Rwanda, 25 years on
How Paul Kagame uses the slaughter of 1994 to justify his murderous regime.
A visitor to Rwanda today would be impressed. Kigali, the capital, is modern and well organised. No slums, no litter. There’s even wifi on the buses. It feels like a country on the up, a feeling borne out the rising GDP, which has grown 8.3 per cent on average each year from 2000 to 2017.
Tourism is booming, too. It is centred mainly around the main wildlife attraction – the gorillas in Volcano National Park – but there is also the chance to see the ‘big five’ (lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino and buffalo) at Akagera National Park, and to visit Lake Kivu and Nyungwe forest. Rwanda, the ‘land of a thousand hills’, really is a beautiful place.
Others, however, seek out the genocide memorials, which are there to remind people of the horror Rwandans went through for three months from 6 April 1994, when elements of Rwanda’s majority Hutu populace massacred the minority Tutsis. The main memorial is in Kigali itself where, juxtaposed with a shiny modern city, it indicates the progress made over the past 25 years.
Appearances are deceptive, however. While the economic growth is real enough, it is skewed toward the capital and prestige projects. Rwanda remains a desperately poor country, with 63 per cent of the population living on less than $1.25 a day, and 38 per cent of Rwanda’s children stunted due to malnutrition. Per capita gross domestic product is in fact lower than neighbouring Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. The hype around the economic achievements of Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, reflects his elevated standing in international forums rather than actual economic growth.
In fact, Rwanda is Africa’s most aid-dependent country, with 40 per cent of its annual budget sustained directly by foreign aid. Its big projects are going ahead because of the willingness of international finance organisations to grant Rwanda special status when it comes to lending. Nevertheless, debt repayments are placing severe constraints on development initiatives. Capital flows were negative for the first time in 2016. Kagame’s much vaunted goal of making Rwanda a middle-income country by 2020 has been quietly postponed until 2034.
A murderous regime
Also less obvious to a visitor is the murderous, repressive nature of Kagame’s government. Ever since the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the military wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), swept to power in July 1994, the RPF and its leader Kagame have run a dictatorship in all but name. Initially, Kagame, who is a Tutsi, claimed that his ‘inclusive’ government transcended the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic divide. He made himself vice-president and made sure that the president, prime minister and four other cabinet members were Hutu. But this ‘inclusive government’ could not endure as the tyrannical nature of Kagame’s rule emerged.
After July 1994, all Hutus were regarded as génocidaire suspects. Everyone lived in fear of the accusation. Rwanda’s prison population soared, from 1,000 in July 1994, to over 100,000 by 1997. When, in October 1994, the senior judge in Kigali, Gratien Ruhorahoza, attempted to free 40 prisoners who had no files, he was kidnapped and murdered. When 26 magistrates tried to free those they considered innocent, they too were arrested and charged as génocidaires (1). In Le Chateau: The Lives of Prisoners in Rwanda, Carina Tertsakian, a former Human Rights Watch representative in Rwanda, revealed that between September 1994 and May 1995, 13 per cent of Rwanda’s prison population had died as a result of overcrowding, a situation ‘unparalleled in any part of the world’ (2).
The crisis for the Hutu government ministers came to a head in April 1995 when Kagame ordered the massacre of over 4,000 internally displaced people in a camp in Kibeho. On 18 April, the camp was surrounded by two RPA battalions, and, two days later, food and water supplies were stopped and all refugee aid forbidden. On 22 April 1995, the RPA opened fire with rifles and 60mm mortars. At dawn the next day, members of the Australian Medical Corps counted 4,200 bodies before they were stopped by the RPA. The Rwandan government claimed the RPA battalions were merely defending themselves, and put the death toll at 338. Kagame stated that over 95 per cent of the Kibeho people had arrived home in good shape (3).
Hutu ministers outraged at the massacre were fired, with the exception of President Bizimungu, who colluded with Kagame’s whitewash. The facade of a government of national unity was stripped bare. The regime wanted to consolidate its power and govern effectively, but the only tool it had was more repression.
This was evident in its fight against, and, more importantly, its exploitation of, an insurgency launched from Zaire into north-western Rwanda by remnants of the old regime. This allowed the RPA to treat locals in the region as accomplices of the insurgency. Thousands of civilians were shot or driven out of their homes. On 8 August 1997, the RPA moved into Mahoko market and opened fire. Thousands took refuge in a network of caves in the mountainous commune of Kanama. The army threw grenades into the caves and sealed the entrances. Amnesty International stated that several hundred had died at Mahoko market, and between 5,000 and 8,000 were killed in the Kanama caves.
The Rwandan government was similarly brutal in its response to the almost two million Rwandans who had fled the country in 1994. Most went to Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, while others headed to Tanzania and Burundi. Their refusal to return posed a problem for the regime’s legitimacy.
Burundi, Rwanda’s southern neighbour, has a similar Hutu-Tutsi ethnic divide as Rwanda, and was also dominated by a Tutsi-led army. RPA units joined forces with the Burundian army, as well as local militias, and attacked the refugee camps in Burundi from late 1995 onwards. By August 1996, the last 85,000 refugees were deported back to Rwanda (4).
In Zaire, the RPA teamed up with the rebel group Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération (AFDL). Their joint aim was to close down the refugee camps and then overthrow the ailing regime of Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko. On 17 October 1996, they entered Zaire’s south-eastern province of South Kivu, and attacked camps around Uvira, causing 40,000 to flee.
The RPA/AFDL then moved into North Kivu province and launched a full-scale attack on the city of Goma. From there they attacked several more camps, sending waves of refugees northward toward the camp of Mugunga. By November, Mugunga’s population had swollen to 800,000, making it the world’s largest refugee camp. Following the expulsion of the international press corps, the scene was set for a major assault by the RPA/AFDL. This began on 13 November 1996. Although reliable figures of casualties are hard to come by, many refugees were driven back to Rwanda, while hundreds of thousands more fled into the surrounding forests (5). They were pursued by the RPA/AFDL and, when found, shot or bludgeoned to death.
The RPF’s murderous pursuit of Rwandan refugees within and without Rwanda is without precedent
Three-and-a-half months later, approximately 150,000 emaciated stragglers were congregated at a camp called Tingi-Tingi. On 2 March 1997, they were fired on with mortars and machine guns. Survivors fled further west. Some made it to the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Congo-Brazzaville. Others made the 600-mile journey to Mbandaka in the far west of Zaire. Again, their killers found them, butchering many.
The military assault on, and relentless pursuit of, refugees over huge distances is without precedent. French historian Gérard Prunier, along with Sakado Ogato, the president of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, estimated that the Rwandan refugee death toll at between 213,000 and 280,000 (6). By mid-1997, Kagame’s Rwandan government considered its refugee problem settled.
Back home it was a case of repression as usual. ‘Ugandan’ corps of Rwandan Tutsis – the second generation of the Tutsi elite who had been the agents of colonial indirect rule before fleeing to Uganda in 1962 after Rwanda won independence – helped themselves to the best of the houses and land vacated in 1994. Those Rwandans who returned to reclaim their property backed off when threatened with the accusation of being a génocidaire.
The hitherto compliant president, Pasteur Bizimungu, finally resigned in 2000 to form an opposition party. It was immediately banned and Bizimungu was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for ‘inciting violence’. He was pardoned by Kagame without explanation after seven years. Former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, who resigned in 1995, was put under house arrest, but managed to flee the country. The former minister of the interior, Seth Sendashonga, had been the most vociferous opponent of the massacres. He left Rwanda to set up an opposition party with Twagiramungu in Belgium in 1996. In May 1998, Sendashonga was murdered in Nairobi. The Kenyan court ruled the murder to be political and blamed the Rwandan government.
Bereft of any credible Hutu politician willing to front his government, Kagame had no choice but to step up to become president in 2000. With serious opposition figures either in prison, exile or dead, Kagame has been able to obtain fantastic majorities in presidential elections: 95 per cent in 2003; 93 per cent in 2010; and 98.8 per cent in 2017. Commenting on the 92 per cent victory in the 2008 parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth stated that ‘evidence collected by European Union and Rwandan monitors suggested that the government actually inflated the percentage of opposition votes so as to avoid the appearance of an embarrassing Soviet-style acclamation’.
The latest major challenger to Kagame is Victoria Ngabire Umuhoza. She returned from exile in Holland in 2010 to form the Permanent Consultative Council of Opposition Parties. On the first day of her arrival, she visited the genocide memorial in Kigali. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘she stated that current political policy was not sufficient to bring about reconciliation, and noted as an example that the memorial did not acknowledge Hutus who also died during the genocide. She stressed that those who committed genocide as well as those who committed other war crimes and crimes against humanity should be brought before the courts of justice’. This challenge to the official genocide narrative resulted in an eight-year prison sentence for ‘conspiracy against the country through terrorism and war’ and ‘genocide denial’. In December 2013, her conviction was upheld and her sentence increased to 15 years. She was released in September last year and is, at present, courageously testing Kagame by refusing to register her party until all political prisoners are released.
Kagame’s tyranny has generated several high-level defections from his regime, each of whom has threatened to air Kagame’s blood-soaked laundry to the world. Kagame’s death squads have pursued them across Africa and beyond. His most prominent victims include Théoniste Lizinde (1996) and Sendashonga (1998) in Kenya; Théogène Turatsinze (2012) in Mozambique; and Patrick Karageya (2013) in South Africa (7). In April this year, a South African magistrate stated that four suspects in Karageya’s murder are known and are ‘directly linked to the Rwandan government.’ He also accused the Rwandan government of several attempts on the life of General Kayumba Nyamwasa, the exiled former Rwandan army chief of staff.
The dictator feted the world over
No other African leader has so much blood on his hands. Yet, from the moment the RPF seized power, Kagame has been lauded. First, as the hero who liberated Rwanda, and later as the man who transformed it.
He has been showered with honours and awards, and has been given honorary doctorates from the universities of Pacific, Oklahoma Christian, Fatih and Glasgow. In 2009, former US president Bill Clinton handed Kagame a global citizenship award, and described him as ‘one of the greatest leaders of our times’. In the same year, the US deputy ambassador to Rwanda stated, ‘Rwandans are lucky to have a visionary leader in President Paul Kagame, whose ideas are simply admirable’. President Donald Trump has continued the international fawning over Kagame, declaring to him in January 2018, ‘It’s an honour to have you as a friend’.
Under Tony Blair’s premiership, Britain became Rwanda’s largest bilateral donor. Today, Blair’s charity, the Africa Governance Initiative, employs around 10 people inside the Rwandan government. When Kagame was re-elected with 93 per cent of the vote in 2010, Blair sent a message of congratulations: ‘The popular mandate received by President Kagame in the recent presidential election is testament to the huge strides made under his formidable leadership.’
Not to be outdone, the then Conservative Party leader David Cameron visited Rwanda in 2007 and addressed its parliament: ‘You have rebuilt this land and you are rebuilding hope, as one of Africa’s brightest good news stories.’ He then launched the Umubano Project, a Conservative Party charity that offers a life-changing experience for British volunteers, and practical experience in the efficacy of development aid. In August 2017, Kagame visited London to join a celebration of Umubano’s 10th anniversary.
By this time Kagame had won a referendum allowing him another potential seven-year term and two more five-year terms in office, keeping him in power until 2034. He then won the subsequent presidential elections with over 98 per cent of the vote. British prime minister Theresa May sent a message of congratulations to Kagame: ‘I am proud of what the United Kingdom and Rwanda have achieved together and as partners and as friends thanks to the cooperation and vision of President Kagame who I congratulate on his re-election. Today, Rwandans have the best life chances they have ever had.’
What is driving this Anglo-American promotion of the Rwandan regime? Most commentators argue that it is all about the guilt that Rwanda invokes, especially in Washington DC. While Hutu extremists committed genocide against Rwandan Tutsis and ‘moderate’ Hutus, so the official line goes, Western powers chose not to act. Thanks to the military intervention of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and Paul Kagame’s leadership, the genocide was brought to an end. According to this view, Kagame simply has to keep reminding Western leaders of their original sin of non-intervention to boost the aid flow and receive more praise.
No other African leader has so much blood on his hands. Yet, from the moment the RPF seized power, Kagame has been lauded across the globe
But this is not quite right. The US chose not to intervene militarily in 1994 because the objectives of its discreet intervention in Rwanda, by then in its fourth year, were already being realised, though not quite in the way it had intended. The US did not want to put its soldiers in harm’s way, nor did it want to impede Kagame’s victory. The RPF did not want an international intervention force to obstruct its victory, either. When international intervention was being considered 23 days into the slaughter, the RPF wrote to the UN arguing that ‘the time for UN intervention is long past. The genocide is almost completed. Most of the potential victims of the regime have either been killed or have since fled.’ (8) After seizing power, the RPF extended the period of the genocide to 100 days, to cover the period of the final phase of its war.
Support for Kagame is not driven by guilt, then, but by common purpose. While initially appearing wrongfooted because of its reluctance to use the term ‘genocide’ to describe what was unfolding in Rwanda in April 1994, the US, along with Britain and other allies, has, like Kagame, milked the official narrative of the Rwandan genocide for all it is worth. It serves as one of the greatest moral parables of our times.
The problem is that it is not true. Should the official narrative be displaced by one closer to the mark, Kagame would go down as a war criminal. And his Western backers know that he would not go down without causing considerable harm to their reputations. Allowing what really transpired in 1994 to reach the world’s attention would transform the warm reflective glow of the official narrative into a humiliating disgrace. For it is Kagame and the RPF who bear the greatest responsibility for the death toll between April and July 1994. And they could not have pulled it off and gotten away with it for a quarter of a century without Washington’s sustained support.
I have attempted a reconstruction of events in my book, Rwanda 1994: The myth of the Akazu genocide conspiracy and its consequences. A summary of my account is as follows:
The targeting of Tutsi civilians was conducted mainly by Hutu militias. But the conditions that made the slaughter possible were created by the RPF’s war that dated back to its invasion of Rwanda from Uganda in October 1990. The Hutu killings of Tutsis were triggered by the news of the death of Rwanda’s President Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down on 6 April 1994. Much credible evidence points to Kagame ordering the missile attack on the plane as a deliberate provocation. The RPF had to find a justification for resuming its war, since the peace accords it had signed in August 1993 had scheduled elections that it knew it could not possibly win. By the time of the accords, the RPF’s propaganda campaign, facilitated by biased human-rights reports, had created sympathy in Western circles for the false claim that genocidal forces were already operating under Habyarimana’s watch. Killing Habyarimana, Rwanda’s most popular figure at the time, was certain to provoke a violent response. Kagame could then justify breaching the accords with the evidence of massacres.
Kagame ordered his soldiers to resume the war from the moment he received confirmation of Habyarimana’s death. Rwandans immediately feared that the fact of the president’s death and the RPF’s renewed war would herald the return of a Tutsi dictatorship. The Rwandan army was no match for the better trained and equipped RPA. The small gendarmerie was ineffectual as an enforcer of law and order. The government that had been formed after Habyarimana’s death was a government in name only. It could not enter the government buildings because the RPF had already occupied them.
Government ministers were in any case more preoccupied with staying alive than in trying to run the country. After six days they fled the capital. In conditions of complete anarchy, the militias had no one to stop them. Their killings were neither directed nor controlled. The RPF could have stopped them but it chose to delay a complete takeover of Kigali. By the time it did complete the takeover, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had died, as had many Hutus.
Some analysts, like Christian Davenport and Allan C Stam, have argued that more Hutus than Tutsis died in this period. Whatever the true figures are, it is certain that hundreds of thousands of Hutus also died, mostly at the hands of the well-disciplined RPA under Kagame’s command. Kagame did not liberate Rwanda from genocide. His army waged a war to capture state power and used the massacres of Tutsis that he and his army had provoked as justification for returning to the battlefield.
During the war, the RPA terrorised local people into internal displacement camps, and deliberately provoked massacres against Tutsis by assassinating Rwanda’s popular president and by infiltrating the Rwandan militia. Confident that their well-prepared narrative of genocide would be accepted by Western humanitarians, the RPA and the RPF resumed the war the moment the president’s death was confirmed. While the mass slaughter of Tutsis grabbed the world’s attention, the RPA’s massacres were either hidden from view or attributed to the genocidaires. Since, by late April 1994, the RPA had control over the entire eastern border region, which is bounded by the Kagera river, many of the tens of thousands of corpses that floated down the Kagera river into Lake Victoria were victims of the RPA and not of Hutu genocidaires.
A US-backed tragedy
At every stage of this unfolding tragedy, we see a conscious RPF strategy carried out with American backing.
The RPF justified its invasion from Uganda in October 1990 as the last resort of Tutsi refugees exercising their right of return in the face of an oppressive dictatorship. In fact, it was a joint exercise by Rwandan Tutsis in the Ugandan army, who had left their barracks with discreet support from the Ugandans. The Rwandan government, in conjunction with officials from the US, was already making preparations for the return of refugees. And Rwanda was already in the process of introducing democratic reforms. The invasion was therefore without justification.
Yet British and American officials produced a cover story with the fiction that the Rwandans had ‘defected’ from the Ugandan army without the knowledge or support of Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president. The British high commissioner to Uganda told the London Foreign Office that ‘the GOU [government of Uganda] as such and Museveni himself were taken by surprise by the incursion into Rwanda although many individuals in senior positions must have had an inkling of what was afoot. As a consequence, the GOU was now in an extremely embarrassing position.’ (9) More than a decade later, Herman Cohen, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the time, admitted that the US had ‘silently acquiesced in the invasion’ (10).
A protracted war ensued. Unable to win support from the local population, the RPF resorted to terrorist methods. With each successive offensive, increasing numbers of Rwandans were driven from their homes into displacement camps.
Despite the heightened insecurity brought about by the war, the Habyarimana government pressed on with its democratic reform programme. The new constitution came into force on 30 May 1991. Rwanda was to be a liberal democratic republic. All citizens were ‘equal in the eyes of the law, without any discrimination, especially in respect to race, colour, origin, ethnic background, clan, sex, opinion, religion, or social status’ (Article 16). The head of state was the president (Article 39) who was to be elected ‘by direct universal suffrage by an absolute majority of votes’ for a five-year term and for no more than two successive mandates (Article 39).
Habyarimana then offered the RPF the opportunity to return to Rwanda under amnesty and register as a political party. But the RPF’s terror tactics had alienated it from the majority of Rwandans and its leaders knew that the democratic path would not work for it. Washington also knew this. As Cohen observed: ‘The fact that tens of thousands of Rwandans immediately became internally displaced as the RPF advanced should have served as a warning. Rwandans, including Tutsis, clearly did not view the RPF as liberators.’ (11)
The US had a clear choice: terminate its support for the RPF and withdraw aid to Uganda to induce it to stop supporting the RPF and thereby give Rwandan democracy a chance; or continue to sustain the RPF’s war and thereby compel the Rwandan government to reach a political accommodation with them. The US decided on the latter. It boosted aid to Uganda, enabling it to continue supplying military support to the RPF, and engaged in coercive diplomacy to force the Rwandan regime to deal with the RPF. Coercing a government into undermining its democratic reforms in order to share power with an organisation that was feared and loathed by the majority of Rwandans, and which, in any case, had no intention of sharing power, was to condemn Rwandans – and later the Congolese – to decades of death and destruction.
In May 1992, Cohen visited Museveni and told him that if the RPF was to negotiate with Habyarimana, he could deal ‘a blow to Habyarimana’ (12). Cohen then visited Habyarimana and convinced him of the need to negotiate with the RPF (13). The US convened largely secret talks between the RPF and Habyarimana, which paved the way for the crucial meeting of 10 July 1992. By this time the Rwandan government’s only Western ally, France, had acquiesced to US demands and had agreed to withdraw the troops it had sent to defend Kigali in response to the invasion. As a result, the Rwandan government was asked to sign a settlement on 10 July with the RPF that would include it in a transitional government and form a new national army out of the RPA and government forces. The government resisted. An American official then told Pierre-Claver Kanyarushoke, the Rwandan ambassador to Uganda, that if he wanted the RPA to stop its military advance at the northern town of Byumba, he should sign – otherwise the RPA would reach Kigali. Kanyarushoki understood this to mean that the RPF would reach Kigali with Washington’s blessing (14). The government signed the settlement.
Thus the ‘Arusha peace process’ commenced, named after the town in Tanzania that served as the venue. The US delegated teams of ‘enskillers’ to both parties: John Byerly led the team ‘helping the RPF with negotiation tactics’, while Charles Snyder ‘helped the government delegation with their negotiating books’ (15). In Washington, the RPF’s representative, Claude Desaidi, was given working-level contact with Carol Fuller, the State Department’s desk officer for Rwanda. Herman Cohen included Desaidi in an inter-agency forum to discuss Rwandan matters (16).
At Arusha, the bias among the diplomatic milieu toward the RPF became increasingly evident. The RPF’s strategy was to demonise Habyarimana and put the government on the defensive on human-rights issues. It is at this point that they introduced accusations of ‘genocide’ into the discussions. When the crucial round of talks on the integration of the proposed national army began, Habyarimana offered the RPF a 20 per cent share in the army, and a 15 per cent share of the command positions, proportional to the percentage of the Rwandan Tutsi population. The RPF rejected this outright, demanded a 50:50 split, and suspended the talks (17).
In order to strengthen its bargaining position, the RPF, alongside Ugandan elite forces, launched its largest offensive to date, on 8 February 1993, doubling the territory under its control in two weeks. The French forces, which had not yet departed from Rwanda, were immediately strengthened, prompting the RPF to stop short of Kigali and agree a ceasefire.
The resulting misery was clear for all to see: the population of internally displaced approached 1million. Their living conditions were desperate. Yet there was no condemnation from the international community, nor even acknowledgement of Uganda’s direct intervention. So much for the peace process. The RPF was using its guns to have its demands met at Arusha.
How is it that Scotland Yard can warn people living in London that they are the target of a death squad sent from a government Britain is directly funding?
A human-rights report, by the International Commission of Inquiry (ICI), was published conveniently one day before the ceasefire (18). It claimed widespread abuses by Rwandan soldiers or officials, with at least 2,000 civilians executed. The report was widely criticised for its bias, with investigators spending just two hours investigating RPF abuses, which amounted to talking to individuals under the watchful eye of RPF soldiers. The press release for the report was sensationally titled ‘Genocide and war crimes in Rwanda’, but the report itself actually stopped short of using the term genocide (19). Nevertheless, the RPF used the term genocide to justify its offensive. On the day it launched the offensive, it released a press communiqué stating: ‘It is on this background of genocide, refusal of negotiated settlement of the conflict, and the presence of French troops in our country that the hostilities have resumed.’ (20)
Academics at the University of Rwanda claimed that the RPF’s February offensive accounted for approximately 40,000 civilian deaths (21). These figures, while possibly inflated, are significantly in excess of the 2,000 civilian deaths for which the ICI had blamed the Rwandan government.
True to form, Kagame returned to Arusha unapologetic and demanded recognition for the ‘genocide in Kigali’. The Arusha facilitator and Western observers were sympathetic to Kagame and supported the RPF’s demand of a 50:50 split in the command structure of the proposed new army (22). The same approach was used to get the final Arusha Accords signed. Alison Des Forges, the lead author of the ICI report, indicated that Western coercion had played a significant role: ‘This peace agreement had come about largely as a result of the active intervention of the international community, particularly the US and various other actors through the United Nations.’ (23)
Robert Gribbin, then US deputy ambassador in Kampala, states that the RPF had ‘flummoxed’ the government, and ‘won’ the negotiations. He felt that the Accords were ‘too blatantly stacked in the Tutsis’ favour to be truly workable. But, having bought into the process, neither the US nor others could ‘repudiate the product’ (24). From then on, the Western world seemed to view the RPF as a government in waiting. Toward the end of 1993, the crucially important donors’ roundtable meeting on Rwanda took place not in Kigali, but at the RPF headquarters at Mulindi (25).
Having ‘won’ the Arusha negotiations process and succeeded in planting the word ‘genocide’ in Western diplomatic and humanitarian discourse, the RPF had to find a way of exploiting its new gains to legitimise its final military offensive. It had no intention of complying with the accords, nor of participating in the scheduled elections that it could not control. Former French minister of cooperation, Bernard Debré, testified that an RPF representative told him in Kigali in late January 1994 that the RPF would not wait for elections that it would lose, and was going to seize power before the elections (26).
The RPF thus embarked on a strategy of provoking violence and heightening social tensions in order to support its claim that a Hutu extremist conspiracy to destroy the Arusha Accords was underway. When Prudence Bushnel, the US deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, met the RPF in March 1994, she was told that ‘Hutus wanted to exterminate all Tutsis, but there was absolutely no evidence, or even a hint of that, at least that we saw. We were proven tragically wrong.’ (27)
A wealth of evidence points to the RPF being responsible for shooting down President Habyarimana’s plane, thereby setting off the bloodbath Rwandans had been dreading. As soon as it happened, the presidential guard went after and killed those they considered responsible: Belgian soldiers in Kigali, and Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the prime minister, who was seen as too amenable to the RPF. Meanwhile, Hutu militias targeted RPF cells in and around Kigali, before embarking on a killing spree of all Tutsis and Hutu ‘accomplices’ they could find. Their massacres at roadblocks, in churches and house-to-house killings are well documented.
Less well-documented are the RPF’s massacres. Its soldiers targeted prominent members of the Hutu elite, like the former attorney general, and civilians. By the time it seized power, at least a million Rwandans had died.
Law professor Luc Reydams shows how the RPF coopted a human-rights NGO, African Rights, to write its narrative of the Rwandan genocide and publish it less than three months after the RPF seized power (28). Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance (29), which was to serve as the basis of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), established the official RPF narrative of the Akazu genocide conspiracy, in which Hutu extremists planned and implemented masscres of Tutsis. Together with Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, published by Human Rights Watch in 1999, these reports characterised the RPF as the liberators and made a moral distinction between genocidal killings orchestrated by Hutu extremists and revenge killings by elements of the RPF.
In order to make these claims stick, inconvenient truths had to be buried or discredited. When the UN investigation team came across credible evidence that the RPF was responsible for the aerial assassination of President Habyarimana, its report was buried by the ICTR’s chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, and the mandate to investigate the plane shooting terminated. Judges at the ICTR ruled that the issue was not relevant to any of the trials. When Arbour’s successor, Carla Del Ponte, stated her intention to reopen the file and also investigate allegations of RPF massacres, she was promptly relieved of her job. When another UN investigator, Robert Gersony, produced documentation for a report on RPF massacres, the UN tried to discredit Gersony and pretend that his report did not exist. And the judicial investigation into the aerial attack initiated on behalf of the families of the French crew who died with Habyarimana, is, thanks to interventions of presidents Sarkozy and Macron, still to be ratified.
The sustenance of the official narrative served not only to legitimise the RPF’s role in the hundred days of slaughter, but also to excuse the tyranny of Kagame’s rule and the atrocities committed both in the course of the forcible repatriation of refugees, and in the two wars Rwanda initiated, alongside Uganda, to overthrow President Mobutu of former Zaire and then President Kabila of the renamed Democratic Republic of Congo. The death toll resulting from these wars has dwarfed that of Rwanda in 1994.
Covering for Kagme
Throughout, the US has used the official narrative to legitimise Kagame’s actions. Take its response to the Kibeho massacre. Tom Odom, military attaché to the US embassy in Kigali, recorded his conversation with the ambassador to Rwanda, David Rawson, who had expressed his shock at the massacre:
‘[T]hey’re killers! They have driven those people to desperation”, [Rawson] exclaimed before I cut him off. “No they didn’t, David! Those people were desperate people when they went into that camp. Many of them were hip-deep in the genocide. This was inevitable. We just have to sort out the results.’ (30)
Which the US duly did. The US’s diplomatic cover for Rwanda’s biggest single massacre to date assured Kagame of his impunity and green-lit his plans to attack the refugee camps outside Rwanda’s borders.
From the moment Kagame assumed power in Rwanda, the US and Britain have made him their key ally in Africa. Financial and military aid has poured in. No reports of the horrors of his reign has diminished this support. There was a brief hiccup when, in 2010, the UN documented RPF atrocities in the Congo, committed against Rwandan refugees and Congolese during the two Congo wars of 1996-97 and 1998-2003. It also indicated that Rwanda was backing the infamous M23 rebel group in Congo. Britain suspended aid to Rwanda, only to reinstate it in 2012.
Thanks to Western aid, the Rwandan army has continued to grow into a formidable force. It has played a prominent role in UN peacekeeping operations, notably in Sudan and the Central African Republic.
While directly funding the Kagame regime, Britain has been fully aware of the operations of Kagame’s death squads abroad. A would-be assassin was intercepted and refused entry into the UK, and senior police officers visited two Rwandans living in London in May 2012 to inform them that they had ‘unverifiable but credible evidence’ that their lives were in imminent danger from the government of Rwanda (31). How is it that Scotland Yard can warn people living in London that they are the target of a death squad sent from a government Britain is directly funding?
And in the US, the land of the First Amendment, Rwandans have discovered that one cannot question the official narrative of the Rwandan genocide. In 2016, Leopold Munyakazi, a Rwandan linguist teaching French at Montclair State University, New Jersey, allegedly suggested that what happened in Rwanda was not genocide, but a civil war over state power. Rwanda issued an international warrant charging him with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, and negation of genocide. Despite its intimate knowledge of the Rwandan justice system, the Obama administration deported him. Munyakazi was duly found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life imprisonment, which was reduced to nine years. A visitor to Munyakazi in prison found him appearing deranged, and was told by a guard that he had been this way since being injected with a psychotic drug.
An abuse of the term genocide
My own view of what happened in Rwanda between April and July 1994 is that the killings of Tutsi are better described as crimes against humanity rather than genocide. For what happened to be termed genocide, it would have to be proven that there was an intent and a controlled plan to exterminate Tutsis in whole or in part – and, so far, such proof is wanting. Likewise, the killings of Hutus by the RPF were directed and controlled, but the motive was not genoicidal. It was, and remains, population control by means of terror.
One can make no moral distinction between Tutsi deaths at the hands of militias, and Hutu deaths at the hands of the RPF. Rwandans have paid, and continue to pay, a high price for the abuse of the term genocide. It is precisely this abuse, in the form of the official narrative, that has made post-1994 Rwanda a morally constituted tyranny. The freedom to speak the truth about what happened in Rwanda is a precondition for its liberation.
Barrie Collins is the author of Rwanda 1994: The Myth of the Akazu Genocide Conspiracy and its Consequences, published by Palgrave MacMillan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, by G Prunier, Oxford University Press, 2009, p11
(2) Le Chateau: The Lives of Prisoners in Rwanda, by C Tertsakian, Arves Books, 2008, pp19-38
(3) Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, by G Prunier, Oxford University Press, 2009, p44
(4) Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, by G Prunier, Oxford University Press, 2009, p66
(5) Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, by G Prunier, Oxford University Press, 2009, p120
(6) Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, by G Prunier, Oxford University Press, 2009, p409, note 200
(7) In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, by Judi Rever, Random House Canada, 2018, p236
(8) ‘Statement by the Political Bureau of the Rwandese Patriotic Front on the Proposed Deployment of a UN Intervention Force in Rwanda’, Rwandan Patriotic Front, 13 April 1994. United States Department of State, Freedom of Information Act release, 17 April 1996. Case ID: 9500403
(9) High Commissioner Charles Cullimore to London Foreign Office, 18 October, 1990. OF 1211352
(10) Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent, by Herman Cohen St.Martin’s Press, 2000, p178
(11) Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent, by Herman Cohen St.Martin’s Press, 2000, pp177-8
(12) Former Rwandan Ambassador to Uganda, Pierre-Claver Kanyarushoke. Author interview, 23 September 2006
(13) Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure, by Bruce Jones Jones, Lynne Rienner, 2001, pp57-8
(14) Rwandan Ambassador to Uganda, Pierre-Claver Kanyarushoke. Author interview, 23 September 2006
(15) Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure, by Bruce Jones Jones, Lynne Rienner, 2001, p76
(16) Military observer at Arusa, Lt-Colonel Tony Marley. Email correspondence with author, 17 September 2004
(17) Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure, by Bruce Jones Jones, Lynne Rienner, 2001,p84, citing his interview with Lt-Colonel Marley
(18) ‘Early Warning and Conflict Management’, by Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke, Chr Michelsen Institute, Development Studies and Human Rights, 1996
(19) Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, by Linda Melvern, Verso, 2004, p62
(20) ‘The resumption of hostilities in Rwanda’, a press communiqué from Théogène Rudasingwa, 8 February 1993. Cited in Rwanda: du parti-Etat à l’Etat-garnison, by James Gasana, Collection des Grand Lacs, 2002, p183, note 114. (Translated for author by Alexis Ndibwami)
(21) ‘Victimes des massacres du FPR en préfectures de Ruhengeri et de Byumba en février 1993’. Table reproduced in Rwanda: du parti-Etat à l’Etat-garnison, by James Gasana, Collection des Grand Lacs, 2002, p185
(22) Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure, by Bruce Jones Jones, Lynne Rienner, 2001, p85
(23) ‘Leave None to Tell the Story’: Genocide in Rwanda, by Human Rights Watch, 1999
(24) In the Aftermath of Genocide: The US Role in Rwanda, by Robert Gribbin, iUniverse, 2005, pp71-2.
(25) This point is confirmed by Faustin Twagiramungu who attended the meeting. Author interview, London, 22 March 2003
(26) ‘The Report by French Anti-Terrorist Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière on the Shooting Down of Rwandan President Habyarimana’s Plane on 6 April 1994’, by J-L Bruguière, 27 November 2006
(27) ‘A Soul Filled with Shame –The Rwandan Genocide, April 7- July 18,1994’ Interview with Prudence Bushnel in Moments in US Diplomatic History
(28) ‘NGO Justice: African Rights as Pseudo-Prosecutor of the Rwandan Genocide’, by Luc Reydams, Human Rights Quarterly 38:2016 pp547-588
(29) Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, African Rights, 1994
(30) Journey Into Darkness: Genocide in Rwanda, by TP Odom, Texas A&M University Press, 2005, p226
(31) Rene Mugenzi and Jonathan Musonera, visited by Scotland Yard, 13 May 2012. Author interview, London 14 May 2012
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