In April 1994, the assassination of the Rwandan president (and dictator) lead to one of the most vicious outbreaks of human violence. Over the course of just 100 days, members of the majority Hutu ethnicity killed between 500,000 and 1,000,000 members mostly of the Tutsi minority, before a Tutsi militia took control of the country in early June - in turn forcing millions of Hutus to seek shelter abroad from retaliation. What lead to this vicious ethnic cleansing? Were it only the underlying ethnic conflicts - or were there economic factors in the background?
Jared Diamond, author of the famous book Guns, Germs and Steel argues for the latter in his 2005 book entitled Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. His point is that besides the underlying historical antagonism between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, the situation was worsened by a failing agricultural system, hundreds of thousands of refugees and an ongoing economic crisis. How so? In order to understand all factors contributing to the outbreak of the conflict, we need to go back in time to examine the colonial history of the region.
Rwanda and it's neighbor, Burundi lay in a region dominated by mountains; the lowest altitude in Rwanda is 950 m. This means a moderate climate with fairly regular rainfall, which made the region ideal for agriculture (at least in comparison), and as a consequence, it has been densely populated ever since the 19th century.
The exact origins of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups are somewhat of a mystery; the two groups speak the same language, have the same religion, yet are separated by the legacy of a historical "caste system" which put the taller, thinner, whiter Tutsis, compromising 15% of the country's population, on the top. The origins of this go back to the 19th century Tutsi-led Kingdom of Rwanda, which conquered other precolonial entities in the region.
When the European colonists first arrived in 1897 (the Germans), they found the Tutsis to be more 'European' and continued to pick them out for colonial administrative posts. The situation was even further exacerbated by the Belgians (taking over in 1916), who introduced ID cards which compulsorily noted the ethnicity of the owner.
Rwanda, and it's neighbor Burundi became independent in 1962, and since both countries were divided by the Hutu-Tutsi antagonism, violence soon erupted. In Burundi, the Tutsis managed to hold onto power, by brutally crushing Hutu revolts in 1965 and 1970-1972. But in Rwanda, the Hutus took power in 1963, which lead to the emigration of 1,000,000 people, mostly Tutsis to neighboring countries - from where they repeatedly tried to reconquer the country, leading to further violence against Tutsis in Rwanda.
In 1973, a Hutu general, Habyarimana did a coup d'etat in Rwanda - and while creating a totalitarian state, he managed to quell anti-Tutsi sentiments on the Hutu part and maintain status quo (a scenario not unlike Tito's Yugoslavia, or Siad Barre's Somalia).
Why did he fail? This is where the economy comes in.
As we have mentioned before, Rwanda is quite suitable for agriculture, which lead to a population density higher than that of the UK (293 vs. 236 people/km2). However, while farmers in the UK are able to use agricultural machinery and fertilizers, most of Rwanda's farmers work on small, family-owned lands with primitive tools. Meanwhile, following independence, the population growth remained at 3%.
For a while, the demand for land could be backed up with a supply by draining swamps, cutting out forests and tilling hilltops - but the resulting land was of lower quality, and the felling of the country's trees lead to uncontrollable soil erosion.
Hence, the law of Malthus proved to be correct in Rwanda's case; while between 1966 to 1981, the amount of agricultural products per capita indeed grew (partially sustained by the expulsion of the Tutsis in the 1960's), but afterwards, it took a nosedive.
Farmers responded by splitting up their lands between sons to provide living for them - which lead to the reduction of average land size, from 370 m2 in 1988 to 290 m2 in 1993 - smaller than the average American hobby garden! The amount of people earning less than 1600 calories a day (the statistical definition of starvation) increased from 9% in 1982 to an astonishing 40% in 1990.
The Malthusian catastrophe was on the doorstep for the divided country.
The final straw
The economic catalyst of the genocide was two-fold. Firstly, the price of coffee and tee, the main export commodities of the Rwandan economy, took a nosedive in 1989. This essentially wrecked Habyarimana's economy, who turned to the World Bank for aid; this was no cure, since the harsh austerity requirements demanded pushed the country even deeper into recession. On top of all this, the emigrant Tutsis launched yet another attack, this time from Uganda, in 1990; a civil war broke out between the two sides, with hundreds of thousands displaced and cramped up in refugee camps.
During the war, Habyarimana gave in to the ever stronger extemist Hutu movement, and backed up by the French who wanted to maintain the status quo, embarked on a genocide himself before being stopped by the Arusha Accords in 1993, which required him to share power with the Tutsis. He reluctantly did - only for his airplane to be gunned down by Hutu ultras of his own army, on 6th April 1994.
What followed in the next days was chaos, and one of the most vicious and bloodthirsty rampages human society has ever seen. Hutu extremists took control of the government; pro-Hutu business cycles started to "subsidize" the population with machetes in order to prepare for the "extermination of the Tutsi cockroaches".
In the course of 6 weeks, 800,000 people died, mostly Tutsis, but violence didn't spare regions such as Kanama either, where the population consisted almost exclusively of Hutus. Kanama's case shows that the motivation behind the killings was at least as much redistribution of land by force, as racial hatred; this nonetheless lead to the extermination of 5% of Kanama's population and 11% of that of Rwanda.
The true extent of the horrors is at least as difficult to grasp than those of the Holocaust. Works of art such as the 2004 film Hotel Ruanda dramatically depict the happenings of the genocide.
The genocide finally came to an end in 18th July 1994, when the Tutsi rebels from Uganda, the RPF captured the country. The RPF - instead of initiating yet another Tutsi retaliation against the Hutus - decided to focus on national unity; they elevated a new government into power, and explicitly popularized the concept of being Rwandan first, and Tutsi or Hutu only second. Their rule meant the return of 750,000 Tutsis to the country - but meanwhile, 135,000 people were sent to prison for their participation in the genocide (mostly without trial), and 2,000,000 (!) Hutus escaped to Tanzania or Congo, fearing retaliation.
So what conclusions can be drawn from Rwanda's genocide? Primarily the fact that economic and political unrest go hand in hand, and that where drought and famine strikes, violence will soon follow (historical examples would include 1789, 1848 and 1917, among others). And even though currently there are more overweight than malnourished people living on Earth, the question still remains: could humanity itself be facing a Malthusian catastrophe?
Jared Diamond: Összeomlás. Hungarian translation published in 2007, Budapest (Original: Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. 2005)