By 1994, Rwanda’s population stood at more than 7 million people comprising three ethnic groups: the Hutu (who made up roughly 85% of the population), the Tutsi (14%) and the Twa (1%). Prior to the colonial era, Tutsi generally occupied the higher strata in the social system and the Hutus the lower. However, social mobility was possible, a Hutu who acquired a large number of cattle or other wealth could be assimilated into the Tutsi group and impoverished Tutsi would be regarded as Hutu. A clan system also functioned, with the Tutsi clan known as the Nyinginya being the most powerful. Throughout the 1800s, the Nyingiya expanded their influence by conquest and by offering protection in return for tribute.
The former colonial power, Germany, lost possession of Rwanda during the First World War and the territory was then placed under Belgian administration. In the late 1950’s during the great wave of decolonization, tensions increased in Rwanda. The Hutu political movement, which stood to gain from majority rule, was gaining momentum while segments of the Tutsi establishment resisted democratization and the loss of their acquired privileges. In November 1959, a violent incident sparked a Hutu uprising in which hundreds of Tutsi were killed and thousands displaced and forced to flee to neighbouring countries. This marked the start of the so- called ‘Hutu Peasant Revolution’ or ‘social revolution’ lasting from 1959 to 1961, which signified the end of Tutsi domination and the sharpening of ethnic tensions. By 1962, when Rwanda gained independence, 120,000 people, primarily Tutsi, had taken refuge in neighbouring states to escape the violence which had accompanied the gradual coming into power of the Hutu community.
A new cycle of ethnic conflict and violence continued after independence. Tutsi refugees in Tanzania and Zaire seeking to regain their former positions in Rwanda began organizing and staging attacks on Hutu targets and the Hutu government. Ten such attacks occurred between 1962 and 1967, each leading to retaliatory killings of large numbers of Tutsi civilians in Rwanda and creating new waves of refugees. By the end of the 1980s some 480,000 Rwandans had become refugees, primarily in Burundi, Uganda, Zaire and Tanzania. They continued to call for the fulfilment of their international legal right to return to Rwanda, however, Juvenal Habyarimana, then president of Rwanda, took the position that population pressures were already too great, and economic opportunities too few to accommodate large numbers of Tutsi refugees.
In 1988, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was founded in Kampala, Uganda as a political and military movement with the stated aims of securing repatriation of Rwandans in exile and reforming of the Rwandan government, including political power sharing. The RPF was composed mainly of Tutsi exiles in Uganda, many of whom had served in President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, which had overthrown the previous Ugandan government in 1986. While the ranks of the RPF did include some Hutus, the majority, particularly those in leadership positions, were Tutsi refugees.
On 1 October 1990, the RPF launched a major attack on Rwanda from Uganda with a force of 7,000 fighters. Because of the RPF attacks which displaced thousands and a policy of deliberately targeted propaganda by the government, all Tutsi inside the country were labelled accomplices of the RPF and Hutu members of the opposition parties were labelled as traitors. Media, particularly radio, continued to spread unfounded rumours, which exacerbated ethnic problems.
In August 1993, through the peace-making efforts of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the governments in the region, the signing of the Arusha peace agreements appeared to have brought an end to the conflict between the then Hutu dominated government and the opposition Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In October 1993, the Security Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) with a mandate encompassing peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and general support for the peace process.
From the outset, however, the will to achieve and sustain peace was subverted by some of the Rwandan political parties participating in the Agreement. With the ensuing delays in its implementation, violations of human rights became more widespread and the security situation deteriorated. Later, evidence demonstrated irrefutably that extremist elements of the Hutu majority while talking peace were in fact planning a campaign to exterminate Tutsis and moderate Hutus.