Juvenal Habyarimana: 21 years of tyranny and treachery?

Juvénal Habyarimana was president from 1973 through 1994. Net photo.

By the middle of Shakespeare’s most famous play, Macbeth, the title character of the Scottish king is portrayed as a man sinking under the mass of his own crimes. Years of ‘vaulting’ ambition led him to launch a coup, kill the previous ruler and his supporters and seize power and wealth for himself and his wife. The result has a far from happy outcome. Macbeth, weighed down by the knowledge of his bloody purges and now surrounded by enemies, begins to personally disintegrate. In a scene of tragic self-realisation he confesses to his wife: ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning would be as difficult as to go on.’ In other words, his homicidal regime has killed so many already there is no way back – he may as well continue down the same murderous path.

Juvenal Habyarimana was certainly a man who could empathise with Macbeth. His death on April 6, 1994 means his responsibility for the Genocide against the Tutsi is often played down or forgotten as Bagosora, Nsengiyumva, Bizimana, Karemera and the other killers take centre stage. But long before the RPF invasion in October 1990, long before the international community became interested in Rwanda, Habyarimana, the trainee priest and doctor turned soldier-dictator, was already ‘stepp’d in the blood’ of his people. Rwanda’s history from 1973-93 was not that of some halycon peaceful paradise – unless you believed the regime’s own propaganda. It was filled with mass murder, torture, imprisonment of political opponents and from 1990 genocidal massacres of the Tutsi.

In the 70s and 80s it suited the international community and Habyarimana’s western backers to portray Rwanda as ‘the Switzerland of Africa.’ The president was feted by other African leaders such as his role model and ‘father’ Mobutu Seke Sese in neighbouring Zaire (DRC), Col.Gadaffi of Libya, Omar Bongo of Gabon, and Moi of Kenya. Idi Amin was embraced on Kigali’s tarmac in the mid 1970s with huge fanfare.Habyarimana’s polished media imageto the world was of a ‘strong and stable’ leader - a leader who could be relied upon to keep Rwanda close to the west and away from Communist influence. Within six years of seizing power Habyarimana played host to the 6th Francophone summit, welcoming French president Giscard d’Estang and 24 African leaders to Kigali; he was a frequent visitor to meet his close friend King Baudouin of Belgium, the German president Helmut Kohl and, of course Francois Mitterrand. The papal visit of John Paul II in September 1990 was a public relations pinnacle, showing his people – and the world – what a caring and peaceful regime he was leading. Afterall, even the pope, it seemed, was happy to endorse his rule.

In 1987 a glossy coffee table book was published called ‘au Rwanda’ by the Belgian Omer Marchal which summarised how the regime wanted the world to view the country under its 14 year’s benevolent rule. Beautiful landsacpes, misty valley, happy workers in the fields, a smiling president and his family relaxing and saying their prayers during mass at St Michaels’ cathedral; this was a country of hope and happiness, where all the people from the president to the peasants were united in some blissful existence.

Those who read the book and congratulated Habyarimana on a job very well done like his close German adviser Peter Molt and Swiss confident Charles Jeanneret, not to mention church leaders and friendly ambassadors like the French diplomat Georges Martres, chose to overlook one small obstacle. Here was a regime – and a president – with a history of violent repression and extrajudicial murder. One year after Marchal’s fairytale producation came a book by the dissident ShyirambereBarahinyura called ‘Juvenal Habyarimana: 15 years of tyranny and treachery.’ Featuring a cover picture of the Rwandan leader made up of tiny skulls, the book detailed the bloody trail of Habyarimana and his ‘Akazu’ in the country they ruled. Unsurprisingly, the book was banned in Rwanda and to be found with a copy meant immediate imprisonment in one of the stinking prison cells that were kept for enemies of the regime.

Far from the ‘bloodless coup’ which Habyarimana was so swift to promote in 1973, the 2nd republic was built on the bones – literally – of members of its predecessor. Kayibanda, and his political leaders and military officers from the south or centre of the country were ruthlessly exterminated. All the while Habyarimana’s western allies and Church leaders like Andre Perraudin, remained silent. The bloody trail continued into the 1980s: the violent suppression of the 1980 ‘coup’ plotters and alleged writers of tracts against the regime; the murders of vaguely critical newspaper editors and politicians who fell out with Akazu; the killing of naturalist Dian Fossey who stood in the way of Akazu’s lucrative illicit trading; And the murder of Colonel Stanislas Mayuya in April 1988 that took place precisely because this honest, loyal and non prejudiced officer threatened Akazu’s future power and position in the country. This mafia-like group had, like a poisonous underground plant, wrapped its ever-increasing roots around every aspect of the country, from business to administration, the military to the church. It simply could not and would not counternanace Mayuya, whispered to be a possible successor to Habyarimana, taking charge.

The late 70s and 1980s were a time of media blackout in Rwanda. Habyarimana had to answer no awkward questions about the sudden disappearance of personalities of the former regime; why religious minorities were subject to mass arrest; or the discrimination that left much of the population who were not Hutu and from the Gisenyi prefecture struggling to even get a place at secondary school. The president had no need to justify his agrarian policies that helped send the country into a spiral of debt and famine in the late 80s as coffee prices nose-dived. Instead the population was expected to show its love and support of the ‘father of the nation’ by weekly ‘animation’, even while in the southern prefectures many starved to death. Nor did this particular ‘father of the nation’ need to explain why one in three children was clinically malnourished and Rwanda the fourth slowest country in the world to improve child mortality_with life expectancy still under 60 in 1987. It was a decade when ‘le clan’ became richer – much richer. There was pitiably little to show for the tens of millions of dollars of aid money from generous German, Belgian, French, Swiss, Canadian and World Bank/IMF support_except new regime billionaires like Joseph Nzirorera and Colonel Nsekalije.

To understand the terror and then Genocide against the Tutsi of 1994 you need to understand the acculumation of power and wealth of the years 1973-1990. For this was what was threatened by the RPF invasion and the birth of internal political opposition to MRND and Habyarimana. This was what had to be protected at any cost. The Genocide was anything but spontaneous: it was the chosen path of a criminal political elite under threat. It was an extension of Habyariman’s 21-year rule; to airbrush his responsibility from the tragedy is to ignore this reality and diminishes the pain and suffering of the many victims of his rule before April 1994.

Andrew Wallis is a journalist, author and academic. His new book ‘Stepp’d in Blood: Akazu and the Architects of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi’ (Zero Books) is published in April 2019.




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