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Review of Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom


By Shane Doyle

Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: the Nyiginya Kingdom. Jan Vansina. James Currey, Oxford; Fountain Publishers, Kampala; The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. ISBN 0852559976. xiii + 354pp. £15.95

In 1994 Africa’s history was reshaped by two events. In South Africa the election victory of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress marked the unexpectedly peaceful end of apartheid, and more generally white domination in the African continent. Meanwhile, in Rwanda approximately 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were massacred in a brutal, popular genocide. Many commentators have noted the irony of this coincidence, often suggesting that it symbolises the painful mix of optimism and disaster that seem to characterise the continent. Yet it might be more useful to focus instead on what has happened in both counties after 1994. In South Africa, the new government attempted to build a consensus about the nature of the country’s past, through the investigation of acts of violence by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In Rwanda by contrast, the post-1994 Tutsi-dominated government has focused on the short term origins of the genocide, devoting little effort to developing a new national history which all groups can more or less accept. The Rwanda Patriotic Front adheres to the view that pre-colonial Rwanda was a well-integrated, peaceful society, where Tutsi and Hutu lived closely together in a kind of symbiotic relationship. The roots of the genocide, in this view, lie in the colonial period, when Europeans imposed an ethnic, or even racial, division in Rwandan society, fomenting resentment which was exploited by self-interested Hutu elites at and after independence. This view, it should be stated, predominates in the literature on the genocide, particularly in the more journalistic accounts. It begs the obvious question – why did hundreds of thousands of Hutu believe the anti-Tutsi propaganda to which they were exposed in the run up to the genocide? Because this was a mass genocide, where villagers butchered their neighbours.

Jan Vansina has written Antecedents to Modern Rwanda precisely to counter this short-termist, merrie Africa, approach to the 1994 genocide. Vansina is uniquely qualified to undertake this task. He is both the leading historian of pre-colonial Africa, and a writer of unparalleled authority on the use of oral tradition. Moreover, this book is the culmination of nearly fifty years of interest and research in Rwanda. Readers familiar with Vansina’s L’Évolution du Royaume Rwanda des Origines à 1900 (Brussels, 1962) will find this new book an expansion and refinement of the earlier work, rather than a sharp departure, but it is nonetheless essential reading for anyone interested in Rwanda’s modern history, ethnicity or the study of the larger great lakes region.

The sources upon which Antecedents to Modern Rwanda relies are primarily oral traditions, of which Rwanda possesses probably the richest collection in Africa. Vansina’s methodological innovation was to gather all the available oral narratives, and then interrogate them, seeking out discordance in order to evaluate each source’s credibility. The great advantage of this methodology is that it enables Vansina to escape from the stranglehold placed on Rwanda’s pre-colonial history by Alexis Kagame’s master narrative, which focused attention on kings and courts. Vansina’s history is one of warring families, and persistent regionalism, a history that carefully dates change and mistrusts the illusion of coherence and inevitability generated by Kagame. One of the triumphs of the book is that it is peopled by a mass of individuals, so unusual in histories of pre-colonial East Africa. The array of names may at times bewilder the casual reader, but in a genre dominated by either a focus on process or monarchs this concentration on the role of human interaction and competition is extremely valuable.

The book shows that the 1994 genocide was in part just the latest episode in Rwanda’s history of exceptionalism. What initially set Rwanda apart was its military structure, which developed in the eighteenth century. The creation of non-territorialized, multiple, permanent armies, based on hereditary recruitment from lineages living all over the country and linked to the management of lands and herds scattered across the kingdom, fostered centralisation, and ensured that rivalries and conflicts tended not to result in secession. The existence of around 12,000 professional soldiers by 1800 explains the unparalleled power of the Rwandan state over its neighbours and its subjects. The other side of the coin was that centralisation created competition between the aristocratic lineages that was more constant and violent than elsewhere in the region, because politics were so dominated by the court. This tendency towards violence and authoritarianism was strengthened by Rwanda’s unusual geography. Rich soils, reliable rainfall, and high altitude fostered exceptionally high population density, which in turn produced intense competition for land, and so intense regulation, unrelieved by any real potential for migration away from overbearing chiefs. The ‘inordinate political influence’ (pp 28-9) of government officials over the lives of the masses, expressed by ‘crushing tributes and corvées’ (pp 37-8), made Rwanda atypical in Africa.

A civil war lasting from 1796 to 1801 is identified by Vansina as the next major development in Rwanda’s history. It weakened the monarchy to the advantage of the great families. As the aristocracy grew larger, so ever more positions had to be found for young noblemen, a process which fuelled bitter competition within the elite and spawned aggressive expansion abroad and heightened exploitation at home. In the middle of the nineteenth century a range of new taxation and clientage institutions evolved which created the extreme inequality and exploitation which so surprised the first European visitors. Rangelands were privatised and reserved for the courtly elite, condemning the poor Tutsi either to the margins and ultimately poverty, or to ever more unequal clientage. Meanwhile, cultivators found themselves subject to a range of overlapping local authorities, whose competition for supremacy resulted in mounting demands for tax and labour from subjects, a process of general pauperization, resulting for some in proletarianization by around 1865. All cultivators were now defined as tenants of a chief, and the institution of uburetwa meant that all tenants now had to devote half of their working life to working for their master. This requirement was crucial in creating a rift between ‘two hierarchized and opposed social categories’ (p.134), the Tutsi and the Hutu. Tutsi was a term which originally referred to one group of herders, then to the leaders of that group, then to warriors, and finally to all herders. Hutu originally referred to rural loutishness or to servants, then to groups or communities of menials, then to foreigners and non-combatants in the army, and finally to all cultivators as they became tenants of the elite. Uburetwa poisoned this increasingly unequal, oppositional relationship, condemning all cultivators to a life of inferiority, servitude and exploitation. Hutu and Tutsi became less about social class and more about social identity. Hutu-ness became increasingly defined by an anti-Tutsi ideology as the weight of oppression increased, provoking a wave of revolts in the late nineteenth century, which were put down with remarkable brutality and mass killings. Vansina does not consider the categories of Hutu and Tutsi to have been ethnic categories in the nineteenth century, but he does emphasise that the relationship between the two groups had become hostile and oppositional before the arrival of the Europeans, a major contribution to the historiography. Colonialism exaggerated, racialized, fixed and formalised existing distinctions – it did not invent them.

The Rwanda that was taken over by German colonialists was shaped by the reign of Rwabugiri [1867-1895]. Vansina, however, rejects the old perception that Rwabugiri’s political system was carefully planned and consistently managed. Instead he views the king as exceptionally energetic, brutal and credulous of accusations of treason. For Vansina, Rwabugiri essentially exported the chaos and insecurity at court, where powerful lineages constantly struggled against each other for advantage, to the rest of the country, with disastrous consequences. Thus his reign was ‘a tragic paradox of increasing centralisation . . . which sows anarchy as it unfolds’. Repeated purges, the destruction of leading aristocrats, the promotion of king’s men, all produced a centralisation of power, but also rent the fabric of society. As a succession of patrons was executed, so clientage relationships were abandoned, lineages were dispersed, and the peasantry was impoverished. Here, in Vansina’s eyes, lie the roots of the 1994 genocide.

This is a compelling narrative, one that should make historians of other pre-colonial societies envious of the richness of the sources available to Vansina. Ultimately, with this kind of history, the non-specialist has to rely on the author’s judgement of the relative accuracy and significance of the myriad of conflicting oral traditions. Let us hope that a new generation of Rwandan historians will test the accuracy of Vansina’s vision of the past with the sympathy and concern for balance that the subject deserves.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 93-96]

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