu and Tutsi identities have frequently been designated as ethnic identities, caste identities, or, more problematically, class identities.9 While each of these designations captures some aspects of the identities, providing very useful clues about their origins and evolutions, none acknowledges the ultimate manifestation of the identities as national ones, in the sense adopted in this volume. The designation of these identities as "national" ones will be controversial, and only partly indicative of their overall character, but this need not trouble us.10 This redesignation in fact captures the most important dimension of the identities and helps us to understand the contemporary nature of Rwandan politics. Most significantly, the specification of (Rwandan) Hutu and Tutsi as national identities helps us to understand the violent manifestations of social conflict in the country. One should hasten to note that the two communities identified here are both Rwandan communities. This specification is important because there are indigenous groups of people identifying with the appellations Hutu and Tutsi both in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and there are also "ethnically related" peoples in southern Uganda.11 Despite the possible objective bases for group identity that the two Rwandan groups might have with these extraterritorial peoples, however, no ties of transterritorial nationalism have yet emerged, though much communal fealty has been in evidence.12 It is also important to clarify that nationalism is used here in the sense specified in the introduction to this volume. The Rwandan Hutu and Rwandan Tutsi are nations in that they are each "communit[ies] of people organized around the idea of self-determination."13 The irreducibly tragic reality of Rwandan politics is that the representatives of the Hutu and Tutsi identities have sought to control the Rwandan state to protect the fundamental interests of their respective communities. Nationalism is defined at the outset of this volume as "the pursuit-through argument or other activity-of a set of rights and privileges for the self-defined members of the nation, including, at minimum, territorial autonomy or independence." Although I might put it slightly differently, the practical implica tions are the same: The leaders of the two outstanding identity communities in Rwanda have sought control over a specified territory to protect the "rights and privileges for the self-defined members of the nation." Despite its explanatory appeal, the idea of dual nationalisms may strike one as odd on a number of counts. First, the demographic, social, and geographic contexts for Rwanda's dual nationalisms are utterly different from those typically imagined for other ethnic or civil communities claiming overlapping territorial spaces. In no other setting do the two national peoples live in such complete interspersion with one another, and in no other setting have two national peoples lived in such long economic symbiosis.14 In Rwanda, neither of the two identity communities has typically envisioned a total expulsion or removal of the other community; only in the extraordinary circumstances of the 1994 genocide did certain prominent Hutu figures in the ruling class undertake a project of eliminating or removing the opposing identity group. For the Tutsi identity community to physically remove the Hutu is virtually unimaginable, but for its leaders to rule the Rwandan state in pursuit of Tutsi interests is certainly not, as the policies of the present government attest. Despite the parallels with Palestine/ Israel, and perhaps other multinational territories, the tight symbiosis of the identity communities over a period spanning centuries sets Rwanda apart. Second, the notion of dual nationalisms in Rwanda is odd because there are such excellent objective bases for pan-Rwandan or, better, Banyarwandan nationalism. Rwanda has a "national" language, Kinyarwanda, common to both the Hutu and Tutsi communities, a language only used by the Banyarwanda in neighboring territories. © 2006 Published by University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved.

publication date

  • December 1, 2006

International Standard Book Number (ISBN) 13

start page

  • 71

end page

  • 106