The Twa people were the original inhabitants of Rwanda. Before the 11th century A.D., the Hutus migrated into the area from the Congo basin and established farming communities. The Tutsis migrated to the area from the north and established a kingdom in the 15th century. The Tutsi mwamis (kings) controlled the region. The Tutsis dominated the Hutus, in a feudal system called ubuhake. Hutus worked as peasants on Tutsi land in return for military protection.

 In the late 19th century, German explorers and Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the area. Rwanda and its neighbour to the south, Burundi, became part of German East Africa in the 1890s and were jointly known as Ruanda-Urundi. The Germans retained the ubuhake system, under the control of the mwami. After the defeat of the Germans in the First World War, Rwanda came under Belgian control. The Belgians gradually dismantled the ubuhake system, although Rwanda was still ruled by a mwami, chosen from among the Tutsis. 

In 1946, the United Nations instructed Belgium to prepare the country for the transition to independence. The Tutsis feared that the Hutus, who outnumbered them, would dominate after independence. When all adult males were given the right to vote in 1956, many Hutus were elected to local councils. The Belgians encouraged the Hutus in their efforts to gain political power, which increased the tension between the two ethnic groups.

 In 1959, the Hutus attacked the Tutsis and drove them out of their homes. Thousands of Tutsis were killed and thousands more fled to neighbouring countries. After two years of turmoil, elections were held under the supervision of the United Nations. The people voted to abolish the Tutsi monarchy. Rwanda became a republic, governed by a president. It became an independent nation in 1962. However, conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus continued. Hutus dominated the government, and in the late 1960s, they expelled many prominent Tutsis who held important positions in government, education and the church. In 1973, the government was overthrown in a military coup, led by Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, who remained in power for the next 21 years.

In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed mainly of Tutsi refugees who had fled to Uganda, invaded Rwanda. Fighting continued for the next four years. In April 1994, Juvenal Habyarimana and the president of Burundi, who had been discussing ways to bring an end to the conflict, were killed in a plane crash. The Hutus, who blamed the Tutsis for the crash, tried to annihilate the Tutsi people. More than one million Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were killed. Two million Rwandans fled to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to escape the violence.

 In July 1994, the RPF defeated the Rwandan government army and a ceasefire was declared. Since then, a unitary government with a multi-party system has governed Rwanda, but ethnic tensions persist and outbreaks of violence still occur, particularly in the northwest.

  Did you know?
The mwami (king) in Rwanda was considered a sacred being, whose power was of divine origin. A drum called kalinga, which was so sacred that it was never used, was a symbol of his authority.