Extreme Poverty Led to the Rwanda Genocide

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Author: Paul Magnarella
Editor: Christina Fisanick
Date: 2008
From: Genocide
Publisher: Greenhaven Press
Series: Contemporary Issues Companion
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 1,576 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1230L

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Article Commentary

Paul Magnarella, "Explaining Rwanda's 1994 Genocide," Human Rights and Human Welfare, vol. 2, issue 1, 2002. Reproduced by permission of University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies.

Attorney and anthropologist Paul Magnarella is chair of the Peace Studies Program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. In the following viewpoint he argues that while social and political imbalances contributed to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, extreme poverty was the predominant factor that led to the killings. Conflicts between the amount of land available for farming and the growing population caused famine. According to Magnarella, the Rwandan government attempted to solve these problems by encouraging the elimination of the Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers rather than by addressing the problems through social and economic reforms.

In 1994, Rwanda erupted into one of the most appalling cases of mass murder the world has witnessed since World War II. Many of the majority Hutu (about 85% of the population) turned on the Tutsi (about 12% of the population) and moderate Hutu, killing an estimated total of 800,000 people. Since genocide is the most aberrant of human behaviors, it cries out for explanation....

Food-People-Land Imbalance

Hutu and Tutsi lived together relatively peacefully prior to the mid-nineteenth century, a time when their total population was comparatively low (probably less than two million, versus over seven million in 1993) and land supply for both Hutu farmers and Tutsi cattle grazers was ample. With rapid population growth in the twentieth century, the situation changed. Rwanda was faced with a critical food-people-land imbalance. Throughout the twentieth century, Rwanda's people had placed tremendous pressure on the land. As early as 1983, when Rwanda had 5.5 million people and was the most densely populated country in all of Africa, expert observers warned that food production could not keep up with basic needs. By 1993, one year before the genocide, the population had climbed to 7.7 million without any substantial improvement in agricultural output even though an estimated 95 per cent of the gainfully employed population was engaged in agriculture. To the contrary, food production had been seriously hampered by periodic drought, overgrazing, soil exhaustion and soil erosion. In the years leading up to the genocide there had been a marked decline in kilocalories per person per day and overall farm production. Famines occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s in several parts of the country. Hunger was endemic. Rwandan youth faced a situation where many (perhaps most) had no land, no jobs, little education, and no hope for a future. Without a house and a source of livelihood, they could not marry.

Because of their historically different modes of ecological adaptation—Hutu horticulture and Tutsi cattle pastoralism—within the context of a society over 90 per cent agrarian, a rapidly growing rural population, no significant employment alternatives, and diminishing food production and consumption per capita, the Hutu and Tutsi became "natural competitors." Those Tutsi still engaged in cattle pastoralism wanted open ranges to graze their herds. In direct opposition, landless Hutu wanted those very lands, marginal as they may have been for agriculture, to build homesteads on and to farm.

By flight or death of more than half of Rwanda's Tutsi population from the early 1960s to 1973, vast tracts of land in the eastern region were freed up for Hutu settlement and cultivation. The political elites exploited these developments, which appeared to prove that Hutu farmers could have sufficient land if the Tutsi were eliminated. By the mid-1980s, population increases had again outstripped the amount of cultivable land. Farmers' attempts to increase food production by double- and triple-cropping their dwindling plots resulted in soil exhaustion. Foreign technical experts could do little to help farmers; the problem was the increasing imbalance of the land:people ratio. The 1990-93 war with the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi refugee group,] contributed further to the devastation of Rwanda's economy. It displaced thousands of farmers in the north, thereby causing reductions in food and coffee production. It closed Rwanda's main land route to Mombassa [Kenya] and the outside world. It destroyed Rwanda's small tourism industry, which had become the third major foreign exchange earner.

Eliminating the Tutsi

There were few employment alternatives to farming. The country's major employer was the government. In the late 1980s, the central government was employing 7,000 people and the local governments 43,000. By law, only nine per cent of these employees could be Tutsi. Eliminating the Tutsi would open up 4,500 more government jobs for Hutu. Because the country had no social security program, the thousands of unemployed young people who entered the job market each year lived on the very margins of survival. Many became easy subjects for recruitment and manipulation. Two of the Hutu militias responsible for the mass killing were the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi. Both tended to recruit mostly among the poor, who hoped to benefit economically from the genocide.

[President Juvenal] Habyarimana had adamantly refused to allow Tutsi refugees back into the country, insisting that Rwanda was too small and too crowded to accommodate them. Some Rwandans believed that mass exterminations were necessary to wipe out an excess of population and bring numbers into line with the available land resources. However, economic conditions alone do not explain the mass murders. The strategies of Hutu leaders must also be taken into account. In this poor country, regional Hutu elites vied with each other to acquire the economic resources—especially tax revenue and foreign aid—that the reins of political power controlled. Their common plan involved marginalizing the educated Tutsi to eliminate any domestic competition from them and demonizing all Tutsi so as to dupe poor Hutu, the vast majority of the population, into believing that the elites protected them and represented their interests. With the Tutsi sidelined, Hutu regional elites competed with each other.

The Government and the Economy

Rwanda's poor economy rests on peasant subsistence agriculture. The governing elite could extract only limited surplus value directly from the peasant masses. In addition to taxes, the governing elite had two other potential sources of enrichment: skimming export revenues and foreign aid. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the three sources of export earnings—coffee, tea, and tin—all declined. Coffee export receipts declined from $144 million in 1985 to $30 million in 1993. Hence, export revenues declined, government budgets were cut, and the only remaining source of enrichment was foreign aid. Those who could benefit from it had to be in positions of political power. Consequently, elite Hutu engaged in a fierce competition for control of the rapidly shrinking economy. But, rather than negotiate in earnest with the RPF, Habyarimana chose to increase the size of his armed forces (from 5,000 in 1990 to 30,000 in 1992), thereby diverting scarce resources from needed food imports, health care, and education.

The rule of dominant persons does not depend on political or economic power alone, but on persuading the ruled to accept an ideology that justifies the rulers' privileged positions and convinces the ruled that their best interests are being protected. From the 1960s until 1994, the ideology promoted by the Hutu ruling elite was as follows: Tutsi were foreign invaders, who could not really be considered as citizens. The Hutu had been the "native peasants," enslaved by the aristocratic invaders: they were now the only legitimate inhabitants of the country. A Hutu-controlled government was now not only automatically legitimate but also ontologically democratic. This political ideology validated both the persecution of Tutsi and the autocratic rule by some elite Hutu.

As for its economic ideology, the government promoted the idea that the Hutu "holy way of life" was farming. It strictly limited rural migration to the city. People could not change their residences without government permission, and that was rarely given. Consequently, the government made no attempt to significantly diversify the economy so as to create a viable nonagricultural sector or to limit population growth (except by killing and expelling Tutsi)....

The authorities told common Hutu that the Tutsi RPF and all those who sided with them were demons who had to be eliminated. In addition to relieving fear of supposed Tutsi evil, eliminating the demons also earned material rewards (land, cattle, loot) for the killers.

Murder as a Solution

In conclusion, the sine qua non [indispensable condition] of the Rwandan genocide was the increasing imbalance in land, food, and people that led to malnutrition, hunger, periodic famine, and fierce competition for land to farm. Rwanda's leaders chose to respond to these conditions by eliminating the Tutsi portion of the population as well as their Hutu political rivals. They employed the weapons of indoctrination to convince the Hutu masses that this strategy was right. However, they failed to employ the kinds of demographic and economic policies that would have addressed these problems in a peaceful and more effective way. These policies would have included birth control, economic diversification into non-agrarian sectors, requests for significant foreign food aid, sincere negotiation with the RPF, and attempts at a regional solution to the refugee problem....

I would argue that the ultimate causes of the Rwandan genocide were the country's economic plight, caused in large part by the world economy and Rwanda's growing imbalance in land, food, and people that led to malnutrition, hunger, periodic famine, and fierce competition for land to farm. The proximate causes were the political indoctrination that demonized the Tutsi and convinced many Hutu that Tutsi elimination was the country's economic and political remedy.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3010078229