A History of Hutu-Tutsi Conflict

Olive Mukankusi, a 42-year-old Hutu woman, stands near the banana beer pit where she says she hid three Tutsi people in 1994. Her husband spent 12 years in prison before they could convince the authorities he'd been a protector, and not a killer, of Tutsis.

Gregory Warner/NPR 

Hutu and Tutsi are two groups in Africa that became known to most in other parts of the world through the grisly 1994 Rwanda genocide, but the history of conflict between the two ethnic groups reaches back further than that.

Generally, the Hutu-Tutsi strife stems from class warfare, with the Tutsis perceived to have greater wealth and social status (as well as favoring cattle ranching over what is seen as the lower-class farming of the Hutus). The Tutsis are thought to have originally come from Ethiopia and arrived after the Hutu came from Chad.

Burundi, 1972

The seeds of resentment for the minority Tutsis were sown when the first elections after winning independence in May 1965 saw strong Hutu wins, but the king appointed a Tutsi friend prime minister, sparking a failed coup attempt by Hutus. Even though this was quickly quelled in the capital, it set off additional violence between the two ethnicities in the countryside. In addition, Tutsis, which made up about 15 percent of the population to the 80 percent Hutus, occupied other key government and military positions.

On April 27, some Hutu policemen rebelled, killing all Tutsis and Hutus (estimates range from 800 to 1,200 dead) who refused to join the rebellion in the lakeside towns of Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac. The leaders of the rebellion have been described as radicalized Hutu intellectuals who operated out of Tanzania. The Tutsi president, Michel Micombero, responded by declaring martial law and putting the wheels of a Hutu genocide in motion. The first phase virtually wiped out the educated Hutu (by June, nearly 45 percent of teachers were reported missing; students at technical schools were targeted, as well), and by the time the carnage was done in May about 5 percent of the population had been killed: estimates range from 100,000 to up to 300,000 Hutu.

Burundi, 1993

The Hutus won the presidential office with banker Melchior Ndadaye, forming the first government since independence from Belgium in 1962 with elections that had been agreed to by the ruling Tutsis, but Ndadaye was assassinated shortly thereafter. The killing of the president threw the country back into turmoil, claiming about 25,000 Tutsi civilians in revenge killings. This sparked killings of Hutu, resulting in a total death toll of about 50,000 over the next several months. The mass killings of the Tutsi wouldn't be called genocide by the United Nations until a 2002 inquiry.

Rwanda, 1994 

In April 1994 Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, a Hutu, and Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, also a Hutu, were killed when their plane was shot down. By this time, tens of thousands of Hutus had fled the Burundi violence into Rwanda. Blame for the assassination has been pointed at both Tutsi and Hutu extremists; current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who at the time led a Tutsi rebel group, has said that the Hutu extremists conducted the rocket attack to set in motion their long-laid-out plans to wipe out the Tutsis. These genocidal plans were hatched not just at cabinet meetings, but spread in media incitement, and capped a long period of ethnic unrest in Rwanda.

Between April and July, some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, with a militia group called the Interahamwe taking lead in the slaughter. Sometimes Hutus were forced to kill their Tutsi neighbors; other participants in the genocide were given monetary incentives. The United Nations let the killings go on unabated after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed in the early days of the genocide.

Democratic Republic of Congo, Post-Rwandan Genocide to the Present

Many Hutu militants who participated in the Rwandan genocide fled to the Congo in 1994, setting up encampments in the mountainous areas akin to fiefdoms. In addition, several groups of Hutu fighting the Tutsi-dominated government of Burundi settled in the eastern part of the country. Rwanda's Tutsi government has twice invaded with the intention of wiping out the Hutu militants. The Hutu also battle a Tutsi rebel leader, General Laurent Nkunda, and his forces. Up to five million deaths have been caused by the years of fighting in the Congo. The Interahamwe now call themselves the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and use the country as a staging base to overthrow Kagame in Rwanda. One of the group's commanders told the Daily Telegraph in 2008, We are fighting every day because we are Hutu and they are Tutsis. We cannot mix, we are always in conflict. We will stay enemies forever."

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Johnson, Bridget. "A History of Hutu-Tutsi Conflict." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-hutu-tutsi-conflict-3554917. Johnson, Bridget. (2020, August 28). A History of Hutu-Tutsi Conflict. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-hutu-tutsi-conflict-3554917 Johnson, Bridget. "A History of Hutu-Tutsi Conflict." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-hutu-tutsi-conflict-3554917 (accessed June 14, 2021).