Contested Identities: Power and the Fictions of Ethnicity, Ethnography and History in Rwanda

By Jefremovas, Villia | Anthropologica, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Contested Identities: Power and the Fictions of Ethnicity, Ethnography and History in Rwanda


Jefremovas, Villia, Anthropologica


Abstract: This article examines the process through which different interpretations of ethnicity and statehood in Rwanda have been used to create and justify policies of exclusion, inclusion and claims to legitimacy, from the colonial period to the present day. Arguing that the roots of such politics can be found in the politics of the precolonial state, it considers how they have been transformed, not created, by colonial and postcolonial governments. Viewing the representation of ethnicity and statehood over time as fictions of ethnicity, ethnography and history, this article illustrates the process of creation and recreation of these fictions and their impact on Rwandan lives.

In the fall of 1994, during a private conversation, an officer of a large donor organization expressed her amazement to me that two different ministers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front government which had just been installed in Kigali placed the rewriting of history books as a first priority of the government. Given the general devastation found in the country, this seemed an incomprehensible priority to her. She asked me why this aspect of Rwandan culture was so overwhelmingly important to the current government. Any observer of Rwanda quickly becomes aware of the powerful hold that the interpretation of history and the nature of ethnicity has on any discussion of Rwanda. The origin and meaning of ethnicity in Rwanda, and the nature of the precolonial state have been topics of debate since the first German set foot in the region. For Western observers, these debates have been largely academic, but for the people living in the region these controversies have had serious consequences. Different interpretations of ethnicity and statehood have been used to create and justify policies of exclusion, inclusion and claims to legitimacy, from the colonial period to the present day.

Most recently the whole issue of ethnicity and the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial state in Rwanda has been reopened by the events of 1959-94. In different ways the Rwandans who fled Rwanda in 1959, the Rwandans who remained in Rwanda after 1959, the three successive governments since 1959, the extremists, the opposition and the propagandists of the various political parties in the region, and politicians in the neighbouring countries have interpreted and reinterpreted the "history" of the precolonial and colonial state to justify various policies and actions.

Viewed through the lens of serious research this whole debate can be seen as a series of fictions: fictions of ethnicity, ethnography and history in Rwanda. Rwanda is a particularly fascinating case, because the manipulation of these fictions has been so transparent, and because it has affected the lives of all the people living in the Great Lakes region of the country. This article will illustrate these characterizations of ethnicity, history and the state in Rwanda and will present an alternative perspective on them, showing how various concepts of ethnicity and "history" have been manipulated by successive governments. It will then consider the genocide in the light of this review.

Fictions of History

Many discussions of Rwandan precolonial history, and of the construction of the precolonial state continue to be highly reductionist (for recent examples see African Rights, 1994; Braeckman, 1994; Destexhe, 1994; Mamdani, 1996). This is due, in part, to the complexity of the subject and the need to make it easily comprehensible, but it is also the result of manipulation for political ends by various groups. Beginning in the precolonial period, intensifying and transmuting under the Belgian colonial period, undergoing further transformation under the first and second Republic and altering again under the current government, the rewriting of history has been a major academic and political project in Rwanda. Central to this project has been the characterization of the nature of precolonial rule, and the role played by various ethnic groups in the precolonial state.

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