The Historiography of Rwandan Genocide

Subject: History
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In the past two decades, the Rwandan genocide has been subjected to a resurgence in academic historiographic research, with the expanding diversity of disciplines. In its thematic interpretation, genocide is a paradigmatic instance of ethnic conflict and is core to the rapidly evolving field of genocide studies. It is also relevant for those exploring transitional justice, humanitarian interventions, organized violence, and contemporary African politics. The topic also commands attention beyond the academic realm and captures policymakers and lay audiences. In a broad sense, the existing research on the Rwandan genocide can be differentiated into three main areas. The first is concerned with the origins of genocide, especially the history of ethnicity and the planning and execution of the genocide itself. The second area explores the international response to genocide, particularly in terms of the decision not to intervene or stop the killings. The third area is concerned with the outcomes and the aftermath of the event, with focus placed on the question of how to render justice after a crime of such enormous scope.

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There is general agreement between historians that the genocide in Rwanda could be compared to the mistreatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, with the Tutsi people being the subject of targeted violence. However, there is a difference in the views, especially over time, when new perspectives emerged regarding the genocide being much more than a race issue but also viewed from the prism of tribalism. In addition, variance in perspectives can be seen is the popular view on the Rwandan genocide within the socially-constructive view. The reason behind such notoriety is that the perspective considers the issue of ethnicity in Rwanda in addition to a more radical view, implying the sociotechnical divide in Rwanda. The reason behind the divide among scholars is concerned with the difference between the ways in which the Hutu and Tutsi lived, their genetic differences, cultural heritage, and so on. Therefore, the current exploration aims to look at the differences in scholars’ views and explain their reasons. Such an explanation is necessary to have because the significant differences in opinions as to why the genocide occurred shape the current historiographic narrative, which varies from one perspective to another.

The Government’s Version

The manipulation of memory regarding the events surrounding the genocide in Rwanda is an important subject to consider in this exploration as it can illuminate critical issues in understanding the differences in the interpretations of the event. Beginning in the 1980s, memory studies, which represent an interdisciplinary field of social sciences, began viewing society as a separate remembering entity. The expectation was that people within societies tend to formulate their own memories and versions of history, with societies also forming collective memories that allow the formulation of national identifies (Hirschberger 2018). Therefore, having control over collective memory becomes important to those who want to have the upper hand in instances of civil conflict or any other violence.

Manipulation of memory took place when after seizing power, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) began a campaign aimed at re-educating Rwandans and outsiders about the past of the country, especially “the role that ethnicity played in the country’s distant past and in the 1994 genocide” (as cited in Kelley 2017, 100). Unsurprisingly, the new version was set to support the claims of the Kagame government concerning legitimacy, absolving it of any responsibility for past mistakes. It is notable that the new president was a former intelligence operative, which meant that he understood how to mold a collective memory and manipulate it for past and present political reasons.

According to the regime’s version of history, Rwandans had lived a peaceful and harmonious life before European colonialists arrived. “Hutu” and “Tutsi” had different meanings in the peaceful days, existing as concepts denoting socioeconomic classes and not distinct tribes or ethnicities. Kagame’s narrative suggested that before the colonial involvement, the population of Rwanda was unified as people spoke the same language, shared a religion, were loyal to their government, and were interdependent economically.

Thus, when explaining the causes of genocide in Rwanda, the government stated that the separation between the Hutu and Tutsi groups as ethnicities was implemented by German and Belgian colonialists to cause the domination and exploitation of the country. Specifically, the Belgians, colluding with the Catholic Church, were said to teach the population that Tutsi and Hutu were competing and separate tribes that must hate one another (Caplan 2018). As a result of the hateful and misleading narrative, which foreign colonizers supposedly imposed, the Tutsis and Hutus got caught in violent political competition. As a result, according to the government’s recalling of history, the negative mindset that spread among the Hutus led to the 1994 genocide.

Once the violence began, it was up to the RPF to stop it. The historical narrative perpetuated by the government was intended to support its legitimate rule. As superior actors working toward seemingly preventing violence, the government-control troops were said to be instrumental in leading the country into a peaceful and prosperous future. Besides, the fact that the entire population of Hutu was indoctrinated into the anti-nationalist and colonialist evil worldviews meant that Kagame was justified in taking extreme measures to exercise tight control. Such a manipulative way of retelling history is problematic because it causes disruptions in the further historiographic exploration of the Rwandan genocide. Therefore, it is essential to offer a contrasting point of view that the historians studying the topic had regarding the events surrounding the genocide. The ways in which pre-colonial Rwanda and the relationships between the Hutu and Tutsi people were described bear particular importance.

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Historians’ Perspective

Preceding further exploration, it must be noted that there was indeed overlap between the self-serving version of the Rwandan government and the narrative upon which historians generally agree. However, the core differences lie in the fact that historians provide a detailed and context-focused account that does not necessarily support the Kagame regime’s explanations of its political legitimacy in the country. It is notable that there were different meanings of the terms Hutu and Tutsi before the colonial times of Rwanda (Caplan 2018). However, it is wrong to suggest that the terms had no connection to ethnic differences or that Europeans that came to the country invented ethnic differentiation.

Historians suggested that the meaning and political character of Rwanda’s ethnic identities varied through time and the specific political, social, or geographic context. In most instances, clan and kinship were more significant for defining populations’ identities than such ethnic labels as Hutu or Tutsi. While the groups viewed themselves as different from one another, it was their lineage identities or clans that defined them, and not ethnicity (Caplan 2018). Moreover, Rwanda, at times of pre-colonialism, was riddled with political contestation. Still, it is a misrepresentation that Europeans alone were the ones to blame for the stark social division that existed during the colonial era. As suggested by Newbury, “if external power altered the ethnic landscape, ethnic awareness was not the work of colonialists alone. The ruling classes were not passive onlookers; they willingly participated in the extension of ethnic distinctions and in deepening the meaning of such distinctions” (as cited in Kelley 2017, 107). Put differently, colonial power played a role in changing ethnic conceptions and increased the tensions between groups; however, it is false to suggest that ethnicity was colonial fiction.

In contrast to the Kagame regime’s claims, the genocide was not the peak of the ongoing ethnic conflict slowly building since the 1950s. Rather, the Hutu political leaders of Rwanda intentionally manipulated the ethnic division of the population as a way to gather their supporters and preserve the position of privilege and power. For generations of Rwandans, ethnicity has been the subject of ongoing social and political debates in the country. However, it became highly relevant and meaningful due to the leaders’ responses to genocide as a crisis and was not the cause of the crisis itself.

From the standpoint of Hutu politicians, the 1980s was indeed a time of crisis as the country was politically and economically unstable, with much of the population, including the Hutu communities, being unhappy with the rule of President Habyarimana (Kelley 2013). While global coffee prices had plummeted and sent the economy into a tailspin, the externally-encouraged adjustment programs, which became popular after the fall of the Berlin wall, made the economy worse (Kelley 2013). The critical downturn resulted in famine in some regions of the country, with resentment and social divisions festering during the 1980s, which turned many people against the ruling regime.

When the RPF implemented an invasion into the northern part of Rwanda in 1990, the hardliners within the Hutu-led government were successful in channeling the frustrations of citizens and anger toward the perceived common enemy. Hutus spreading hatred for Tutsis succeeded in portraying the latter as the group to be addressed, convincing the majority of the population that the RPF’s mission was crucial. It is notable that no credible historians argue that it was the RPF that developed genocide against the Tutsis by invading Rwanda. However, within a nuanced and multi-dimensional explanation of events, the invasion was a catalyst to the subsequent occurrences and the formation of Hutu’s collective perception of the Tutsis being an oppressive dynasty.

Differences in Historical Narratives

The variability in historical narratives surrounding the genocide in Rwanda emerged since, from the start, the Kagame regime had been maintaining the version that all Hutus perpetrated the genocide and were motivated by ethnic hatred. At the same time, all genocide victims were said to be Tutsis, which explains why the regime under Kagame’s rule insisted that the genocide must be only described as the “genocide against the Tutsi” (Miles 2003, 131). However, upon a closer exploration of the issue, scholars judged several aspects of the government’s version to be inaccurate historically. Specifically, not all Hutu populations were killers, and there were credible reports of them opposing the genocide, even hiding and protecting groups at risk.

Moreover, those participating in the genocide against the Tutsis had far more complicated and varied complications than mere ethnic hatred. Researchers have concluded that the killings were motivated to implement the genocide by several factors, such as fear of retribution for not participating, greed, and the cultural tendency to follow orders (Fujii 2011). Besides, while it is true that the large majority of genocide victims belonged to the Tutsi population, there were also casualties in Hutu and Twa communities (Miles 2003). The initial victims represented politically moderate opponents of the ruling regime, and many of them were Hutus. Besides, many people who died were the product of generations of intermarrying and intermixing, which meant that it was complicated to identify the specific ethnic group to which they belonged.

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In addition, the historical narrative that the historians of the Kagame regime perpetuated significantly departed from others’ regarding the conduct of the army during and after the genocide. As mentioned previously, in the RPF version, the army is depicted as blameless heroes. However, while praise can be given to the skills and courage that the RPF had in confronting the genocide, it is imperative to note that the RPF did exercise excessive power and did commit crimes. This is a crucial part of the historical narrative and should not be ignored. Even though Rwandans were not allowed to discuss or acknowledge it, academics overwhelmingly agree that in the follow-up to their military victory and its immediate outcomes, the RPF killed an estimated 30,000 mostly Hutu civilians in the country (Haskell and Waldorf 2011). Consistently, the Kagame regime dismissed the incidents as random and unplanned killings carried out by emotionally overwhelmed and poorly disciplined soldiers.

However, according to Des Forges, a renowned expert on issues concerning Rwanda, the widespread killings were too similar in execution and the RPF army was far too structured and disciplined to explain the killings as random acts of revenge (Newbury and Reyntjens 2010). While no credible historian claims that the killings by the RPF army were the moral equivalent of genocide, the issue lies in Rwandans being prohibited from discussing the atrocities carried out by them.

Because Kagame remains Rwanda’s president to this day, it is a problem that the regime continues insisting on its specific version of the pre-colonial history of the country characterized by ethnic difference, harmony, and mutually beneficial economic relationships between the representatives of different classes. Such a version of history allows for legitimizing the ruling regime in several areas. Moreover, it renders it irrelevant that modern Rwanda is being governed by a small and elite group of Tutsi. The reason is that the term, similarly to other ethnic denominators, supposedly has no historic validity except for being used by colonialists to divide the population (Kelley 2017). Besides, the regime’s version suggests that it is appropriate for the nation to be guided politically by an autocrat, represented by the king in pre-colonial times and Paul Kagame at the present time.

Therefore, historians and other scholars that studied the Rwandan genocide agreed that the events had a more complex and dynamic context than the government suggested. It becomes imperative to consider the ethnic struggles and differences as well as the economic exploitation by the powerful Tutsi monarchy. Another important and self-serving aspect of the Kagame regime’s narrative is that the 1994 genocide took place due to the atavistic ethnic hatred that the colonialists in Belgium invented and inculcated in the people of Rwanda. It is problematic that the shared memory of the Rwandan people was tainted by hate and that the inevitable results were so catastrophic. This justifies the efforts of the current regime to re-educate the population about its history and the nature of nationality. In contrast, historians state that there were several and more complex causes of genocide, including the fact that elite Hutu politicians used longstanding ethnic divisions as a way of redirecting citizens’ frustrations from the government and toward the Tutsi groups.

Finally, the government’s approved historical narrative shows Paul Kagame and the RPF as blameless saviors who stopped the genocide by themselves. They prevented the wanton killing by the Hutu groups in Rwanda, all of who were considered genocidaires, and saved the remainder of Tutsi citizens that were deemed as victims (Kelley 2017). Because it was up to RPF to restore peace in the country, according to the government’s version, it had the right and moral authority to implement the reconstruction of Rwanda.

Even though historians that do not fully agree with Kagame’s version acknowledge the fact that RPF was instrumental in stopping the genocide, they insist that the army was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity during and after their campaign. Moreover, historians emphasize the fact that the genocide is improperly referred to as the “genocide against the Tutsi,” as the government insists for it to be called (Kelley 2017, 109). Even though a vast majority of people affected by the genocide were Tutsi, many Hutus and Twas were also murdered, and it is imperative to take this within the historiographic account of Rwanda.

A lot of new scholars are concerned with the issue that the government continues tinkering with its laws regarding the studies of genocide in Rwanda. Since becoming in control over Rwanda’s government, the Rwandan Patriotic Front has used restrictions of speech, especially expressions related to the genocide, as a way to stop any unwanted hypotheses or narratives. For example, in 2001, a law was passed prohibiting “the use of any speech, written statement or verbal statement or action that divides people, which is likely to spark conflict among people, or that causes an uprising that may degenerate into strife among people based on discrimination” (“Rwanda: Law No. 47/2001” 2001, 1). As a result of the law being passed, the ideologies that went against the version of the government regarding genocide were criminalized. Further, at the beginning of the 2000s, Hutu people were prosecuted for “genocide ideology,” which supposedly threatened the history of the country with revisionism (Kelley 2017, 114). The efforts of the RPF to silence varied accounts of genocide were cemented by the 2008 law that defined and punished genocide ideology. The critics pointed out that the law was not only vague and sweeping but also significantly separated from the crime of genocide, with prison terms reaching fifty years under the law.

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Importance of Having Diverse Historiographic Accounts

A historiographic narrative that is not restricted by the laws and regulations that censor speech is imperative for preserving an objective account of the Rwandan genocide. The events taking place during the genocide were not only a sequence of brutal violent acts but also were the story of omissions and the distanced allowing of such violence (Kelley 2017). The inhumanity was not only revealed in the soulless murdering of people but also in the carefully pre-determined denial of silence and inaction. This means that blame should not only be placed on those who planned and implemented the killings, as there are institutional agents responsible for the atrocities (Morrison 2017). For example, the UN had the opportunity and capacity to prevent or mitigate violence but did little to act.

Within Rwanda, the process of reconciliation was painful and slow, and it is of great importance to continue speaking about the events without fear of retaliation because the common memory of society is shaped with the help of individual accounts that are shared and acknowledged. While some survivors will agree with the radical version put forth by the RPF because it aligned with their experiences, others will not because they faced violence or oppression at the hands of the supposed saviors.

The variability in perspectives regarding the distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis is an important aspect of historiographic disagreement. As suggested in Negotiating Genocide in Rwanda: The Politics of History, the government’s official history oversimplified the pre-colonial relationships between the groups, dividing the population into the innocent Tutsi victims and the guilty Hutu perpetrators (Jessee 2017). It is a problem that the version has been embedded into the larger public narrative by means of the regime controlling memorials and transitional justice mechanisms. The imposition of cultural and ethnic differences by the colonialists is a version that the Rwandan government’s supporters have adopted, which is a harmful and misleading version of the events.

It is wrong to state that Rwanda lived in peace and understanding before the arrival of colonizers because it was simply not true. The economic tensions began exacerbating before the involvement of Europeans, with the latter’s arrival being the catalyst to the exacerbating tensions. The boundaries between the social and ethnic categories of Hutu and Tutsi were historically fluid, and it was common for individuals to switch groups as a result of marriage, economic gains, or financial hardship. Pre-colonial Rwanda was already struggling from the exploitation by mainly-Tutsi overlords of the labor of their predominantly-Hutu subjects. Even though colonial power had an impact on altering ethnic conceptions and causing more rivalry between the groups, ethnic differences were not subjected to colonial fiction.

Thus, it is important to continue having various discussions regarding the events of the Rwandan genocide. Even though the Rwanda Political Front was instrumental in stopping the genocide from completion, their victory and version of events are far from clean. The “revenge killings” carried out by the oppressed are sadly common occurrences after the episodes of mass murders, and it is devastating that there were not enough peacekeeping forces offered by the international community (Kelley 2017). In addition, the shock incurred after the genocide in Rwanda added to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to two million Hutus fleeing the country in fear of reprisals against them by the new government (BBC 2012). Having an all-encompassing perspective on the events of the genocide in Rwanda is necessary because they did not exist in isolation as the government portrays it. Instead, many factors, including social, political, economic, and ethnic, were building up and expanding over time, resulting in the violent conflict inside Rwanda.


The more profound exploration of the historiographic accounts of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda showed that the country was historically riddled with instability and class division between populations. Even though having differences in the versions of history is a common occurrence, with governments having their official narratives, the way in which collective memory was manipulated in Rwanda is a challenge. There is general agreement in the basic facts between the different versions of historians, both independent ones and those acting in support of the government. However, there must be more attention given to the regional, political, and social tensions occurring at different points of the country’s history, of which the governmental version is void. The limitations to freedom of speech and varied narratives of the genocide can undermine post-genocide social repair and transitional justice, suggesting the possibility of further political instability. Thus, one must call into question the assumed benefits of Rwanda’s government version in the post-conflict context due to the harmful effects of authoritarian regimes.

Of course, it is wrong to blame the current Rwandan government for the consequences of genocide, as the RPF acted with the intention of establishing peace. Historians that explore the Rwandan genocide should be aware of all details and context of the events to create a comprehensive overview of the history and involve considerations of politics, social affairs, economic struggles, and ethnicity. The new way of looking at the events should include consideration of the longstanding history of the country and its unique relationships.


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