‘Qui est génocide?’ or ‘Who is genocide?’

With these strange words, President Grégoire Kayibanda delivered, in March 1964, one of the most significant speeches in Rwanda’s recent history.
Dr. Jean-Paul Kimonyo
Dr. Jean-Paul Kimonyo

With these strange words, President Grégoire Kayibanda delivered, in March 1964, one of the most significant speeches in Rwanda’s recent history. 

He clearly had a hard time using this new vocabulary he just introduced into the Rwandan political landscape. The word genocide first came to him through philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell, and then picked up by Vatican Radio.

Delivered two months after the first acts of genocide in the country’s history, this speech rationalised the killings and legitimised the death of innocents. 

The speech explicitly placed Rwanda’s governance under a genocidal halo and created an atmosphere of terror; terror that would characterise the daily life of some Rwandans for over thirty years.

The largest massacres began on 23 December 1963 in the then Gikongoro Prefecture (present day Nyamagabe District), home to a large concentration of Tutsi resistant to the revolutionary regime. The killings then spread to other regions. 

The Hutu population of the region, armed with machetes and spears, began to slaughter Tutsi, including women and children, in a systematic way.

One missionary recalled how a group of Hutu “cut off the breasts of a Tutsi woman and as she lay there dying, they shoved her mutilated parts down her children’s throats as she watched”.

Another missionary explained how on one hill, massacres lasted the entire night. “It was incredible, the cries went on for hours and hours.” 

The lowest estimates indicate that there were tens of thousands of deaths in Gikongoro alone, while others put the figure at 25,000 to 35,000 across the country.

The Parmehutu government explained these killings as the population’s angry reaction to an Inyenzi attack.

The Inyenzi were guerilla forces formed from Tutsi refugees, who – in fear of their lives – began to flee in 1959 to neighboring countries.

Two days before killings began in Gikongoro, on 21 December 1963, between 200 to 300 Inyenzi claiming to be from the nationalist party UNAR from Burundi – armed with a few rifles, spears and arrows – had ruffled a few feathers by attacking the Rwandan military in camp in Gako, Bugesera, about fifty kilometers from Kigali.

From there, they headed towards the Tutsi refugee camp in Nyamata where their ranks swelled to a thousand men.

They then headed to Kigali and were stopped about twenty kilometers from the capital by the National Guard, who were well armed and commanded by Belgian officers. 

The attackers suffered heavy losses, and the survivors returned to Burundi.

Based on Belgian sources, it is clear the Belgian and Rwandan leaders of the National Guard were aware of the time and place of the attack, and that the Inyenzi had in fact been lured into a trap.

President Kayibanda used the attack to inflict terror on the Tutsi and physically eliminate political opposition. 

He sent a minister in each of the ten prefectures, to oversee the “self-defence” of the population. A concept that would later return in the early 1990’s as ordinary citizens – Hutus – were armed to ‘defend themselves’ against the Tutsi “accomplices” of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). 

President Kayibanda’s speech two months later made a clear point, “Assuming the impossible, that you eventually take over Kigali, how can you measure the chaos of which you will be the first victims? Understand this: It would be the total and precipitated end of the Tutsi race. Who is Genocide?”

With the ethnic cleansing of 1959-1961, the massacres in Gikongoro and elsewhere in December 1963 and January 1964 as a backdrop, the radio address by President Kayibanda marked the dawn of genocide ideology in the republican regime.

With this public unveiling, he took the Tutsi community hostage. Their physical survival now depended on total submission.

For those who think this was just high level politics, I recommend Scholastique Mukasonga’s book which records, in detail, how intimate this violent submission was. 

In the years preceding the Genocide against the Tutsi, the speech of March 1964 was often cited by extremists with a mixture of respect and regret for not having finished the Tutsi problem–in particular by hate media.

Twenty years later, Kayibanda’s successors surpassed their master by carrying out the fastest and most efficient genocide of the 20th century; they also coined the word he was missing: Génocidaire.

Dr. Jean-Paul Kimonyo is a policy advisor in the Office of the President of Rwanda and author of ‘Rwanda: The Popular Genocide’

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