After the wedding, Rob, for once, did his part. He helped us get the documents we needed to move to his mother’s, or really, his uncle’s house, in Uvira, DR Congo… I attended a few months of first grade. I even started to forget Rwanda. Maybe this life in Congo was real and before was just a dream? But then the people started streaming from Bukavu, northeast into Uvira, fleeing the war breaking out between Mobutu and Kabila, knocking on doors of houses, including our house, begging for food. Rob’s family cooked extra fish stew and rice and took people in, but still they kept coming, stumbling off buses, flooding the markets, emptying the shelves. Claire realized this would only get worse and collected her jewelry and clothes, anything she could sell. She decided we needed to flee.”

Perhaps, among the many tragedies of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, is that it represented a crescendo in the tragic composition that was colonialism, a fact that continues to be poorly recognized in public discourse. This was a dispute within a nation that has always been bigger than a state, and like most uprisings, it was about a sovereignty denied by colonial overlords, and then by a post-colonial state that maintained these same oppressive structures of power.

The history is important, here. As a formal concept, the European notion of enforceable borders was enshrined in the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia, which defined the sovereignty of the nation-state. Individual states, each with their own defendable territory and national identity, were given equal rights and responsibilities in relation to each other, with no sovereign state having a right to intervene in the internal disputes of another. Because the race to imperial dominance imposed European systems on much of the world, the nation-state became the basic building block of international relations.

But “nation-state” differentiates the nation from the state, while also implying indivisibility. In lived reality, however, a nation is not a state. As a concept, the state is easier to articulate: it refers to a physical geography. The state is defined primarily by its borders—finite, and elastic as they may be, beyond which other states exist.

There has been much discussion about the definition of a nation—what are the powerful bonds that unify a population under one banner? To Benedict Anderson, “it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,” while Lynn H Miller asserts that a nation is “distinguished above all by the scale of the communities encompassed by it,” and that it “purports to make the community’s sense of a common history, culture, and language the legitimizing force of its sovereignty.”

A common language is important. Kinyarwanda is second only to Kiswahili as the most spoken Bantu language, with twenty million speakers across the region, only eight million of whom live in contemporary Rwanda. The Banyarwanda (speakers of the language) live in a region that spans Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Mahmoud Mamdani writes,

“If we understand an ethnic group to mean a cultural group, comprising those who speak a common language, then the Banyarwanda must be considered East Africa’s largest ethnic group… The cultural community of Kinyarwanda speakers long predated the political community framed by the state called Rwanda.”

The commonality of language is more than a form of communication, it represents a tool for conveying sociological ontology: social hierarchies are expressed through different greetings for elders and peers, for example. Still, a common language alone does not a national identity make. Culture and customs define kinship as much as shared language. “Thus we come to the point that the people called Tutsi, and those who came to be called Hutu, spoke the same language, lived on the same hills, and had more or less the same culture, depending on the cultural zone in which they lived,” Mamdani writes. Colonialism introduced borders, and with them, created new divisions and emphasized old ones, in order to fragment unified dissent to European rule.

Hutu and Tutsi have co-existed in the region for centuries. Despite the colonialist assertion that Hutu and Tutsi “look different,” they have, in fact, lived amongst each other, traded together, married each other, and had children together. The obvious question, then, is why those distinctions continue to exist? Tribal identity is passed on through marriage and patrilineal descent: a Hutu woman who marries a Tutsi man becomes Tutsi, and their children will all be Tutsi. Thus, her tribal affiliations are erased by intermarriage, and every family can identify as being of the same tribe for generations.

As a colony, First Germany, and then, after World War I, Belgium, instituted a policy to socially engineer the pre-existing “native” population into two distinct racial groups, defining the majority Hutu as subservient Bantu natives, and the minority Tutsi as a superior settler race, Hamittes. This was orchestrated over decades through social policy, including segregated schools that taught this newly created racial theory to children, as well as identification processes that introduced Hutu or Tutsi on national ID cards, sealing one’s tribal—and racial—affiliations for life.

Tutsi, who were better educated, had access to social and economic advancement opportunities that were inaccessible, and oftentimes legally barred from Hutu. In fact, in the Belgian colonial years, Hutu came to be a native majority “race” of subjects ruled by the “non-indigenous” minority Tutsi “race” of powerful Belgian subordinates.

Thus, when it came, the war was about sovereignty. The “Social Revolution” of 1959, which threw off the yoke of colonialism in Rwanda, was as much a tribal struggle as it was political. It is by design that the fight to be free from Belgian rule was waged between the Hutu and Tutsi, not between Rwandans and Belgians. As the replacement “settler” colonisers, the Tutsi monarchy had used their bestowed privilege to oppress the Hutu majority. In the two year war for political independence then, Hutu violence was directed against the Tutsi population as a proxy for the Belgians.

Fleeing, many Tutsi became stateless ethnic minorities in Uganda and Congo, and a racial minority in Burundi, where there was a large Hutu population. In exile, they sought political rights wherever they resettled, either by advocating for integration in Congo, or by campaigning for citizenship rights in Uganda. The Hutu and Tutsi dispute was transgenerational and transnational and remains a regional power struggle.

This power struggle was perpetuated and exploited in the post-colonial era. Nativism become the basis for national identity within the newly independent state, and the new Rwandan leader, Grégoire Kayibanda, “championed a racialized nationalism of the Hutu—built on the very political identities institutionalized by colonialism: Hutu and Tutsi.” Ethnic identity merged with political identity, and would soon be weaponized.

Between 1959 and 1994, the ethnic-turned-national identity of the Hutu and Tutsi, each vying for political legitimacy, became a regional matter because of the flow of refugees across borders. Denied citizenship outside of Rwanda, especially in a Uganda that bestowed political rights based on ethnicity, rather than residency, the Ugandan Tutsi Banyarwanda formed a nationalist militia in 1990. Crossing the border into Rwanda, they violently asserted their national identity as Rwandans. At the same time, Hutu refugees fled into the country escaping political violence in Burundi. Many of these would later respond to Tutsi violence in Burundi by joining the Rwandan Civil War against the Tutsi-led militia coming from Uganda, adding to the ranks of Hutu targeting Tutsi in what would come to be known as the Rwandan Genocide.

This fight for statehood based on national identity was not unique, rather it reflected a  lasting legacy of colonialism and European political order. L.H.M. Ling writes, “It was only when colonialism and imperialism became state policy from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries that singularity became the standard of the day.” Widely regarded as being achieved only through statehood, the desire for sovereignty, then, begins with nationalism, or a singular national identity.

A main reason for the success of the Westphalian system of ordering international relations is found in the preconditions for membership: “once the prerequisites for sovereignty are met—traditionally a government’s effective control over a discrete population and territory—recognition by other sovereigns is virtually assured.” Reality is more nuanced than theory, and states often enclose populations with multiple national identities within their boundaries, while artificially separating people who identify as one nation across borders. In East Africa, the tribal-turned-political dispute between Hutu and Tutsi affected the internal stability of multiple territorial states. The Banyarwanda, as a nation, exists beyond the borders of the Rwandan state, and the national disputes affect the entire region that they call home.

This phenomenon is not unique. There are a variety of ways in which the Westphalian notion of nation-statehood no longer holds true. National identities often supercede allegiances to the state: Native populations consider themselves as colonised nations-within-a-nation in Canada, the United States, and Australia; The nation of Palestine, which has no undisputed territory, has recently been admitted as a non-member observer state of the United Nations; The Vatican, a religious headquarters, is recognized as an observer state of the United Nations despite not fulfilling Westphalian criteria; the Kurdish people align politically with their nation, and not the states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria in which they reside, despite no formally recognized territory of Kurdistan; the Islamic State, a violent militia which has taken over territory in Iraq and Syria, formed a government, and declared themselves a state, despite no national identity; and Somalia, a recognized state with no functional government—the list goes on.

Perhaps, then, it is time to admit that the nation, as a community identifying itself as a political unit through varying unifying characteristics, is increasingly becoming disassociated with the physical territory of a state. Perhaps militarily enforced statehood is no longer the only recognized legitimizing mechanism for sovereignty.

In seeking a solution to the ongoing hostility between local and diasporan Hutu and Tutsi nations, the international community is called to re-imagine the sovereignty of nations, even those whose identities and allegiances defy territorial boundaries. Are we now in a post-Westphalian world requiring a redefining of legitimate statehood and international relations between nations and states? Until the international community can acknowledge this as possibility, if not reality, we can continue to expect ongoing intra- and inter-national disputes about political power and territorial ownership between communities that see themselves as nations, as we see in East Africa.