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Rwandan An Example Of The Importance Of Modernity In Explaining Genocide

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To what extent was Rwanda an example of the importance of modernity in explaining genocide?


In Rwanda 1994, 800,000 to 1 million people were slaughter mercilessly in 100 days. The genocide was meticulously planned, and the larger purpose was to eradicate the Tutsi race, this was identified before the genocide had occurred. It is worth noting that Romeo Dallaire, the Force Commander in charge of the UN peacekeeping mission during the Rwandan genocide repeatedly warned the UN Security Council that there was a plan to exterminate all Tutsi’s (CBC Radio, 2019). The pre-meditated nature of the genocide emphasises the epitome of modernity. However, the portrayal of this particular genocide is thought of as barbaric, and the massacres and torture of the Tutsi’s in the hands of the Hutu’s were placed in the category of ancient tribal fears and age-old hatred (Destexhe, 1994:9, Des Forges, 1999). This prejudice is often emphasised in the media, in political speeches and in academic research, justifying tribal violence and killings as a common practice within Africa. The field of genocide studies since the 1950s onwards is dominated with literature of the Holocaust with 70 percent of all literature written on the Holocaust (Rummel, 1994, Rosenbaum, 2008, Chorbajian and Shirinian, 1999:XXI). Authors such as Bauman, Browning and Aly and Heim treat the Holocaust as an embodiment of modernity and rational thinking (Balorda, 2013:2) thus aligning the concept of modernity with the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Therefore, studies of genocide are polarized between the modernity of the Holocaust and tribalism of other genocides such as Rwanda. In this essay I will argue that dispute the contrasting literature, the Rwandan genocide was an appropriate example of modernity in genocidal studies.

The concept of modernity is a Eurocentric way of thinking, yet, before the colonisation process, Rwanda was an organised state with a bureaucratised rule, a division of labour and a monarchy (Lemarchard, 1970:119). Yet, The West’s perception of ‘modernity’ fails to incorporate African society, thus perceiving the Rwandan community as needing to be ‘civilised’. The colonial legacy implemented modern aspects such as identification cards, feudalism and political and societal systems, all which contributed to the pre-planning condition for a genocide to have taken place. Additionally, Bauman identifies the ‘gardening state’ and the idea of nationalism as an aspect of modernity in genocide, although perceived as a way of understanding the Holocaust, this directly relates to the Tutsi’s as foreign invaders, thus paving the way towards the need to eradicate the Tutsi’s from Rwanda. The use of technology during the genocide such as the radio was a modern aspect of society of which the Hutu’s relied upon to promote the killings of the Tutsi’s. All these points give weight towards the idea that this genocide was indeed a modern phenomenon. There will be some critical analysis of attributing all aspects of the genocide as modern, such as the use of close proximity weapons such as machetes, however, as spontaneous as it may seem, the colonial legacy of racial ratification in Rwandan made genocide unavoidable.

The Concept of Modernity The specificity of the term modernity is difficult to define, but it is universally understood as the concept of development; economically involving the idea of capitalism; politically, involving the idea of governments and socially it replaces the idea of ‘traditions’ with ‘humanity’ (Hinton, 2002:8). Yet, these terms are Eurocentric and therefore the debate continues on how we as humans define the processes of ‘modern’. The conceptualisation of ‘barbarity’ of the perception of the Rwandan genocide is viewed as age-old tribalism, when indeed these so called ‘tribal’ societies as formulated in the minds of The West could actually be ‘modern’. Discourse on ‘others’ are structured as binary opposites such as modernity/tradition, civilisation/savagery, humanity/barbarity etc (Bauman 1991; Taussig 1987) which legitimised the annihilation of indigenous people and permitted the process of colonisation (Hinton, 2002:8). This legitimisation permits the abuse of indigenous people and thus allowed the Germans and Belgium’s to colonise Rwanda, segregating the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s to their advantage to ensure control over them and ultimately this control and the aspect of ‘modernity’ contributed towards the genocide in 1994. But despite the optimistic promises of modernity, there are two sides of modernity, an enlightened side and a dark side, and one cannot exist without the other (Bauman, 1989:7).

The Colonial legacy and Identification

The development of the colonial state in Rwanda by the Belgium Administration in 1916 (BBC, 2018) was the first major transformation of the pre-colonial society. The Belgium’s governance took the form as a ‘conquest state’ (Mamdani, 1996) and ruled indirectly through Tutsi kings (BBC, 2018). Modernisation in the form of classification, with the implementation of identity cards in 1933 (Fussell, 2001) lead to the racial stratification between the ethnic groups of Hutus, Tutsi and Twa (Chre ́tien, 1999:139–50; Vidal, 1999). The identities between the groups previous to colonisation were conducted on social stratification, thus the colonial administration introduced racialisation that had not previously existed (Fussell, 2001), in turn, directly facilitating the rise of segregation and hatred. The development of the Rwandan state during the colonial period presented a situation to which the Tutsi minority had monopoly over political, economic and social power (Nkundagagenzi, 1961:22–3). This created a situation whereby the Hutu cadre viewed the Tutsi’s as foreign invaders as a result of the historical development of racial stratification between the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s (Langford, 2005:5). The outcome of the post-colonial state was therefore linked to the struggle between the two racial groups, ultimately resulting in the contest for the retention of political power and the situating capacity to produce the genocide in 1994.

The capability of the Hutu’s to unleash a tirade of killings and torture from April 1994 till June 1994 is linked to the structure of the post-colonial state and the particular development able to plan, organise, and implement an extermination programme within the institutional framework of the Rwandan state (Langford, 2005:1). The ability to conceive and organise a campaign of extermination is not a random and spontaneous event, but rather a premeditated result of cumulative radicalisation of ethnic identities and social structures as a product of longer-term continuities between the colonial powers of Belgium and the development of the Rwandan state (Langford, 2005:1). Group classification played a significant role in facilitating the identification of Tutsi victims (Fessell, 2001) particularly at checkpoints such as roadblocks, whereby Tutsi identification equated to death. Additionally, the ID cards played a role of psychological distancing the perpetrators from the victims (Fessell, 2001) thus enabling the killing to be carried out on such a scale of speed and magnitude. The systematic organisation of identity checking is a consequence of modern advancements, the colonial powers had such a position of authority, they were able to influence and create knowledge to such an extent that the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s believed in racial categorisation themselves (Balorda, 2013:181). This directly emphasises the high extent to which modern aspects of identification played in the facilitation of the genocide.

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Hutu Nationalism and The Hamitic Myth

The rise of Hutu nationalism began to gain momentum with the first set of domestic reforms between 1951 to 1959, with the introduction of political parties in 1957 (Balorda, 2013: 184). During this time, the Tutsi Conseil Supérieur du Pays controlled 90 percent of the seats causing resentment from the Hutu’s, as they envisioned a democratic system of majoritarian. The Catholic Church played a critical role in the education of the Hutu’s but under the Tutsi administration they were rejected from jobs, causing anger and frustration (Mamdani, 2001:36, Destexhe, 1994:42). Thus, the Hutu’s with support of the Catholic Church and the left-wing Belgium media sort to gain control of the territory of Rwanda (Balorda, 2013:186). In relation to modernity, the implementation of indirect rule created a system of capitalist greed, with tight bureaucratic rule, and increasing pressure (Lemarchand, 1970:121). Along with the Christian values of discipline and rigorous work, ‘The civilizing presence of the Belgian authorities made the rule of the chiefs a singularly uncivilized one’ (Lemarchand, 1970:123). The strong division between society prevented the cohesion of nationalism and instead ethno-nationalism prevailed, the Belgium government sided with the Hutu’s creating power from the top-down, and as a consequence the wage of violence against the Tutsi’s started, with chiefs killed and Tutsi refugees staging guerrilla warfare attacks along the border of Uganda (Prunier, 1995:51, Lemarchand, 1970:332).

The ideology of nationalism creates a notion of them vs us creating an establishment of conflict between the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s. Bauman identified this as a concept of modernity, and although analysed in Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide is directly comparable. The implementation of identity cards by the Belgium administration and use of indirect rule created a scale of ethno-nationalism so great, violence stipulated towards one group by the other was inevitable. Moreover, Bauman identified the gardening state as another key concept of modernity, the classification and categorisation of the Tutsi’s relates to the idea of them as ‘weeds’ (Bauman, 1989:13), foreign invaders to the state of Rwanda. This notion was reinforced by the Hamitic hypothesis, which portrayed Tutsi’s as a branch of the Caucasian race and was legitimised by the facilitation of hierarchal order by the Belgium authorities (Eltringham, 2006:432). Accordingly, the Tutsi’s were portrayed as the embodiment of western values, of capitalism and corrupt morals, and so the Hutu’s used this as propaganda to justify violence, extermination and expelling of the Tutsi’s. Yet, it is humans’ own perceptions to categorise and create certain connotations for aspects in society such as the negative definition of ‘weed’. The form takes shape as a pest and these perceptions are continued by the masses, thus the consciousness of Tutsi’s as invaders of Rwanda was reinforced by the colonial leaders to ensure control over their colony and the Hamitic myth was reinforced by the masses in society.

The Role of the Radio The concept of modernity and technology Bauman prevails upon, makes it difficult to define other genocides as modern other than the Holocaust, but it is worth stressing that modern aspects did play an important role in the genocide. Modernisation paradigms of communication theories of Daniel Lerner (1958) and Wilbur Schramm (1964) attributed the radio as a key element of development and the radio was promoted greatly by aid agencies as a key development tool (Kellow and Steeves, 1998:115), suggesting Rwanda was in the process of modernising. Owing to the widespread illiteracy and cultural obedience in Rwanda at the time, Hachten (1974:396) suggested that ‘listeners tend to conceive it as literally the government itself speaking’, it may perhaps be observed that the Rwandan people interpreted the radio as orders from the government itself. The role of the government-controlled Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was a main contributor for inciting hatred, using a fearmongering framework of killed-or-be-killed (Kellow and Steeves, 1998:107).

Following the shooting down of President Juvénal Habyarimana plane on 6 April 1994, RTLM created propaganda of the Tutsi’s using a technique of reversal to encourage genocide (Kellow and Steeves, 1998:119). The adoption of the term ‘work’ to signify slaughter, and the adoption of the derogatory term ‘inyenzi’ translating to cockroaches, was used to promote the extermination of the Tutsi’s (Kellow and Steeves, 1998:119). The influential role the RTLM had generated widespread panic and invocated fear into the lives of ordinary people so much so that they participated in the killings. One man imprisoned for his crimes in the genocide, an illiterate farmer aged 29 by the name of Alfred Kiruhura, stated that ‘I did not believe the Tutsis were coming to kill us, but when the government radio continued to broadcast that they were coming to take our land, were coming to kill the Hutus—when this was repeated over and over—I began to feel some kind of fear’ (quoted in Berkeley, 1994:18). Rwandan theologian Tharcisse Gatwa (1995:19) concludes that it took 4 years of ‘psychological preparation’ for the radio to have such an effect on ordinary people and before the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide would have been implausible. The use of the term ‘psychological preparation’ implies that the genocide must have been pre-planned in nature to have been plausible, relating to the process of modernisation, and therefore not a random turn of events. The significant role the radio played in the indoctrination of defining Tutsi’s as enemies of the state, created psychological frameworks of fear, in turn, invoking ordinary Hutu’s to participate in the killings of their neighbours so to protect themselves and their families.

Critiques Hannah Arendt argues that in the Holocaust the perpetrators acted in a certain way to further their career and Bauman argues that the bureaucratic state was an element of modernity to create a necessary condition for a genocide to happen (Bauman, 1989:13). However, the idea of the modern bureaucratic state fails to encompass to barbarity of ordinary people murdering their neighbours and friends. In this sense, there was no real motive to killing the Tutsi’s on such a scale other than fear, in light of this, it must have been obvious that Hutu’s had outnumbered the Tutsi’s, yet, the killings continued. In the book ‘The Cultural Face of Terror in the Rwanda Genocide of 1994’, Taylor argues that the violence stipulated in the genocide embodied a metaphor of flow and blockage (Taylor, 1999). The myth that the Tutsi’s were blocked beings, was indoctrinated into minds of the Hutu’s resulting in torture such as severing of Achilles tendons, genital mutilation, clogging of bodily conduits etc, the torture and killings structured in this way mark the Tutsi’s as blocked (Hinton, 2002:20). The discourse of the torture and massacre using machetes and other up-close weapons do not necessitate ‘modernity’ compared with the Holocaust, in turn, it could be argued that the act of the killing was ‘uncivilised’.


The extent to which the Rwanda genocide encompasses modernity is high, and the pre-mediated state for the genocide to have occurred dates back to the Belgium colonial legacy. Identification as a means of control, instigated the concept of racial ratification, fuelling hatred between the groups and caused the retention for the battle of political power. The idea of modernity in the Western world correlates with development, state-of-the-art, and contemporary, but the common misconception as identified by Bauman, implies that aspects of modernity also has a dark side as demonstrated during the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. The role of the radio contributed significantly to the misguided propaganda of the Tutsi’s, ingraining fear into the Hutu’s, and the ideology of ethno-nationalism greatly divided the state of Rwanda. The Hamitic myth conceived by the Belgium administration had grave consequences in Rwandan society, stipulating the idea of Tutsi’s as foreign invaders. Moreover, Bauman’s modern aspect of the gardening state relates to the idea of the eradication of the Tutsi’s as ‘pests’ and invaders of Rwanda. The colonialization process of civilising and developing the Rwandan state deeply divided society until the perceived myths were believed and atrocities were committed.


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