A Truer History of Hutu-Tutsi Relations Would Lead to Better Reporting

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Truer History of Hutu-Tutsi Relations Would Lead to Better Reporting


Gus Constantine's background piece blaming Hutu-Tutsi hatred on colonialist and Belgian favoritism of the Tutsi reflects the fashionable view that before European colonizers pitted them against each other, African tribes got along just fine ("Hutu-Tutsi hatred grew from colonialism," Nov. 15). Alas, as history, that's poppycock.

Several centuries before the Germans claimed Rwanda and Burundi as part of German East Africa in 1907, the Nilotic Tutsi had come from the north and established a feudalist regime over the Hutu majority. The basis of Tutsi feudalism was not land, but the ownership of cattle. Besides growing subsistence crops, Hutus frequently worked for their Tutsi overlords as herders. Needless to say, Hutus resented their subordinate status and rebelled against it repeatedly long before the first colonialists appeared on the scene.

The distinctive feature of colonialism was not that it changed the unequal relationship between Tutsis and Hutus, but that it left that relationship the way it found it. The Germans never established a colonial presence (except for a small military outpost in Bujumbura, in Burundi) but allowed the rule by the Tutsi kings (mwani) in both Rwanda and Burundi to continue. After the Belgians replaced the Germans in World War I, they essentially continued this pattern of indirect rule. After World War II, under pressure from the U.N. Trusteeship Council, they did, however, start a process of political reform aimed at the political emancipation of the Hutu majority.

As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, revolt usually comes not when repression is worst, but when change is already in the air. In 1959, the Rwandan Hutus staged a bloody uprising against the Tutsi, killing and maiming them by the thousands and driving many into exile, including the last mwani, Kigeri. In 1960, communal elections organized by the Belgians returned Hutu majorities. United Nations-supervised national elections in 1961 were also won by the Hutu party. …

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