Tribute to Kavaruganda, the valiant constitution defender

In the run up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Joseph Kavaruganda, then president of the Constitutional Court, thought he had to assume his responsibility, by announcing the death of the Head of State (Juvenal Habyarimana) and proclaiming a person in acting position, which was in his constitutional obligations.
Kavaruganda paid the ultimate price in defence of the constitution.   Courtesy.
Kavaruganda paid the ultimate price in defence of the constitution. Courtesy.

In the run up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Joseph Kavaruganda, then president of the Constitutional Court, thought he had to assume his responsibility, by announcing the death of the Head of State (Juvenal Habyarimana) and proclaiming a person in acting position, which was in his constitutional obligations.

The event never happened. As soon as they had accomplished their mission, the planners of Habyarimana’s plane crash hurried to assassinate this high ranking official, who was perceived as an accomplice of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF-Inkotanyi), simply because he stood for the truth.

He had spiritedly defended the law, when it came to provisions on Arusha negotiations between the then government of Rwanda and RPF, especially on the power sharing, which, according to sources, was a contested issue amongst the ruling elite.

Justice Jean Mutashya, currently a judge in the Supreme Court, knew Kavaruganda since 1987, when he was appointed judge in the constitutional court.

He said that, until 1991, Kavaruganda was in the central leadership of the ruling party, MRND, because adhesion to a political party was still constitutionally allowed for magistrates. But later, he withdrew his membership following new constitutional restrictions.

 “He was the only official who could openly challenge President Habyarimana on contentious issues,” Mutashya said.

Julien Kavaruganda, 33, the last born of five children of the late Kavaruganda, said in the morning of January 5, 1994, there was a swearing-in of Habyarimana as interim President as part of the Arusha accord.

Kavaruganda, as the competent authority, swore in Habyarimana who was in turn supposed to swear in the interim Parliament and Cabinet members from a list that had been endorsed earlier.

According to Kavaruganda’s son, the list that was submitted to his father included members of RPF, MRND, PL, MDR and PSD. After his swearing in, Habyarimana postponed the rest of the items on the agenda to the afternoon of the same day.

 “The president came back in the afternoon with a different list of candidates, including PL Power, MDR Power and CDR which were not legal parties,” recalls Julien Kavaruganda.

Kavaruganda whom Habyarimana expected to endorse the new list did not show up either because the outgoing Prime Minister Agathe Uwiringiyimana, who was also the main organiser of the activity, had not renewed her invitation for the afternoon function.

“This increased hatred for Kavaruganda,” Mutashya said.

 “Habyarimana and his allies later accused him of refusing to endorse the new list of the Hutu Power yet he was a Hutu, and accused him of being an accomplice of the “enemy” (RPF),” he added.

Since then, attempts to kill Kavaruganda alongside prominent figures, such as, Landouard Ndasingwa and Agathe Uwiringiyimana, became clear.

“One day, the Interahamwe militia stormed the court building and attempted to kill Kavaruganda, and the rest of us. We escaped through the window as they began vandalising,” remembers Mutashya, adding that even after that, Kavaruganda never gave up defending the law and the Arusha power sharing provisions.

Julien recalls that trouble for their family started on April 6.

“My mother, my sister and I were at home around 8pm when we heard that the plane that was carrying president Habyarimana had been shot down. Presidential guards immediately began patrolling our Kimihurura neighborhood and stormed our home the next morning,” he recounts.

At that time, Kavaruganda had received eight Ghanaian guards from the UN mission. But his son remembers that 40 presidential guards pleaded with them until they surrendered his father.

“The UN guards asked my father to come out, but he refused warning them that the men were not there for a good cause,” Julien Kavaruganda said.

Amidst the discussions, presidential guards entered Kavaruganda’s room and forced him out. Meanwhile, UN soldiers took beer from the family store and started sharing it with the invaders for the entire morning.

Upon seizing Kavaruganda, they took him, without his UN guards uttering a word, his son says. The rest of the family wanted to follow him, but the attackers sent them scampering for safety. They were never to see him again.

As some soldiers were dragging him away, their colleagues stayed behind and kept threatening the family while also looting. In the afternoon, a UN convoy came to pick the UN soldiers. The family begged to come with them, but in vain.

As the government soldiers were still busy packing the loot, the family got an opportunity to reach the Canadian Embassy, which later sent them a UN vehicle, which evacuated them to Kigali International Airport where they boarded a plane to Nairobi on their way to Belgium.

Retired General Marcel Gatsinzi said his family and Kavaruganda’s used to share good times. He described him as an incorruptible man.

“My father had declined to drink from a bar, to avoid people from corrupting him,” says Julien Kavaruganda.

 “He was generous; he used to invite the staff at home for a banquet,” Mutashya said.

 “Everybody had space in his heart.”

Gatsinzi also remembers Kavaruganda as a good lecturer. He used to teach law at the military academy (ESEM).

Who is Joseph Kavaruganda? 

‘Kavaruganda was born on May 8, 1935 in Tare Commune, in Rusiga Sector, Rulindo District. He attended primary school in his village, and then went to the Kigali Junior Seminary before going to Belgium where he studied law at University up to PhD level in 1966. He returned home in 1967 and started as president of Caisse d’Epargne, a credit and savings institution.

He was appointed Prosecutor General in 1974, then president of the Constitutional Court from 1980 until April 1994.

 

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