Where slave traders failed, Bagosora could not succeed

The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was not spontaneous, contrary to what perpetrators and their sympathisers have been peddling. Its roots run deeper and are entangled with foreign players; Belgium and sections of the Catholic Church, especially the White Fathers. Before the advent of the white man, who came in search of new dominions to extract gold, ivory and other resources, as well as spread their influence as they scrambled for the continent, Rwanda had a very advanced administrative system. Its geographical positioning, deep in the African hinterland shielded it from external influences unlike other coastal countries that straddled trade routes. Even though Rwanda had been ‘carved out’ to Germany during the Berlin Conference in 1884, its territory was unexplored by any foreign powers.
King Musinga (second right) with European visitors. Before the white man came, Rwanda was a highly centralised and organised monarchy. (File)
King Musinga (second right) with European visitors. Before the white man came, Rwanda was a highly centralised and organised monarchy. (File)

The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was not spontaneous, contrary to what perpetrators and their sympathisers have been peddling. Its roots run deeper and are entangled with foreign players; Belgium and sections of the Catholic Church, especially the White Fathers.

Before the advent of the white man, who came in search of new dominions to extract gold, ivory and other resources, as well as spread their influence as they scrambled for the continent, Rwanda had a very advanced administrative system.

Its geographical positioning, deep in the African hinterland shielded it from external influences unlike other coastal countries that straddled trade routes. Even though Rwanda had been ‘carved out’ to Germany during the Berlin Conference in 1884, its territory was unexplored by any foreign powers.

It was not until 1892 that Oscar Baumann, an Austrian cartographer became the first white man to set foot in Rwanda. He was followed two years later by Count Gustav Adolf von Götzen, who, as the head of a German expedition, made his way inland where he met King (Mwami) Kigeri IV Rwabugiri at his palace in Nyanza.

There he found one of the most organised and centralised kingdoms in the region with a centralized military structure.

Rwabugiri had up to then resisted any foreign intrusion. He violently resisted slave traders who were met by a hail of arrows and spears. Even the dreaded slave trader, Hamad bin Muhammad bin Jumah bin Rajab bin Muhammad bin Sa‘d al-Murghab (nicknamed Tippu Tip, after the sounds of gunfire by his raiding party) could not make an inroad.

They came to fear Rwabugiri’s kingdom where, they said, reigned “Bwana Mkali” (fierce man). Present day Huye in the Southern Province that borders Burundi, the theatre of numerous failed expeditions, was for many years later known as Bwanamukari.

Rwanda became one of the few countries that never contributed manpower to the slave trade.

Many theories abound as to why the proud and fierce king received Von Goetzen. The most widespread is Rwabugiri, the great tactician that he was, realised that before him stood a formidable enemy who it was better to work with than fight against.

Another school of thought was that after an eventful 42-year reign, where he had fought numerous battles and massively expanded his kingdom, Rwabugiri was exhausted. He died a year later after the historical meeting with Goetzen.

The German explorer was later appointed Governor of German East Africa that comprised Tanganyika and present day Burundi and Rwanda. The Germans did not meddle too much in the internal mechanisms of Rwanda and Burundi, then administered as Rwanda-Urundi, preferring to let the well-oiled traditional administrative structures in place.

When the Germans lost the First World War, their territories in East Africa were divided between Britain (Tanganyika) and Belgium (Rwanda-Urundi).

Years later, Rwanda-Urundi became a UN trust Territory under Belgian tutelage. It was the beginning of the end of Rwandan cohesion and the rise in influence of the Catholic Church.

Belgium, then, as it is today, was fraught with deep seated ethnic division between the French speaking Wallons and the Dutch community, the Flemish. The ideology was transplanted to both Rwanda and Burundi and centuries-old way of life was shattered.

In 1935, Belgium introduced identity cards that labelled Rwandans as Tutsi, Hutu and the small hunter-gatherer group, the Twa. Western-styled schools were introduced where the sons of Tutsi aristocracy dominated the education system.

The most prestigious of the schools was Groupe Scolaire, present day Huye (Butare) that prepared their students to occupy administrative positions. In Burundi, a similar school, Institut Sainte Esprit, opened its doors.

Graduates from those schools went on to become the backbone of the colonial administration. A new breed was born; French speaking and westernised, both in mannerisms and ambitions. They were known as Évolués (intelligent, cultured).

At the beginning, only the sons of Tutsi aristocracy had a chance of going to school, the idea was to prepare them to take over the mantle of their parents. Later, as the number of schools increased, Common Tutsi and Hutu alike were enrolled in the mostly Catholic Church- run institutions.

Disaster was not too far away.

Young Tutsi leaders, most of them close to the King, Mutara Rudahigwa III, began to agitate for independence and end Belgian domination, and created a platform to promote their views. The Union Nationale du Rwanda (UNAR) was born.

The independence fever was already fever pitch in Africa and colonial powers were intent on remaining with some measure of control over their territories. 

As had happened in other African countries, colonialists fronted and bankrolled counter-revolutionary political parties. Parti du Mouvement de l’Emancipation Hutu (PARMEHUTU) was created in that manner and had the backing of the all powerful Catholic Church. 

A man by the name of Joseph Habyarimana Gitera, was the first to question Tutsi political domination and launched APROSOMA (Association pour la promotion de la masse), but he was considered by colonialists to be more of an erratic rubble rouser than someone who could easily toe the line. They needed to look elsewhere for their man.

In came Gregoire Kayibanda, a young Hutu intellectual and Editor of the church-run Kinyamateka newspaper which is still in print today. They were the visible hands behind PARMEHUTU, but many historians have alleged that the Hutu Manifesto that set in motion PARMEHUTU, was the handiwork of two priests who thrust it into the hands of Kayibanda and his group.

The ethnic label that accompanied its name was not a mere coincidence, but a well-laid out plan to rouse the Hutu conscience against Tutsi domination. Kabgayi, in later day Muhanga, home of the Church and PARMEHUTU, became a bastion of Hutu radicalism.

The mysterious death in Bujumbura — in July 1959 — of King Mutara Rudahigwa, was the last straw that broke Rwanda’s back. He was the unifying factor and his leaving the scene opened the floodgates of ethnic violence that would be Rwanda’s trademark for the next 50 years.

Conspiracy theories of his death still abound today.

He was planning to go to New York to plead Rwanda’s independence case before the UN and had gone to his personal doctor to get a vaccine. He did not leave the doctor’s room. Was his death orchestrated by the Belgians? Many think so, but we may never know the whole truth.

A church-sponsored “revolution” was instigated in 1959. Tutsi were hunted down and killed, especially in Gikongoro. River Nyabarongo received its first victims as thousands of bodies began to float down stream. It was a test run for what was to happen in 1994.

The first mass exodus into exile had begun as thousands fled to neighbouring countries.

General elections were held in 1961 amidst an atmosphere of fear and violence. PARMEHUTU was declared winner. Dominique Mbonyumutwa became first President and Gregoire Kayibanda Prime Minister, nine months later, Kayibanda became the supreme leader.

The first thing Kayibanda did when Rwanda gained independence in 1962 was to consolidate power in the hands a small clique from Gitarama, his home town. But bigger trouble was just lurking around the corner.

Tutsi refugees began to launch attacks against Rwanda, but they were ineffective and instead gave Kayibanda an excuse to kill innocent Tutsi peasants who had nothing to do with Inyenzi, the name given to the armed group.

Their most devastating attack was in 1963 when they arrived on the doorsteps of Kigali, Nyamata, and were only repulsed with the help of Belgian and Congolese paratroopers. Kayibanda saw an opportunity to do away with the opposition parties in place – UNAR and RADER.

He rounded up all their leaders and executed them on Christmas Eve of 1963, massacres spread throughout the country. 

The world was silent, it was preoccupied with the Cold War between the Russians and the Americans, which a year earlier, had nearly sparked a nuclear confrontation over the Cuban missile crisis.

With the international community’s gaze elsewhere, Kayibanda had a free rein to instil his “Rubanda nyamwinshi” (the majority) theory into the conscience of the masses, and turned a section of the population into second class citizens, even labelling them as foreign invaders from Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

As Kayibanda settled comfortably in his seat, his segregationist tendencies expanded beyond ethnicity when the northern parts (Byumba, Ruhengeri, Gisenyi) began to receive a cold shoulder. Resentment from the northerners settled in and Kayibanda’s fate was sealed.

Since few education and civil service opportunities came their way, the northerners (Abakiga) resorted to joining the small army while the nouveau riche southerners (Abanyenduga) swilled their Martinis in the leafy suburb of Upper Kiyovu, formerly occupied by the colonial administrators.

Ironically, with few opportunities open to them, Tutsis with no financial means sent their children to seminaries and convents and many took the vocation of priests and nuns, a welcome respite from the political tinderbox that Kayibanda had created.

In 1972, faced with griping economic and social blight uncertainties, President Kayibanda resorted to his old tactics of distracting the population by leading his people on another anti-Tutsi expedition.

Government officials drew up lists of Tutsi; they were hounded out of their work places and chased from schools. But in the old PARMEHUTU backyard of Kabgayi, the seat of the country’s most eminent theological seminaries, students were attacked and killed by their fellow students.

Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, the Chief-of- Staff of the Rwandan army and a northerner from Gisenyi, overthrew Kayibanda on July 5, 1973. The latter died in gaol a few years later, allegedly from hunger.

Habyarimana came on the scene as a saviour of the Tutsi, as someone who wanted to reunite the country, but that was just a facade. He instituted ethnic and regional quotas in employment and schools, decimated Kayibanda’s kitchen cabinet and firmly steered the national cake to the north. 

Nepotism and impunity best described Habyarimana northern clique. Regional division had overshadowed the ethnicity — a Tutsi from the north with a Hutu godfather was likely to fare better than a Hutu from the south.

That was the complexity of Habyarimana’s shadowy politics.

Meanwhile, Tutsi refugees had settled in their host countries, some had been fully assimilated in their new identities but others kept the flame of returning home alight.

Opportunity came knocking when, in 1982, then Uganda president Milton Obote, began state-sponsored harassment and attacks against Rwandan refugees. Those who survived had no option but flee towards Rwanda. 

Rwanda closed its borders claiming the country was too small and could not handle the influx, so the refugees found themselves stuck in the no-man’s-land between the two countries. The young and able could not stomach the sufferings and opted to join the then Ugandan rebel leader, Yoweri Museveni, and his National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Four years later, Kampala fell and among the triumphant army was a sizeable number of Rwandans who would later reshape Rwanda’s political landscape.

Rwanda under Habyarimana had become a darling of the West and aid poured in to line the pockets of the northern elites. But the honeymoon was short lived.

But beneath the veneer of perfection, trouble was brewing. The calls of democratisation that were ringing in many countries did not spare Rwanda. Habyarimana’s hold on power was weakening, and the October 1, 1990 attack by Rwandan refugees, who had been part of Museveni’s outfit made him even weaker.

Internal dissidents could now see a chink in Habyarimana’ armour. The former PARMEHUTU was revived as MDR and other parties such as the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Liberal Party (PL) added their voice for Habyarimana’s removal.

Amidst military setbacks at the hands of the RPF and widening political discord, Habyarimana went back to Kayibanda’s pack of cards and drew out an ace that had served its purpose in the past – the ethnic card.

He drummed up ethnic tensions, demonised the RPF as Tutsi who wanted to re-conquer power, therefore the Tutsi in the country were also complicit. His inner circle financed extremist media outlets, the infamous being Radio Television de Mille Collines (RTLM) and Kangura newspaper.

Habyarimana was reluctantly dragged to the negotiating table in Arusha, Tanzania, but he also had macabre plans on the drawing board, if only the world had taken serious heed to Colonel Theoneste Bagosora’s warning in 1993, when he openly warned RPF negotiators that he was returning to prepare an apocalypse.

In fact, Bagosora who was convicted for genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was described throughout his trial as the “mastermind” of the Genocide.

Successive governments had honed the skills of diverting attention from the real issues by killing Tutsi. Bagosora nearly succeeded with his apocalypse, but failed to factor in one important aspect; determination of his targets that had in the past even repulsed Tippu Tip’s raiding parties.

 

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