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Kingdom of Rwanda

Kings (Abami, singular Mwami)

1st Dynasty
11141147Kanyarwanda I Gahima I
11471180Yuhi I Musindi
11801213Ndahiro I Ruyange
12131246Ndahiro Ndoba
12461279Ndahiro Samembe
12791312Nsoro I Samukondo
13121345Ruganzu I Bwimba
13451378Cyilima Rugwe
2nd Dynasty
13781418Kigeli I Mukobanya
14181444Mibambwe I Sekarongoro I Mutabazi
14441477Yuhi wa II Gahima II
14771510Ndahiro wa V Cyamatare
3rd Dynasty
1510-1600 1543-1624Ruganzu II Ndoli
1543-1624 1576-1648Mutara I Nsoro II Semugeshi
1576-1648 1609-1672Kigeli II Nyamuheshera
1609-72 1642-96Mibambwe II Sekarongoro II Gisanura
1642-96 1675-1720Yuhi III Mazimpaka
1720 1744Karemera Rwaka
1675-1744 1708-68Cyilima II Rujugira
1708-681741-92Kigeli III Ndabarasa
1741-921746-97Mibambwe III Mutabazi II Sentabyo
1746-971802-30Yuhi IV Gahindiro
4th Dynasty
1802-301853-60Mutara II Rwogera
185360Nov 1895Kigeli IV Rwabugiri
Nov 1895Nov 1896Mibambwe IV Rutarindwa
Nov 189612 Nov 1931Yuhi V Musinga
Nov 18961916Regency
- Kabare
- Kanyogera (Nyirayuhi V)
- Ruhinankiko
191110 Apr 1912Ndungutse (in rebellion)
12 Nov 193125 Jul 1959Mutara III Rudahigwa
25 Jul 195928 Jan 1961Kigeli V Ndahindurwa
sources are in disagreement on dates and names by as much as a century

Oral history suggests the kingdom of Rwanda formed in the late 10th or 11th century, founded by a Tutsi King called Ghihanga. The kingdoms of Rwanda began coalescing in the 11th century. In the 15th century, Rwandans established a monarchy headed by a Tutsi mwami (king) with a hierarchy of Tutsi nobles and gentry. In some areas of the country, independent Hutu principalities continued to exist, and in other areas, Tutsi and Hutu lineages lived in interdependent cooperation under the nominal control of the king.

The central government was manned by the Abiru through a complex and secret polity known as ubwiru. The Abiru were ritual loyalists who lived in the kings palace. Their purpose was to explain occurrences and forecast the future. For instance, the Abiru alone could secretly determine the next king and define his mission during his reign. The social, political, and economic actions in the kingdom were centrally controlled by the king through three different kinds of chiefs: the cattle chiefs, the military chiefs, and the chiefs of land. The chiefs of cattle and military were predominantly Tutsi, while the land chiefs were Hutu.

Little is known of the origins of the present-day inhabitants. Since there were no written histories before the arrival of the Europeans, information on the pre-European period is derived from investigations of popular traditions and the oral records of the chroniclers of the royal court.

The population is made up of three distinct ethnic groups: Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi. The Hutu and Tutsi came into the mountainous regions of central Africa in widely separated phases. The Twa, the first inhabitants, are a pygmoid people believed to be related to the pygmies of the Congo forest. Most of them live in the northern regions where they have existed mainly as hunters and food gatherers. By the late 20th Century they constituted less than 1 percent of the total population.

Hutu origins are obscure, though it is clear that they were the principal occupants of the region at the time of the Tutsi arrival. Hutu life centered about small-scale agriculture, and social organization was based on the clan, with petty kings ruling over limited domains. These kings were called Bahinza "those who cause things to grow," and their strength was based on the popu- lar belief that they controlled fertility. The Bahinza were believed to be endowed with magical powers by which they could cause rain to fall and seeds to germinate and could protect crops from insects and cattle from disease.

The Tutsi are believed to have first penetrated the area in the 14th or 15th century, entering from the northeast. Nomadic pastoralists, they came not in a sudden invasion but, rather, through the process of a slow and largely peaceful infiltration. Although far fewer in number, the Tutsi used their possession of cattle and their more advanced knowledge of warfare as sources of power and prestige and, in time, achieved economic, social, and political dominance over the Hutu. Their striking physical size and aristocratic bearing lent credibility to their claims of being divinely ordained to rule. Over a period of time the ownership of the land was taken from the Hutu, becoming the property of the Tutsi king, the Mwami.

The relationship between the Tutsi and Hutu came to be expressed in the form of a patron-client contract called ubuhake, an agreement by which the Hutu obtained the use of Tutsi cattle and, in return, rendered personal and military service to the owners of the cattle. This agreement probably began as a simple, small-scale exchange of a cow for land and labor, but eventually it crystallized into a feudal-type class system in which land, cattle, and power were in the hands of the Tutsi. Hutu peasants bound themselves to individual Tutsi lords, giving agricultural goods and personal services in exchange for the lord's protection and use of his cattle. The ubuhake between the ruling Tutsi minority and the subject Hutu majority became the dominant factor in the political and social organization.

The Mwami, who stood at the apex of the pyramid-like political structure, was considered to be of divine origin and was said to be "the eye through which God looks upon Rwanda." The royal symbol of the power of the Mwami was the kalinga, or sacred drum, on which the genitals of vanquished enemies were hung. The myth of divine origin was elaborated and preserved by the royal chroniclers of the Mwami's court. According to this myth, three children Kigwa, his brother Mututsi, and their sister Nyampundu were born in the heavens but, by accident, fell to the earth, bringing with them fire, iron, the forge, and cattle. Kigwa married his sister and founded the dominant Tutsi clan of the Abanyiginya. The line of descent is traced through a series of legendary ancestors, who are called ibimanuka, "those fallen from the heavens," to Gihanga, whose name means "founder."

According to Tutsi tradition, Gihanga led the migration of his people into the area of present-day Rwanda and established them in the region between Lake Muhazi and Lake Mugesera. The area was first divided into a number of hereditary chieftaincies, and the Mwami was only first among equals. Gihanga is said to have designated his son Kanyaruanda as his heir and commanded that all other descendants submit to his rule. The fact that the other descendants were not submissive to the chosen heir is cited in the royal mythology as the justification for the expansion, by force, of what was at first only a small chieftaincy, centering in the region of Lake Muhazi.

Tradition relates that, after Gihanga, there were several other Bami (plural of Mwami), but the expansionist period was most fully initiated by Mwami Ruganzu I Bwimba who, according to oral historians, began his reign in the last decade of the 15th century.

The history from the 15th through the late 19th centuries is one of conflict and expansion. Mwami Mibambwe I Mutabazi of the mid-16th century is credited with centralizing the monarchy and reducing neighboring chiefs to vassalage. During this 400- year period there were frequent conflicts between Rwanda and Burundi, creating a historical enmity which later caused the leaders of Rwanda and Burundi to resist all attempts by the UN to unite them politically.

By the late 19th century Mwami Kigeri IV had established the borders much as they existed when the Germans arrived in 1894. The Mwami's control was strongest in the immediate areas surrounding the capital, Nyanza, and in areas of easy access, but his control decreased in proportion to the distance vassal chiefs were located from the Mwami's power center. In the Hutu-controlled areas of the northwest there was a continuing struggle for hegemony throughout the history of the kindom. This area was never brought under the complete control of the Mwami's government, and it is from here that the strongest Hutu influences emanated in the decade preceding independence.

The structure of the Tutsi monarchial system as it existed toward the close of the 19th century was organized by Mwami Yuhi IV Gahindiro, who reigned about 1830. The Mwami dominated a complex hierarchy of chiefs and subchiefs structured into a delicate balance of power and allegiance based on self-interest. Below the Mwami were the members of Council of Great Chiefs who served as the monarch's advisers on important matters and as chiefs of the more important of the districts into which the kingdom was divided. In each of these districts there were two administrative chiefs, a cattle chief and a land chief, who collected tribute in livestock or agricultural produce, respectively. Tribute made the offices profitable, and the Mwami used it to reward loyal service as well as to assure continued fealty on the part of those in office.

Districts, in turn, were divided into umusozi, or hills, under hill chiefs. These were again divided into neighborhoods, each division having a type of subchief. Over 95 percent of these administrative posts were held by Tutsi.

Critically important in the Mwami-dominated system were the military chiefs, who were given full control over the frontier districts. Their functions were both offensive and defensive, carrying out cattle raids on neighboring groups, as well as pro- tecting the frontiers. It frequently occurred that the great chief was also named an army chief.

Another important institution in the system was that of the biru, or council of guardians of traditions. These honored persons advised the Mwami of those special duties of his office which were ordained by supernatural forces. They were entrusted with the memorization of the court rituals and with the selection of the Mwami's successor.

The entire structure was designed to reinforce the powers and position of the Mwami. On the one hand, the most powerful families were in competition with each other for royal favor and continually sought to secure one of the powerful chieftaincies at the expense of another family; on the other hand, each chief in the system was either directly responsible to the monarch or was controlled by a higher chief who owed allegiance to the monarch. Thus, the Mwami was able to reign over the entire hierarchical system as the lord of feudal lords.

Legitimacy of Tutsi rule was derived both from conquest and an appeal to divine origins. According to Tutsi traditional belief, the science and mystery of governing were reserved to the elite of their lineages. History was seen as both predestined and cyclic in nature. As a result, the Bami were given names which recurred in sequence; kings having similar names were believed to have similar fortunes. A king with the name Kigeri, for example, was expected to be victorious in war, whereas a Ruganzu was not expected to be and thus would not be an expansionist ruler. In this way, historical precedent was of a sacred nature to the Tutsi. Therefore, the biru, who interpreted history and established traditions, were men of great importance to the system.

Because of the limited size of the German presence in Rwanda, they ruled through the Mwami, and the Mwami, in turn, utilized German force to strengthen his own position. It was during the German period that the Mwami came closer to absolute rule over his entire territory than at any other time.

Early in 1914 the colonial administration instituted a general head tax. Mwami Musinga opposed this move, concerned that the Hutu, if taxed, might look upon the Germans as their protectors and no longer feel indentured to their Tutsi lords. This fear turned out to be justified, and Tutsi domination was further weakened.

Belgium's administration of the territories followed a pattern similar to that employed by Germany. Confronted with a multitude of problems such as famine, endemic diseases, difficulties of communication, and a scattered population, the Belgians decided to use the political system of the Tutsi aristocracy who still dominated the political-social-economic structure. The colonial administration turned to the existing Tutsi organization in order to be able to concentrate administrative personnel on the more pressing social and economic problems. The Belgians concluded, however, that, although it was expedient to respect and utilize the traditional political organization, the abuses of the system would have to be eliminated. As early as 1917 the occupying Belgian military forces had placed limits on the arbitrary power of the Mwami and, in order to fulfill the requirements of the League's Mandate, other changes also became necessary.

Mwami Musinga proved an obstacle to Belgian development plans; thus, the administration deposed him in 1931, sending him into exile in the Congo, where he remained until his death of pneumonia in 1940 [1944??]. Ignoring tradition, the Belgians bypassed the biru in the selection of the new Mwami, naming the 18-year-old son of Musinga, Charles Mutara III Rudahigwa, as the new monarch.

The sudden, unexpected, and mysterious death of Mwami Mutara III on July 24, 1959 initiated a period of intense political activity. Mutara was reported to have died after an injection of an antibiotic, and the Tutsi biru acted quickly to name a successor, Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa, a son of Musinga and half-brother to Mutara. The Belgian Vice Governor learned of the selection only after the fact, but felt compelled to accept the choice of the biru, and the new Mwami was later invested as Kigeri V Ndahindurwa.

Mwami Kigeri went to Leopoldville in July 1960, intending to meet there with the Secretary General of the UN to protest the elections. The Belgian Administration decided not to permit him to return to Rwanda. On October 26 the administration proclaimed the establishment of a Provisional Government for Rwanda.

Elections were set for 18 September 1960. UN teams attempted to supervise the election preparations as well as the voting and tabulation. In addition to the selection of members of the Legislative Assembly, the electorate voted on questions concerning the future of the monarchy. As to the question of continuing the monarchy, the vote was 80 percent negative, a figure corresponding to the total vote of the two Hutu parties.

In 1961 the monarchy was abolished and Rwanda became a republic, gaining independence from Belgium in 1962.

Born Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa, King Kigeli V came to power in 1959 but was only king of Rwanda until 1961, when the monarchy was abolished and he was forced into exile. Kigeli drifted in exile for decades, trundling from one African sanctuary to the next. A man with a kingdom had become a man with a street corner, like the one in Nairobi where curiosity seekers in the 1980s paid a few shillings to meet someone whod once worn a crown. He eventually settled in the US where he set up a charity helping Rwandan refugees and orphans. One of the first to leap to his aid was the Monarchist League, a 70-year-old British group that campaigns for the preservation and restoration of kingdoms the world over, largely through receptions and newsletters. His tottering seven-foot-two-inch frame was stooped by age and the vagaries of fate. The last king of Rwanda died 17 October 2016 in the US aged 80 years old.

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Page last modified: 08-12-2016 18:52:27 ZULU