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  The Civil War :: Economy :: Foreign rule :: Health and Welfare 
:: Judiciary :: Land and Resources :: Local Government

Rwanda, republic in east central Africa, bounded on the north by Uganda, on the east by Tanzania, on the south by Burundi, and on the west by Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire).  Rwanda covers an area of 26,338 sq km (10,169 sq mi), and Kigali is its capital and largest city.   

Land and Resources

The central portion of Rwanda is dominated by a hilly plateau averaging about 1700 m (about 5600 ft) in elevation.  Eastward, toward the Tanzanian border, the land slopes downward to a series of marshy lakes along the upper Kagera River.  On the western side of the plateau is a mountain system averaging about 2740 m (about 9000 ft) in elevation, forming the watershed between the Nile and Congo river systems.  The Virunga Mountains, a volcanic range that forms the northern reaches of this system, includes Volcan Karisimbi (4507 m/14,787 ft), Rwanda’s highest peak.  West of the mountains the elevation drops to about 1460 m (about 4800 ft) in the Lake Kivu region.  


Rwanda has three main seasons: a short dry season in January, the major rainy season from February through May, and another dry period from May to late September.  The average yearly rainfall is 787 mm (31 in) and is heaviest in the western and northwestern mountain regions.  Wide temperature variations occur because of elevation differences.  The average daily temperature in the Lake Kivu area is 22.8o C (73o F).  In the mountains in the northwest, frost occurs at night.

Plants and Animals

Forests, once extensive, now are concentrated in the western mountains and Lake Kivu area.  Predominant trees are the eucalyptus, acacia, and oil palms.  Wildlife – including elephant, hippopotamus, crocodile, wild boar, leopard, antelope, and flying lemur – is protected in Akagera National Park.  The Virunga Mountains in northern Rwanda are the home of what is estimated to be half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.  This subspecies of gorilla was made famous by the work of American zoologist Dian Fossey.

Mineral Resources

The principal mineral resources are cassiterite (tin ore), wolframite (tungsten ore), columbite, tantalite, beryl, and gold.  Large natural-gas reserves, found near the DRC border, are being developed.   


The population of Rwanda is 94 percent rural.  Most of the people live in family groups dispersed throughout mountainous regions.  Three ethnic groups make up the population: the Hutu (about 90%); the Tutsi (9%), noted as cattle raisers; and the Twa (1%), a pygmoid people thought to be the original inhabitants of the region.  The official languages are Kinyarwanda (a Bantu language) and French.  About 65 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, about 9 percent is Muslim, and some 9 percent is Protestant.  Approximately 17 percent of the people follow traditional religions.  

Population Characteristic  

The 1996 estimated population of Rwanda was 6, 853,359.  The population density is about 260 persons per sq km (about 674 per sq mi), making Rwanda one of the most densely populated countries in Africa.  The civil ware that broke out in Rwanda in 1994 greatly disrupted the ethnic and geographic distribution of the population and caused massive numbers of deaths.  However, the country’s density remains high.

Political Divisions and Principal Cities

Rwanda is divided into ten prefectures, each of which is administered by a prefect who is appointed by the president.  The principal cities are Kigali, the capital, with a population (1990 estimate) of 219,000, and Butare (1978) 21,691.  


Schooling is free, and in principle, compulsory for children aged 7 through 15, but less than half the adult population is literate.  In the early 1990s primary school enrollment in Rwanda was about 1.1 million and secondary and technical schools had about 70,000 students.  The National University in Butare, opened in 1963, had about 1,700 students in the late 1980s.  However, after the violence began in April 1994, education at all levels ceased and has yet to be fully restored.

Way of Life

Most Rwandans live in round grass huts on farms scattered over the country’s many hills.  Family life is central to society.  Traditionally, the principal goal in life was parenthood.  Women generally dress in brightly colored wraps, men in white.  However, many have adopted Western clothes.  The Rwandan diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes and beans, with bananas, corn, peas, millet, and fruits added in season.  Beer and milk are important beverages.  Protein deficiency is a serious problem.  Cattle are herded as signs of wealth and status rather than for their value as food.  Most Rwandans consume meat only about once or twice a month.  Fish is eaten by those living near lakes.  Pastimes include poetry recitation, storytelling, and mancala, a board game common throughout Africa.  Soccer is also popular.


The richness of Rwandan culture is apparent in the wide range of fine crafts.  These include pottery, basketry, painting, jewelry, wood carving, metal work, and the making of gourd containers.  All ethnic groups cherish oral traditions of proverbs, songs and chants.  The Tutsi, in particular, are known for their epic songs and dynastic poetry chronicling the origins of the Tutsi ruling class.  The verse, strongly flavored with traditional mythology, has preserved Rwandan history orally through generations of preliterate peoples.  For many years, the tall, splendidly adorned all-male Tutsi intore dancers, characterized by coordinated drilling dances reflecting the warrior tradition of the Tutsi, and the tambourinaires (drummers), were attractions for travelers.  Rwanda has produced a number of writers, including Alexis Kagame and J. Saverio Nayigiziki, both of whom have written primarily in French.  French is the main literary language in Rwanda because the educated elite of the country are educated largely in French.  Kagame’s and Nayigiziki’s main theme include religion and the conflict between tradition and modernity.

Social Problems

Ethnic division and rivalry have been the dominant features of Rwandan society since independence in 1962.  These severe problems are compounded further by poverty, overcrowding, environmental stress, and one of the highest incidences of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the world. 


Rwanda has essentially a subsistence economy.  The gross national product in the late 1980s was only $2 billion, or about $310 per person.  The country suffers from soil erosion and occasional droughts and subsequent famines, making Rwanda heavily dependent on foreign assistance, mainly from Belgium.  In the late 1980s annual output of electricity was about 174 million kilowatt-hours, virtually all of which was generated by hydroelectric facilities


Most of the people of Rwanda depend on subsistence agriculture, generally using a hoe as the main tool.  The main cash crop is Arabica coffee, of which is about 35,000 metric tons were produced in 1992.  Other export crops include tea and pyrethrum.  Food crops include plantains, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, and beans.  The livestock population numbers some 1.1 million goats, 610,000 cattle, 395,000 sheep, and 142,000 pigs.  Overgrazing and soil erosion are serious difficulties that affect the entire country.  Furthermore, Rwanda’s instability has caused disruptions in trade and a decline in exports, leading even more people to revert to subsistence agriculture.


Minerals are Rwanda’s second most important source of foreign exchange after agricultural products.  However, due to drops in world commodity prices, the mining of cassiterite was halted in 1986.  The following year the country’s wolframite mines were also closed for the same reason.  By 1991 some cassiterite and other mineral ores were being exported again, but, only in very modest amounts.  Cassiterite, gold, and beryl mining were disrupted by the instability of the mid-1990s. 

Currency, Commerce and Trade

The currency is the Rwanda franc, consisting of 100 centimes (about 304.3 Rwanda francs = US $1; 1996).  The National Bank of Rwanda (1964) is the issuing bank.  The chief exports, coffee and tea, are shipped primarily to Germany and other European countries.  Motor vehicles, fuels, textiles, and machinery are imported mainly from Belgium, Kenya, France and Germany.  Annual exports earned about $81.8 million in 1991, while imports cost $262.8 million.  Trade virtually ceased during 1994 and has been recovering very slowly since.

Transportation and Communication

Rwanda has a road network of about 12,070 km (about 7,500 mi), only 7 percent of which is paved.  The country has no railroads, but, is linked by road to the Uganda-Kenya railroad system; most of Rwanda’s international trade passes through the Kenyan port of Mombassa.  The main international airport is near Kigali.  Two radio stations operate from the capital. 


Under a constitution approved in 1978, the sole political party in Rwanda was the National Revolutionary Movement for Development.  Executive power was vested in a president, assisted by an appointed council of ministers; legislative power was exercised by an elected National Development Council.  A new constitution, promulgated in 1991, provides for a multiparty democracy with a limited presidential term and independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Since August 1994, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has kept the country under martial law.  The 1991 constitution, as well as all political party activity, has been suspended.

Local Government - BACK ON TOP

Prior to August 1994, the basic administrative unit of Rwanda was the commune, run by an elected council and presided over by a mayor chosen by the council.  Some 145 communes were formed.  Since the disruptions of 1994, local government has been superseded by martial law. 


Until the disruptions of 1994, Rwanda’s judiciary system was based on Belgian and German codes and customary law.  The main courts of Rwanda were the Constitutional Court, the Court of Cassation, courts of appeals, courts of the first instance, and provincial courts.  A court of accounts was responsible for examining public accounts.   However, Rwandan courts ceased functioning in April 1994, and the structure of the judiciary system may take years to rebuild.

Health and Welfare

In 1962, a social security program providing old-age benefits and workers’ compensation was inaugurated, but has proved ineffective.  A government assisted program provides community centers and health services.  Trypanosomiasis, malaria, schistosomiasis, and sexually transmitted diseases are all severe medical problems in Rwanda.  However, AIDS is by far the most serious health issue.  Eighteen percent of urban Rwandans tested positive, for the virus that causes AIDS, in 1989.   


The first known inhabitants of Rwanda were the Twa.  The Hutu, probably from the Congo River basin, were well established by the 15th century, when the Tutsi came down from the north and conquered the area.  The Tutsi kings, or mwamis, became the absolute monarchs of the region.  Their rule was enforced by chiefs and subchiefs, who each ruled an umusozi, a kingdom that consisted of a single hill.  Political and economic relations were based on an unequal feudal relationship, known as the ubuhake system, in which the Hutu became a caste of serfs forced into subjugation and economic dependency by the Tutsi.  This caste system was rigidly upheld, and intermarriage was almost nonexistent.  A similar feudal system was dominant in Burundi.

Foreign Rule

In 1858, John Hanning Speke was the first European to visit the area.  German explorers arrived in the 1880s, and Roman Catholic clergy established missions in the area.  Later in the decade Rwanda (then called Ruanda) and Burundi (then called Urundi) were incorporated into German East Africa.  The indigenuous rulers maintained good relations with the Germans, and later, the Belgians, who occupied the country during the World War I (1914–1918).  After the war the area was mandated to Belgium by the League of Nations and became known as the Territory of Ruanda-Urundi.  Following World War II (1939–1945) it became a United Nations (UN) trust territory.  The Belgians continued previous policies of supporting education by missionaries and of ruling through the Tutsi chiefs.  However, they also forced the Tutsi to phase out the ubuhake system by 1958.

As political consciousness increased among Africans after World War II, the Hutu grew more vocal in protesting the political and social inequalities in Rwanda.  In 1959, the antagonism between the Tutsi and Hutu erupted into violence; the next year the Tutsi king fled the country, and an exodus of some 200,000 Tutsi followed.  A republic was established in January 1961.  In elections held the following September, the Hutu-dominated Parmehutu Party won a large majority of the seats in the National Assembly, and a 4-1 majority voted against the return of the king.

Independence  - Back on top

At the insistence of the United Nations trusteeship council, Belgium granted Rwanda independence on July 1, 1962, with Gregoire Kayibanda, leader of the Parmehutu (now renamed the Democratic Republican Movement; MDR), as president.  The MDR won the elections in 1965 and 1969.

In 1963, some exiled Tutsi returned to Rwanda as a rebel army.  Although unsuccessful, the takeover attempt prompted a large-scale massacre of Tutsi by the Hutu, followed by periodic ethnic violence.  At the same time thousands of Hutu victimized in Burundi took refuge in Rwanda.  In July 1973 the defense minister, General Juvenal Habyarimana, led a bloodless coup that ousted Kayibanda.  Habyarimana, a Hutu from the north, charged that Kayibanda favored southern Hutu and was trying to monopolize power.  Both parliament and the MDR were suspended after the coup.  Political activities resumed in 1975 with the formation of a new ruling party called the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (NRMD).  In 1978 a new constitution was approved, and President Habyarimana was confirmed in office for another five years.  After thwarting a coup attempt in 1980, he was reelected without opposition in 1983 and again in 1988.  In 1990, Belgium and several central African nations sent troops to Rwanda to oppose an uprising by the Tutsi-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a movement of Tutsi refugees and moderate Hutu, invading from Uganda.  A new constitution authorizing the establishment of a multiparty democracy became law in 1991, and a prime minister was appointed to organize a transitional government in preparation for multiparty elections in 1995

Civil War

In April 1994, shortly after concluding peace negotiations with the RPF that called for UN peacekeeping forces to be stationed in Rwanda, President Habyarimana and Burundi’s President Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed when their plane was shot down near Kigali.  Responsibility for the attack has not been established.  Habyarimana’s death provoked a wave of ethnic violence, prompting UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to accuse the Hutu-dominated Rwandan Army of genocide against the Tutsi.  At the height of the violence, the UN forces, lacking a mandate to protect civilians, abandoned Kigali.  Over the next few months, an estimated 500,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were massacred.  The RPF army pushed toward Kigali, and a civil war ensued.  In June the French government sent 2,500 troops to Rwanda to establish a safe area in the southwestern part of the country.  But attempts to mediate a cease-fire failed as the RPF mounted a successful final assault.

After capturing the capital of Kigali, RPF troops began to drive the Rwandan Army and Hutu civilians northwest, toward the Rwanda-Zaire border.  Retaliatory violence by Tutsi claimed several thousand lives, including that of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Kigali.  By mid-July, an estimated 1.2 million Rwandans had fled the advancing RPF army across the border and into Zaire, forming enormous refugee camps around the city of Goma.  By early August, an estimated one-quarter of the prewar population of Rwanda had either died or fled the country.  International relief efforts were mobilized to care for the refugees, but available supplies were inadequate and outbreaks of disease were widespread.  In the midst of the squalor of the camps, more than 20,000 refugees died in a cholera epidemic.

A cease-fire was declared in July and an RPF-backed government was established with Pasteur Bizimungu as president.  The RPF made a point of including other groups in the government.  In spite of international efforts, refugee camp conditions in Zaire and Tanzania have remained poor, due to transportation difficulties and the sheer number of refugees.  Many Tutsi refugees have returned to Rwanda, including refugees who had fled in the 1960s, but the repatriation of Hutu refugees has been slower, as many fear reprisals.  During an attempt to close the Kibeho refugee camp in southwest Rwanda in April 1995, government forces opened fire on a surging crowd in the camp.  The Rwandan government estimated the death toll at about 330 people, while the UN estimated that 2,000 people had been killed.  Several border confrontations between government forces and Hutu refugees occurred during 1995, resulting in hundreds of Hutu deaths.  Meanwhile, grossly overcrowded prison conditions in Rwanda have caused hundreds more deaths monthly.

Former United States president Jimmy Carter sponsored a summit in Cairo, Egypt, in November 1995, on the issue of Rwandan refugees.  The summit was attended by the presidents of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire and a representative from Tanzania.  An agreement was reached to work to return refugees to Rwanda.  In the next months refugees began returning in large numbers from Burundi and Tanzania, but, few returned from Zaire.  The UN mission in Rwanda ended in March 1996.

Throughout 1996 more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, most of them Hutu, remained in camps in Zaire.  The civil war that erupted in eastern Zaire in late 1996 revealed that these camps contained small percentages of armed Hutu militias.  These Hutu, likely the same who led or participated in the 1994 massacres of Tutsi, used the huge refugee camps as places of refuge while they organized raids into Rwanda with the goal of overthrowing the RPF government.  The Hutu refugees remained in the camps either out of fear of Tutsi retribution in Rwanda or because they were held against their will by the militias.  The militias clashed with the largely Tutsi eastern Zairian rebels around Lake Kivu, often very close to the border between Rwanda and Zaire.  The Hutu militias were aided by the Zairian government, the Tutsi rebels in Zaire by the Rwandan government.  Cross-border artillery shelling was reported near Gisenyi, north of Lake Kivu.

In October and November 1996 the Tutsi rebels successfully routed Hutu militias in several huge refugee camps near the border.  Some 800,000 Rwandans poured home, but several hundred thousand remained in Zaire.  As the civil war spread and the rebels gained territory, the Rwandan refugees were forced west, deeper into the jungles of Zaire.  Despite international outcry over their plight, the constantly moving refugees remained largely beyond the reach of aid workers.  By the end of Zaire’s civil war in May, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees had been killed in the fighting, or had died of disease or starvation.

The UN voted in late 1994 to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which opened in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1996.  Trials began in early 1997, but the UN tribunal has been criticized for mismanagement and poor organization.  The RPF government began its own trials of more then 90,000 people accused of crimes related to the 1994 massacres in 1996.  Meanwhile, Rwanda was again plagued with outbursts of ethnic violence in 1997 up to date.


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