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Territory of Ruanda-Urundi
Ruanda-Urundi (dark green) depicted within the Belgian colonial empire (light green), c. 1935
Ruanda-Urundi (dark green) depicted within the Belgian colonial empire (light green), c. 1935
StatusMandate of Belgium
Common languagesFrench (official)
Also: Kinyarwanda, Kirundi and Swahili
Catholicism (de facto)
Also: Protestantism, Islam and others
April 1916
• Mandate created
20 July 1922
• Administrative merger with Belgian Congo
1 March 1926
• Mandate becomes Trust Territory
13 December 1946
• Rwanda gains autonomy
18 October 1960
• Burundi gains autonomy
21 December 1961
• Independence
1 July 1962
CurrencyBelgian Congo franc (1916–60)
Ruanda-Urundi franc (1960–62)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
German East Africa
Kingdom of Burundi
Republic of Rwanda
Today part ofBurundi

Ruanda-Urundi[a] (French pronunciation: ​[ʁɥɑ̃da.yʁœ̃di]) was a colonial territory, once part of German East Africa, which was ruled by Belgium from 1916 to 1962.

The region was occupied by troops from the Belgian Congo during the East African campaign in World War I and was administered by Belgium under military occupation from 1916 to 1922. It was subsequently awarded to Belgium as a Class-B Mandate under the League of Nations in 1922 and became a Trust Territory of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II and the dissolution of the League. In 1962 Ruanda-Urundi became the two independent states of Rwanda and Burundi.


Ruanda and Urundi were two separate kingdoms in the Great Lakes region before the Scramble for Africa. In 1894, they were annexed by the German Empire and eventually became two districts of German East Africa. The two monarchies were retained as part of the German policy of indirect rule, with the Ruandan king (mwami) Yuhi V Musinga using German support to consolidate his control over subordinate chiefs in exchange for labour and resources.[1]

Belgian military occupation, 1916–22[edit]

A Belgian Congo stamp overprinted for the Belgian Occupied East African Territories in 1916

World War I broke out in 1914. German colonies were originally meant to preserve their neutrality as mandated in the Berlin Convention, but fighting soon broke out on the frontier between German East Africa and the Belgian Congo around Lakes Kivu and Tanganyika.[1] As part of the Allied East African Campaign, Ruanda and Urundi were invaded by a Belgian force in 1916.[1] The German forces in the region were small and hugely outnumbered. Ruanda was occupied over April–May and Urundi in June 1916. By September, a large portion of German East Africa was under Belgian occupation reaching as far south as Kigoma and Karema and as far eastwards as Tabora in modern-day Tanzania.[1] In Ruanda and Urundi, the Belgians were welcomed by some civilians, who were opposed to the autocratic behaviour of the kings.[1] In Urundi, much of the population fled or went into hiding, fearful of war.[2] Much of the Swahili trader community which resided along the shores of Lake Tanganyika fled towards Kigoma, as they had long been commercial rivals with Belgian traders and feared retribution.[3] The territory captured was administered by a Belgian military occupation authority ("Belgian Occupied East African Territories") pending an ultimate decision about its political future. An administration, headed by a Royal Commissioner, was established in February 1917 at the same time as Belgian forces were ordered to withdraw from the Tabora region by the British.[citation needed]

While the Germans had begun the practice of conscripting labour from the Ruandans and Urundians during the war, this was limited since the German administration considered sustaining a local labour force logistically challenging. The Belgian occupation force expanded labor conscription;[4] 20,000 men were drafted act as porters for the Mahenge offensive, and of these only one-third returned home.[5] Many died due to malnourishment and disease.[6] The new labour practices caused some locals to regret the departure of the Germans.[7]

League of Nations mandate, 1922–46[edit]

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Wisdom at Butare (formally Astrida) in Ruanda. Catholicism expanded rapidly under the Belgian mandate.

The Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of World War I divided the German colonial empire among the Allied nations. German East Africa was partitioned, with Tanganyika allocated to the British and a small area allocated to Portugal. Belgium was allocated Ruanda-Urundi even though this represented only a fraction of the territories already occupied by the Belgian forces in East Africa. Belgian diplomats had originally hoped that Belgian claims in the region could be traded for Portuguese territory in Angola to expand the Congo's access to the Atlantic Ocean but this proved impossible. The League of Nations officially awarded Ruanda-Urundi to Belgium as a B-Class Mandate on 20 July 1922. The mandatory regime was also controversial in Belgium and it was not approved by Belgium's parliament until 1924.[8] Unlike colonies which belonged to its colonial power, a mandate was theoretically subject to international oversight through the League's Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) in Geneva, Switzerland.[citation needed] Administratively, the mandate was divided into two pays, Ruanda and Urundi, each under the nominal leadership of a Mwami. The city of Usumbura and its adjoining townships were classified separately as centres extracoutumiers, while the pays were subdivided into territories.[9]

After a period of inertia, the Belgian administration became actively involved in Ruanda-Urundi between 1926 and 1931 under the governorship of Charles Voisin. The reforms produced a dense road-network and improved agriculture, with the emergence of cash crop farming in cotton and coffee.[10] However, four major famines did ravage parts of the mandate after crop failures in 1916–1918, 1924–26, 1928–30 and 1943–44. The Belgians were far more involved in the territory than the Germans, especially in Ruanda. Despite the mandate rules that the Belgians had to develop the territories and prepare them for independence, the economic policy practised in the Belgian Congo was exported eastwards: the Belgians demanded that the territories earn profits for the motherland and that any development must come out of funds gathered in the territory. These funds mostly came from the extensive cultivation of coffee in the region's rich volcanic soils.[citation needed]

Ruandan labour migrants at the Kisanga copper mine in Katanga (Belgian Congo) in c. 1930

To implement their vision, the Belgians extended and consolidated a power structure based on indigenous institutions. In practice, they developed a Tutsi ruling class to formally control a mostly Hutu population, through the system of chiefs and sub-chiefs under the overall rule of the two Mwami. Contemporary racial science and eugenics led Belgian administrators believed that the Tutsi were genetically more closely related to Europeans than the Hutu superior and deserved power. Some scholars circulated, including John Hanning Speke, propagated the Hamitic hypothesis which held that the Tutsi were descended from "black Caucasians" who invaded Europe and were the ancestors of all the more "civilised" African peoples.[11] While before colonization the Hutu had played some role in governance, the Belgians simplified matters by further stratifying the society on ethnic lines. Hutu anger at the Tutsi domination was largely focused on the Tutsi elite rather than the distant colonial power.[12] Musinga was deposed by the administration as mwami of Ruanda in November 1931 after being accused of disloyalty.[13] He was replaced by his son Mutara III Rudahigwa.

Although promising the League it would promote education, Belgium left the task to subsidised Catholic missions and mostly unsubsidised Protestant missions. Catholicism expanded rapidly through the African population in consequence. An elite secondary school, the Groupe Scolaire d'Astrida was established in 1929 but as late as 1961, shortly before independence arrived, fewer than 100 Africans had been educated beyond the secondary level.[citation needed] The policy was one of low-cost paternalism, as explained by Belgium's special representative to the Trusteeship Council: "The real work is to change the African in his essence, to transform his soul, [and] to do that one must love him and enjoy having daily contact with him. He must be cured of his thoughtlessness, he must accustom himself to living in society, he must overcome his inertia."[14]

United Nations trust territory, 1946–62[edit]

Monument in Bujumbura commemorating Burundi's independence on 1 July 1962

The League of Nations was formally dissolved in April 1946, following its failure to prevent World War II. It was succeeded, for practical purposes, by the new United Nations (UN). In December 1946, the new body voted to end the mandate over Ruanda-Urundi and replace it with the new status of "Trust Territory". To provide oversight, the PMC was superseded by the United Nations Trusteeship Council. The transition was accompanied by a promise that the Belgians would prepare the territory for independence, but the Belgians felt the area would take many decades to be ready for self-rule and wanted the process to take enough time before happening.

Independence came largely as a result of actions elsewhere. African anti-colonial nationalism emerged in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s and the Belgians became convinced they could no longer control the territory. Unrest also broke out in Ruanda where the monarchy was deposed in the Rwandan Revolution (1959–1961). Grégoire Kayibanda led the dominant and ethnically defined Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (Parti du Mouvement de l'Emancipation Hutu, PARMEHUTU) in Rwanda while the equivalent Union for National Progress (Union pour le Progrès national, UPRONA) in Burundi attempted to balance competing Hutu and Tutsi ethnic claims. The independence of the Belgian Congo in June 1960 and the accompanying period of political instability further drove nationalism in Ruanda-Urundi and the assassination of the UPRONA leader Louis Rwagasore, also Burundi's crown prince, in October 1961 did not halt the movement. After hurried preparations, Ruanda-Urundi became independent on 1 July 1962, broken up along traditional lines as the independent Republic of Rwanda and Kingdom of Burundi. It took two more years before the government of the two became wholly separate.

Colonial governors[edit]

Ruanda-Urundi was initially administered by a Royal Commissioner (commissaire royal) until the administrative union with the Belgian Congo in 1926. After this, the mandate was administered by a Governor (gouverneur) located at Usumbura (modern-day Bujumbura) who also held the title of Vice-Governor-General (vice-gouverneur général) of the Belgian Congo. Ruanda and Urundi were each administered by a separate resident (résident) subordinate to the Governor.

Royal Commissioners (1916–26)
Governors (1926–62)

For a list of residents, see: List of colonial residents of Rwanda and List of colonial residents of Burundi.

Kings (abami) of Ruanda
Kings (abami) of Urundi


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ruanda-Urundi is sometimes seen rendered phonetically into Dutch as Roeanda-Oeroendi.


  1. ^ a b c d e 1914–1918 Online Encyclopedia 2016.
  2. ^ Chrétien 2016, paragraphs 55–57.
  3. ^ Chrétien 2016, paragraphs 73–75.
  4. ^ Chrétien 2016, paragraphs 86, 90.
  5. ^ Chrétien 2016, paragraph 89.
  6. ^ Chrétien 2016, paragraph 91.
  7. ^ Chrétien 2016, paragraph 92.
  8. ^ William Roger Louis, Ruanda-Urundi 1884-1919 (Oxford U.P., 1963).[page needed]
  9. ^ Weinstein 1976, p. 238.
  10. ^ Pedersen 2015, p. 256.
  11. ^ "Hamitic myth that led to Genocide in Rwanda". The New Times | Rwanda. 2014-02-23. Retrieved 2021-01-17.[better source needed]
  12. ^ Peter Langford, "The Rwandan Path to Genocide: The Genesis of the Capacity of the Rwandan Post-colonial State to Organise and Unleash a project of Extermination". Civil Wars Vol. 7 n.3
  13. ^ Pedersen 2015, p. 253–5.
  14. ^ Mary T. Duarte, "Education in Ruanda-Urundi, 1946-61, " Historian (1995) 57#2 pp 275-84

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Chrétien, Jean-Pierre (2003). The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History (English trans. ed.). New York: Zone Books. ISBN 9781890951344.
  • Gahama, Joseph (1983). Le Burundi sous administration Belge: la période du mandat, 1919-1939 (2nd rev. ed.). Paris: Karthala. ISBN 9782865370894.
  • Louis, William Roger (1963). Ruanda-Urundi 1884-1919. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Newbury, Catharine (1994). The Cohesion of Oppression: Clientship and Ethnicity in Rwanda, 1860-1960. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231062572.
  • Pedersen, Susan (2015). The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-957048-5.
  • Rumiya, Jean (1992). Le Rwanda sous le régime du mandat belge, 1916-1931. Paris: Éd. L'Harmattan. ISBN 9782738405401.
  • Vijgen, Ingeborg (2005). Tussen mandaat en kolonie: Rwanda, Burundi en het Belgische bestuur in opdracht van de Volkenbond (1916-1932). Leuven: Acco. ISBN 9789033456213.
  • Botte, Roger (1985). "Rwanda and Burundi, 1889-1930: Chronology of a Slow Assassination". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 18 (2): 289–314. doi:10.2307/217744. JSTOR 217744. PMID 11617204.
  • Des Forges, Alison (2014). Defeat is the Only Bad News: Rwanda under Musinga, 1896-1931. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 9780299281434.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 2°42′S 29°54′E / 2.7°S 29.9°E / -2.7; 29.9