Habyarimana Overthrows President Kayibanda Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Rwandan defense minister Juvénal Habyarimana overthrew his cousin Grégoire Kayibanda and assumed Rwanda’s presidency, he surrounded himself with Hutu extremists and increased the government’s anti-Tutsi policies and rhetoric, setting the stage for the Rwandan genocide of 1994-1995.

Summary of Event

Before it fell under colonial rule, the central African nation of Rwanda was governed by kings, called mwamis, generally from the Tutsi tribe. However, during nineteenth century European colonization of Africa, Rwanda came under the mantle first of Germany and then of Belgium. In 1935, Belgium’s colonial government in Rwanda issued identity cards to all native Rwandans identifying them as being of Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa ethnic origins (the Twa constituted an extremely small minority). The Belgians initially showed favor to the Tutsis, allowing the mwami to continue his rule. However, when civil unrest based in the ruling class led to disgruntlement with the Belgians, the Belgians founded the Parmehutu political party, and, to help abolish the monarchy, supported the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in 1959. In 1962, Belgian colonial rule ended, and the Parmehutu leader, Grégoire Kayibanda, became the country’s president. Revolutions and coups;Rwanda Racial and ethnic conflict;Rwanda Hutus Tutsis [kw]Habyarimana Overthrows President Kayibanda (July 5, 1973) [kw]Overthrows President Kayibanda, Habyarimana (July 5, 1973) [kw]President Kayibanda, Habyarimana Overthrows (July 5, 1973) [kw]Kayibanda, Habyarimana Overthrows President (July 5, 1973) Revolutions and coups;Rwanda Racial and ethnic conflict;Rwanda Hutus Tutsis [g]Africa;July 5, 1973: Habyarimana Overthrows President Kayibanda[01220] [g]Rwanda;July 5, 1973: Habyarimana Overthrows President Kayibanda[01220] [c]Government and politics;July 5, 1973: Habyarimana Overthrows President Kayibanda[01220] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 5, 1973: Habyarimana Overthrows President Kayibanda[01220] Kayibanda, Grégoire Habyarimana, Juvénal Kagame, Paul

Kayibanda’s control of Rwanda, which lasted some eleven years, was marked by violence against the Tutsi population to maintain the status quo. Increasingly, Tutsis fled to neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Burundi, and the government repeatedly stated that it could not accommodate these refugees’ return.

Kayibanda had appointed his cousin and friend Major General Juvénal Habyarimana to the position of Rwandan defense minister. Habyarimana, however, with help from a group of disaffected military officers, overthrew Kayibanda and the Parmehutu party on July 5, 1973. Although the initial coup that overthrew Kayibanda was bloodless, Kayibanda, a Hutu, was killed in his home in1976 during another massacre of the country’s Tutsis. Kayibanda’s administration had been pro-Hutu, and Kayibanda had used the mass murder of Tutsis to retain his status. Habyarimana increased this practice and also increased anti-Tutsi laws to tip the balance of power further. To give his government the appearance of legitimacy, two years after he assumed power Habyarimana created a political party, the Mouvement Républicain National Pour la Démocratie et le Développement (National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development). National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (Rwanda) Through this party, Habyarimana created a constitution in 1978 that allowed him to be reelected to the presidency repeatedly in elections in which he was the only candidate.

Habyarimana crafted employment and education policies that favored Hutus, making it difficult for Tutsis to finish school or get good jobs. For example, all Rwandan students had to earn scholarships to attend public high schools. These scholarships were awarded based on academic merit and racial quotas. The scholarships were offered first to Hutus and then to Tutsis, so that academically eligible Tutsi children were frequently slighted in favor of Hutus with lower academic standing. Similarly, government jobs were awarded based largely on ethnic quotas. Habyarimana and his government justified these policies by stating that Hutus formed the ethnic majority in the country, and the quotas helped ensure that they did not lose status to the statistically fewer Tutsis. Indeed, the government continued a policy initiated by the previous regime in skewing the country’s census to make it appear that only 9 percent of the population was Tutsi.

Additionally, Habyarimana’s administration increased anti-Tutsi rhetoric. Although Tutsi and Hutu intermarriage was not uncommon, a child’s ethnicity was considered to come from the child’s father. Children with Hutu fathers and Tutsi mothers were thus considered Hutu, whereas those with Tutsi fathers and Hutu mothers were considered Tutsi. The racial division was, for many, a purely political one. Because the Tutsi had traditionally been Rwanda’s ruling class, however, economic divisions were exploded into racial hatred. Using a version of a completely specious system developed by European John Hanning Speke Speke, John Hanning in the nineteenth century, observers supposedly could visually distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis. Tutsis were said to be taller, with narrower features and sharper noses, whereas Hutus were supposedly shorter, with softer features. The Hutu government encouraged these beliefs, along with the idea that Tutsis were unjustly arrogant.

As increasing numbers of Tutsis fled the country, a significant expatriate Rwandan population was created. In 1979, a group of these political refugees formed the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU). This group hoped to even out the political balance in Rwanda, but Habyarimana and his government were largely deaf to its requests. In 1985, a group of Rwandan Tutsis who had been part of the Ugandan army and helped overthrow Ugandan dictator Milton Obote defected from Uganda to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In 1987, RANU was absorbed by the RPF, and on October 1, 1990, the RPF launched an all-out war on Habyarimana’s government with the intent of bringing an end to the dictatorship. In response, the government increased massacres of Tutsis at the same time it was fighting the rebels. The RPF’s leader was killed in the first week of fighting, and Paul Kagame came to head the RPF forces.

After nearly three years of fighting, the Rwandan government was forced by international pressure to deal with the RPF politically. Habyarimana signed a serious peace accord in Arusha, Tanzania, on August 4, 1993. The Arusha Peace Agreement, Arusha Peace Agreement (1993) also known as the Arusha Accords, was designed to bring, among other things, power sharing to the Rwandan government and relief to displaced Tutsis. Much of Habyarimana’s power, however, came from the powerful family of his wife, who despised Tutsis. The agreement, particularly the power-sharing clause, did not sit well with these hard-liners, and it was never implemented. Instead, the government increased anti-Tutsi rhetoric and began using a technically independent radio station that was really an arm of the government propaganda office to instruct Hutus to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Additionally, a militia force known as the Interahamwe Interahamwe militia was trained, and the country imported vastly more machetes than it could have expected to use in everyday agricultural labor.

Habyarimana’s position within his regime was increasingly unstable. The political hard-liners with whom he had always identified were very displeased with the power-sharing clause in the Arusha Peace Agreement, and the RPF continued to fight for Habyarimana’s ouster. Then, on April 6, 1994, Habyarimana’s private jet was shot down by a missile as it came in to land at the airport in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The attack was not investigated, and it remained unclear whether the RPF or the hard-liners within the president’s own party initiated it. All on board the jet were killed, including Habyarimana and Burundi’s Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira. Ntaryamira, Cyprien


Juvénal Habyarimana’s overthrow of Grégoire Kayibanda in 1973 brought into power in Rwanda a regime whose policies and machinations set the stage for the Rwandan genocide Rwandan genocide of 1994-1995. By using the frequent slaughter of Tutsis to retain power, Habyarimana’s government repeatedly demonstrated to the Hutu population that it was acceptable to kill Tutsis—indeed, that doing so could offer improved life status or even political advancement. The government also increasingly degraded life for Tutsis in the country by implementing quota policies favoring Hutus in education and employment. Ultimately, these things led to a large expatriate population of Tutsis hungry for equality and the ouster of the Rwandan dictator. When some of those citizens formed the RPF to overthrow the government, anti-Tutsi violence reached new extremes, until the government began preparing for genocide even before the death of Habyarimana and the formal collapse of peace talks. Revolutions and coups;Rwanda Racial and ethnic conflict;Rwanda Hutus Tutsis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eltringham, Nigel. Accounting for Horror: Post-genocide Debates in Rwanda. Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 2000. Discusses the long-term ethnicity debate in Rwanda, including how attitudes toward race shaped the ethnic hatred leading up to the Rwandan genocide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newbury, Catharine. The Cohesion of Oppression: Clientship and Ethnicity in Rwanda, 1860-1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Summarizes the forces that set the stage for Kayibanda’s assumption of power in 1962 and examines the history behind the ethnic divisions that permeated both his regime and that of Habyarimana.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waugh, Colin M. Paul Kagame and Rwanda: Power, Genocide, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. Discusses the RPF’s role—before, during, and after the Rwandan genocide—in shaping Rwandan policy and fighting the attitudes of Habyarimana’s regime.

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Categories: History