On Rwanda

Basil Davidson

Africa tramples in its misery and blood, and commentators are left to chant dismay. I share this dismay, but is explanation possible? As in Rwanda now, these are disasters which repeat themselves, and for Rwanda, as for its Siamese twin Burundi, which has lately suffered much the same, the useful words seem all used up. Even so, there have to be sensible answers.

These are far from immediately obvious. No Great Power rivalry here. No minerals worth a row of beans. Not – it seems – so much as a sniff of oil. These are small highland kingdoms whose economic attraction for the outside world is robusta coffee, though seldom enough for substantial export. You might think, I used to think it myself, that here are two countries in Africa – but culturally, in a large sense, a single country – that the whole desperate confusion of colonial enclosure with its violent and neurotic consequences could well have left untouched. Yet ‘market explanations’, of whatever kind, whether Thatcherite or not, make a poor hand at explaining history. Rwanda’s (or Burundi’s) failure to be worthy of despoilment has not availed.

For the fact remains that the comprehensive cause of the present condition of Rwanda, aside from human frailties visible everywhere, lies in its history of imperialist dispossession, a history no less fixed in its consequences for being little known in distant lands. Here is a case where the consequences of dispossession, meaning the moral and psychological consequences even more than the material ones, can be traced with a considerable simplicity of explication. This is not because the Belgians proved worse than other dispossessors in the ‘partition’ of Africa. The Belgians, whether Walloon or Flemish, appear never to have much suffered from the frantic fevers of imperialism, or wished to exercise an imperialist vocation. Their interests, very honestly stated, were narrowly commercial. They were in it for the profit, and save in moments of self-inflation (rather few in Belgium, as it happens), have been little inclined to prate about their civilising mission. Their Congo state and colony paid a grim price for this single-minded interest in profit, and its successor, Zaire, still pays this price. But not Rwanda and not Burundi. The damage there has had a different complexity of sources.

The damage remained merely immanent for years after the Berlin ‘partition congress’ of 1884-5 had allocated these lands to the control of the then up-and-coming German empire. But it became rather rapidly visible, or would have done if anyone had looked to see, after the Germans had borrowed from the British and introduced forms of ‘indirect rule’. Like their rivals, the Germans had convinced themselves of their duty to produce African colonies equipped with the apparatus of European government. But they were equally sure that this must be done on the cheap. This in turn meant that the main cost of administration must be shifted to the colonised populations. Aside from imposing new taxes, the colonising power must employ local and native agents who would, in practice, pay for themselves. As quickly became clear, this was bound to lead to trouble. And given this colonial history of Rwanda (or of Burundi), what is truly puzzling about these latest breakdowns is that they appear to have taken the European and American public by surprise. For about the last forty years, or more, these remote countries have been rocked every decade or so by ferocious risings and repressions. The usual death-toll of these self-inflicted slaughters has been in the range of a few thousand, but the really big disasters have undoubtedly taken the lives of tens of thousands. 1972 was particularly horrible in this respect; 1988 was probably worse.

Having emerged in the hills of the Rift around 1500 AD, or somewhat earlier, these small kingdoms remained pre-literate and of course pre-industrial, but were able, thanks to a fruitful agrarian economy providing cattle and bananas, to acquire what all the evidence suggests was a generally tolerant and easy-going kind of life to which the long-range slave trade never succeeded in getting access. They developed three different communities: banana-growing Hutu, cattle-raising Tutsi, and a little margin of Twa ‘pygmies’ who managed for the most part to look after themselves. Their numerical proportions in colonial times, much as today, were roughly 80 per cent Hutu, 15 per cent Tutsi, and 5 per cent Twa. What mattered most in the social balance were relationships between Hutu and Tutsi, and these, when the colonial take-overs began, had long become the successful product of a cohabitation within structures of compensation and mutual advantage, sometimes strongly misinterpreted, since then, in the terminology of European feudalism. Essentially, these relationships signalled a compact whereby the Tutsi provided whatever armed force was needed to fend off intruders, while the Hutu grew bananas for everybody. The abrasions and upsets within this compact were customarily contained by several kinds of attitude and structure. Of these the most effective consisted in a potently unifying set of beliefs about spiritual and socially regulating power, the king being accepted as speaking for the welfare of the whole community. These Banyarwanda monarchs were no more divine in status than England’s Plantagenet kings, but also no less, being the recognised apex of those powers which belonged to the eternal.

It all seems to have worked rather well. From the implications of later work by excellent (and often Belgian) ethnographers the impression of an easy-going peace remains a strong one. The Tutsi cattle-breeders are remembered as having had all the time in the world for drinking hydromel in gatherings devoted to the recitation and composition of warlike ballads, while the actual clashing of spears came only on gentle echoes across the multitudinous hills; as for the Hutu cultivators, they appear to have been reasonably content with their lot while complaining as farmers naturally do. All shared the same language, and if they belonged to different tribes nobody had yet told them so. All lived in huts and hamlets of much the same ‘standard’, and often along-side one another. All followed the same overriding beliefs and superstitions, of course with many local variants. Patiently regarded, these cultures’ community arrangements acquire the lineaments of a valid system of social controls. So it appeared, also, to the earliest UN mission of inquiry into threatening upsets, back in 1959, whose thoughtful members concluded that the Banyarwanda, even until times then quite recent, had possessed ‘a very complex but stable civilisation’.

But by 1959 this was already too optimistic. The trouble at its roots, clearly enough, consisted in the indirect rule imposed by the Germans after 1907 and taken over by the Belgians in 1919. The ‘ruling class’ required by the doctrine of indirect rule had of course to be the Tutsi. As cattle-chiefs and lineage headmen their spokesmen were already accustomed to thinking of themselves as superior to the Hutu. But the needs of indirect rule transformed an ascribed superiority into an inherited one, and soon enough the debasing exercise of an otherwise unearned administrative power worked to congeal the cultural status of the Tutsi – cattle-chiefs or cattle-drovers, never mind the difference – into an aristocracy by right of birth and natural privilege. What more expectable? They were tall and well-featured, preternaturally idle and given to living off the labour of spearless inferiors. Colonial convenience soon had their leaders qualified – you will find it widely in the touristic literature of latter years – as ‘princes of the blood’; and I have little doubt that much prolongation of the colonial system after 1962, when it did in fact come to an end, would have provided these elegant layabouts with kilts or trews and all things thereto appropriate.

Hence in large part the current myth of an ‘endemic tribalism’ vowed through generations to internecine warfare. Yet what was not a myth, anyway in and after the Thirties when Tutsi agencies of domination had acquired what seemed a permanence, was a deepening resentment by the Hutu against having become the victims, as they increasingly saw it, of hierarchical dictatorship exercised by the licensees of an overwhelming colonial power. In the past they had possessed effective means of argument and compromise: now, and for years lengthening ahead, they were required simply to fetch and carry and obey. Everyday life became invaded by a poison of fear which, as happens with fear, grew mixed with a hatred, as all the sources have suggested, that was not there before. This unholy brew of emotions thickened to an unbearable consistency when the prospect of colonial withdrawal drew nearer. Who was now to have the power after the Europeans had gone? Indirect rule had immensely sharpened the question. As the UN mission reported in 1959, all positions of commanding power under the Belgians had become reserved to Tutsi agents, while ‘the monopoly of poverty, destitution and servile labour’ remained with the Hutu; and the Hutu were still some four-fifths of all the people.

After 1962, when the Belgians pulled out, the question of power was answered by the only means that came to hand, and this was violence. The Hutu in Rwanda rose in wrath against their Tutsi, and prevailed; in Burundi, however, a Tutsi-manned army was able to retain the upper hand. Serious efforts at reconciliation were indeed attempted before the descending spiral of violence went out of control, but militarised banditry got the better of good sense and still has it while these countries fall apart. For the consequences of indirect rule are only the beginning of an explanation. Other and harsher factors, ‘structural factors’ in the language of the schools, have impelled an apparently helpless course of degradation. One of these, gathering force after the Second World War, has been an acute rural impoverishment; the other, close on its heels and responding to the first, has been an easy access to automatic firearms. The reasons for either are not mysterious. A fast rate of population-growth, itself the partial product of colonial medical services, especially in the suppression of tropical epidemics, has been one of them. Against that, and far more potently, an ‘economic world order’ which condemns Africa to impoverishment through adverse terms of trade and comparable handicaps has induced a brutal decline in resources, above all, in Rwanda, by soil degradation and exhaustion. Rwanda, like Burundi in this respect as in others, has become a potential and quite often an actual wasteland with no present means of self-restoration. The reasons for a spread of automatic weapons simply follow: in such conditions good government loses heart and disappears. Even moderately bad government ceases to be achievable. The mindless coups d’état multiply. The bandits take over. The people retreat into defensive kinship solidarities for want of the state’s protection. Whereupon it is said that ‘tribalism’ rages, and the devil, as now, reaches smartly for the hindmost.

Even so, and even at the worst, people remain to be succoured and helped to survival. Effective medical and other aid can do that with cholera, as with other such scourges, even while the death toll may in this case have to be dreadfully high. With generous and intelligent aid, epidemics can be handled, and we may well hope that this one will be. The larger problem comes afterwards: so what then? Current debate and local analysis in Africa point to one sure conclusion: that disasters such as these are containable and reversible in the measure, but only in the measure, that the peoples concerned, nationally or regionally, become empowered, and therefore financed, to devise and apply their own remedies and solutions. Outside dire emergencies as in Rwanda, where no useful local initiatives may at present be possible, this calls for a process of reversal of most of the attitudes and convictions derived from the culture of imperialism. This must he difficult after so many decades. But it is evidently possible.

Eastern Africa, as it happens, has lately produced two confirmatory examples. One of these is in Uganda. After many years of ferocious misgovernment and militarist banditry duly helped along by external ‘advice’, Uganda is at last achieving a real prospect of stability and social progress by means of internally-devised and applied processes of recovery which, essentially, reverse the administrative policies of colonial rule. Nearby, there is a broadly comparable recovery in Eritrea, which, after decades of colonial persecution of one kind or another, has become free at last to apply its own remedies to its needs, and, so far as a desperate lack of cash resources will permit, is doing this very well. Meanwhile in West Africa a truly Rwanda-like collapse of society in Liberia is being patiently tended by the peace-making efforts of troops provided by the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States. The treatment in this case has not been very beautiful and is not yet complete, but any unbiased observer would agree that it has become infinitely preferable to the disease, and that no non-African agency could have devised and applied it.

If this line of thought and action can be generalised – and why not? – then a wider conclusion follows. Our ‘world’ of policy-makers and power-brokers has to manage to get itself, as well and as fast as it can, into the attitudes and acceptances of a post-imperialist culture: of a world, that is, which ceases to suppose that ‘we’ must do it for ‘them’, rather than they for themselves, whenever emergencies arrive. This of course may prove too difficult a transformation. If so, then ‘Third World’ – meaning, essentially, ex-colonial – impoverishment and confusion will persist and therefore deepen. If not, then the management of Africa’s affairs will have to be handed to Africa. In 1980, facing the facts of a rapid and continuing impoverishment, an impressive number of Africa’s qualified specialists drew up a plan, the so-called Lagos Plan, for measures of reversal and recovery. Irrespective of its merits, this plan was rejected out of hand by the great Western agencies of monetary control and economic policy. These produced their own plan, ‘structural adjustment’, whose central features were currency devaluation in Africa and the maximisation of exports from Africa. Neither feature could tackle the absolutely central issue that Africa’s terms-of-trade have generally worsened over the last many years: impoverishment has continued, and, with impoverishment, political confusion and moral decay. All competent authorities, it now appears, are agreed in thinking that ‘structural adjustment’ hasn’t worked. The Lagos Plan or its successor, with whatever adjustments and improvements may now be found desirable, waits to be applied.