Rwandan genocide: made in Paris

By Shua Garfield

In the months preceding the March 2003 US-British-Australian invasion of Iraq, the French government’s opposition received a great deal of publicity. This led to illusions among some anti-war activists that the French rulers represented a progressive alternative to the “Anglo-Saxon” imperialists. However, any illusion that French capitalism has a more humane, sophisticated approach to foreign policy than the US, British and Australian rulers was exposed by the August 5 release, by the Rwandan justice ministry, of a report on French involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The report accused the French government, including 13 leading politicians and 20 senior military officials, of direct involvement in the massacres that resulted in the deaths of around 800,000 people. The victims were mainly members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, but also included politicians and activists (and their family members) from among those of the majority Hutus who opposed the French-backed Hutu Power government.

Among the French officials implicated in the report are Francois Mitterrand (president, 1981-95), Edouard Balladur (prime minister, 1993-95), Alain Juppe (foreign minister, 1993-95, prime minister 1995-97 and current mayor of Bordeaux), Dominique de Villepin (senior adviser to the foreign ministry at the time of the genocide and prime minister 2005-07) and Hubert Vedrine (secretary-general of the presidency, 1991-95, foreign minister, 1997-2002).

Details of the report suggest that the French government and military assisted the forces responsible for the genocide at every stage: helping to train the Hutu militia blamed for the slaughter, facilitating the genocide as it unfolded and protecting the genocidists from being brought to justice afterwards. According to a statement from the Rwandan justice ministry: “French forces directly assassinated Tutsis and Hutus accused of hiding Tutsis … They clearly requested that [Hutu militia] continue to man … checkpoints and kill Tutsis attempting to flee ... French forces committed several rapes on Tutsi survivors.”

According to an August 6 Aljazeera report, Andrew Tusabe, the acting charge d’affaires of the Rwandan embassy in Washington, said the report details “how communication was done from the top leadership in Paris to the embassy in Kigali and how different people who had a role in the genocide were housed at the embassy residence”. Tharcisse Karugarama, Rwanda’s justice minister, said the report also highlighted “the role played by France in the aftermath to protect the genocidal forces and make it very difficult for them to be apprehended and brought to justice”.

The French government dismissed the report as “biased” and the accusations “unacceptable”. Given that the commission that produced the report was set up by Rwanda’s current US-backed government — which came to power after overthrowing the French-backed Hutu Power regime in 1994 — allegations of bias may not be without substance. However, regardless of the accuracy of the specific allegations in the report, French imperialism’s involvement in Rwanda — including its intervention in the 1990-93 civil war — helped create the conditions that led to the genocide.


It is a matter of debate whether, prior to European colonisation, the Hutu and Tutsi actually constituted separate ethnic groups. However, it is generally agreed that the distinction between these two groups did represent caste or class differences. The Tutsi were mainly cattle-herders while the Hutu were mainly farmers. When Germany first laid claim to Rwanda in 1890, most of its territory was ruled by a Tutsi dynasty.

In colonising Rwanda, European powers made use of these social divisions. In doing so, they reinforced the divisions, crystallising what had previously been more fluid social categories. German colonialists ensured that the Rwandan political elite were exclusively Tutsi, and helped the Tutsi elite suppress rebellions by the Hutu. After World War I, the Germans were replaced by Belgium as the colonial master. To force farmers to grow coffee for export, the Belgians destroyed remaining local institutions of Hutu self-administration, centralising power in their Tutsi puppet regime. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the Belgians forced Rwandans to carry identity cards that detailed whether they were Hutu, Tutsi or Twa (a small ethnic minority), which helped “ethnicise” the divide between Hutus and Tutsis.

The anti-colonial rebellions that swept through Africa after World War II did not leave Rwanda untouched. However, the previous efforts of the Belgians meant that anti-colonial politics in Rwanda was distorted by the Hutu-Tutsi division. The Tutsi elite wanted an independent state that would preserve their privileged position, while the Hutu wanted to liberate themselves from Tutsi domination.

The Tutsi monarchy’s aspirations for independence lost it the support of the Belgian administration, which allowed a 1959 rebellion by Hutu nationalists to overthrow the monarchy and massacre tens of thousands of Tutsis. When independence was achieved in 1962, it was under a Hutu regime determined to exclude the Tutsis from political power. While formally independent, this government was financed and armed by Belgium. After a 1973 coup that installed General Juvenal Habyarimana as president, France replaced Belgium in this role. However, the divide-and-rule methods — scapegoating of Tutsis and periodic waves of anti-Tutsi violence — continued.

In 1990, Ugandan-trained Tutsi rebels organised in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by the US-trained Major Paul Kagame, invaded Rwanda, beginning a three-year civil war. France, fearing that its neo-colony would fall under Anglo-US influence, deployed troops in Rwanda. French troops trained, armed and fought alongside Rwandan government forces, gathered intelligence regarding RPF positions and helped control roadblocks where Tutsis were stopped and detained.

The civil war ended in 1993 with a power-sharing agreement. However, Hutu nationalists resented inclusion of Tutsis in the government. When Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994, Hutu militias were let loose on the Tutsi population and Hutu opponents of the regime. Three months of genocide ensued, ending when the RPF toppled the Hutu Power regime.

Inter-imperialist rivalry

French government involvement in the Rwandan civil war and genocide, like its opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was a product of capitalist competition with the US and British rulers. In Iraq, the French oil corporation Total hoped to sign lucrative deals with Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, an opportunity lost when the Baathist regime was ousted by the invading US and British armies in 2003. While Rwanda’s exploitable resources are much more modest than those of Iraq, its strategic location near the copper, cobalt, tantalum and diamond deposits of the Democratic Republic of Congo makes it a useful neo-colony. In both situations, the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives was — in the eyes of the imperialists — secondary to Western economic and political interests.

Despite being NATO allies, the Anglo-American and French imperialists compete in maintaining separate spheres of influence, based largely on their former colonial empires. By propping up puppet regimes and enforcing neoliberal trade policies and debt slavery, they maintain the economic subjection of most of their former colonies. This provides their corporations with privileged access to cheap labour, raw materials and markets.

However, the imperialists are never content with the size of their de facto empires. Since the beginning of the 20th century, they have faced a common problem — their industrial monopolies can produce more of most goods than they can sell at a profit to the available markets. To overcome the downward pressure that this places on their profits, individual corporations try a number of tactics — driving down their workers’ wages, trying to gain technological advantages over competitors, price-fixing agreements with other corporations etc. They also seek to expand their markets and find new sources of cheap labour and raw materials. To aid this effort, imperialist governments try to expand their neocolonial spheres.

However, these governments run up against another problem, which also dates from the beginning of the last century — nearly all of the Third World has already fallen under the domination of one or another imperialist power. Therefore, expansion of any imperialist country’s empire has been possible only at the expense of other imperialist powers. This situation has already produced two world wars. These days, inter-imperialist war between nuclear-armed states could result in mutual annihilation. For this reason, inter-imperialist conflict is generally conducted through proxy forces. But for the peoples of the capitalistically underdeveloped countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Balkans the results are no less hideous than in the pre-nuclear age.

Cuba’s counter-example

The divide-and-rule tactics that led to the Rwandan genocide are typical means that imperialists use to maintain and extend their domination. However, not all foreign interventions in Africa have been aimed at obtaining colonies or maintaining neocolonies for capitalist exploitation. A very different foreign policy is that of the small, poor island nation of Cuba. Since its 1959 revolution, tens of thousands of Cuba’s doctors and development aid personnel have provided services for free in poor African communities. In addition to humanitarian aid, Cuba has sacrificed the lives of more than 2000 of its soldiers aiding anti-colonial struggles in Africa. The most significant instance of this was in the years 1975-91, when Cuban military personnel played a major role defending Angola from imperialist intervention. In doing so, they helped hasten the fall of the racist South African apartheid regime.

In the lead-up to independence from Portugal in 1975, power in Angola was contested between the leftist, Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and two CIA-funded movements — the Front for the National Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). UNITA was also heavily backed by South Africa, which was determined to prevent an independent, anti-apartheid government from taking control in Angola, which bordered South Africa’s colony of Namibia. After MPLA forces drove out the FNLA, South African forces and CIA-funded mercenaries invaded Angola. The new MPLA-led Angolan government asked Cuban forces to come to its aid. Over the next 16 years, more than 300,000 Cuban soldiers helped defend Angola from South African military and mercenary invasions.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, one of the most significant battles in African history, in which Cuban soldiers, Namibian anti-apartheid rebels and Angolan government troops repelled a major South African-UNITA offensive. After receiving advanced weaponry from the US Reagan administration in the mid-1980s, UNITA’s aim was to capture a provincial town where it could set up and declare a “provisional government”. To prevent this, Angolan government forces, led by army commanders from the Soviet Union, launched an offensive against UNITA in 1987.

To prevent the defeat of its UNITA allies, South Africa invaded in August 1987 and rapidly drove back Angolan forces, who were abandoned by their Soviet officers and retreated to the town of Cuito Cuanavale. Beginning in October, Cuito Cuanavale was besieged. UNITA was so confident of victory that, in December, it prematurely announced that the town had been captured. Cuito Cuanevale was an important air base, and such a victory would probably have resulted in the loss of government control over a vast area of south-eastern Angola.

When the Angolans requested Cuban assistance on November 15, Cuba, which already had 40,000 volunteer soldiers in Angola, dispatched an additional 15,000 along with tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons and aircraft. In December, 1,500 Cuban troops arrived in Cuito Cuanavale and played a vital role in repelling six South African-UNITA offensives during January and February 1988. While South African forces were pinned down around Cuito Cuanavale, larger Cuban, Namibian and Angolan forces further west were able to advance, driving the South Africans out of most of south-western Angola by the end of June.

With the remaining South African forces in southern Angola besieged, and South African positions in Namibia vulnerable to Cuban fighter-bomber airstrikes, Washington organised negotiations to prevent further destruction of its white supremacist ally’s armed forces. These negotiations resulted in Namibia achieving formal independence from South African rule in March 1990. South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, and anti-apartheid organisations were legalised.

Speaking in Havana on July 26, 1991, Mandela explained the importance of Cuba’s intervention: “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparallelled for its principled and selfless character ... We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparallelled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us … The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people in South Africa! Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organisations would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today!”

Charles Freeman, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the 1988-89 negotiations, later admitted much the same: “[Cuban President Fidel] Castro could regard himself as father of Namibia’s independence and as the one who put an end to colonialism in Africa.”

After Africa’s centuries of colonialism and imperialist intervention, the internationalist aid provided by socialist Cuba, aimed at helping to liberate the peoples of southern Africa, stands out as unique. A small, poor country, subjected to a crippling economic blockade by the US government, did for Africa what so many wealthy countries would never do. Cuba is unique because, unlike imperialist countries, its foreign policy is not determined by the goal of subjugating other countries to control their resources.

Having been a colony of Spain and, after 1898, a colony and then neocolony of the US, Cuba never developed First World-style corporate capitalism. Like most African countries, it was exploited by foreign corporations. However, the workers and farmers of Cuba ended this situation with their socialist revolution, replacing the domination of US corporations and a brutal puppet regime with a society that places human needs above corporate greed. This was the basis for a foreign policy based on international solidarity with the liberation struggles of other colonised peoples.