History & Politics

Rwanda’s early settlers

Evidence of stone-age settlements (cAD200300) has been found at Nyirankuba in the south.

'Pygmy' groups

Pygmy peoples in Rwanda are more correctly called the Batwa (or Twa), Bahutu and Batutsi.

Pygmoid hunter-gatherers, the ancestors of the ‘Twa’, are believed to have arrived in the region around 700BC. These small people became known for their skill as potters.

Bantu-speaking farmers came from Central Africa. Known as the 'Hutus', they brought iron-age tools and farming techniques. Clearing land for agriculture, they pushed the Twa deeper into forest areas. A tall cattle-raising people migrated to region from 900BC onwards and these became known as the 'Tutsis', which means ‘owners of cattle’.

The Kingdom of Rwanda

An administrative pyramid

Below the king, the country was divided into a pyramid of administrative areas, from provinces and districts, down to neighbourhoods and hills.

Oral history suggests the kingdom of Rwanda formed in the late 10th or 11th century, founded by a Tutsi King called Ghihanga.

The king or mwami was the supreme authority and his well-being was linked to the health of the nation.

The three groups of people within the kingdom formed a society known as ubuhake. This system had superiors/masters who provided protection in exchange for services from inferiors/servants. However, the relationship was entered into voluntarily; peasants could switch loyalty from one chief to another.

Status

Twa people rarely achieved the status of ‘Tutsi’ or 'cattle-owner' unless the king rewarded them for some special act.

Chiefs or masters were usually cattle-owning Tutsis. But the groups intermixed. A Hutu who acquired enough cattle could become a Tutsi and take a Tutsi wife. A Tutsi who lost his herds might become a Hutu.

The centre of the world

Given without consent

Rwandans didn’t know their land had been given to Germany at the Berlin Conference of 1885, until the arrival of ‘Governor’ Adolf Von Götzen a decade later.

Unlike most African states, Rwanda (and its neighbour Burundi) existed as an established kingdom long before Africa was colonised and its borders were not created artificially by the Europeans. Tucked away in the heart of the continent, Rwandans believed their kingdom was the centre of the world and for many centuries, foreigners were not allowed.

Finding a highly organised country, with a monarchy and ruling system, the Germans left the existing power structure in place when awarded the country. But in 1911–12, they joined with the Tutsi monarchy to subjugate a group of independent Hutu farmers in the north who’d always lived separately.

Ethnic division and genocide

In 1916, Belgium invaded and took over Rwanda officially after the end of World War I. Some rivalry existed between the country’s different groups, but this was heightened by the Belgian authorities.

In 1935, all Rwandans were issued with an identity card which marked them as one ethnic group or another.

At the Genocide memorial centre
At the Genocide memorial centre

The minority ‘Tutsis’ were favoured and resentments grew. Hutu political parties formed to demand rights for the majority. The ubuhake system and monarchy were ended by the Hutu-led movement and a republic was formed in 1961. Rwanda became independent in 1962.

The first major eruption of ethnic violence had occurred in 1959. But in 1994, and on an entirely new scale, an orchestrated campaign of killing saw a million people killed in just three months – one-eighth of Rwanda’s population. See 'Genocide' feature to learn more about this.

A trading community

In 2006, Rwanda was admitted into the ‘East African Community Customs Union’ to promote trade with Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. (Burundi also became a member.)

Modern-day Rwanda

In June 2003, Rwanda adopted a new constitution at the end of a transition period after the genocide. Presidential elections were held in August 2003, when Paul Kagame was elected into office.

Paul Kagame won presidential elections again in 2010.

According to the constitution of Rwanda, at least a third of the parliament must be women.