Can Hutu and Tutsi become Rwandans? The Construction and Deconstruction of Ethnicity in the Case of Rwanda

Term Paper, 2016
15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Construction and Deconstruction of Ethnicity
2.1 Social-Constructivist Approach
2.2 Post-Structuralist Approach
2.3 Rationalist Approach
2.4 Constructed Reality of Ethnicity

3. The Rwandan Case Study
3.1 Precolonial Construction of Ethnicity
3.2 Colonial Construction of Ethnicity
3.3 Post-Colonial Construction of Ethnicity
3.4 De-Ethnicisation by Rwandan Elites

4. 'Abanyarwanda' as a Way to Lasting Peace?

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The genocide in Rwanda which lasted from April to Juli 1994 with approximately half a million people killed left the Rwandan society deeply uprooted. In many case the victims and their killers knew each other. They were coworkers, neighbors or even members of the same family (Newbury 1998b: 78). What separated them and made one kill the other was their ethnic identity. Extremist 'Hutu' turned against 'Tutsi' and moderate 'Hutu' to rape, rob and kill them regardless of their age, gender or social position with the aim to wipe out all'Tutsi' of Rwanda (Desforges 1999: 6-7).

The post-genocide government of Rwanda supsequently saw the division of Rwandans in different ethnic groups as main cause for the genocide and therefore implemented a number of policies and laws which should promote unity and a shared identity of 'Rwandanness' in order to eradicate ethnicity from everyday practices of society (Mutisi 2014: 119). It does so mainly by presenting a narrative of a shared 'Rwandan' descent where in pre-colonial times all 'Rwandans' lived together in harmony without 'divisive' ethnic categories (Government of the Republic of Rwanda 2016: 1) and by prohibiting the use of the ethnic categories 'Hutu', 'Tutsi' and 'Twa' in public discourses (Mutisi 2014: 121). Despite the efforts of the Rwandan government to establish unity among Rwandans based on the rejection of ethnic identities many researchers indicate that the ethnic identities and the discriminations that come along with them are even more evident in post-genocide Rwanda than they were before (Ingelaere 2010: 275-276). Therefore the research question which I will elaborate in my essay is how the ethnic division of Rwandans can be explained and whether Rwandan society can become de- ethnicised?

In order to answer this research question I will first outline the different theoretical approaches which help to explain the existence and intensity of ethnic identities. Then I will examine how ethnic groups in Rwanda were constructed by focusing on the historical evidence and the role of the political elites. Subsequently I will analyse how the current Rwandan government is trying to de-ethnicise Rwandan society. And finally I will examine whether the de-ethnicisation as attempted by the Rwandan government can be considered a promising way to achieve sustainable peace in Rwanda.

2. Construction and Deconstruction of Ethnicity

The term ethnicity is a highly contested term in the social sciences. Therefore there is no widely acknowledged definition of ethnicity on which I could base my research. The scholarly debate circled primarily around two theoretical positions. The first is the primordialist position which suggests the existence of natural characteristics such as phenotypical features, language, religion or regional belonging from which it deduces the existence of ethnicity and ethnic groups. Therefore it offers an essentialist view of ethnic identities as 'given'. However, the second is the constructivist position which conceives ethnicity and ethnic groups as social constructs based on historical, social and political circumstances (Salzborn 2006: 99). In my research I will focus on the latter because the primordialist position does not offer sufficient explanatory potential for the evolvement of ethnicity and ethnic identities. The different approaches which are presented in the following sections are an attempt to narrow the concept of ethnicity down and in the same time widen its explanatory potentials in the case of Rwanda.

2.1 Social-Constructivist Approach

Since ethnicity is an aspect of an individuals identity and these identities are socially constructed ethnic identities therefore need to be considered as constructed, too. They are generally defined by internal and external ascriptions and the believe in a shared descent (Ganter 1995: 57). The content of ethnic identities is constructed around cultural attributes like religion, language, customs or historical myths. Ethnic identities are inherently exclusive since their membership and content is constructed by differentiation from an 'Other' and their existence is reinforced by everyday actions of their members which produce and reproduce ethnic identities. Since they are inevitably socially constructed and therefore 'imagined' their membership and content is formed by actions and speech and can be changeable, unstable and fluid over time (Fearon/Laitin 2000: 848-855). This flexibility of ethnic identities and their boundaries lead to different experiences of ethnicity because members can choose the intensity to which they identify as member of an ethnic group. The range goes from low intensity ethnicity to ethnic fundamentalism and from occasional or optional identification to fixed or total identity depending on the context and situation (Nederveen Pieterse 1997: 371).

2.2 Post-Structuralist Approach

Post-structuralist approches to ethnicity are centered around the concept of deconstruction. From a deconstructivist point of view ethnic identities are created by discourses which reveal hegemonic structures and power differences by rhetorical means. It is therefore important to reflect on the context of the production of the dominant discourses and socio-political relationships of the groups using them. Terms like 'ethnic group' or 'Hutu', 'Tutsi' and 'Rwandan' are claimed by different groups in different settings to create and mark inclusion and exclusion (Abbink 1991: 2-3). Ethnic identities are therefore constructed in relation to 'Others' and are imposed by a process of 'Othering' which is constructed by a labeling process (Nederveen Pieterse 1997: 371-372). Discourses construct ethnic identities and their actors and define their possibilities for action and influence (Fearon/Laitin 2000: 874).

2.3 Rationalist Approach

The rationalist approach of explaining the construction of ethnicity focuses on the role of individuals. In order to maintain or seize power political elites construct antagonistic ethnic groups as political support. They oftentimes succeed in doing so because of four main reasons. Firstly, a psychological bias makes the masses believe their leaders and rather blame an 'Other' than their own leadership. Secondly the leaders can manipulate the masses because of the dynamic of assymetric information which makes the masses believe their leadership. Thirdly the leaders construct a threatening 'Other' and picture themselves as the only protector and fourthly the leaders hold the power to introduce an ethnic discourse as the only frame to perceive the situation which can blind the masses for other possible non ethnic frames (Fearon/Laitin 2000: 853-855). Consequently, political elites use ethnic politics as a form of resource mobilisation and “the cultural forms, values, and practices of ethnic groups become political resources for elites in competition for political power and economic advantage“ (Brass 1991: 15). Therefore ethnic identities are created and transformed by political elites who see them as an cultural capital that can be used for their own purposes (Nederveen Pieterse 1997: 367).

2.4 Constructed Reality of Ethnicity

The theoretical framework of this essay evolves around constructivism. It focuses on the approaches based on firstly a societal constructed concept of ethnicity, secondly on a discoursive logic and finally on the strategic actions of elites. In all three approaches the outcome is a socially constructed ethnicity which can be perceived as continuum varying in salience, intensity and meaning (Nederveen Pieterse 1997: 366). However, ethnicity may be perceived as constructed and it is contingent and open-enden but it is nethertheless experienced as real since it influences the actions and possibilities of the people who are internally or/and externally ascribed as members of an ethnic group (Nederveen Pieterse 1997: 380).

In the following section the theoretical framework will be applied to the case of the 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' as constructed ethnic groups in Rwanda.

3. The Rwandan Case Study

Rwanda is an African state in the Great Lakes Region. It was colonized by the German and Belgian colonial powers and gained its independence in July 1962. By the time of their first registration along ethnic lines under the Belgian administration the 'Hutu' made up 85% of the population and the 'Tutsi' 14% (Newbury 1998b: 83). These two major ethnic groups in Rwanda have a contested and nuanced process of construction which will be discussed in the following sections.

3.1 Precolonial Construction of Ethnicity

The region that is called Rwanda today was inhabited by people groups for over 2000 years. They lived in small groups based on lineage and loyalty to a leader and shared the same language, traditions, culture, religion and philosophy. Due to the environmental conditions a large number of cultivators lived in the highlands in the north of Rwanda and more cattle-owing pastoralists lived in the south (Desforges 1999: 31).

Different forms of political units existed in precolonial Rwanda which differed in forms and ways. However, in the south were cattle was important the leaders tended to form a recognizable unit based on family history, cultural attributes or life-style in order to strengthen the inner coherence of the population of their political unit. By doing so the social perception of group membership as 'Tutsi' emerged among them. In the mid­eighteenth century one political unit became dominant which defined itself as Nyiginya lineage with 'Tutsi' identity. The expansion of this kingdom led to a reinforcement of their identity as 'Tutsi'. Others continued to identify by their lineage, clan or region but as they perceived these identities as politically no longer influencial the 'Hutu' identity which broadened local identity forms emerged (Newbury 1998b: 85-86).

In the late nineteenth century king Rwabugiri brought the kingdom to the height of its power and expanded it with no differentiation to pastoralists or cultivators. King Rwabugiri established a centralised, hierarchical and exploitative monarchy with severe social inequalities (Newbury 1998a: 12) and introduced a form of forced labour from which 'Tutsis' were excluded (Purdeková 2008: 507). The kingdom emerged from the pastoralist dominated south in which 'Tutsi' became the overarching identity. Consequently, the 'Tutsi' pastoralists held most positions of power and the 'Hutu' cultivators were generally perceived as subjects. Therefore 'Tutsi' which first referred to people rich in cattle became the term referred to the political elite and 'Hutu' which first referred to subordinates or followers of powerful became the term referred to the mass of ordinary people (Desforges 1999: 32). However, the distinctions of the social categories 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' had not yet been severe. They were perceived rather as flexible and fluid class categories than as ethnic categories and only existed in relation to each other (Schraml 2014: 619).

Since intermarriage was not widespread in the nineteenth and early twentieth century due to the wide gap between 'Tutsi' elite and 'Hutu' commoners the two occupational groups had a shared gene pool and tended to be look-alike as cultivators being shorter, stronger and with broader features and pastoralists being taller, thin and narrow- featured. Intermarriage increased after independence and so it was not clear by looks to distinguish between 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' anymore (Desforges 1999: 32).

This account of the emergence of 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' as first and foremost social categories more related to class than ethnicity makes obvious that ethnicity in the case of Rwanda is not premordial but created by powerholders and that ethnicity was only one among many identities in precolonial Rwandan societies (Newbury 1998b: 86).

3.2 Colonial Construction of Ethnicity

Under German and Belgian colonial rule the categories 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' altered severely. The colonial powers introduced a discourse based on racial scholarship and anthropology which led to a fixed categorisation of 'Tutsi' as 'Ethioped' and of 'Hutu' as 'Bantu'. Furthermore, the 'Hutu' were subordinated under 'Tutsi' monarchy explaining 'Tutsi' superiority by supposedly superior racial features, economic wealth and political skills which were backed by the construction of a migration myth of 'Tutsi' being immigrants from the Horn of Africa (Buckley-zistel 2006: 104). The 'Tutsi' welcomed this ideology and formulated the myth that Rwanda was inhabited by immigrated 'Hutu' which cultivated the land and were then conquered by the more intelligent 'Tutsi' coming from the north due to their superior political and military abilities (Desforges 1999: 35). The 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' both internalized this view of the 'Tutsi' as distinctive race of aristocratic conquerors from afar being the natural rulers over the inferior 'Hutu' (Fearon/Laitin 2000: 862). However, it is crucial to mention that these ethnic identities were not invented by the colonial powers as often assumed but that they rather contributed to their fixation and based it on a racial perception. Furthermore, the ruling class which consisted primarily of 'Tutsi' cooperated willfully with the colonizers in order to create and inforce their legitimation of superiority and power (Buckley-zistel 2006: 104).

The colonial powers simplified the complex structures of power and administration in the Nyiginya kingdom, eliminated competing hierarchies and installed state officials by force. Since the Belgians excluded 'Hutu' from official positions and higher education and further diminished 'Hutus' political influence and marginalised them in terms of impositions such as taxes and forced labour and loss of land, cattle and lineage integrity social distinctions aggravated and ethnic awareness increased (Newbury 1998b: 87).

In order to decide who is 'Tutsi' and who is not the Belgian administration issued Identity Cards which marked ones ethnicity. Consequently. the character of the ethnic identities changed since they became permanent and fixed. The 'Tutsi' as ruling class stressed their superiority and the 'Hutu' formed the solidarity of the oppressed (Desforges 1999: 35).

During the colonial rule the ethnic identities of 'Tutsi' and 'Hutu' were constructed as internally homogenous and racially, culturally and historically different groups with 'Tutsi' being superior to 'Hutu'. Ethnicity therefore became the dominant identity and marked the possibilities of action and influence of individuals (Newbury 1998a: 11).

3.3 Post-Colonial Construction of Ethnicity

After the colonial rule ended ethnic identities were strongly politicised and instrumentalised by a political elite which was focused on maintaining or seizing power (Buckley-zistel 2006: 103). This could first be perceived in the so called 'Hutu revolution' in 1959 which eventually led to the independence of Rwanda in 1962. The 'Hutu' elite and rural majority demanded change because they perceived the colonial rule as double colonialism since they were opressed by Belgians and the 'Tutsi' elite. They demanded the end of favouring the 'Tutsi' and discriminating the 'Hutu' (Newbury 1998a: 9). Therefore they mainly targeted 'Tutsi' authorities but due to the occurring violence and pogroms many 'Tutsi' fled to the neigbouring countries and launched attacks after the 'revolution' which only led to more 'Tutsi' fleeing from Rwanda. The exclusively 'Hutu'-party Pramehutu won the elections and established a republic in which they kept the labelling of 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi'. The 'Hutu' elite took up the discourse of the colonial times of 'Tutsi' being distinctive, from foreign origin and in complete control of the 'Hutu' to justify the violence of the 'revolution' and the discrimination that followed it (Desforges 1999: 36-37). The first President of the Republic of Rwanda Gregoire Kayibanda pictured 'Tutsi' as foreign invaders and 'Hutu' as legitimate inhabitants. Therefore 'Tutsi' were denied the Rwandan citizenship and were discriminated against. In 1973 a coup d'état brought Juvénal Habyarimana into power who introduced quota regulations on ethnic census. Hence, the discrimination against 'Tutsi' continued but they received citizenship and marginal political rights. However, those who lived as refugees in the neighbouring countries were still denied the right to return (Buckley-zistel 2006: 105-106). Due to their continued discrimination in Rwanda and their host countries 'Tutsi' refugees formed the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) and attacked Rwanda in 1990. This offered the political elites the opportunity to rally the Rwandan population against an enemy which was used as a scapegoat to overcome social and political tensions in Rwanda which threatened their political power. The tensions resulted of an imbalance of wealth and power between rural and urban regions, 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' and the neglected 'Hutu' from the north and all other 'Hutu' (Desforges 1999: 41-42). In order to maintain power the political elite sought to picture all 'Tutsi' as enemies who help the RPF to invade Rwanda and reestablish 'Tutsi' monarchy and feudalism (Buckley-zistel 2006: 106-107).


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Can Hutu and Tutsi become Rwandans? The Construction and Deconstruction of Ethnicity in the Case of Rwanda
Free University of Berlin
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Ethnicity, Constructivism, Rwanda, Ethnie, Hutu, Tutsi
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Leonie Brandl (Author), 2016, Can Hutu and Tutsi become Rwandans? The Construction and Deconstruction of Ethnicity in the Case of Rwanda, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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