Civil War: Rwanda (1990-1994)

Geneviève Asselin, Kristine St-Pierre, David Carment. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The Rwandan civil war, which lasted from October 1, 1990, until 1994, was by far the most intense conflict Rwanda has experienced. Between 3,025 and 5,500 people died in the midst of the conflict in addition to the 800,000 killed during the genocide (Jones 1999a). An estimated 10 percent of the total population lost their lives during the last three months of the conflict, and 30 percent were forced into exile (Prunier 1999).

The “October War” began when a Tutsi refugee rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), launched a surprise attack from Uganda on October 1, 1990. The conflict lasted four years and was characterized by different phases of escalation and deescalation. Efforts at mitigating the conflict were put forward as early as fifteen days after the outbreak of the war. These efforts led to the Arusha peace agreements, brokered by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), signed on August 4, 1993. However, on April 6, 1994, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by unidentified assailants. The event triggered wide-ranging massacres by Hutu militias of Tutsi and Hutu moderates sympathetic to the peace process, thus renewing the civil war. Large-scale fighting continued for another 100 days and culminated in the capture of Kigali by the RPF on July 19, 1994 (Jones 1999a). Soon afterward, exiled Hutu militias in Zaire (now named the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC) would work to resuscitate the civil war engulfing the Great Lakes region in regional crisis (Kuperman 2000; Prunier 1995).

This article focuses on the underlying causes of the civil war in Rwanda and the process through which the war culminated in genocide in 1994 (The Convention on Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with the intention to destroy, wholly or in part, a national ethnic, racial or religious group,” according to the United Nations General Assembly 1948, article 2). Subsequent conflict management efforts are examined, as are some basic lessons learned from international intervention during the civil war.

Country Background

Rwanda is a landlocked country located in East Central Africa, in the Great Lakes region. The country, whose capital is Kigali, extends over 26,338 square kilometers, a size comparable to that of Belgium. The total population is 8.4 million, of which 84 percent are Hutu, 14 percent are Tutsi, and 1 percent are Twa. More than half of Rwandans are Roman Catholic (56.5 percent); other religions include Protestant (26 percent), Adventist (11.1 percent), and Muslim (4.6 percent). Official languages include Kin-yarwanda, the universal Bantu vernacular, as well as French and English (CIA 2005).

Rwanda attained independence from Belgium on July 1, 1962, when the Hutu, after having won the parliamentary elections in 1961, installed the first Hutu-led republic. For the first time in Rwandan history, the Hutu majority in Rwanda was taking the reins of power from a Tutsi minority, which had been the ruling elite since precolonial times. Although the Hutu claimed a multiparty regime, the country soon became a de facto single-party system under President Kayibanda (1962-1973) and later under Habyarimana (1973-1994). Both regimes were described as autocratic (Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Polity IV 2003). Executive power was purposely selected from a small political elite (the akazu), political opposition was suppressed, and a policy of Tutsi exclusion was carefully implemented.

Economically, the country attained an enviable position in comparison with its neighbors. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita rose steadily from US $514 in 1960 to US $731 in 1985, mostly owing to coffee exports. By 1985, Rwanda was considered a successful African economy and an “oasis of progress” in sub-Saharan Africa (Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002; Sellström, Wohlgemuth, and NAI, 1996; Smith 2002, 150). However, after the collapse of coffee prices in 1986, the Rwandan economy suffered considerably (Prunier 1995). Between 1989 and 1993, the decline averaged about 40 percent. In September 1990, one month prior to the RPF invasion, structural adjustment programs (SAPs) were implemented. For many scholars, these structural factors—economic and political—became permissive conditions that contributed to the weakening of the regime’s legitimacy, capacity, and authority and favored insurgency (Des Forges 1999; Fearon and Laitin 2003; Smith 2002).

Conflict Background

The RPF invasion of 1990 is closely interconnected with repeated Tutsi refugee invasions from Uganda and Burundi following Rwanda’s independence (Sellström, et al. 1996). In fact, persistent Tutsi repression by Hutu governments in postcolonial Rwanda and the subsequent movement of tens of thousands of Tutsi refugees in neighboring countries paved the way for the creation of a rebel movement (inkotanyi, “refugee warriors”) in Uganda and Burundi, which would later become the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Inkotanyi were fighting not only for Tutsi protection but also for repatriation to their homeland. From 1961 until 1990, inkotanyi periodically invaded Rwanda from Uganda and Burundi in response to pogroms against domestic Tutsi in Rwanda (Jones 1999a; Lema 2000; Otunnu 1999a). The RPF invasion in Rwanda in 1990 was aimed not only at refugee repatriation of Tutsi but also at destabilizing the regime to ultimately bring about political change (Lema 2000). Most agree that by 1990 the civil war had become ethnically based because it involved the Tutsi-led RPF against the Hutu-led government forces (Doyle and Sambanis 2000; MAR 2000; Uppsala Conflict Database Project 2003). The civil war is also characterized as a “communal contender,” since the two groups were struggling for a hold on power. The Minorities at Risk (MAR) project defines communal contenders as “culturally distinct peoples, tribes, or clans in heterogeneous societies [that] hold or seek a share in state power” (2000).

Although the RPF used Uganda as a launching pad for the invasion, the Rwandan civil war was an internal or intrastate conflict because it was organized and launched by Rwandan Tutsi against the Rwandan Hutu government. Uganda, Zaire, and Burundi all contributed to the conflict, providing arms or human resources to the rebels, the Hutu militias, and the government forces, but this involvement was, at most, irregular and unofficial, and no regular troops were provided (Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Uppsala 2003; IISS 2005).

The Insurgents

The rebel force in Rwanda was known as the RPF and its military wing as the RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army). The RPA was the “official” name of the armed branch of the RPF, although in practice the name RPF referred to both the political and the military wings of the movement (Prunier 1995). The RPF was created in 1987 in Kampala, Uganda, by Rwandan exiles, mainly Tutsi who had been living in Uganda for three generations. The rebel movement was led first by Major General Fred Rwigyema and later by General Paul Kagame.

Sources: Harff and Gurr 1998; Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002; IISS 2005; MAR 2000; Polity IV Project 2003; UNHCR 1995.
War: RPF vs. government forces (Rwandan Armed Forces)
Dates: October 1, 1990-July 19, 1994
Casualties: 3,025-5,500 battle-related deaths (and 800,000 deaths during genocide)
Regime type prior to war: Autocratic; high
Regime type after war: Autocratic; medium-high
GDP per capita year war began: US $870.04 (1990)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $944.86 (1999)
Insurgents: Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF)
Issue: Tutsi refugee repatriation; power struggle
Rebel funding: Uganda; Tutsi diaspora
Role of geography: RPF invades from Uganda; hides in highlands.
Role of resources: Collapse of coffee prices, scarcity of arable lands contributes to conflict.
Immediate outcome: RPF military victory; continued raids carried out by ex-RAF/Hutu militias in refugee camps in DRC
Outcome after 5 years: Two invasions by RPF in DRC (1996, 1998); periodic invasions by AliR militias in Rwanda; conflict between DRC and Rwanda
Role of UN: Peacekeeping force of 2,500 from October 1993; withdrawal of major contingents in 1994; Opération Turquoise in June 1994; UNAMIR extended until March 1996.
Role of regional organization: Peace negotiation brokered by OAU from 1990; Arusha Peace Agreements signed August 4, 1993.
Refugees: 1.91-3.2 million (1995 estimate); 2 million(1998 estimate)
Prospects for peace: Internal peace: Uncertain and elusive; Tutsi-led RPF retains hold on power. Regional peace: Cease-fire agreement signed in July 1999 between DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda; 8,000-15,000 FDLR members (2005) still hiding in DRC, to be disarmed and demobilized by MONUC.
Table 1: Civil War in Rwanda

The RPF was, in fact, an extension of the Rwandan Alliance for National Unity (RANU), which was created in 1979 by Tutsi radicals who were behind earlier inkotanyi invasions (Prunier 1995). Foreseeing in the mid-1980s that refugees would never return to Rwanda except through the use of force, many RANU members joined forces with the Ugandan National Resistance Army (NRA) to help General Museveni overthrow the Obote regime in Uganda in January 1986. This strategy would then allow the RPF, mainly composed of NRA soldiers, to reinforce its military capability to launch a stronger attack on the Hutu regime in Rwanda (Otunnu 1999a).

The RPF received most of its funding from Ugandan President Museveni and the Tutsi diaspora living abroad. Once the decision to attack Rwanda was made by July 1990, Rwigyema went on a fund-raising mission throughout the communities of Tutsi émigrés in Europe and North America. Financial contributions came from exile communities in Canada, the United States, and Europe, for they were the wealthiest, but also from larger communities of Tutsi in Africa (Prunier 1995; Sellström, et al. 1996).


Geography played a crucial role in the development of rebel tactics and strategies. Located in the Great Lakes region, Rwanda is bounded by four neighbors: Uganda in the north, Tanzania in the east, Burundi in the south, and Lake Kivu and the DRC in the west (Varga, Draman, Marriott, and Carment 2002). Not only do these countries share geographical boundaries, they also share culture and ethnic geography that influences rebels’ strategic organizing (Gachuruzi 1999). Before the invasion in 1990, Tutsi-friendly regimes in Uganda and Burundi allowed the RPF to use their territory “as a sanctuary for the planning of attacks, stockpiling of weapons, raising funds and movement of troops” (Otunnu 1999b, 43).

The geography of the Great Lakes region is also conducive to guerrilla-style warfare (Varga, et al. 2002). Rwanda’s mountainous and volcanic region along its northwest border with Uganda provided the RPF with easy access to Rwanda while at the same time allowing them to take refuge and hide when necessary. In general, they used the cold, volcanic highlands for two reasons: to buy time and regroup, and to prepare for the next attack (Prunier 1995).


The RPF’s most important sources of arms were Uganda and to a lesser extent China, Libya, and Iraq. When the RPA was created in 1987, 3,000 Rwandans from the NRA defected, taking their personal weapons and ammunitions with them. Their weapons included heavy machine guns, mortars, BM-21 multiple rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, Russian ZUG light automatic cannons, land mines ranging from World War II-vintage mines to modern, non-metallic, antipersonnel, and antitank types. Arms were also purchased from independent arms dealers in Africa and Eastern Europe, where the collapse of the former Soviet Union had been accompanied by a sharp drop in international weapon and ammunition prices (Otunnu 1999b; Prunier 1995; Sellström, et al. 1996, Sislin and Pearson 2001).

Evidence also indicates that the RPF was supported by the Tutsi diaspora with regard to recruits. Émigrés in North America and Europe constituted an important part of the fighting forces. As Prunier argues, “[T]he émigré component of the early RPF recruitment gave it a very high average standard of education … making it probably the best educated guerrilla force the world had ever seen” (1995, 117). This high level of education would contribute greatly to the RPF’s efficiency as a fighting force. As the war extended, the RPF was frequently reinforced with child soldiers. As a result, prior to the invasion in 1990 the RPF numbered around 4,000 men. By early 1991, the RPF had grown to 5,000, by the end of 1992 to 12,000, and in April 1994, force size exceeded 25,000 (Sellström, et al. 1996). In terms of field operations, the RPF conducted what is referred to as a “typical guerrilla hit-and-run pattern of operations,” which the Rwandan government forces, even on the offensive, could not prevent (Prunier 1995, 135).

By contrast, the Rwandan government had, prior to the RPF invasion in 1990, an army of 5,000 men equipped with small arms (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999). France was the first to supply the Rwandan Armed Forces (RAF) and its Presidential Guard, providing heavy artillery and Gazelle helicopters. During the conflict, the RAF acquired its arms mainly from Egypt, South Africa, and the United States (Sislin and Pearson 2001). Financing of the RAF’s war effort is believed to have come from neighboring Zaire through the illegal trade of the mantrax drug and from public enterprises such as Rwandex, Sonarwa, and Rwandatel (IISS 2005). In short, the internal economy was a main engine for the government’s war effort, and the military consumed 38 percent of Rwanda’s budget (Reyntjens 2000; SIPRI 2005; Uvin 1998). By mid-1992, the RAF had increased its human capability dramatically and boasted a total of 50,000 soldiers (Prunier 1995).

In addition, the Presidential Guard, as well as extremist forces within the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR) and Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement (MRND) political parties, used the same training techniques it had learned under French guidance to train paramilitaries and youths militias—known as Interahamwé and Impuzamugambi—”in extremist killer tactics” to prepare for the genocidal killings (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999, 78). The Interahamwé was attached to the MRND political party, and the Impuzamugambi was attached to the CDR party (Des Forges 1999). Beyond machetes, the RAF distributed automatic rifles and hand grenades to the militias (IISS 2005). It is estimated that, at the onset of genocide in 1994, militia size was between 15,000 and 30,000 (Kuperman 2000).

Causes of the War

Causes of protracted conflicts such as the civil war in Rwanda are numerous, complex, and, in many cases, cumulative. The following three sections document the factors that triggered the onset of civil war and genocide. The first and second sections examine permissive and proximate causes that prompted the RPF invasion in 1990, and third section examines the causes of the genocide.

Permissive Causes

Four main clusters of factors help explain the causes of internal conflict: cultural, political, economic, and environmental-demographic (Brown 1996). All four illustrate important permissive causes of the civil war in Rwanda.

Cultural Factors

Colonialism played a significant role in affecting perceptions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. The impact of European interaction with Rwandan society was important in defining social relations within the country’s borders and in emphasizing ethnic differences (Jones 2001).

In precolonial times, the word Tutsi referred to a person rich in cattle, and the word Hutu referred to the mass of peasants who worked for them. Tutsis were thus the elite group (and represented the monarchy in precolonial Rwanda) and Hutus the subjects (Des Forges 1999). As in Burundi, Hutus and Tutsis were ordered in a social hierarchy in which there were a superordinate group, the Tutsis, and a subordinate group, the Hutus (Horowitz 1985). During colonial rule, German and Belgian rulers alike consolidated this power structure, reinforcing Tutsi superiority over Hutu (e.g., through the introduction of ethnic cards). This emphasis on ethnic difference in the allocation of power would be perpetuated following independence in 1962.

Group perceptions were also influenced by regional tensions, especially in neighboring Burundi, where both Hutus and Tutsis lived. Atrocities perpetrated against Hutus in Tutsi-led Burundi had a contagious effect in Hutu-led Rwanda following the independence, providing incentives to reproduce violence against Tutsis in Hutu-led Rwanda (Utterwulghe 1999). Violence against Hutus in Burundi and against Tutsis in Rwanda reinforced the fears of extinction and sentiments of mistrust on both sides. These fears would be strengthened in October 1993 following the coup d’état against Burundi’s first Hutu government.

Political Factors

Ethnic discrimination and exclusionary politics against Tutsi in postcolonial Rwanda are other important factors that help to explain the motivations for rebel invasion in 1990. Following independence, the two Hutu regimes began implementing policies of ethnic ratios and regional quotas all over Rwanda, voluntarily excluding Tutsis from political power as a means of securing their own grip on power. They used methods of political mobilization that included using Tutsis as scapegoats. “Racism was propagated among Rwandan youth at school, through radio and theater,” and the history syllabus portrayed Tutsis as “natural enemies of the Hutu” (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999, 72). Over and above such discrimination, the Hutu elite also used “targeted violence” against Tutsis, that ranged from individual assassination to limited massacres (Jones 2001, 16). Overall, the number of lives lost in anti-Tutsi riots between 1959 and 1973 is estimated to fall between 250,000 and 600,000 (Lema 2000; Prunier 1995; Utterwulghe 1999). Ethnic scapegoating as carried out by the Hutu government displaced and drove millions into exile (Payne and Dagne 2002).

Economic Factors

Discriminatory economic policies combined with the economic misfortunes of the 1980s constitute a third cluster of permissive factors motivating the rebel invasion of 1990. From 1973 onward, policies biased against Tutsi at the expense of a specific group of Hutu from the northwest region of Rwanda (affiliated with Habyarimana’s akazu) in accessing land or capital slowly began to generate discontent in Rwanda. Wealth and power imbalances were not due to the “usual urban-rural disparities;” economic imbalances were due to a systematic discrimination that was becoming increasingly evident (Des Forges 1999, 46). When the economy slumped following the collapse in coffee prices in 1986, the popularity of Habyarimana’s regime further declined. Discontent was echoed not only among Tutsi but also from within Habyarimana’s Hutu party, especially among Hutu southerners who were increasingly victimized under Habyarimana’s rule. By the end of the 1980s, intra-Hutu tensions had formed a widening cleavage (Kuperman 2000; Sellström, et al. 1996). This sent a signal to the RPF that the Habyarimana’s authority was increasingly challenged and had weakened.

Demographic Pressure

Several authors argue that overpopulation and land scarcity played a key role in the outbreak of the Rwandan civil war and genocide (Prunier 1995; Renner 1996). In Rwanda, every square kilometer of arable land supported, on average, more than 400 people (Utterwulghe 1999). As Prunier argues, “[T]here was an increase in competition for access to that very specialized resource [agricultural lands], which could only be appropriated through direct control of government power at high levels” (1995, 84). On the other hand, other authors, such as Homer-Dixon, believe that “land scarcity played at most a peripheral role by reducing regime legitimacy in the countryside” (1999, 17). Although the overpopulation and land scarcity arguments remain very influential in current debates about the conflict, it is reasonable to say, rather, that a combination of factors prompted the civil war and genocide in Rwanda (African Rights 1995).

Proximate Causes

This section examines the proximate, or immediate, factors that triggered the onset of civil war. First, the Ugandan and Rwandan policies regarding Tutsi refugees in exile in Uganda played a significant role in prompting the RPF invasion in Rwanda in 1990. In the 1980s, the Obote regime in Uganda and its continuous attacks on Rwandan refugees had motivated many to seek repatriation in Rwanda. Tutsi refugees further felt betrayed by Uganda when, after they had helped Museveni’s NRA overthrow the Obote regime in 1986, Museveni vacated their position in the new government. In Rwanda, from 1987 until 1989 the issuance of government statements refusing to allow the immigration of large numbers of Tutsi refugees back into Rwanda was another proximate factor that prompted the RPF invasion. Back in 1990, 600,000 Tutsis (who constituted half of Rwanda’s Tutsi population) lived outside of the country (Des Forges 1999; Prunier 1995; Sellström, et al. 1996). The massive repatriation of all Tutsi refugees was perceived as a threat to the fragile Rwandan economy and to the political authority as well (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999).

In addition, prior to the invasion Rwanda was on the verge of collapse both economically and politically (Prunier 1995). Economically, conditions within the state were deteriorating, leaving as the sole option a request for assistance from financial institutions, notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). Introduced a month before the invasion, the reforms imposed a 67 percent devaluation of the national currency, and the SAPs’ policies included privatization and cuts in public spending (Utterwulghe 1999). As Prunier notes, “[B]etween the coffee price decline and the war economy crisis, the SAPs merely contributed to weakening further an already exhausted economy” (1995, 160). When the RPF finally decided to cross the border into Rwanda on October 1, 1990, the Hutu regime was perceived as financially, organizationally, and politically bankrupt. To quote Fearon and Laitin, the regime’s weakness was rendering “insurgency more feasible and attractive” (2003, 75-76). In short, “[t]ime was ripe to declare war against the regime” (Gasana 2002, 219). In Rwanda, the Hutu government was aware of such inevitability. The visible presence of high-ranking and armed Rwandan refugees within the ranks of the Ugandan NRA, the RPF’s intense fund-raising campaign in Uganda and among émigrés, and the unsuccessful RPF invasion in 1989 were indicators signalling that it was only a matter of time before an organized invasion took place. This forced the Hutu government to mobilize military support from its allies Egypt, France, and Zaire. In return, “these responses sent an unequivocal message to the RPF: invade while you still stand a good chance of destabilizing the government or stay in Uganda and disintegrate into oblivion” (Otunnu 1999b, 36). Not coincidentally, the invasion erupted when Ugandan President Museveni and Rwandan President Habyarimana were attending a UNICEF meeting outside their respective countries. On October 1, 1990, 4,000 soldiers defected from the Uganda army, including former army Commander and Ugandan Defence Minister Fred Rwigyema, joined the RPF ranks and crossed the Rwanda border. By October 4, 1990, the RPF was within seventy kilometres from Kigali.

The Genocide

From the start, the genocide was entangled with the civil war, and the escalation of the civil war further complicated the attempts to halt the genocide. The following three factors help to explain what prompted the genocide in April 1994.

The Rise of Extremism

Extremism played a significant role in the lead-up to the genocide in 1994. Extremism was set into play when, in 1990, as a result of international pressure for democratization by donor countries, President Habyarimana announced that he would end the single-party system and allow rival parties to compete for power. In June 1991, a new constitution was signed, accompanied by a new political parties law. Soon after, five new political parties made up of both Hutus and Tutsis were legally registered, and by the beginning of 1992, this figure had risen to twelve. These included the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR), the Parti Social Démocrate (PSD), the Parti Libéral (PL), the Parti Démocrate Chrétien (PDC), the Mouvement Républicain National pour la Démocratie et le Développement (MRNDD), and seven smaller parties (Des Forges 1999; MAR 2000). Created by Habyarimana, these seven smaller parties, composed primarily of Hutus, were a “deliberate attempt to make a sham of multi-partyism” (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999, 69). In fact, these small parties, especially the CDR were extremist Hutu parties. The creation of small Hutu factions was considered to be, according to Habyarimana, “the ‘best’ way to face the challenge caused by the rebirth of political party activities in the country” (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999, 70).

Habyarimana’s way of dealing with political activity by creating extremist factions significantly increased extremism in Rwanda. During the peace negotiations in 1992, radical forces from within Habyarimana’s party used the same strategy of splintering as a means of avoiding the power-sharing provisions proposed by the OAU. When Habyarimana realized the danger of such a strategy of factionalism and extremism, it was too late. Extremist forces had already begun to train paramilitary militias and propagate anti-Tutsi hate in all parts of Rwanda (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999; Kuperman 2000).

Elite Manipulation of Ethnic Hatred and Propaganda

As a way to mobilize the general populace in his favor, Habyarimana used the invasion of October 1990 as an opportunity to revive ethnic sentiments. Elite manipulation of ethnic hatred became evident when, in September 1992, a government commission set up to identify the real enemy in Rwanda’s civil war, explicitly recognized that “Tutsi inside or outside Rwanda who are extremist and nostalgic for power [and] who want to take power in Rwanda by force” were enemies of the state (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999, 74). The elite also worked at redefining the conflict as one between “Rwandans,” who supported the president, and “ibyitso,” those believed to be accomplices of the enemy, including the Tutsi minority and Hutus opposed to the regime.

From then on, extremist sentiments were reinforced and hardened. Habyarimana began to implement an ideology he referred to as the “Union of the Bahutu,” the objective of which was basically to unite Hutus to wipe out Tutsis (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999). Through the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and its countrywide outreach, the Hutu government organized campaigns to create fear and hatred of the Tutsi, playing “upon memories of past domination by the minority and on the legacy of the revolution that overthrew [Tutsi] rule … in 1959” (Des Forges 1999, 3). RTLM journalists, who were members of the extremist CDR and MRND parties, “spent all day broadcasting intoxicating propaganda based on ethnicity” (Kakwenzire and Kamukama 1999, 76). The population of Rwanda was being psychologically prepared and conditioned to extremism. Meanwhile, Habyarimana was providing military training to the youth of his party (the MRND); they would be known as the Interahamwé during the genocide.

The civil war, which at its origins in 1990 pitted the RPF against government forces, was slowly transformed by the Hutu elite in Rwanda into a war between Hutu Rwandans and Tutsi refugees and eventually led to genocide in April 1994. As Des Forges states, “[t]hrough attacks, virulent propaganda, and persistent political manoeuvering, Habyarimana and his group significantly widened divisions between Hutu and Tutsi by the end of 1992” (1999, 4).

The Burundi Effect

On October 21, 1993, Tutsi soldiers in Burundi seized and murdered President Ndadaye, the first Hutu to be elected president in Burundi’s history. The assassination sparked a series of massacres in which tens of thousands of Burundians died and some 70,000 Burundian Hutus poured into southern Rwanda. Ndadaye’s death “at the hands of an all-Tutsi army” had “an immediate and powerful demonstration effect on the Hutu of Rwanda … The message came clear and loud: ‘Never trust the Tutsi!’“ (Sellström, et al. 1996, 45). This served as a powerful tool of Hutu mobilization in Rwanda.

In sum, the genocide was not a manifestation of “ancient hatreds,” nor was it a case of uncontrollable rage or of a “people gone mad.” The genocide resulted from “the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred, and fear, to keep itself in power” (Des Forges 1999, 1).


Conflict Status

The war ended on July 19, 1994 following the “military” victory of the RPF. The RPF captured Kigali on July 6, thus forcing the government forces and extremists into exile. Although some argue that “since there was no capitulation by the ousted government the event does not qualify as a victory” (Uppsala 2003), in reality, the conflict ended because the RAF and Hutu militias sought refuge in neighboring Zaire. By forcing government and militia forces away from the country, the RPF could declare victory even with no clear capitulation. This contested end of the civil war has brought some, such as Utterwulghe (1999), to argue that conflict remains latent because the underlying causes were unresolved and the conflict unsettled between the RAF and the RPF. This section further explores some of the outcomes of the civil war as it ended in 1994.

Since 1994, the RPF has managed to end large-scale violence, to establish a new regime inspired by the power-sharing arrangement of the Arusha Accords, where Hutus have reserved seats in the government coalition, and to engage in the activities of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) (Doyle and Sambanis 2000).

However, by mid-1995, the government coalition had already begun to crumble. Five Hutu ministers, including the prime minister, left the coalition, complaining that the “real” power remained in the hands of an authoritarian Tutsi leadership (Longman 2004). In early 2000, the Hutu president of the republic, Pasteur Bizimungu, left the country for similar reasons. As a result, Hutu are now underrepresented in government, and a Tutsi-dominated RPF holds all political and military power (MAR 2000).

Although the RPF was acclaimed for ending large-scale violence and genocide in July 1994, they are not blameless. In the days and weeks after combat ended, RPF soldiers massacred unarmed civilians in a number of communes, killing several hundreds in refugee camps and assassinating political and military leaders who were close to Habyarimana’s political party. It is estimated that, between April and August 1994, 25,000 to 45,000 were killed by the RPF (Des Forges 1999). Similarly, in 1996 and in 1998, the RPF invaded Zaire with the aim of curbing suspected Hutu militias and rebel supporters. The RPF also contributed to the ousting of Zairian President Mobutu in 1996, significantly intensifying the tensions between Zaire and Rwanda up to the present day (Payne and Dagne 2002).

In addition, the civil war and the genocide in Rwanda generated an enormous spillover effect. Only a few months after the outbreak of hostilities, thousands of refugees fled Rwanda to Tanzania, Zaire, and Burundi. Estimates in 1995 place the figure between 1.9 and 3.2 million refugees (Adelman and Suhrke 1999; Prunier 1999). Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in March 1995 were estimated at close to 800,000; in 1998, in excess of 2 million (Adelman and Suhrke 1999; Cohen-Deng 1998 in Doyle and Sambanis 2000). This refugee outflow impacted significantly the internal and external situation of these countries, imposing heavy economic, political, and geopolitical burdens.

Moreover, the civil war in Rwanda created a contagion effect in neighboring Zaire. Following the capture of Kigali by the RPF, 1.7 million people, most of them Hutu extremist militias and government forces, fled Rwanda to Zaire. With the military support of President Mobutu Sese-Sekou, ex-RAF forces and Hutu militias in exile reorganized their forces from Zaire. By December 1994, refugee camps in Zaire had been transformed into training camps for militias, and the defeated Rwandan interim President Sindikubwabo (who had replaced Habyarimana after his death) had installed and proclaimed its government in exile, and regrouped under the banner of the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALiR) (which would become the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in 2000). This shows the extent to which the civil war had not completely ended. Periodic raids were carried out in northwest Rwanda by Hutu militias from Zaire. This contagiously ignited a conflict between Rwanda and Zaire (Sellström, et al. 1996). The refugee spillover of Hutu militias in Zaire thus played a definitive role in leading the two countries into overt war in 1996 and again in 1998, and in destabilizing regional security by drawing in neighboring Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Duration Tactics

Four aspects of the civil war in Rwanda had notable effects on the duration and escalation of the civil war. First, the access to arms, equipment, and resources enabled both the RPF and the RAF to rearm intensively, not only during the conflict but also following the signing of the Arusha peace agreement on August 4, 1993, thus contributing to the country’s outburst on April 6, 1994 (Prunier 1995). As Sellström et al. argue, “the influx of weapons from foreign sources” greatly influenced the duration and intensity of civil war and the massacres (1996, 67). For instance, in 1991-1992, France provided US $6 million worth of war material to the government forces. Second, the RPF’s superiority to the RAF in fighting skills, higher morale, and discipline significantly affected the military balance between the two parties, thus influencing the duration of the conflict. Third, the media (especially the RTLM), which played a crucil role in fueling political hatred and inciting violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus, also had an important effect on the escalation of the conflict in 1994 (African Rights 1995; Sellström, et al. 1996). Fourth, the lack of international response when the civil war and the massacres against Tutsis began in 1990 had a huge impact on the duration and the escalation of the conflict. According to Des Forges, the international community “overlooked the systematic discrimination against Tutsi” and most were satisfied with the explanation that “the killings were spontaneous and uncontrollable” (1999, 17). Furthermore, the lack of international response to the massacres in Burundi following the president’s death in October 1993 sent the signal to the Rwandan extremists “that they too could slaughter people in large numbers without consequence” (Des Forges 1999, 17).

External Military Intervention

No country sent regular troops in aid of the government or the rebels. France actively supported the Rwandan government by sending 370 and 670 men in October 1990 and February 1993, but this support did not last and was, at best, irregular. Officially, the French government has denied its active participation in the war since their withdrawal in December 1993, when UN forces were deployed (Human Rights Watch/ Arms Projects 1994; Prunier 1995).

Zaire also played a significant role in the conflict. Since 1965, Mobutu has supported actively the Rwandan Hutu government and in 1990, Zaire intervened to help Habyarimana’s armed forces. Overall, Zaire sent 500 troops and allowed Hutu militias to take refuge in Zairian territory, to set up camps and conduct training both before and after the RPF capture of Kigali. Arms continued to flow to the ex-Hutu government in exile in Zaire, despite the UN arms embargo of 17 May 1994 (Human Rights Watch/Arms Project 1995; IISS 2005; Sellström, et al. 1996).

Conflict Management Efforts

From the onset of conflict, there were various attempts to mitigate the civil war, from informal to formal negotiation, peacekeeping, and crisis management. Yet these measures were not sufficient to terminate the war completely or to prevent the ensuing extreme mass killings.

Fifteen days after the RPF invaded, the OAU, along with Belgian and Tanzanian officials, were the first to pursue negotiation. From 1990 to 1992, six cease-fires were concluded and renewed after consecutive violations. These negotiations are referred to as the preliminaries of the negotiation process and would become the basis for the Arusha peace process (Sellström, et al. 1996; Jones 1999b).

A formal negotiation process with the OAU, Belgium, and Germany began in Arusha, Tanzania, on June 12, 1992, and it took more than a year to reach a mutual settlement. The power-sharing agreement between all parties was hard to achieve. Members of Habyarimana’s party (the MRND) viewed the provisions as “political victories by the RPF” and posed a threat to Hutu power (Jones 1999b, 140). Also, the exclusion of the CDR party from the political arrangements because of its extremist nature was another point of contention. American, French, and Tanzanian diplomats backed the Rwandan government, recalling that “it was better to have extremists on the inside of the tent, pissing out, than on the outside of the tent, pissing in” (Jones 1999b, 139). Nonetheless, in January 1992, when the OAU offered the remaining seats of the power-sharing arrangement to the CDR on the condition that the CDR signed a code of ethics committing them to peace, it was too late; they had refused. Within days, the CDR and MRND organized demonstrations against the peace talks. More than 300 Tutsi civilians in the north of Rwanda were murdered (Jones 1999b). The rejection of the Arusha accords by the CDR and MRND parties would soon be the precursor of greater violence.

The “Peace Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of Rwanda and the Rwandese Patriotic Front,” known as the Arusha Accords, was finally signed on August 4, 1993. The Accords included five main protocols signed at different stages of the negotiation: (1) a protocol on the rule of law; (2) a power-sharing arrangement and the creation of the Broad-Based Transitional Government (BBTG); (3) the repatriation of Rwandan refugees and the resettlement of displaced persons; (4) the integration of armed forces; and (5) miscellaneous issues (Jones 1999a, 1999b).

An observer mission for the Uganda-Rwanda cease-fire, the United Nations Observer Mssion to Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR), was created in June 1993 with a mandate to regulate the flow of arms along the Ugandan border. After the Arusha Accords were signed, UN Security Council Resolution 872 (October 5, 1993) authorized the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR). UNAMIR was a 2,538-person “neutral international force” led by Canadian Brigadier General Roméo Dallaire. UNAMIR’s mandate was to provide for security in Kigali, oversee the creation of the BBTG, and monitor the ceasefire in the new demilitarized zone along with UNOMUR (Jones 1999b; Laegreid 1999; Sellström et al. 1996). More importantly, the mission was adopted under Chapter VI authority, which meant it could only use force if UNAMIR was directly attacked (Laegreid 1999). In the case of civil violence or genocide, UNAMIR did not have the mandate to retaliate.

In retrospect, these efforts proved to be less than optimal. The BBTG was never fully established. Parties that did not agree began to splinter, further dividing moderates and extremists. By the time the BBTG was supposed to convene in January and February 1994, assassinations of moderate political leaders had already begun. A special envoy from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the time predicted that “a bloodbath of unparalleled proportions” was under way; similar warnings were made by the head of UNAMIR, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire (Jones 1999b, 145).

UNAMIR’s lack of trained personnel, equipment, and financial resources prevented the mission from effective peacekeeping. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York was also reluctant to take any offensive action, given UNAMIR’s limited Chapter VI mandate. In the first weeks of April 1994, members of the Security Council were questioning whether UNAMIR should remain in place or be withdrawn. No Western states were willing to send troops. By April 19, Belgian troops—the strongest and best-equipped unit—were withdrawn after ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed by extremists. On April 21, the Security Council reduced UNAMIR’s role to a “political presence” (Laegreid 1999, 239). There were final attempts by Tanzania to save the Arusha Accords at the beginning of April 1994, but it was too late. Subsequent efforts also failed, and “the jaws of genocide closed around the peace process in Rwanda” (Jones 1999b, 146).

From April 29, 1994, after 200,000 Tutsis had already been killed, UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali appealed to the Security Council for measures to protect the civilians. It was several weeks before the international community responded. UNAMIR “became increasingly involved in self-protection tasks [and] within a week, 14,000 civilians had gathered under UN protection” (Laegreid 1999, 237).

The first measure was officially launched on June 23, 1994, when France, faced with public opinion criticizing the French army for “having trained the killer militias,” dispatched 2,200 soldiers to Rwanda (Prunier 1999, 283). The mission, known as Opération Turquoise, was to create a Safe Humanitarian Zone in southwest Rwanda to protect civilians. Although Paris was acting unilaterally in this humanitarian intervention, it was granted a military force by the Security Council and a Chapter VII mandate (allowing the use of force) for two months. In retrospect, the mission, which arrived very late in the conflict, was able to save an estimated 12,000-15,000 Tutsi and prevented a profound refugee crisis in Burundi. Yet it was criticized for having provided relief mostly to Hutu IDPs, Interahamwe militias, and ex-RAF troops and their families (Prunier 1999; Sellström, et al. 1996), which in return allowed “the retraining and rearming of large numbers of former government troops” along Rwanda’s frontiers (Freedom House 2000).

A second relief operation was initated in August 1994, when the U.S. government unilaterally deployed troops in Central Africa. An estimated 2,000 Americans took part in Operation Support Hope (Payne and Dagne 2002). Efforts were coordinated with humanitarian organizations and UNAMIR to create safe corridors for returning IDPs and refugees.

The postwar situation was aggravated by the large number of refugees and IDPs (between 1.9 and 3.2 million) in neighboring Zaire (DRC), Burundi, and Tanzania, and by the return to Rwanda of former Tutsi refugees (about 600,000) who had been in exile in Uganda for more than three generations (Prunier 1995; Sellström, et al. 1996). By August 1994, 115,000 had returned from DRC, but operations were halted because ex-RAF forces began terrorizing refugees in Zairian camps (Halvorsen 1999). Until 2002, many have been forced to return by the governments of Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania. In 2002, a change in UNHCR policy regarding Rwandan refugees stated that future repatriation would be voluntary. In 2004, a report from Amnesty International Canada stated that, since 2002, an estimated 55,756 Rwandese refugees had been repatriated, and another 60,000 Rwandan refugees were still to be repatriated (2004).

The ICTR was created in November 1994 in Arusha under the presidency of Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, but the first indictments did not take place until November 1995. As Des Forges points out: “[e]stablishing the responsibility of individual Hutu is … the only way to diminish the ascription of collective guilt to all Hutu” (1999, 736). Considering the common assumption that all Hutus killed Tutsis, and that very few considered the role of Tutsis and the RPF in the civil war, the ICTR decided to prosecute both Hutus and Tutsis responsible for crimes against humanity committed between January 1, 1994, and December 31, 1994.

Since then, thousands have been arrested and await trial, often in inhumane conditions. By 1996, only 1,500 of the 135,000 detainees had been tried (Des Forges 1999; Sellström, et al. 1996). In response, some regional authorities have recently encouraged the local settlement of claims by survivors through a customary process known as gacaca, in which trials take place before a community gathering, and only those accused of causing injury or death during the genocide are judged (Des Forges 1999). While many agree that the gacaca process is not perfect—many believe the process may end up doing more harm than good by opening up old wounds and by further polarizing Hutus and Tutsis rather than reconciling them—it is regarded as “the best available solution, [which] could yet succeed if the government remains vigilant and flexible” (Wolters 2005, 19).


To recapitulate, the civil war in Rwanda was rooted in a pattern of Tutsi refugee invasions that followed discriminatory and exclusionary policies against Tutsis in postcolonial Rwanda. By the time of the invasion in 1990, the rebel movement had gained strength and was highly militarized and disciplined, mainly because of Uganda’s Museveni’s support. The political and economic conditions in Rwanda were declining, which signaled regime weakness and created an opportunity to launch a surprise attack.

Since the RPF had a military superiority over the RAF, the war took three years to settle. The RAF received significant militarily support from France and Zaire, which greatly influenced the duration of the conflict. After a year of formal negotiation, the Arusha Accords were finally signed in August 1993, leaving the UN peacekeeping force in charge of implementing its protocols. However, Arusha was soon undermined by extremist forces in disagreement with the accords, propelling the country into civil chaos and genocide after Habyarimana’s death in February 1994.

Overall, as a means of preventive diplomacy, the Arusha process was admirable in a number of respects: It brought to the table an appropriate balance between regional and international players, neutral elements, and members of the majority of political organizations in Kigali. However, Arusha was a failure in terms of ending the conflict. As Jones points out, “the Arusha process was sophisticated and well managed, but the outcome was flawed. The outcome reflected the inherent difficulties in achieving a stable transition bargain in the context of civil war” (1999b, 132).

This raises important questions with regard to conflict resolution and peacekeeping in civil war contexts. First, should conflict resolution include or exclude extremists? Whereas in South Africa all political elements were included in the peace process with apparent success, in Rwanda the peace negotiations excluded hardliners and failed to prevent the ensuing genocide. Some argue that providing a stronger role for hardliners in Rwanda could have contributed to securing their power and perhaps could have avoided the tragic events of April 1994 (Jones 1999b).

Second, what role should international actors play in conflict resolution? In Rwanda, the agreement was negotiated under great international pressure. By forcing the two sides to adopt untenable positions, the intervention of the Arusha participants (the OAU, France, Belgium, and the United States) did not alleviate the already tense situation and resulted in tragic consequences (Jones 1999b).

Third, the case of Rwanda’s peacekeeping force also raises questions about United Nations intervention and its rapid-reaction force capacity. Some argue that providing a greater role and more robust force for UNAMIR, including a Chapter VII mandate allowing the use of force, could have improved the declining security situation in Kigali. Dallaire (2003) claimed that a robust contingent of 5,000 could have prevented the genocide and dissuaded extremists. Indeed, it is increasingly being recognized that, in an era characterized more and more by internal conflicts and civil wars, there is a need for the UN, or any other regional organizations such as the African Union (AU), to develop a rapid-reaction capability, or a stand-by force, that would be ready to rapidly intervene when massive human rights abuses are perpetrated against a population.

In conclusion, prospects for peace in Rwanda remain uncertain and elusive. Between 8,000 and 15,000 ex-Hutu militia members and Rwandan Hutu refugees, now organized under the banner of the FDLR, continue to operate from east DRC and oppose Tutsi rule in Rwanda. Last March 31, 2005, following peace talks in Rome with representatives from the Congolese government, the FDLR finally agreed to put an end to their hostilities against Rwanda, to stop terrorizing Congolese civilians, and to demobilize and return to Rwanda where the FDLR would become a political party (International Crisis Group 2005). The United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) was mandated to disarm, demobilize, repatriate, resettle, and reintegrate FLDR members in Rwanda before September 2005. However, as of July 2006, the FDLR had not yet abandoned the DRC and many commanders were still hiding in the bush in the Kivu province “ready to carry on fighting” (BBC News 2006). The degree of Hutu mobilization in the DRC, as well as DRC support for the Hutu rebellion, both create opportunities and incentives for the renewal of conflict in the future (Harff and Gurr 1998).

In Rwanda, the Tutsi-led RPF who retains its hold on power and allows little autonomy for Rwandan Hutu, seems to reproduce the ethnic politics that they were trying to avoid when they came to power. A major obstacle to the establishment of a durable peace in Rwanda remains the way the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda will reconcile with the Hutu majority not only within the country but also within the region, and how the Rwandan government will reintegrate the Hutu militias who are to return to Rwanda. Durable peace will also depend on the ability and willingness of Rwanda’s population to move beyond divisive distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis, and to view all members of society as Rwandans.