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IB DP History Study Notes

5.1.4 Rwandan Civil War and Assassinations

The Rwandan Civil War and the subsequent assassinations of prominent political figures provided the volatile backdrop against which the notorious genocide unfolded. Understanding these events is crucial to analysing the roots of one of history's darkest chapters.

Rwandan Civil War (1990–1993)


The Rwandan Civil War was primarily a conflict between the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) representing the Rwandan government, and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

  • Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF): Formed in 1987 by Tutsi refugees in Uganda, the RPF aimed to ensure the return of the refugees to Rwanda and sought to overthrow the Hutu-led Rwandan government.
  • Cause for the War: Historical grievances and political tensions between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, exacerbated by socio-economic disparities and power politics, led to the eruption of the civil war.

Key Events and Dynamics:

  • Initial Invasion (October 1990): The RPF, with a force of around 2,500 fighters, initiated their invasion from Uganda. Although they made initial gains, the FAR, with French military support, countered and halted the RPF's advance.
  • Ceasefires and Failures (1991–1993): Throughout the war, multiple ceasefires were negotiated but they were short-lived due to distrust between the parties.
  • Multi-party Politics (1991): A multi-party political system was introduced in Rwanda. However, this move heightened tensions as extremist Hutu groups feared losing power and saw the reforms as an RPF strategy to regain dominance.
  • Arusha Accords (August 1993): A major peace treaty signed in Arusha, Tanzania. It called for the creation of a Broad-Based Transitional Government and included terms like power-sharing, integration of the RPF into the Rwandan army, and return of refugees.

Assassination of Presidents Habyarimana and Ntaryamira


The assassination of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was a spark that ignited a large-scale ethnic massacre in Rwanda.

  • A Fatal Flight: On the evening of 6 April 1994, a Dassault Falcon 50 carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down near Kigali Airport.

Events and Actors Involved:

  • Mysterious Attack: The aeroplane was struck by surface-to-air missiles. To date, there is no unanimous agreement on who was responsible for this act.
  • Potential Perpetrators:
    • Some theories suggest it was the work of hardline Hutus who felt Habyarimana was too moderate and accommodating to the Tutsis.
    • Others believe the RPF orchestrated it as a pretext to resume hostilities and capture the state.

Immediate Repercussions:

  • Instant Outrage: In the hours following the assassination, roadblocks were set up by the army and Hutu militia groups, including the infamous Interahamwe, to target Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
  • Propaganda and Hate Speech: Radio stations, particularly Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), began broadcasting anti-Tutsi propaganda, further fuelling the violence.

Influence on the Subsequent Genocide

Escalation of Violence:

  • Mass Slaughter: The assassinations were used as a rationale for the Hutu government and extremists to launch a pre-planned campaign to exterminate the Tutsis.
  • Role of Media: Radio stations and newspapers played a significant role in encouraging mass violence. Tutsis were dehumanised, often referred to as 'cockroaches'.

Catalyst for Genocide:

  • Fan the Flames: The deaths of the presidents were used by Hutu Power advocates to support their narrative of a Tutsi conspiracy, which in their eyes justified the genocide.
  • Arusha Accords Nullified: The fragile peace agreement was instantly rendered null and void as violence spiralled out of control. The mechanisms intended to promote peace and power-sharing were quickly overwhelmed.

International Dynamics:

  • A Passive Stance: International intervention was grossly inadequate. The UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda (UNAMIR) was ill-equipped and lacked the mandate to intervene decisively.
  • Evacuation: Following the assassinations, many foreign nationals were evacuated, leaving behind a helpless Rwandan population. This move was heavily criticised as it showed a lack of international commitment to preventing the genocide.

In sum, the Rwandan Civil War and the assassinations of Presidents Habyarimana and Ntaryamira set the stage for the genocide. The legacy of colonial divisions, propaganda, and international apathy culminated in a tragedy that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in just a few months. Understanding these dynamics is essential for ensuring such horrors are never repeated.


Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was influential due to its wide reach and potent use of propaganda. In a country where radio was the primary medium for news, RTLM had a vast audience. It skillfully tapped into local grievances and prejudices, utilising inflammatory rhetoric against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. By painting them as enemies, conspirators, or even likening them to 'cockroaches', it fanned the flames of hatred and made violence seem like a justifiable response. The relentless and graphic nature of its broadcasts played a critical role in mobilising many ordinary Rwandans to participate in the mass killings.

The international community largely welcomed the Arusha Accords, seeing them as a significant step towards ending the Rwandan Civil War and establishing a peaceful power-sharing arrangement. The Accords were facilitated by Tanzania but received backing from other international players, including the United States and Belgium. Post-signing, the United Nations established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to oversee and ensure the implementation of the accords, particularly the ceasefire. However, while the international community was optimistic, it underestimated the deep-seated animosity and the extent of radicalisation within Rwanda, leading to insufficient preparation for potential conflict escalation.

The Rwandan Civil War had significant repercussions for its neighbours, especially in terms of refugee movements. As violence escalated in Rwanda, thousands sought refuge in neighbouring Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). These influxes strained the resources of host countries, leading to humanitarian crises in several refugee camps. Moreover, the presence of the RPF and its activities from bases in Uganda also strained Rwandan-Ugandan relations. Post-genocide, the remnants of the Hutu militia, who fled to Zaire, played a role in the First Congo War, further highlighting the regional implications of Rwanda's internal conflict.

France played a complex and controversial role during the Rwandan Civil War. Paris was a staunch ally of the Habyarimana regime, providing it with military support, training, and weapons. French troops even intervened directly on behalf of the Rwandan government during the conflict. Critics argue that this support emboldened the Hutu regime, enabling and even escalating ethnic tensions. Post-genocide, allegations emerged that France had been complicit or turned a blind eye to the planning and execution of the genocide, though France has denied these accusations. The French role in Rwanda remains a topic of considerable debate and investigation.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was predominantly led by Tutsi exiles and refugees. Its most notable leader was Paul Kagame, who later became Rwanda's president. Originally a refugee in Uganda, Kagame was a senior member of the Ugandan rebel group that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. Kagame, with his military training and experience, played a pivotal role in the RPF's military campaigns. Under his leadership, the RPF was not only a rebel group but also a political movement aiming to address grievances of the Tutsi diaspora, focusing on their return and integration into Rwandan society.

Practice Questions

To what extent did the Rwandan Civil War contribute to the subsequent genocide in Rwanda?

The Rwandan Civil War was instrumental in setting the stage for the genocide. While the historical grievances between Hutus and Tutsis existed prior to the war, the conflict exacerbated tensions and highlighted the divisions. The war brought significant militarisation, the emergence of extremist groups, and a climate of distrust, especially with the introduction of multi-party politics. When the Arusha Accords were signed in 1993, hardline Hutus viewed them suspiciously, fearing Tutsi domination. Thus, the war, combined with socio-economic factors, not only strained relations but also equipped and organised factions that would later play a vital role in the genocide.

Analyse the significance of the assassination of Presidents Habyarimana and Ntaryamira in the context of the Rwandan genocide.

The assassination of Presidents Habyarimana and Ntaryamira was a crucial turning point. While it wasn't the root cause of the genocide, it acted as an immediate catalyst. Their deaths provided an immediate rationale for hardline Hutus to commence the mass slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Propaganda, especially from the likes of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, surged in the aftermath, promoting a narrative of a Tutsi conspiracy and justifying the need for a swift Hutu response. This event effectively nullified the Arusha Accords and directly escalated tensions, leading to widespread violence in a society already on the brink of chaos.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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