Africa’s First Continental War: Rwanda, the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and Internally Displaced Persons


Refugee movement and the concept of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has a profound effect on global security. Regional instability often scales up localized geopolitical conflicts that eventually take center stage on a global policymaker’s agenda. This is the case with the Great Lakes Region of Africa (GLR).   In defining what these geopolitical contexts mean, this analysis will refer to internally displaced persons affected by the Rwandan genocide living in Uganda, the DRC, Tanzania, and Burundi.

Given the scope of political psychology and how it affects various actors, it is difficult to encompass all of the variables at play without talking about the perception of victims in the international system and how that translates to specific geopolitical contexts. There is a lack of theoretical perspective regarding victimhood and how some groups transform actionable grievances into a victim-based identity. Essentially, why do we see this phenomenon in some geopolitical contexts and not others? According to Jacoby, this process consists of 5 stages: “(i) – structural conduciveness; (ii) – political consciousness; (iii) – ideological concurrence; (iv) – political mobilization, and (v) – political recognition” (2015, p.513).

Additionally, given the scope of mass violence and the efficiency with which the Rwandan genocide played out, it is safe to say that this study feels that IR theory is short in recognizing victims within the lens of the most abominable cases of human rights suffering and how these events unfolded since the post-colonial history of the GLR. The main shortfall is the failure to understand the scope of victim-based identity. Struggling to be recognized is a key theme that has been recurrent in the literature as it portrays ethnocentrism in the GLR. The idea of identifying a ‘victim’ in the structure of in-groups/out-groups with regards to IDPs has suffered from a lack of legitimacy and salient power construction in the GLR.

The collective experience that forms social identity patterns in the GLR draws heavily from the past 60-70 years of post-colonial history. The essential question is how the relationship between the individual that works through the mechanisms of internal displacement understands the nuances of collective suffering from the group dynamic? This precept means that the conversation has to include the multi-faceted dynamics that accompany genocide. There is an element of political mobilization that controls power distribution mechanisms in every layer of this conflict. From the perspective of IDPs, how do they perceive power distribution and what means are they willing to use to accomplish that end goal? Is the perception of being a victim enough to legitimize those means? The events of targeted retributions get complicated quickly as they run counter to the ideas proposed by Paul Kagame’s self-initiated genocide ideology laws. Victims that see their claims falling within the self-constructed categories of group grievance also see these aspects are also lacking as far as leverage is concerned with regards to social power.

In what many scholars have considered ‘Africa’s first continental war’ (Mills, 2002), the various linkages with regards to large refugee flows create positions of insecurity on a regional standard. While parsing out these instances may seem trivial on a global security scale, they should not be limited to anything less than the following: the individual security of the refugees pertaining to the areas from which they fled, their inherent social security, and the regional circumstances that are contributing factors to the greater conflict.

Overall, the condition of displaced persons in the GLR has not improved.  The UNHCR’s Annual Global Trends report notes that by the end of 2016 “Uganda was hosting 940,800 refugees…the highest number in the country’s history. Uganda was the 5th largest refugee hosting country in the world and the largest in Africa. By May 2017, this number stood at over 1.2 million”. The majority of these individuals come from a wide range of neighboring countries, however “177,176 of these were Rwandan who arrived during and after the 1994 genocide” (Frank 2017). While Uganda has ratified more international human rights law instruments than any other country in the GLR, obstacles still remain. For reference, here is a list of the treaties to which Uganda has ratified:

  • The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • The International Convention on the Eliminations of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • The 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights
  • The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,
  • The 1984 Convention Against Torture

The treaties noted above have also been codified into Ugandan domestic law with the enactment of the 2006 Refugee Act (Frank 2017).

The crux of all this is to show that even though these norms exist within the governing structures of the GLR, Rwandans desiring to return are living in a dangerous chasm between principle and practice. What is missing from the literature and the field are the specific negative conditions of repatriation as described by the refugees themselves and their perception of conditions in Rwanda that still revolve around the social calibrations of their ethnic status. These include, but are not limited to political suppression, ethnicity, media & ideological manipulations, state-controlled production of information dissemination, geopolitical tension, and social identity as an organizational destructive force. There is also a critical basic infrastructure problem that plays into Kagame’s hard-line stance on refugee movement. Frank quotes an interview with the Rwandan Minister for Disaster Management and Refugees that outlines the government’s perceived obstacles: “(1) Over 60% of returnee households were on permanent aid, (2) 96% needed support to re-build their shelters, (3) 72% had not received any kind of poverty alleviation assistance,(4) 50% of them did not possess any health insurance scheme, (5) 11% of returnees had no identification cards, (6) the vast majority of children born to returnees did not possess an adequate birth certificate, and (7) despite access to 12years of basic education, the majority struggled to provide their children with school materials and uniforms.” (2017, p.112)

The aim of this analysis is to show how fractional yet critical gaps in various social mechanisms are de facto governing refugee flows and constitute a threat to global security as much as they do in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Historical research founds this problem in the culminating events surrounding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where over 900,000 people were systematically murdered in roughly one hundred days. Millions more were forcibly displaced as a result and continue to live as internally displaced persons in highly unstable situations. Internally displaced persons are on the negative receiving end of both international treaties and the codified legislation of states within the region. Refugee policymaking needs to include, or perhaps more importantly start with, those whose voices go unheard in the process. NGOs need to focus more on the geopolitical dynamics within all of the countries involved. This context includes, but is not limited to: Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the DRC. The causal mechanisms behind this IDP problem demonstrate that variables associated with national security, factionalized class structures, group grievance, human flight, and inequality based on ethnicity are factors that have yet to be mitigated through international norms, even though it is now fully23 years after Africa’s first continental war.

Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson is the Senior Librarian for Intelligence Studies and International Relations at the Richard G. Trefry Library for American Public University System. Additionally, he is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Global Security with APUS.