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The Kings of Rwanda - Fathers of a Nation Part I: The Eye of God

 

Rwandan Kings of the Pre-Colonial Age

(ca. 1200-1895 AD)

 

In an era of ten-second sound bytes and mass media, it is sometimes rather difficult to imagine a society founded on the notion of the political, administrative and religious centrality of a hereditary monarch. The various institutions of the Western world, largely the inheritance of the Enlightenment, have fixed firmly in the public mind a model of democratic government that has been cut to fit a wide range of national situations, often with very mixed results. Informed democracy, while certainly a major step forward in man's uneven progress toward self-realization, has not been the universal panacea promised by so many of the hopeful and far-thinking political philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many are the failed experiments in democratic government, frequently imposed or inspired by foreign powers, that have littered the African continent in particular since the middle decades of the 20th century.

Long before the notion of democracy ever appeared on the shores of Africa, however, there existed the small southeastern kingdom of Rwanda, originally confined to the open savanna between Lake Victoria and Lake Kivu, and whose modern roots as a sovereign and independent nation date back to the 13th century. Rwanda constituted a triple exception in Africa, for she was a true nation-state. Comprised of three different and yet interrelated groups- the Twa, the Hutu and the Tutsi- the Kingdom of Rwanda was not the random patchwork creation of some European colonial power which had simply imposed its will on a collection of tribes and/or regions, but rather a true nation in every sense of the word. In addition, and despite the artificial distinctions later introduced by colonial imperialists determined to divide and conquer her, the three groups that comprised her population together constituted one unique and identical ethnicity, that of the Banyarwanda, or "people of Rwanda."

The first signs of a human presence in the area now known as Rwanda date from about 1000 BC, and archaeologists have there discovered the remains of a civilization that had mastered both the production of iron and of pottery. The area was originally populated by Pygmy tribes, ancestors of the Twa, and it was early in the first millennium AD that the Tutsi (originally from the areas north of Rwanda) and the Hutu (originally from the areas south of Rwanda) initially migrated to this beautiful and fertile land of rolling hills, open plains and large, crystalline lakes.

While little is known about the many individuals who reigned over the people of Rwanda as king, or mwami (plural abami), during the ages that preceded the arrival of European explorers in the mid-19th century, a considerable amount of information is available about the rôle of the mwami in Rwandan society. Thanks to the collection of rituals and protocols known as the Gakondo, first passed on by means of oral tradition, and later committed to writing after the coming of the Europeans, it is possible to acquire a strong appreciation of the nature and primacy of the king in the Rwandan state, and to gain important insights into the absolutely pivotal rôle occupied by the monarch in the life of the nation and of the people.

Map of Modern Rwanda

Like many other African sovereigns of the period, the mwami of Rwanda was the undisputed master of the entirety of his kingdom, and his word was quite literally law. His decisions, although often taken in consultation with his counselors, or abiru, were not subject to appeal, and failure to comply with his will was punishable in the most rigorous way possible. The scholar Donat Murego of the University of Louvain, who has devoted much of his work to the study of the idea of "sacred royalty" in pre-colonial Africa, states unequivocally that with the conquest of the Hutu and Twa chiefs by the Tutsi kings in the 13th century, "Tutsi power was established, the Hutu and their former chiefs had been defeated and reduced to servitude. After having sought to take in hand every decision and to control the entirety of the administration, the Tutsi monarch finished by placing his supreme authority beyond question. It is he who distributes the privileges; he is judged by no one, controlled by no one. No independent or autonomous structure, having its own powers exists in his sphere, and therefore cannot limit him. From the king flows all power, all authority, all decisions."

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