Like the U.S., Rwanda is in a Pitched Battle Over its HistoryRoundup
tags: genocide, Rwanda, African history
Tom Zoellner is professor of English at Chapman University and the author of Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire.
Tucker Carlson recently went on an attention-grabbing screed about how America’s history of racism gets taught. He garnered headlines by calling Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, “stupid” and “a pig” for defending a class on the subject taught at the U.S. Military Academy. Carlson then made a comparison of America to another country that managed to be both absurd — and surprisingly apt:
“The question is, and this is the question we should be meditating on, day in and day out, is how do we get out of this vortex, the cycle, before it’s too late? How do we save this country before we become Rwanda?”
The absurd part is what Carlson was trying to say: that the teaching of critical race theory in schools and universities would lead to oppressed people of color picking up machetes to slaughter White people, an ethnic cleansing that would resemble the 1994 genocide in the small East African nation of Rwanda, in which 800,000 people were slaughtered at the urging of a government made up of the majority Hutu ethnicity.
Rwanda holds an important lesson for America’s culture wars today, but not in the way Carlson thinks. Rather, in Rwanda, political leaders have rewritten the country’s history to gain political power, just as the right wing is now attempting to do in the United States. In fact, the greatest asset of the dictatorship in today’s Rwanda is its mastery of the past. “Within Rwanda today, hegemonic power relies for much of its justification on a certain reading of history,” the Smith College scholar David Newbury has concluded.
President Paul Kagame has insisted on a clean story about what happened in 1994, with no dissent permitted. The official version is that the Hutu ethnic group, driven by ancient hatreds, contrived to have a plane carrying then-President Juvénal Habyarimana shot down with a shoulder-mounted rocket. The inside-job assassination was falsely blamed on the Tutsis, touching off a period of slaughter that lasted 100 days. Kagame’s army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, fought its way into the capital, took power and instituted an inclusive government in which nobody pays attention to ethnic labels any longer. The genocide perpetrators were tried and convicted in international courts, and village-level killers were brought to justice, as well. Thanks to the discipline and organization of the RPF, the country rebuilt itself into a jewel of the region, with a booming economy, clean streets and no crime. Visitors are taught this version at the many genocide memorials stacked high with the bones of slaughtered Tutsis.
But the reality is far more complicated. The genocide was sparked by a combination of factors. The Tutsi minority had dominated the country until 1959, when many fled on the eve of national independence from Belgium. Tutsis in exile formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded from neighboring Uganda in 1990. When a peace deal was brokered in 1993, it didn’t solve these tensions.