Who killed Habyarimana? What does it matter now? By FREDERICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI | Monday, October 10   2011 at  09:44

The Falcon 50 jet carrying Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi which was shot down on April 6, 1994 Photo/FILE 

Recently there has been a resurgence of debate about a minor aspect of Rwanda’s political history, the death of former president, Juvenal Habyarimana.

This debate puzzles many who take more than simply a fleeting interest in Rwanda’s history — because it seems to elevate Habyarimana’s death to the status of an historical event worthy of special attention.

Yet it was but one death among the hundreds of thousands that occurred before and after his plane was shot down, many, if not all of them, a direct result of the sectarian politics and policies that he and like-minded post-colonial political elites practised for more than 30 years.

Equally puzzling is the amount of newspaper space and broadcast airtime taken up by expert analyses, some of them recycled, of what any new angle to the controversy may imply for the current government of Rwanda and its officials, some of whom stand accused of being the brains and hands behind the killing.

This discussion is informed mainly by the fact that the crew of the plane in which he died consisted of foreign nationals, French citizens to be precise.

Their families are bent on pursuing the matter through their public institutions including the courts, the same courts that have persistently blocked the extradition to Rwanda of fugitives accused of participating in the planning of the genocide and the elimination of Habyarimana’s political opponents and their supporters, regardless of their ethnicity.

It is as if to suggest that the families of Rwandan victims were not as deserving of justice.

Pre-genocide evils

There is also a view within some quarters that the question of who shot down Habyarimana’s plane derives its importance from the link between that single incident and the beginning of the genocide.

Those who push this line, however, disregard reports of mass killings, said by some to have been “practice massacres,” which started way back in 1992, long before Habyarimana was killed in 1994.

They also ignore the training and equipping of the militias that carried out the genocide, way before Habyarimana died.

A much-neglected factor in the genocide, indirect though it may seem, is the policy of “permanent banishment” of large numbers of Rwandans by the Habyarimana regime and that of Gregoire Kayibanda before it.

After tens of thousands of Tutsis and their Hutu relatives, neighbours and friends fled the country during the violence and massacres of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, both the Kayibanda and Habyarimana governments consistently blocked their return.

Instead, they were “advised” to apply for citizenship in their countries of refuge because, apparently, Rwanda was too full to accommodate them. And so for more than 30 years, the refugees and their descendants languished in enforced exile.

The decision not to allow them back was the single most important reason they decided to force their way back. It made the 1990 invasion of Rwanda by the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Army inevitable.

Who knows, in the absence of the post-colonial politics of exclusion, there would have probably been no war and no genocide.

Contradictory opinion

A notable recent entrant into the debate on the side of those who connect the downing of the ill-fated plane and subsequent events, is a former official of the post-genocide government and senior member of the Kagame-led Rwanda Patriotic Front, Theogene Rudasingwa, now in exile for the second time.

Contrary to the contradictory opinions of separate groups of experts who have investigated the matter, Dr Rudasingwa says President Paul Kagame ordered the shooting, and that he heard him brag about it.

In a move that has stunned many of his compatriots, he apologised to the people of Burundi and France for concealing this “vital” information for years, and asked God for forgiveness.

While some of his claims could be the subject of endless debate, others will strike observers of Rwanda’s political scene as tenuous. For example, he accuses Kagame of not believing in the unity of Rwandans, or in power sharing, or in resolving the problem of refugees once and for all.

I am no authority on what Kagame believes in and does not believe in. However, if one goes by the adage “actions speak louder than words,” Dr. Rudasingwa’s begin to sound rather odd:

Since 1994, the post-genocide government has abolished all the forms of discrimination its predecessors used to employ systematically to divide Rwandans; enacted a Constitution that provides for inclusive government and decision-making, and has of late been urging exiled Rwandans wherever they are to abandon the indignity of refugee life and return home.

If Kagame does not believe in all these things that have happened under his watch, it shows how fundamentally different today’s Rwanda is from that of the past, and how the question of who killed Habyarimana is basically an unnecessary distraction.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Research, Makerere University