Ethnicity, Alternation at the Top of the Rwandan State and Repercussions on East Africa’s Stability

National identity is a combination of ethnic identities in African states. The risk of conflagration is an established issue in studies of democracy in multi-ethnic societies (Sindjoun: 2000). Yet, the definition of ethnicity is far from being tangible as the historical and cultural differences to which it generally refers.  In the case of Rwanda, the situation is more complicated because the ethnic groups present share a common language, culture, history, and geographic space. Moreover, by respecting certain criteria, it was possible to become Hutu or Tutsi before colonial occupation. Before going into further contextual analysis, it is necessary to understand what ethnicity is all about. While some see ethnicity as a product of the activity of an ethnic group, others see it as the reason for the differentiation of human groups and thus the origin of ethnic groups. Beyond these, the proposed definition of ethnicity that seems most operative to us is the bijective definition of Bamaze N’gani, who views ethnicity as the “feeling of belonging to a human group different from others by real or supposed criteria” (Bamaze N’gani: 2018). It is this feeling that, in the Rwandan case, served as the driving force behind an unconstitutional change at the top of the state, the consequence of which has been a persistent destabilization of the sub-region. How then did the worsening of ethnicity lead to a change of power at the margins of the constitution of independent Rwanda? What were the implications for peace and security in East Africa? Attempts to provide answers to these puzzles are provided in the sections that follow. 

Politicization of Ethnicity and Unconstitutional Power Change in Rwanda 

Through conflicting politicization, ethnicity was able to serve as the explosive element in the cocktail that led to the unconstitutional change of government in Rwanda in 1973 and 1994. By conflictual politicization of ethnicity, we mean ethnicity to dominate one part of the population by another on the grounds of real or constructed ethnic difference. The exacerbation and quasi-racialization of the difference between Bahutu and Batutsi date back to the colonial period in Rwanda (Chrétien: 2005). Indeed, even from the foundation of the kingdom in 1895, the year of the beginning of colonization, none of the 25 kings who succeeded one another at the head of the Rwandan kingdom were Hutu, the mobility existing between the Hutu and Tutsi categories created a fluidity that prevented the essentialization of these categories which, all in all, constituted socio-professional categories that made it possible to distinguish between farmers and herders. The colonization will freeze these categories by relegating to oblivion the ancient possibility of moving from one category to another.  

Ethnicity served as a discriminatory social marker to strengthen the position of the Tutsi minorities who had access to education and the main positions of responsibility. This created a legacy of exclusion of the marginalized despite the 1978 constitutional amendment and its Article 16 guaranteeing the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of race, color, origin, and ethnicity, to name but these. It must be said that, since the 1940s, the Hutus, in reaction to their exclusion from the decision-making spheres, had begun to protest and to organize themselves as a “counter-elite” (Lemarchand: 2011). The weight of demographics enabled them to obtain a majority in the parliament of independent Rwanda and, as a result, the presidency of the Republic of Rwanda. In the case of the Tutsis, they are the only ones who had the right to vote and be elected. Some of them formed a militia that regularly attacked the territory of the young state.  On July 5, 1973, Major General Juvénal Habyarimana overthrew the civilian government of President Kayibanda. He justified this putsch by the failure of the Kayibanda regime to manage inter-ethnic relations and instituted a policy of regional and ethnic balance that was supposed to ensure the representation of Tutsis who had become a minority in the various socio-economic spheres. However, in parallel, a campaign to demonize the Tutsis was initiated by the radio station la Voix des Mille Collines and newspapers such as Kunguru. And the death of President Habyarimana in a plane crash on April 6, 1994, is considered the “signal for the outbreak of violence in the country (Reyntjens? 1994). 

On July 4, 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front took over the capital and power through a coup d’état which was not spoken of. Habyarimana’s succession was ensured by a governing trio: the President of the Republic, Pasteur Bizimungu, the Prime Minister, Faustin Twagiramungu, and Major General Paul Kagame, Vice President and Minister of Defense. There is nothing constitutional about this, but the situation makes it understandable: an armed rebellion that seized power after a long conflict and just after the death of the President of the Republic is not expected to organize proper elections. This government, formed in compliance with the Arusha Accords, was a token of goodwill (Article 3, Annex 30, Arusha Agreement). This interruption of the presidential mandate, the latest since then, has had the least repercussions for the East African sub-region. 

The Politicization of Ethnicity in Rwanda: A Factor of Insecurity in East Africa   

The Rwandan genocide is known to be the major problem that surrounds studies on Rwanda, which is why we have deliberately set it aside so as not to lose sight of the main thrust of this study, namely the presentation of the dynamics and repercussions of unconstitutional changes of power in a context of strong ethnicity. The genocide appears as a consequence that affects not only the East African sub-region and the African continent but also the entire world because the chain of responsibility is very long: from the colonialist who instrumentalized the socio-economic distinction to turn it into an ethnic identity; to the members of the security council who did nothing to stop the rise to extremes to the powerless Organization of African Unity. Approximately 800,000 people were killed between April and July 1994 (UNHCR: 2000), most of them Tutsis and those who defended them. When the RPF took power in 1995, led by the Tutsi Kagame, the Tutsis, in turn, became the targets of violence. All of this rewrote the demographic map of Africa as populations fled the various conflicts that arose in the wake of the genocide (Zairean civil war, clashes in refugee camps, etc.). The responsibility to protect has taken precedence over the duty of non-interference. However, not all the lessons seem to have been learned from this tragic episode of unconstitutional alternation based on ethnic distinction.  

Moreover, in a world where the management of otherness poses more and more problems, the rise of intolerance and identity withdrawal raises questions. Therefore, the general discontent could focus on identity, status, or any other enemy designated by official discourse because, as Carl Schmitt said so well: “politics is the art of designating the enemy” (Schmitt: 1992). 


Bamaze N’gani, E. (2018). Politiser ou privatiser l’ethnie? Réflexion à propos du bien commun en Afrique postcoloniale. Philosophiques, 45(2), 419-444. 

Chrétien, J. P. (2005). Les premiers voyageurs étrangers au Burundi et au Rwanda: les «compagnons obscurs» des «explorateurs». Afrique histoire, 4(2), 37-72. 

Daley, P. (2006). Ethnicity and political violence in Africa: The challenge to the Burundi state. Political Geography, 25(6), 657-679. 

Reyntjens, F. (1994). L’Afrique des grands lacs en crise: Rwanda, Burundi, 1988-1994. KARTHALA Editions. 

Sindjoun, L. (2000). La démocratie est-elle soluble dans le pluralisme culturel: éléments pour une discussion politiste de la démocratie dans les sociétés plurales. L’Afrique politique, 19-40.  

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JENGU Guy Beaudry est doctorant à l’Université de Yaoundé II, Soa et chef du département tendances et conjonctures du Centre Africain de Recherche en Sciences Morales et Politiques (CARES-MP). Il est particulièrement intéressé par les questions de sociologie des relations internationales et les études stratégiques.

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Aboudi Vanessa is a Research Associate in the Democracy and Governance Division of the Nkafu Policy Institute. She holds a Master's degree in Political Science from the University of Yaoundé II and is particularly interested in governance and gender issues. She is the author and co-author of several articles published in national and international journals.


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