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Game Theory in the Rwandan Genocide

A recurring question in international politics is whether or not should third parties intervene in ethnic civil wars. This debate has been repeated throughout history, from the Rwandan genocide to the modern Syrian conflict. Modern media compares the two events, with past US officials also comparing the two. Analyzing these situations through a game theory lens learned in class may provide some not before seen insights.

Rwanda consists of two major ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis. In the early 1900’s the Tutsi minority held a disproportionate amount of political power, and used that power to oppress the Hutu majority. However, by the end of the century the Rwandan government was controlled by Hutus, and was fighting a civil war with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group consisting mainly of Tutsis. There was extreme tension between the Hutu government and the Tutsi population, with some groups like the government backed Hutu militia Interahamwe wanting to “punish” Tutsis for their actions in the early century. These tensions boiled over in 1994 when a civil war broke out and Hutu militias started slaughtering Tutsis. The violence quickly spread and went on for three months, only stopping when the RPF gained control of the country. By the end of the genocide, and estimated 800,000 Rwandans had been killed

One may wonder why the civil war between the Rwandan government and the RPF lasted so long, since war is destructive and negotiation is almost always better for both players. Why is Rwanda an exception? It’s easier to understand why if you look at the Rwandan conflict through a game theory lens, specifically as a Deadlock Game. Deadlock is a game where the action that is mutually most beneficial is also dominant. This is is a sharp contrast with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where the mutually beneficial situation is dominated.


Rwandan Patriotic Front
Negotiate Fight
Rwandan Government Negotiate (1,1) (0,3)
Fight (3,0) (2,2)*


The Rwandan government has a choice between negotiation with the rebels and creating a state where Tutsis and Hutus share power, or continuing to fight and attempt to maintain 100% of political power. The RPF also has two choices, either continue fighting or create the state with shared power. Both option are better for the RPF than doing nothing, and letting the government maintain the status quo. If the government fights and the RPF negotiates, the government enjoys the benefit of full political control. This is obviously highly preferred by them. If the government concedes and lets the RPF take control, the payoffs are similar but just go to a different side, in this case the RPF enjoys full political control.

If the government views the different payoffs of its opponent, it will see that the RPF will always fight. This is because if the government negotiates the RPF will fight because it has a payoff of 3 rather than 1. If the government fights, the RPF will also fight, because it has a payoff of 2 rather than 0. The same logic applies to the government, since the game is symmetrical. The dominant strategy for both sides is to fight. This choice is called the Nash Equilibrium (marked by an *). Assuming everyone is rational, neither player will stray from their dominant strategy. The situation will stay in its Nash Equilibrium, meaning the war will continue assuming no international intervention.

This explains different genocides throughout history, suggesting that they will continue till a third party intervenes. Perhaps this Game Theory perspective can also explain why the Syrian civil war has gone for 7 years without sign of decline, and perhaps suggests third parties like Russia or the US may escalate involvement in hopes of ending the conflict.


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