Why did Rwanda escape slavery?

By Regis Hijnekamp

Nathan Nunn argues that the proportion of African slave trading had adverse effects on economic development (1). Nunn explains that “preexisting governance structures were generally replaced by small bands of slave raiders,” which weakened institutional structures and increased political instability, causing corruption of previously established legal structures (2).

Yet, Rwanda contrasts Nunn’s analysis with its low GDP per capita while having an enslavement export history of zero (3). Also, Nunn’s explanation that a region’s higher prosperity (measured by population density) led to higher slave export does not account for the difference: Rwanda’s population density in 1400 was single highest to that of the African countries while, again, the slave export was equal to zero (4).

Nunn confirms that, “to the known history of the slave trades, it was the location of demand that influenced the location of supply and not vice versa,” (5) and “being further from slave markets was good for growth.” (6) Yet, other landlocked African countries at roughly a similar distance to the coast as Rwanda, such as Zambia, Chad, and Burundi, witnessed more export of slaves (7).

An alternative explanation to the volume of enslavement in African societies may have been the strength of the bureaucracy or institutional structure weaponing itself against “political instability” (8) from “small bands of slave raiders.” (9) The societal characteristics in Rwanda may have been explanatory. In contrast to most African regions, Rwanda had already “a highly organized political structure” when it became colonized (10). The few reliable sources available “inform[ing] us about the history of a kingdom which by its end came to dominate a large territory and the lives of perhaps two million people.” (11) Court reports reveal information about kingdoms with powerful armies, about a bureaucracy with commanders in charge of their regiments, and the establishment of property rights over land (12). Yet, available data on the political structure of Rwanda is scarce and often unreliable.

The limitation of data available, combined with the negotiable credibility of most of this historic data, yet, cannot allow one to discard the pre-colonial period as a static homogeneity across the African continent in which villages and communities carried similar characteristics that become subordinate in a history of enslavement. Even more, one should grasp beyond generalizing explanations for long-term economic development. In considering the role of the bureaucratic and institutional strength of societies prone to enslavement, one might further develop coherent theories on development of African countries in a path dependency framework.