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Rwanda’s Leaders Accused its Children of Smelling like Goats; It Is Rwanda’s Original Sin


“When a Hyena wants to eat its children, it first accuses them of smelling like goats,” so goes an oft-repeated proverb. This analogy is reflected in the early stages of genocide, when there is a gradual process of withdrawing the humanity of the targeted group. This process strips society of the capacity to empathise with the persecuted who are scapegoated for all sorts of shortcomings. Society is assured that a permanent, final solution, one that is readily available, will be administered to solve the problem once and for all. This is a warning to the targeted group, as a result of which it is compelled to do everything possible to delay or prevent the inevitable. But how does society get to this point, where a group is held hostage, literally accused of smelling like goats, while the rest are content to seek assurance in their demise?


What is clear is that a state that accuses a section of its population of smelling like goats has an amoral aim for power. This is the original sin in Rwanda’s society, and also the raison d’etre of the genocidal state. Genocide is the outcome of failure to transform the state from amoral aims of divide and conquer to those of indivisible citizenship and governance.


By definition, the colonial state had an amoral raison d’etre in its conquered territories despite its claims to being a civilizing force. In the pursuit of what was supposedly its civilising mission, it transformed the conquered societies with the aim of emasculating the people. Preventing united resistance to alien rule was its constant preoccupation.


In Ethnicity and Nationalism in Africa, Paris Yeros, using the case of the Ndebele and the Shona, demonstrates that where colonialism found cooperation among the indigenous communities, it turned it into competition. The objective was to transform society from winsome to zero-some interactions. Ethnic groups were essential in the execution of this policy as they were pitted against each other to prevent them from achieving the kind of cooperation that would threaten colonial interests. Unity was only acceptable if it promoted alien interests. Side by side were a kingdom resisting and another collaborating with colonial rule. For this reason, as a means of leveling the playing field, colonial regimes created kingdoms where none existed and even promoted chiefs to kings where it was deemed necessary. Mahmood Mamdani writes about this phenomenon in Understanding the Crisis in Kivu, for instance. In some instances, ethnic groups and “native authorities” were artificially created. In other words, some “traditional authorities” in existence today are a colonial invention. The point here is not to reject Benedict Anderson’s thesis that ethnic groups are imagined communities. Rather, it is to underscore that while such communities emerge in search of collective protection and security, those that emerged under colonial rule had objectives that were diametrically opposed; they were conceived with the objective of destroying collective security. It is this amoral origin that set the stage for conflict, violence, and ultimately genocide in the case of Rwanda.


By creating ethnicity, colonialists were applying what sociologists have long observed. Human beings have a primordial, instinctive, urge for belonging. This desire for belonging is especially needed whenever there is a feeling of insecurity. Naturally, the sense of vulnerability that came with colonial suppression predisposed the colonized towards a greater need for belonging and a psychological shot in the arm. Colonialists “told Africans that they belonged to ethnic groups and Africans created ethnic groups to belong to,” as one scholar put it.  It appears this is what happened in Rwanda.


In Rwanda, much debate surrounds whether ethnic groups are a colonial creation or predated colonialism. But there is no contention that political organisation was along clan lines. It is also an uncontested fact that Hutus and Tutsis do not conform to the definition of ethnicity. They share the same culture, language, and have lived side by side with each other – unlike much of Africa where ethnic groups are identified with a certain region of the country. Remarkably, there is no recorded inter-ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis prior to the advent of colonial rule. Therefore, either Hutus and Tutsis were the most peaceful political rivalries to ever exist in the history of mankind or political power was never organized around them as ethnic identities.


But political violence did in fact take place as a result of inter-clan rivalry and it never resurfaced since colonial rule because contestation for political power had been shifted as a result of creating and politicising ethnicity. This is discussed in greater detail by Burundian academic Professor Jean Bosco Manirabona in this volume.


Crucially, the absence of defining physical markers distinguishing Hutus from Tutsis necessitated identity cards that recorded one’s ethnicity. In other words, the greatest marker of ethnicity in Rwanda is an identity card. Without it, there’s no ethnic distinction. This explains why genocidal militias that controlled roadblocks during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi systematically asked for identity cards. If Hutus and Tutsis were different, why ask for an identity card to know who to kill or space?


Nonetheless, whether in reality Tutsis and Hutus are ethnic groups is a moot point. This identity has been ingrained in the consciousness of the people. But the ethnicities themselves wouldn’t be the problem. The problem is that they were weaponized and the respective groups set against each other.


Three aspects about the weaponization of ethnicity are significant for Rwanda. One, unlike elsewhere with a diversity of ethnic groups, the fact of two main ethnic groups made it easy to identify the enemy as opposed to where there are five or more groups. In other words, those to be targeted for elimination are clearly identified and the ability to engineer a consensus to that effect already in place. It is no coincidence that genocide against groups within native populations happened in Rwanda and Burundi with two major ethnic groups. In fact, the threat of genocide in Rwanda (first reported to the world by the British Philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1963, referring to the events that had begun in 1959, as “the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had the occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis”) was first used by the Belgian colonial government to dissuade the Tutsi elite from pursuing independence and its political utility remained for three decades.


With only two ethnic groups, it was easier for the leadership to point to a readily available excuse for governance shortcomings. Sadly, the incentive for addressing socioeconomic challenges was outweighed by the incentive to scapegoat the “other.” In countries with more ethnic diversity, the “enemy” could not be clearly outlined and the resulting expression of leadership failure was rarely as polarized, and genocidal, as the kind that emerged in Rwanda and to a lesser extent Burundi, for example.



Therefore, from the perspective of leadership, it was not desirable to pursue common security. On the contrary, any vulnerability that people felt was blamed on the “other.” In so doing, people’s “primordial” desires for protection were weaponized in such a way that they conceive their own security in zero-sum terms. They were made to believe that their ethnicity was the only assurance for their security and it is on the same terms that they perceived their vulnerability. Therefore, security and vulnerability were perceived vertically rather than horizontally – within the ethnic group instead of across as citizens.


The decision to take or save lives follows this path of dehumanization and zero-sum interactions. An unacknowledged life isn’t worth saving. The stages of genocide are intended to strip away this capacity to recognize others as being worthy of life. The process psychologically prepares members of one group to deal with their source of insecurity once and for all as pre-emptive self-defence, thereby manufacturing consent for genocide.



Putting the genie back in the bottle 


Ironically, the process of stripping the humanity of others also takes an aspect of the very humanity of perpetrators and bystanders to persecution. This relationship of mutual stripping of humanity continues even after genocide. Perpetrators and some of their relatives feel an almost irrepressible urge to distort the facts and some bystanders who know what happened will choose silence. Both groups seek to preserve their humanity. On the other hand, survivors and others feel threatened that the perpetuation of denial poses a danger of the recurrence of genocide. In other words, in a society that experienced genocide, the tragedy never ends. Genocide isn’t an event but the culmination of a process that only ends with the defeat of denial. In other words, genocide denial is the last and first stage of genocide.


Genocide ideology and denial can be defeated for good only when the amoral aims for political power from which they originate is turned on its head with a new moral code for governance that responds to the primordial instinct for security from the perspective of a collective identity. The identity of being a Rwandan is, and ought to be, a sufficient basis for pursuing and providing security. It is the only way to bring about and maintain a leadership that doesn’t accuse its children of smelling like goats.


The amoral aim for power was expected of colonizers – after all, it defined the methods of colonisation. The tragedy was when Rwandan leaders embraced and adopted it when independence ought to have meant an opportunity to transform the aims of political power from zero-sum to winsome, from competition to cooperation. In other words, the colonial state remained despite “independence.”

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