The great lakes in conflict

Feature Article of Monday, 8 April 2013

Columnist: Kwawukume, Andy C. Y.

– the chickens coming home to roost. Part 2

A long tragic history.

To understand the current tragic events in the Great Lakes region, we must travel back in time. In historical perspective, the Nilo-Hamitic cattle herding Tutsis (or Watutsis) arrived in the region of Rwanda and Burundi over 400 years ago from the north, having been pushed out of their own home region. As was often the case in Africa when fugitive warriors hardened by fighting chanced upon sedentary societies not prepared for war, the Tutsis quickly overran the horticultural Hutus. The Hutus, a Bantu stock, had themselves earlier overran the forest pygmies called the Twa, the original inhabitants of those mountainous regions.

The Tutsis soon instituted a tyrannical, feudal system in which the Hutus were treated as slaves rather than serfs. This control was both physical and psychological, with the Tutsis establishing a reputation for being fierce warriors with strong magical powers over their subjects. The Hutu peasants had to give a share of their crops to their overlords. Obedience to every whim of the Tutsis was total, as punishment for disobedience was brutal. Whole villages were often wiped out and people sold into slavery as a form of deterrence to others nursing ideas of dissent or rebellion. Fear instilled by either extreme violence or superstition was the key instrument in ensuring Tutsi domination. Being subservient and cowardly became two distinguishing traits of the Hutus. That ensures at least physical survival!

This development is interesting, seen in the light of the fact that the Tutsis had adopted the language of the Hutus, even the Hutu title for a king, “Mwami”, setting the stage for a possible peaceful integration of the two ethnic groups. Instead, a system similar to apartheid emerged. How do we explain this?

The era of Tutsi ascendancy coincided with European mercantile interest in Africa, notably the demand for slaves, ivory and other exotic products. With the Arab and Swahili merchants already perpetuating slavery in much of East Africa and commanding the established trade routes well into the interior of Africa, Zanzibar became the main centre of the East African slave trade. Hutus and other unfortunate people of that region became the trade goods marched by powerful African and Arab overlords and slave traders, (forerunners of today’s predatory rulers, warlords and crooked businessmen of Africa), to the coast to be sold to mainly rich Arab factors and African middlemen on the coast, and then to European slave ships. With some European powers soon dominating the whole world and trade, the final and greatest beneficiaries of this inhumane trade in human beings definitely were people of European origins. Their greed and insatiable demand for slave labour for the mines and plantations of the Americas and Asia definitely exacerbated enslavement of black Africans to stupendous levels.

The late Nigerian statesman and politician, Chief Obafemi Awolowo put it thus: “the White Race laid for Africa the foundation of 400 years of spiritual and mental darkness, physical barbarity and human degradation, much darker, more barbarous and more degraded than anything previously known on the Continent. In the words of Dr Normann Leys in his book Kenya, the slave-trade generated ‘an ever-widening circle of cruelty and destruction that at length wrecked African civilisation everywhere’ (Awolowo, 1977:20).

When it came to an end early the last century with European colonisation and the so-called “pacification of Africa”, it was estimated that about 5 million slaves were sold and bought in the East African slave trade alone. If the deaths resulting from the slave raids, wars, associated outbreak of diseases and famines (worse than you see on TV these days) are reckoned in, the loss of human lives could well be put at between 20-30 million people. The comparable revised figures for the trans-Atlantic slave trade is between 20-24 million transported to the Americas and the Caribbean; with the mortality put at about a 100 million for both (Patterson, 1982).

The famines and deaths resulting from the slave raids and intra-ethnic and internecine warfares used to force fugitives (today’s refugees) to return from the jungle and “voluntarily” enslave themselves to those raiding them. Or they might become vassals to them or to other powerful kingdoms for protection. These capitulation moves ensure some minimal protection from death or enslavement, just as we had seen grimly Hutu refugees doing before our eyes today again. Enslavement and subordination instead of actual death is what has been called “social death” (Patterson, 1982). In the past, such fugitives were usually either integrated into the armies and kingdom of the conquerors or put to work for their masters. In some cases, they were sold later on into slavery, with some becoming victims in the usual human sacrifices to the gods.

It must be stressed here that the trans-Saharan slave trade controlled by the Arabs and powerful Muslim African kingdoms far surpassed the trans-Atlantic trade in scale. The former started centuries earlier, lasted longer, was far bigger in volume, and had mortality rates far higher than the latter (Patterson, 1982). The scale and horror of this trade, given the low population of the period, must be understood in order to appreciate its lingering effects on Africa, and how it has laid the basis for current ethnic animosities and conflicts in Africa. Colonialism only deepened the divisions or, as in many cases, reversed the role of the oppressor and the oppressed, as people of slave origins or tribes exposed to raids became the first allies of the colonisers. The powerful kingdoms resisted European conquest.

Awolowo claimed that, “in the process [of the slave trade], the minds of the dominant class became thoroughly warped, debased and imbued with callousness and contempt towards their fellow Africans. At same time, the minds of the dominated, weaker class were gripped with fear, and profound hatred for, those who were responsible for their miseries and dehumanisation” (Awolowo, 1977:20). The same warping of the mind undoubtedly occurred for the Euro-American and Arab leaders and merchants who supervised the slave trade. Their descendants continue to play important roles in perpetuating conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa through both material (arms supplies) and political support for favoured parties that promote their selfish interests in Africa, just as their slave trading ancestors had done in the past.


Tutsi yoke was still intact when Germany colonised the Great Lakes region areas now comprising Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, thanks to the Berlin Conference of 1888/9 that balkanised Africa among some European powers. But German colonialism did not last long in Africa, as the First World War started in 1914, bringing new changes. Belgium assumed control of Rwanda and Burundi in 1916, after the Germans were defeated in East Africa; Britain got Tanzania – all under the trusteeship of the League of Nations.

The territories Belgium assumed control of were not rich in minerals as the Belgium Congo to the west. Supply of labour to activities in Congo therefore became the main importance of the two countries. Through the system of indirect rule, the Tutsi overlords, considered by the colonisers as “superior, natural leaders”, were tasked with supplying this labour. Hence a new chain gang regime was born for the Hutus and other weaker ethnic groups of the region, ensuring the hatred of the Tutsis by other tribal groups in the region. The singular brutality of Belgium colonial rule and exploitation is legendary and needs re-telling elsewhere in order to understand the legacies of contempt and hatred they left behind. To understand that is to appreciate the Heart of Darkness they left behind.

The favourite method of recruitment for the colonialists was to “free” palace and domestic slaves of chiefs and the nascent African aristocracy to be either trained for the colonial administration or army. Chiefs were also compelled to forcefully recruit labour to be used as workers in the mines, on the settlers’ plantations, and on construction projects. The Congo-Ocean railway line alone claimed 20,000 lives of the 80,000 workers engaged in its construction (Nwiado, 1996: 40).

The Tutsis played their new roles of recruiters, overseers and lackeys of the Belgiums just as brutally and with much profit to themselves as they had exploited the Hutus for their own benefit in the past. In fact, the gap between the two people, compounded with the prevalent Western racist theories, became so wide that the Tutsis considered Hutu food as unwholesome and would not touch it! Even the Catholic Church, great beneficiary of the African slave trade, with its own Jesuit factors (buyers of slaves) established on the coast of Africa, did not consider Hutus worth educating, thus reserving that privilege to the Tutsis. These pre-colonial and colonial developments largely explain why the Tutsis and Hutus failed to integrate into one peaceful, ethnic group sharing the same culture and outlook, despite speaking the same Hutu language. Speaking the same language has not stopped the debilitating conflicts in Somali, Burundi and Rwanda.

Rather than easing past animosities of the slave trade era, the warped mentality of the Tutsi elite was deepened and the hatred of the Hutus for the Tutsis increased, setting the stage for the manipulation of the Hutu masses by vengeful Hutus – the extremists – and the current conflict. Moderate Hutus, one may easily discover, are the ones assimilated into the elite Tutsi class, usually through marriage bonds and social mobility sealed by initiation rites. Of course, there are others who, not from personal considerations, genuinely want reconciliation and peaceful co-existence with the Tutsis.


France saw in this state of affairs an opportunity to spread her influence in central Africa. French missions and some charity organisations started opening schools for Hutus and other weaker tribal groups in the Belgium colonies of Rwanda, Burundi and Congo. Some were also taken to France to be educated. France did the same in her own colonies (Meillassoux, 1970). This is how France became the “friend” of the Hutus and other oppressed peoples of Africa, who went on to constitute one nucleus of the new elite in Africa, in the former colonial armies and civil services. French and Belgium rivalry in former Belgium colonies has since then proved disastrous to the people of those countries.

The nationalist breeze blowing across the Indian Ocean to Africa did not fail to blow over the Great Lakes too. By the 1950s, a nucleus of educated Hutus were created who began to see independence as not only freedom from Belgium rule but from Tutsi yoke too. With the colonial masters, particularly Belgium and France, manipulating to hand over power to the new docile and obedient elites they had trained up, the stage was set for the explosive events that racked Rwanda in 1959, and later the Congo in the 1960s.

Belgium manipulations to entrench the minority Tutsis in power started the massacres of the Rwandan Tutsis in 1959, forcing the flight of hundreds of thousands into exile. It was also the Belgians, of course, that instigated the secessionist movements in both Katanga (present Shaba Province) and Eastern Congo with the late Kabila in charge there, leading to the Congo crisis. It is noteworthy that Che Gueverra fought for the rebels in Eastern Congo in the 1960s. It is interesting that some of the old protagonists in Eastern Congo are presently leading the rebel movements in that region. The renewed conflict promises to be just as dramatic as the previous ones.


Awolowo, Obafemi, 1977. The Problems of Africa: The Need for Ideological Reappraisal, Macmillan, London.

Meillassoux, Claude “A Class Analysis of the Bureaucratic Process in Mali,” The Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 6, no. 2, January 1970.

New Africa, December 1990:9-12 and June 1994:11-13.

Nwiado, Deebii, “Militarising Commerce in Africa: The Example of Shell in Ogoniland,” Indigenous Affairs, No. 2, April/June, 1996, quoting Curchaoua, 1989:17.

Patterson, Orlando, 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London.

cc. Andy C. Y. Kwawukume, April 2013