Stone Age habitation, as far back as 35,000 years, has been reported in the region now called Rwanda. The first known inhabitants of the area were the Twa, a pygmoid group following hunting and gathering subsistence patterns. Later, between the 7th and 10th centuries AD , the Bantu-speaking Hutu people, who followed a settled, agricultural way of life, arrived, probably from the region of the Congo River basin. Between the 14th and 15th
centuries, the Tutsi, a pastoral people of Nilotic origin, arrived from the north and formed numbers of small and independent chieftaincies. At the end of the 15th century, a few of these chieftaincies merged to form a state, near Kigali, under the leadership of Ruganzu I Bwimba. In the 16th century, the Tutsi dynasty began a process of expansion that continued into the late 19th century under the prominent Tutsi leader Kigeri IV Rwabugiri (d.1895).
The Tutsi conquest initiated a process of political integration. The ownership of land was gradually transferred from the Hutu tribes to the mwami, the king of the Tutsi, who became the supreme head and, in theory, absolute master of the country. He was the incarnation of the state and enjoyed an almost divine prestige. A feudal social system based on caste—the conquering Tutsi and the subject Hutu—was the dominant feature of social relations, and especially of economic and political relations. The ownership of cattle, a vital element in the social system, was controlled by the Tutsi, who in turn parceled out their use to the Hutu. The Hutu did the farming and grew the food, but had no part in government. The Tutsi did no manual labor. To a certain extent, however, the castes were open to each other, and the northwest remained Hutu-controlled. Intermarriage, especially between Tutsi males and Hutu females, was common. The Hutu language, Kinyarwanda, was eventually adopted by the Tutsi.
The first European known to have explored the region was John Hanning Speke, who traveled with Richard Burton to Lake Tanganyika in 1858, where he turned north in his search for the headwaters of the Nile. In 1871, Stanley and Livingstone landed at Bujumbura (now the capital of neighboring Burundi) and explored the Ruzizi River region. After the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, the German zone of influence in East Africa was extended to include Rwanda and Burundi, and in 1894, a German lieutenant, Count von Götzen, discovered Lake Kivu. Roman Catholic missionaries soon followed. After the mwami submitted to German rule without resistance in 1899, the Germans administered the territory through the traditional authorities in accordance with the laws and customs of the region. Belgium occupied the territory in 1916 during World War I, and was awarded a mandate that was known as Ruanda-Urundi (present-day Rwanda and Burundi) by the League of Nations in 1923. In 1925, an administrative union was formed between the Ruanda-Urundi mandate and the Belgian Congo (now the DROC). A key policy of Belgian rule was the strengthening of the effective control of the Tutsi dynasty—under Belgian supervision—throughout Ruanda.
In 1946, Ruanda-Urundi became a UN trust territory under Belgian administration. Events in Africa after World War II aroused Hutu political consciousness and led the Hutu to demand the abolition of social and political inequalities. In November 1959, a Hutu revolution began, continuing sporadically for the next few years. Many Tutsi either were killed or fled to neighboring territories. The Belgian authorities, along with the Roman Catholic missionaries, provided crucial support to the Hutu during this troubled period. A provisional government, republican in tendency and composed predominantly of members of the Parmehutu Party, was set up in Ruanda in October 1960. In the following January, the leaders of the Parmehutu proclaimed the deposition of the mwami and the creation of a republican regime. The new regime was recognized de facto by the administering authority, but the UN declared it to have been established by irregular and unlawful means.
On 25 September 1961, legislative elections and a referendum on retaining the institution and person of the mwami were held in Ruanda at the insistence of the UN General Assembly and under the supervision of the UN Commission for Ruanda-Urundi. The elections gave the Parmehutu, led by Grégoire Kayibanda, an overwhelming majority. In the referendum, about 95% of the electorate took part, voting 4 to 1 to abolish the monarchy. The UN strongly urged both Ruanda and Urundi to come to independence united, but reluctantly agreed that neither country wished to do so. On 27 June 1962, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution providing for the independent states of Rwanda and Burundi, and on 1 July, Rwanda became an independent country.
In December 1963, following an abortive invasion by Tutsi refugees from Burundi, a massive repression launched against the remaining resident Tutsi population caused the death of an estimated 12,000 Tutsi. The massacre was the signal for a renewed exodus of Tutsi elements into the neighboring territories of Uganda, Tanzania, the Congo (DROC), and Burundi. In all, 150,000 Tutsi fled between 1959 and 1964.
In January 1964, the monetary and economic union that had existed between Burundi and Rwanda was terminated. Despite severe economic difficulties, Grégoire Kayibanda was reelected to a third four-year term as president in 1969. However, continuing internal unrest led the Rwandan army to overthrow the Kayibanda government in July 1973, and Maj. Gen. Juvénal Habyarimana assumed the presidency. His regime, dominated by officers from the north, took a more moderate stand on the issue of Hutu-Tutsi relationships than had the previous administration.
In 1975, he institutionalized his military regime, creating a one-party state under his National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND). A system of ethnic quotas was introduced that formally limited the Tutsi minority to 14% of the positions in the workplace and in the schools.
The regime was corrupt and authoritarian, and popular discontent grew through the 1980s. The MRND agreed to allow partisan competition and several new parties emerged in 1990 and 1991. But the greatest threat to the regime came in October 1990, when over 1,000 Tutsi refugees invaded Rwanda from Uganda. This group, called the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had considerable success, considering that around 1,000 French, Belgian, and Zairian paratroopers helped defend the government in Kigali. Government forces retaliated by massacring Tutsi. A cease-fire was worked out later in October and Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire agreed to send in peacekeeping forces to supervise it. But fighting broke out again in January 1991. Further cease-fires were negotiated between government and Tutsi rebels in Brussels, Belgium, in March 1991 and in Arusha, Tanzania, in July 1992, but fighting continued.
In November 1990 Habyarimana announced that political parties would be permitted in 1991 and that tribal names would be abolished from national identity cards. In April 1992 Habyarimana appointed an opposition politician, Dismos Nsengiyaremye, as prime minister. The new cabinet included 9 members of the MRND and 10 opposition party members. Their supporters fought in the streets. Hardliners around Habyarimana were accused of trying to sidetrack the democratization process. By June government had officially recognized 15 opposition parties. Talks with Tutsi leaders continued on power sharing, but the Hutu-Tutsi division appeared to be beyond reconciliation. A power sharing agreement was signed in Tanzania in January 1993, but this failed to end fighting. Another peace agreement was signed on 4 August 1993. The UN Security Council authorized on 5 October 1993 a peacekeeping force to assist in implementing the agreement. Unrest continued and no transitional government, which the agreement called for, was established.
In 1994 a total breakdown occurred. In February the minister of public works was assassinated. His supporters, in turn, murdered an opposition politician. In April, a rocket downed an airplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. All aboard were killed. They had been returning to Kigali from regional peace talks in Tanzania. From that point on, Rwanda became a killing field as members of the Rwandan army and bands of armed Hutu massacred Tutsis and many moderate Hutu politicians, including Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. The extremist Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (CDR) encouraged and directed the killing. In response, the RPF stepped up its liberation efforts.
By July 1994 several hundred thousand persons had been killed and several hundred thousand more had fled their homes and the country to Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire. The RPF occupied over half the country, seizing Kigali and restoring some semblance of order. While the international community was aware of the genocide occurring in Rwanda, little was done until the RPF had occupied a large part of the country. The UN approved a large expansion of the limited peacekeeping force in the area as the RPF consolidated its control and established a government of national unity, headed by a Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu. Major General Paul Kagame, a leader of the RPF, became minister of defense and vice president. The government announced that Hutu refugees, numbering in the millions, were safe to return to Rwanda, but few believed them and the conditions at the refugee camps, primarily in Zaire, began to deteriorate as disease and starvation became rampant. A 70-member Transitional National Assembly was formed in late 1994 in the hopes of returning order to the country. In February 1995, the UN Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Meanwhile, the government of Zaire's policy of forcible repatriation proved catastrophic as thousands of refugees died or disappeared. From April 1994 to 1997, some 100,000 Hutu refugees lost their lives while Interahamwe guerillas—suspected of having perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda—were allowed free reign in the camps. In Rwanda, almost 90,000 suspected killers were arrested and detained in miserable conditions in whatever facilities the government could find, including soccer stadiums. The slow pace of the trials was a cause of considerable concern, but UN and Rwandan authorities defended the thoroughness, offering it as evidence that the government was not interested in wholesale revenge. Of the nearly 90,000 prisoners, 1,946 had been indicted by 1997. A process of gacaca —trial by local communities, began in June 2002 to speed up the trials of some 119,000 detainees.
When it became clear to Rwanda that the refugee camps in Zaire had become little more than training camps for Hutu paramilitaries, Rwandan and Ugandan troops enlisted Zairian rebel leader Laurent Kabila to oust longtime dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko. In less than eight months Mobutu was overthrown, and Kabila was made president of the Congo (former Zaire) in May 1997. A year later, irreconcilable differences between Kabila and Kagame and Museveni of Uganda, led to "Africa's first world war" eventually involving nine African countries. Peace talks in South Africa in 2002 resulted in a formal cease-fire, troop withdrawals, and a plan for a transition government in the Congo to which Rwanda's proxy the RCD-Goma was a signatory. By June 2003 with the backing of UN (MONUC) troops, the transition plan had commenced implementation, but fighting between Congolese soldiers, rebel groups, and Rwandan regulars continued.
In addition to conducting the gacaca trials, Rwanda faced several challenges to national healing and rebuilding. In April 2002, Bizimungu was jailed for possessing documents the government said advocated civil disobedience and ethnic division. He was still in jail awaiting trial a year later. In May 2002, the DRC filed a case with the International Court of Justice in the Hague accusing Rwanda of genocide against 3.5 million people in DRC. By late 2002, some 19,000 Rwandan refugees had been repatriated home from Tanzania, and another 5,000 from Zambia. In June 2003, Kagame signed a new constitution approved by national referendum into law, but international human and civil rights groups feared the constitution would limit multiparty pluralism and freedom of expression.
In July 2003, the government announced that presidential elections would be held on 25 August and parliamentary elections on 29 September, ending nine years of transitional rule. Opposition presidential candidate Faustin Twagiramungu, having returned from eight years in exile said that he planned to form a new party before the elections, but he called for postponing them to allow more time for organization. His former Mouvement Démocratique Républicain was about to be banned following a parliamentary decision that the cabinet adopted in May. A new law the parliament passed recently gave political parties 15 days to register again, ahead of the polls, and allowed candidates to run as independents—an option that Twagiramungu was likely to choose. By July 2003, four parties had declared their support for Kagame's candidacy.