Rwanda's unnatural tragedy: Outsiders laid the path to slaughter - and may fuel wider carnage, says Kenan Malik

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IT IS already clear that there can be no humanitarian solution to the problems of Rwanda. Any long-term solution can only come through political reconstruction and reconciliation. Unfortunately, neither history nor current international diplomacy augurs well for such a process.

While the international community has been widely criticised for ignoring Rwanda's humanitarian problems, the same cannot be said of its response to the country's political problems. Foreign meddling has shaped, and continues to shape, the conflict in the country - and provides the biggest obstacles to a permanent peace.

From the outside the Rwandan catastrophe has appeared in much the same way as most conflicts in Africa - an irrational tribal conflict, an orgy of ethnic cleansing, humanitarian aid workers unable to cope, Western intervention to protect refugees. We seem once more to be witness to humanity's seemingly unlimited capacity for barbarism in defence of race or tribe.

Yet the real story of Rwanda's tragedy is a very different one. It is the product not of a collective act of madness but of a history of political and diplomatic manoeuvrings that have finally led the country to the abyss. It is the story of how colonial rule artificially created 'ethnic' differences between Hutu and Tutsi; of how, in a post-independence state where there was a constant struggle for the control of scarce resources, these differences were transformed into a conflict that acquired a murderous life of its own; and of how Western and regional diplomacy today is creating new barriers to national reconciliation in Rwanda.

No historian or anthropologist takes seriously the idea that Hutus and Tutsis form different tribes or distinct ethnic groups. Tutsi means rich and Hutu means servant or poor - and that is the extent of the difference. The two speak the same language, occupy the same territory, share the same history and traditions and are physically indistinguishable.

European colonialists - initially Germans, subsequently Belgians - found a relatively homogenous kingdom in which the major divisions were those of occupational status. The European powers reorganised Rwandan society, shaking up the diffuse and complex relationships, investing occupational differences with a racial significance and transforming them into a rigid hierarchical classification. The Tutsi were regarded as aristocracy, the Hutu as peasants. The Belgians invented a different history and heritage for the two groups, claiming that Tutsis had an Aryan background while Hutus were from Bantu stock.

So slender was the distinction that when the Belgian authorities came to organise a census in the Thirties the colonial administrators decided that anyone with more than 10 cows should be declared Tutsi, those with less as Hutu. Access to education and power depended on this racial classification. Initially, the Belgians favoured the Tutsis; in 1959, prior to independence, they assisted a 'social revolution', transferring power to the majority Hutus. The creation and subsequent dismemberment of the balance of power inevitably created intense internal conflicts in Rwanda.

What might elsewhere have been regarded as a social struggle between rich and poor was recast as ethnic conflict. Sixty years of colonial rule, followed by three decades of independence, has transformed an incidental difference that rested on ownership of cows into a racial chasm that has provided legitimacy for mass slaughter.

In any country riven by economic scarcity, violence is never far from the surface. Given that access to resources is a life and death question, the struggle for control of those resources often leads to intense conflict. The divisions in Rwanda are neither ancient nor natural. But once they were perceived as ethnic or racial, conflict was seen as irresolvable. The contest for power took on an insane logic. The only answer became the arbitrary slaughter of the other group.

Western diplomacy in the post-Cold War era has exacerbated such problems. Western powers have put intense pressure on Rwanda, as on other African states, to democratise itself by introducing elections and a multi-party system. The UN-sponsored Arusha Accords, signed last year by both sides, provided for a new office of president, a multi-party government and national assembly and an integrated national army. Meanwhile, market reforms have been introduced through a structural adjustment programme sponsored by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The IMF tied economic aid to political reform, holding back dollars 30m until the Hutu regime implemented the Arusha Accords.

The result was the devastation of an already fragile economy and an intensification of internal power struggles. Outside pressure to undermine the old political arrangements and balance of power led to social fragmentation and power struggles on 'ethnic' lines. Democratisation and marketisation helped to entrench the problems they were designed to solve.

The replacement of the Cold War stand-off by Great Power diplomacy, moreover, has encouraged a new pattern of clientism. Uganda, under Yoweri Museveni, has emerged as a key regional power with strong backing from Washington. Museveni helped to set up, train and finance the RPF, keen no doubt to increase his influence in the region. On the other side, the French, who have increasingly replaced the Belgians as the dominant European power in Rwanda, encouraged the Hutu regime, and seem now to be channelling their diplomatic and military efforts through Zaire.

The potential exists for the Rwandan catastrophe to repeat itself, but on a much wider scale. The RPF was formed largely from Tutsis exiled to Uganda by the previous regime. Who can say that the million or so Hutu refugees, and the remnants of the Hutu army exiled in Zaire, will not seek similar retribution on whatever government is installed in Kigali? Given the involvement of Uganda and Zaire - not to say France and the US - any new conflict is unlikely to confine itself to Rwanda. The tragedy may have just begun.

(Photograph omitted)