The global coffee trade’s role in the Rwandan Genocide

Twenty-five years after the ‘fastest and most efficient murder campaign of the twentieth century’, Katie McQue examines the role that the global deregulation of the coffee trade had in destabilizing Rwanda.

Pictures of victims donated by survivors hang on a wall inside the Genocide Memorial in Gisozi within Kigali, Rwanda April 3, 2019. Picture taken April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Jean Bizimana

25 years ago, more than 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda over 100 days. It has been described as the fastest and most efficient murder campaign of the twentieth century.

The world failed to react to the events while they were unfolding. This weighed heavy on the international community, who have acknowledged they should have done more to contain the killings in the early days of the genocide.

In 2001, the former UN ambassador for the US, Samantha Power, wrote in The Atlantic: ‘President Clinton issued what would later be known as the "Clinton apology," which was actually a carefully hedged acknowledgment. He spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: "We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred" in Rwanda."’

What is lesser acknowledged, however, is the role the US and other more powerful nations played in setting the scene for the African nation’s economic crisis, an important contributing factor to the devastating events of 1994.

Root causes

On the evening of 6 April, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, exploded in the sky above Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Both heads of states and several other officials died in the missile attack. To this day, it is unclear who is responsible. That night, the killings began.

Habyarimana and Ntaryamira were Hutu – the majority ethnic group in both countries; at the time about 85 per cent of Rwandans were Hutu. Ethnic divisions had been formalized by the tiny countries’ Belgian colonial rulers after World War One. The other ethnicities were the minority Tutsi population, and a very small group of Twa – traditionally hunter gatherers.

A power struggle between Tustis and Hutus remained constant throughout the second half of the last century, erupting into major conflicts in 1960s and 1980s. After clashes in the 1960s many Tutsi sought exile across the border in Uganda. Some of these formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990. A civil war ensued until a UN-backed peace deal was agreed in 1993.

Hutu extremists blamed the RPF for shooting down the plane. And so began the mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutus. Hutu supremacists – the government-backed Interahamwe militia – armed with guns and machetes began a campaign that saw about 8000 Rwandans killed per day.

Communities turned on each other. Some Hutu men killed their Tutsi wives. Road blocks prevented the hunted from fleeing to safer areas. It was as systematic as it was brutal, with kill lists drawn up. The government-supported Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines station broadcast a stream of hate speech, encouraging Hutu to do Umaganda’, which means community work and at the time, a euphemism for killing.

Black Gold

From the 1970s coffee farming was Rwanda’s most important source of income, accounting for more than 70 per cent of the country’s export revenues. For this reason, during Habyarimana’s presidency from 1973, Rwandan farmers were made to grow coffee. Tearing coffee trees from the ground was made illegal.

At the time, world coffee prices were stable because of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA), which subjected participating countries to a production quota that prevented the market being flooded with supplies and the price crashing.

President Kennedy’s administration established the ICA during in 1963. Some 73 other nations eventually joined the agreement. By creating a stable coffee market and relatively high prices, the US hoped to appease coffee-producing countries in Latin America and prevent communist uprisings during the Cold War.

‘The idea was to find a way to make sure that these countries have a source of stable, economic revenue to prevent Cuba-like revolutions playing out all across Latin America,’ says Isaac A Kamola, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Trinity College.

Coffee producers, including Rwanda, benefited from this fixed market. Rwandan farmers were obliged to sell their produce to the government’s marketing agency. In turn, the government exported this coffee for American dollars and paid the farmers in local currency. This was a financially favourable set-up for the regime. The farmers were protected from shocks in the world market by a fixed price and maintained their political allegiance to Habyarimana.

‘Ideally, some of the profits would have been put into a fund that could have been used to protect against shocks of low international prices, but this never happened. The elite used it, and this also made the regime very popular,’ says Phillip Verwimp, Associate Professor of Development Economics at Université Libre de Bruxelles.

However, in 1986, coffee prices began to decline. This was because many of the world’s coffee producers, including Vietnam, were not part of the agreement but were still exporting large quantities of coffee. Other coffee importers were buying from countries producing large surpluses in breach of the ICA.

With prices tumbling, the Rwandan government subisidized the country’s coffee farmers between rom 1989-93. From diminishing revenues to the dwindling coffee prices, Rwanda’s economy was in tatters. Coffee farmers’ subsidies were funded through loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which was unsustainable. By 1994, these funds had dried up.

Habariyama now needed new tactics to maintain the loyalty of the majority. To achieve this, he began putting emphasis on ethnicity, which served to distract from the economic woes. Anti-Tutsi rhetoric became a nationalist rallying cry.

‘The farmers were in a desperate situation; they were very poor. All of a sudden they see propaganda that the Tutsis are to blame for this,’ says Verwimp.

Habyarimana’s regime purported a concept of otherness of the Tutsi, claiming they weren’t really Rwandese, but instead an enemy and a threat to the Hutu’s existence. A constant stream of anti-Tutsi propaganda – referring to them as ‘Inyenzi’, cockraches in Kiswahili, and calling for their extermination – was broadcasted by Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM).

A Failed Economic Order

As the Cold War waned in the late 1980s, so did US support for the ICA. At the same time there was an increasing demand for premium coffee. This was characterized by the rise of Seattle’s Starbucks Corporation and other coffee shops across North America. The ICA’s quota system was driving up the prices of premium coffee they served.

Coffeehouses featured in iconic TV shows like Seinfeld, and a little later on in Friends and Frasier, further cemented premium coffee’s place in 90s pop culture, and as an aspirational lifestyle to emulate throughout the world.

Brazil, the world’s largest coffee exporter, mainly cultivates lower quality, bitter Robusta coffee beans that are typically used to manufacture instant coffee. Since America’s tastes were changing, its trade negotiators pushed to be able to import larger volumes of milder, richer, more premium Arabica beans. This meant reducing the amount of Robusta it imported, which met strong objection from Brazil.

US demands caused negotiations to collapse and the ICA to disintegrate in July 1989. Coffee trading was now completely subject to the free market

‘It's not accidental that [the ICA collapse] corresponded with the emergence of American coffee culture, Starbucks, and other coffee chains,’ says Kamola.

Warnings of the potential destruction that could be caused by the deal’s collapse were sounded by producing nations. But they went ignored.

'This is a very severe blow… for all those underdeveloped countries heavily dependent on coffee exports to generate foreign exchange earnings,’ said Luis Carrion, trade and industry minister of the Nicaraguan government.

‘The main blame for this result falls on the United States, which wanted to sacrifice the coffee agreement on the altar of free trade without worrying about the consequences this will have for Third World economies which depend on coffee,’ he said.

Turning a blind eye

Of course, serious ethnic divisions were already at play before 1994. But the collapse of coffee prices lay the ground for the economic pressure that precipitated neighbour turning on neighbour.

The killings escalated quickly, and a lack of intervention by the United Nations led to Rwanda being engulfed by a genocide.

France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, backed the Hutus, providing them with training, funding and weapons, even after Rwanda was placed under an arms embargo.

The United States not only didn’t send troops, it led a successful campaign to have most of the UN peacekeepers already in Rwanda removed.

The US was particularly reticent in getting involved in African conflicts. Just three months earlier, 18 American soldiers were shot down in Somalia while on a UN mission in an incident known as Black Hawk Down.

The US declined to share its technology to jam the Mille Collines radio broadcasts. It also rejected the term ‘genocide’ being ascribed to the killings, because it carried legal obligations for nations to act.

In the years following the genocide, nations around the world absolved themselves of responsibility by claiming they did not realize the severity of the situation until it was too late.

‘It was a very difficult time, and the situation was unclear,’ Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State at the time, has since said.

However, international news reports from April 1994 exposed the everity of events, describing massacres of hundreds of adults and children.

The US also knew enough to evacuate all of its citizens from Rwanda within days. Embassies including the American one were shuttered, as the gravity of the situation quickly registered.

The head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, was also sending detailed cables to the UN before and during the genocide to report on what was happening.

The genocide finally ended in mid-July when the RPF, led by Paul Kagame, took control of Kigali, though not without committing atrocities against civilians on the way. Kagame has been the president of Rwanda ever since and has become increasingly authoritarian, crushing any dissent.

In recent years, he has been implicated in disappearing and assassinating political opponents that have presented challenges to him during his extraordinarily long presidential term.

Despite this, Kagame’s regime is still widely supported around the globe, with foreign aid accounting for 30 per cent to 40 per cent of its budget.

‘In Rwanda, and across the previously colonized world there are incredible amounts of soul searching that needs to be done about the way that in which the wealth of America and European powers is directly tied into that experience of colonialism,’ says Kamola.

The extraction of wealth, and that much of the economic inequality that exists in these countries, and a large amount of the political violence that exists in the world, is directly tied into that relationship, he adds.

‘The broader question of the relationship between colonial and economic systems, and the failure to create an economic reality that helps countries address those histories, I think is something that we still haven't dealt with.’