I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that some of the perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide disputed the actual chronology of events, and argued in their own defence that the killings which took place between April and July 1994 were merely a spontaneous outpouring of pent up and justifiable rage that was aimed at cutting down an oppressive class. But while Rwanda’s colonial history forms an intricate tapestry of contradictions and fraught relationships between and amongst Rwandese themselves, between Rwandese and the French, or between Rwandese and the Belgians, ultimately it is Rwandans themselves who chose to take up machetes, clubs, spears, bows and arrows, and in doing so plunged a nation into 100 days of blinding terror.
A flurry of events in the months leading up to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, as well as the synergetic intersection of all the grotesque factors which sparked off mass killings that burnt through Rwanda with breathtaking speed and fury, leads one to a reasonable conclusion that the Rwanda genocide was as pre-planned and as premeditated as any genocide in history. Certainly, the precision and the deliberate coordination with which the killing, the looting, the raping, and the pillaging was executed, defies the intelligence and organizational capabilities of the machete wielding gangs who became the identifiable villains of the genocide.
To be clear, the idea of ethnic cleansing had already been toyed with before in Rwanda. Indeed the notion of solving all of Rwanda’s political problems by exterminating so called Tutsi invaders was an ideology that preceded the 1994 genocide, and such a final solution had been openly mooted by disgruntled Hutu politicians even at cabinet level. And in the midst of internal political pressures, like so many other African leaders in the 1990s, the end of the Cold War found Rwanda’s Juvénal Habyarimana less and less mollycoddled by the West and facing ever mounting pressure to open up his country’s political space. Hence, welcoming back Tutsi exiles and entering into a power sharing agreement with them was viewed by some as a way of signaling Rwanda’s willingness to embark on a more inclusive path. However, in a toxically charged atmosphere such as Rwanda’s was, any arrangement geared at rehabilitating the Tutsi minority into the mainstream of Rwandan life was never going to be acceptable, at least not to those who held that Rwanda was their exclusive preserve.
In the event, whilst Juvénal Habyarimana was attempting the impossible and flying back and forth between Kigali and Arusha talking peace with Tutsi rebels, it seems that a seething clique of Hutu plotters who included Mr Habyarimana’s wife Agathe, were now quite willing to go beyond mere threats of wiping out Rwanda’s entire Tutsi population. Fully determined to entrench Hutu power in Rwanda, these rabid ideologues began to escalate their efforts to train, arm, and equip the Hutu militia known as interahamwe. Finally, when the time was deemed to be ripe it was this militia who were unleashed on Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus.
There’s no doubt that in broaching détente with Tutsi rebels Mr Habyarimana was putting himself at cross purposes with Hutu extremists, for they were vehemently opposed to extending any political concessions to Rwanda’s Tutsi population. And while many Tutsi had fled Rwanda following the 1959 Hutu revolution and had grown up in exile a stateless people who longed for the hills of Rwanda, it was hoped that diplomatic engagement would settle matters between Habyarimana’s government and rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Instead, the Arusha Accords proved to be politically problematic for Mr Habyarimana, for they provided Hutu extremists with the necessary propaganda fodder to begin to incite fear that Rwanda might be reverting back to pre-revolution days of Tutsi overlords.
And in seeking to understand Rwanda’s genocide, it’s important to remember that Hutu extremists had always harboured a self-professed motive for exterminating Rwanda’s entire Tutsi population. The Akazu had never hidden the fact that they viewed Tutsis as an existential threat that must be obliterated. But in order to bring their plans of genocidal extermination to fruition, Hutu extremists needed to set in motion a perfect alignment of motive, means, and opportunity. And just as soon as a criminal mastermind who possessed the wherewithal to oversee the murder of close to one million souls could be found, the Akazu and their cohorts in the military would also require a trigger for their planned killings for which extermination lists had long been drawn up.
And the trigger for this coming genocide was going to have to be an event so jaw-droppingly egregious, that it would prove to every doubting Thomas that the Tutsi were precisely the type of vermin who needed to be comprehensively wiped off the face of the earth never to be seen again. And so it was that on the evening of April 6 1994, Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali as Mr Habyarimana returned from a regional meeting in Arusha. All on board, including Mr Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed on the spot. Almost immediately and as if on cue roadblocks sprung up all over Kigali, and the butchering of Tutsis began on the very next day and did not stop until Hutu extremists were overrun by rebels of the RPF.
And while it’s true that scores of men and women are forever drenched in the blood of innocent Rwandans, the singularly dubious distinction of organising the Rwanda genocide goes to one man in particular, and that man is none other than Théoneste Bagosora. As the chief of staff in Rwanda’s Defence Ministry, as a man who’d made no secret of his opposition to the Arusha Accords, and as a leading proponent of Hutu power and an ideologue of the most frightening variety, Colonel Bagosora not only harboured a desire to kill Tutsis, but more importantly he was uniquely placed to form paramilitary militia and to synchronize their activities with the activities of existing security forces. Moreover, Colonel Bagosora was also in a position to rustle up finances to equip the interahamwe with modern as well as crude weapons.
Once Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane had been blown out of the sky, Colonel Bagosora could now move things along and take advantage of the security vacuum that emerged following the demise of Mr Habyarimana. With moderate Hutu ministers who did not approve of genocide fleeing their posts, Colonel Bagosora set about consolidating his newly acquired power with a zest and a relish. Having murdered moderate premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Colonel Bagosora lost no time in installing Jean Kambanda as puppet prime minister. And Mr Kambanda did not disappoint, for soon he was touring the length and breadth of Rwanda, brandishing his pistol at public rallies and stirring up a storm of anti-Tutsi sentiment. Moreover, by killing prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Hutu extremists began removing from their path anyone who possessed enough clout to be an impediment to wanton power grab or to senseless bloodletting.
Subsequent to Juvénal Habyarimana’s death, independent investigators have been able to show that the missiles which downed Mr Habyarimana’s plane came from government positions and were likely launched by the dreaded presidential guard. Suffice to say, it would have been next to impossible though not improbable for RPF rebels to penetrate the heavily guarded military barracks in Kanombe, and then lie in wait for an overflying presidential plane. In any case, with the signing of the Arusha Accords, Tutsi rebels were on the verge of being included in Rwanda’s government and would have had little incentive to jeopardize a potential political windfall.
On balance, the conclusion that Hutu extremists assassinated Juvénal Habyarimana as a pretext to set off their killing frenzy is a reasonable summation, However, it’s possible, though not likely, that Tutsi rebels were daft enough to carry out an assassination that would lead to the pulverization of their own people. In the hours following the take down of Mr Habyarimana’s plane, it was obvious which Hutu personalities were capitalizing on the Rwandan president’s death. And even as Rwanda imploded with a spectacular ferocity, Théoneste Bagosora acted more or less like a man who had just executed a magnificent coup d’état, going so far as to refuse all entreaties for reasonableness from UNAMIR’s commander, and dispatching the presidential guard to the prime minister’s residence where they murdered both Mrs Uwilingiyimana and her husband.
As the months passed and RPF rebels swept in from the north and east and began to approach Kigali as they took more and more territory throughout Rwanda, it dawned on Colonel Bagosora that his grand plans to squash every last Tutsi cockroach were about to hit a major snag. Soon, Colonel Bagosora and his men took flight and found shelter in the sprawling ambiguity of Congo’s refugee camps. And for a while Colonel Bagosora and his thugs partook of the bountiful hospitality of international aid organisations, even as they plotted a return to Rwanda where they’d no doubt finish what they’d started. Somehow, Bagosora made his way from the aid camps of Congo and strayed to the West African capital of Yaounde where he was finally arrested on an international warrant .
But it wasn’t until 1997, three long years after the genocide had ended, that the man who had orchestrated mass killings on an unprecedented level, who had presided over the murder of a prime minister, who had presided over the sickening mutilation of 10 Belgian peacekeepers, who had presided over the murder of Joseph Kavaruganda the president of the constitutional court, who had presided over the killings of major opposition figures, and who had hunted down Tutsis as they cowered in churches, stadiums, swamps, and banana groves, was finally brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha. It was only fitting that Théoneste Bagosora should answer charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
For his direct role in organising Rwanda’s genocide Bagosora was fittingly sentenced to life. At the height of his powers Bagosora was extremely secure in his invincibility and even famously threatened to kill the UNAMIR commander General Romeo Dallaire. And although Bagosora’s sentence was reduced to 35 years upon appeal, there’s no doubt about the guilt of the man whom one ICTR prosecutor described as a truly chilling individual. It’s laudable that Rwandans have managed to claw their way back from a deep abyss, but the jury is still out on whether Rwanda’s current stability will outlast one man’s rule.
How Rwanda arrived to a point of genocide has been a subject of much debate, but as far as events following the downing of Mr Habyarimana’s plane, there’s no doubting that Théoneste Bagosora was the chief architect of Rwanda’s genocide. Acting in concert with other genocidaires some of whom are still at large, this sinister individual unleashed one of the most gruesome genocidal episodes of the 20th Century.