Rwanda - Political background

Rwanda was a German colony from 1895 to 1916, after which it became a Belgian protectorate. Belgian colonial policies, including indirect rule, served to solidify ethnic divisions and identities and allowed the minority Tutsi rulers to become increasingly enriched at the expense of the Hutu majority. This resulted in a peasant uprising in 1959 that drove Tutsi officials from office. By 1962, when Gregoire Kayibanda became president of the independent Republic of Rwanda, thousands of Tutsi had fled the country, and only a handful remained in government posts. Ethnic conflict continued throughout the 1960s, driving thousands more Tutsi from the country and creating insecurity that discouraged international investment and kept the economy stagnant. After a fresh outbreak of ethnic violence in 1973, the minister of defense and head of the military, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, led a military coup and became president.

Under the slogan "peace, unity, and development," President Habyarimana quickly moved to end ethnic violence in the country and to initiate economic development. For more than a decade, Rwanda experienced stability and economic growth, but by the late 1980s, discontent with Habyarimana had become widespread. Corruption was rampant, and the beneficiaries were primarily Habyarimana's relatives or cronies from his home region in the north. A collapse in the price of coffee in 1987 increased the poverty of the masses and inspired open criticism of the regime. In response, Habyarimana moved to consolidate power more fully in the hands of trusted friends and relatives.

In 1990, a democracy movement emerged, primarily among Tutsi and southern Hutu who felt excluded from power. To regain popular support, Habyarimana promised political reforms, but behind the scenes, he continued to harass political opponents. On 1 October 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded northern Rwanda. The RPF, a movement comprised primarily of Tutsi refugees, many of whom had been living in Uganda and neighboring countries for more than 30 years, demanded the installation of a democratic government in Kigali and the right of refugees to return to Rwanda. The combined pressures of the war and the democracy movement forced Habyarimana to accept political reforms. In June 1991, the national legislature approved a new Constitution and allowed the formation of opposition parties. A variety of parties soon emerged and demanded inclusion in the government. In March 1992, Habyarimana named a new government with a prime minister from the Mouvement Democratique Republicain (MDR—Democratic Republican Movement), an opposition party. Meanwhile, political harassment and violence continued unabated. When government representatives signed a peace accord with the RPF in August 1993, the level of violence in the country increased as supporters of the regime struggled to maintain control. After Habyarimana died in a plane crash on 6 April 1994, members of the Presidential Guard and other supporters of the regime (primarily Hutu) systematically killed those they considered political opponents, mostly Tutsi as well as many Hutu.

Under the 1991 Constitution, the national government consists of two parts: the executive and the legislative. Executive power is held by the president, who relies on the assistance of his appointed council of ministers, which includes a prime minister. Presidential elections are to be held every five years, with universal adult suffrage. The legislative branch currently consists of an Assemblee Nationale de Transition (National Transitory Assembly) of 70 appointed members. In practice, the military continues to take an active role in governing the country, thus limiting the activities of the ministries and giving greater power to the president.

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