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Genocide as “counterinsurgency”

Between 1959 and 1994, Rwanda remained unofficially under a regime of "counter-insurgency warfare" by maintaining control of the bodies and minds of the population through racist indoctrination and terror, by maintaining the existence of parallel structures and by developing so-called "self-defence" militias

The two major geopolitical dynamics that marked the second half of the twentieth century were those of decolonization and the Cold War. The fact that these developments over- lapped provides a key for reading most of the dramas of this period in Africa. This concomitance played a role in the promotion of a genocidal logic in Rwanda.

From the beginning of the 1950s, American intelligence reports affirmed the inevitability of political independence for African countries. These reports also underlined the risk that a “communist contagion” would accompany the processes of emancipation of the African peoples. At the same time, the Catholic Church was also concerned about the risk of communist contagion and the possible decline of its influence in Africa.

Aware of the irrepressible aspiration for the independence of the African peoples, the Church’s fear was that it would be rejected at the same time as the colonial powers, since evangelization and colonization were intimately linked.

The Church did not want to repeat the mistake it had made earlier when it lost a large part of the European working class at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. After its long period of alliance with the colonial authorities, the Church, therefore, chose to distance itself from the tutelary powers in order not to disappear from the colonial empires. For this reason, it became critical of colonial practices and affirmed its social concerns in an unprecedented way. For reasons of political realism, the Church chose to take the role of spokesman for the demands of the people in Africa, before the communists were able to do so.

In Rwanda, some White Fathers, such as Father Guy Mosman, expressed fear that the “Hutus may succumb to the communist temptation” and affirmed that it is urgent to reform Rwandan institutions as quickly as possible to catch the communists off guard before the “Hutu” masses throw themselves into their arms if the demands of this mass, carried by their Catholic leaders, are not heard.(Guy Mosmans. « L’Avenir politique du Ruanda-Urundi. Notes de voyages et suggestions, fruits d’une enquête sur ce thème en août et septembre 1958 ». Bruxelles : 1958 September 21)

The Cold War brought about a vision that divided the world between communists and anti-communists. In Rwanda, this dichotomy overlapped with that between supporters and opponents of the Church. According to this sweeping vision, the monarchy –which had been allied with the Catholic Church since the banishment of the Mwami Yuhi Musinga, but had become critical of the Church’s monopoly on education and the nationalist Unar party, which was seen as monarchist, pro-Tutsi and secularist (and the party that demanded rapid independence) were directly or indirectly playing into the hands of the USSR out of nationalist interest.

This point of view was shared by part of the Belgian administra- tion. The territorial agent Hubert Bovy, for example, wrote to the residents of Rwanda in September 1959 that “the interests of Unar and the interests of the Commu- nists are closely associated.”


In Rwandan schools, where the Church had a monopoly, teachers instilled a completely fantastical fear of the Communists, who were presented as “devils’ minions” and “enemies of Christianity and Christian civilization”. This anti-Com- munist indoctrination was not without effect. Some of the clergy close to Monsignor Perraudin were committed to promoting the training and political ascension of deep- ly anti-communist Hutu Catholic leaders, and the Tutsis were taxed, without any fear of the oxymoron, as “feudo-communists.

It is difficult today to imagine the dominant representations that saturated the political imagination in the 1950s and 1960s, but the archives clearly show that all the nationalist leaders and movements were considered to have communist leanings and that this belief was the main reason why personalities such as Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Prince Rwagasore in Burundi, Ruben Um Nyobè in Cameroon and many others were assassinated.

The creation of the UN closed the historical parenthesis of colonial expansionism. Indeed, the First Article (Paragraph 2) of the UN charter establishes as a principle of international relations the development of “friendly relations based on respect for the principle of equal rights of peoples and their right to self-determination.” From then on, the colonial powers had an explicit mandate to allow the process that would allow the colonized peoples to achieve independence.

However, the colonial powers did not want to get rid of their empires and they did not use the peaceful means that the creation of the UN could have given hope for. At first, they were to crush the aspirations for independence by repressing in the most violent way the Mau-Mau movement in Ken- ya in the British zone, the Bamileke nationalists in Cameroon or the Malagasy nationalists in Madagascar in the French zone. In the Portuguese zone, terrible colonial wars lasted until the 1970s.

For France in particular, the de- fence of its colonial empire and the fight against communism were particularly linked. In Indochina, the struggle for independence was led by the strong communist movement of the Viet Minh. The humiliating defeat of the French army in Asia led the French General Staff to completely revise its military doctrine

in the rest of its empire, namely Africa. This new doctrine will be called by the staff « doctrine de la guerre révolutionnaire » (revolutionary war doctrine) because it was initially inspired by the reading of a Maoist brochure. In fact, this “technique” of warfare, which has been taught in all the headquarters of the armies of the colonial powers, will be applied to reduce the nationalist and progressive movements in Africa and on other continents. In English-speaking countries, this new technique was more appropriately called “counter-insurgency doctrine” and it is this name that will be used in the rest of this article.

Counter-insurgency doctrine

 Counter-insurgency doctrine can be defined as a structured set of military, police and psychological techniques of domination to achieve a given political objective using all the legal and extra-legal means that allow its success independently of any common moral judgment. The first objective of counter-insurgency doctrine is to capture the hearts and minds of the population through effective propaganda using the available means of print and radio, the distribution of leaflets, and the organization of public gatherings that give a positive image of the actors of counter-insurgency operations.

But to understand how the counter-insurgency doctrine led to the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi, we must take a look at some of its specific aspects. One of the major characteristics of the counter-insurgency doctrine is to define the enemy in a new way. The enemy is no longer a classic belligerent benefiting from the protections granted by the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions.

Moreover, the definition of the enemy is extensive, as it applies to any person who is likely to support the action of the enemy or to share his ideas and, more radically, who does not provide evidence of his unquestionable attachment to the power fighting this enemy. With this understanding, the notion of an enemy front disappears. The enemy can be everywhere. He has a “fifth column” of supporters hidden within the country. He is embodied in a segment of the population that, depending on the situation, must be converted, reduced to impotence, or eliminated. Thus, the disappearance of an enemy front justifies the creation of paramilitary structures that enlist civilians in surveillance groups, self-defence groups, and militias.

Most importantly, in order to be radically combated, the essentialization and the dehumanization of the enemy are essential strategies. Religious, political, or racial stigmatization is used for this purpose. As a result, the social and political scene becomes binary: the world is divided into friends and enemies.

According to its promoters, counter-insurgency warfare is a permanent total war that officially applies the established law while giving itself the latitude to resort to any extrajudicial measure that its actors deem necessary to achieve its objectives. The use of these measures, which are outside the scope of ordinary law, is done clandestinely. They are implemented by unofficial cells and bodies or by the establishment of “states of emergency and exceptions.” In this context, the assassination of charismatic community leaders is a priority objective.

In Rwanda, Colonel Logiest, who was granted full powers to lead Rwanda’s transition to independence, and his deputy Major Mar- lière, were fervent followers of this new doctrine. These two Belgian officers applied the counter-insurgency doctrine to the letter in Rwanda. The local doctrinaires of this new form of warfare chose not to bother with nuances. They didn’t define the nationalists as their enemy. Instead, they targeted the Tutsis regardless of their political positions or actions. It can be seen here that this doctrine, as it was applied in Rwanda, had a potential genocidal dimension from the outset.

The immediate complicity that united Colonel Logiest and Grégoire Kayibanda was based not only on the fact that the Special Military Resident and the leader of the main ethnicist party Parmehutu had defined the same enemy, the Tutsis, but also on the fact that the two men, who were introduced to each other by the head of the Church of Rwanda, Bishop Perraudin, shared the same religious convictions, the same anti-communist commitment and, what is less known, on the fact that Grégoire Kayibanda was also a follower of the counter-insurgency doctrine

The Parmehutu leader had become familiar with this doctrine during his days in Belgium by frequenting Christian political and trade union movements and had implemented it in Rwanda as early as 1957. The application of this doctrine made it possible to establish the domination of Parmehutu over the hills by establishing parallel hierarchies and by meshing the hills of Rwanda with the clandestine cells of his party. The military aspect of the doctrine of counter-insurgency was applied by Parmehutu during the anti-Tutsi violence campaign of November 1959.

The osmosis between Logiest and Kayibanda was total because they shared the same doctrinal and practical references. When he ar- rived in Rwanda, Logiest noticed that the first steps of counter-insurgency warfare had been put into practice in the country by Parmehutu activists and that they were going in the direction he wanted, namely to destabilize and weaken the Rwandan nationalist movement. Kayibanda had been introduced and warmly recommended to the colonel by Bishop Perraudin. The Belgian colonel and the Hutu leader supported each other and made Rwanda the laboratory and the most successful counter-insurgency doctrine testing ground.

By defining “the Tutsis” as the “Enemy”, the “counter-insurgency war” unleashed by Parmehutu could only evolve into total war and genocide, because the enemy was not defined by their acts and political positions, but by their very existence. This “war” could not be concluded by a negotiated end because the enemy was not considered as an alter ego. Thus, the access to power of Parmehutu, as well as the fall of the Kayibanda regime, were not followed by any armistice. Between 1959 and 1994, the genocidal enterprise only knew truces. For thirty years, Rwanda remained unofficially under a regime of “counter-insurgency warfare” by maintaining control of the bodies and minds of the population through racist indoctrination and terror, by maintaining the existence of parallel structures, by developing so-called “self-defence” militias, by manipulating a double discourse, and by making any individual who emancipates himself from the State’s thinking an “icyitso” accomplice of the enemy.

The genocidal logic of the “counter-insurgency war” could only end by breaking with the premises that inaugurated and sustained it: the deadly fiction of the existence of two antagonistic races in Rwanda. Unfortunately, this was only possible after the attempted total extermination of the people designated as Tutsi in April 1994.


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