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7 April 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Rewriting Rwanda
Today's accepted wisdom about Rwanda bears little relation to the real events of 10 years ago.

by Barrie Collins

Ten years ago, on 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the presidents of two Central African states, Rwanda and Burundi, was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. Burundi's President Cyprien Ntaryamira had made an ill-fated last-minute request to board the plane, and was simply on the wrong plane at the wrong time. The target was Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, and his assassination was conducted at a time when political and social tensions inside his country had never been higher.

Politically motivated violence erupted in Rwanda upon the news that the president had been killed. The war between Rwandan government forces and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) resumed, in violation of a peace accord signed a few months earlier. Massacres of civilians also began, at first gradually and then with a speed and intensity unprecedented in Rwanda's history. The targets were ethnic Tutsis, assumed to be sympathisers of the predominantly Tutsi rebels by virtue of their ethnicity, and also Hutus suspected of being RPF sympathisers. The RPF also killed civilians, though not on the same scale. By the end of July 1994, the RPF had defeated the government forces and taken power. Estimates of the civilian death toll vary, from 500,000 to one million.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has called for a minute's silence around the world at 12.00 hours GMT on 7 April 2004, in memory of the victims on the tenth anniversary of the start of the conflict. In Rwanda's capital Kigali, heads of state have been invited to attend a memorial ceremony at the same time. Today, the Rwandan conflict is widely understood as a blind killing spree of Tutsis by Hutus - and, most importantly, that it was the West's failure to intervene that consigned the Tutsis to their fate. Both Bill Clinton, American president during the Rwandan conflict, and UN leaders have apologised for not intervening to stop the genocide.

This points to a rewriting of what took place in Rwanda; it was Western intervention, by the French, Belgian, American and British, rather than a lack of it, which provoked and intensified the Rwandan war.

Many are gathering to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the war this week. According to a Rwandan government minister, Western donors have contributed seven million US dollars towards the building of genocide memorials in Rwanda (1). Yet many Rwandans - both Hutu and Tutsi - feel uneasy about the memorials. Public displays of human remains are deeply offensive to Rwandan sensibilities. Their dead are normally disposed of in dignified ceremonies; many believe that failure to bury loved ones properly angers the ancestors and thereby brings more misfortune. But today's memorials are not simply about commemorating Rwanda's darkest hour - they also serve to endorse a particular account of what took place and thereby legitimise vested political interests.

The widely held account of the genocide in Rwanda is that a clique within President Habyarimana's ruling circle, known as the Akazu, conspired to destroy the negotiated power-sharing settlement known as the Arusha Accords, by planning the extermination of every ethnic Tutsi and everyone else suspected of sympathising with the RPF. This 'final solution' would secure their political control of the country and remove once and for all the threat of opposition from the Tutsis.

According to this account, Habyarimana had been part of the conspiracy but had allowed his hands to become tied during the Arusha negotiations; he was outmanoeuvred and had ceded too much to the RPF. So, it is claimed, with Habyarimana's wife, Agathe, and the elite military unit called the Presidential Guard playing pivotal roles, the Akazu trained militia groups to kill civilians, established a private radio station called Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) to broadcast the propaganda of the genocidaires, and began to prepare lists of people targeted for extermination.

This account also holds that the shooting down of Habyarimana's plane was the work of Akazu (even though the identity of those responsible remains unproven), and that this act was designed as a signal for the genocide plan to move into action. Thus, prominent moderate Hutus were murdered in Kigali, and then the wider population responded to the radio exhortations and commenced the slaughter of their Tutsi and moderate Hutu neighbours. Spurred in to action by the massacres, the RPF renewed the offensive. While the international community received information that a genocide was unfolding, it chose not to intervene and instead ordered the United Nations force out of Rwanda. The RPF was left alone to end the genocide, which it did by defeating the Rwandan army and seizing power in July.

In this widely accepted account, blame falls squarely upon Hutu 'extremists' in positions of authority, and upon ordinary Hutus who obediently transformed themselves into crazed killing machines at the behest of their leaders and the militia. Western powers had apparently done everything right, at least in the early part of the conflict: they had pressurised Habyarimana into ceding democratic reforms, and then supported a peace process that resulted in an accord which would end the war, establish a new national army in which the old national army and RPF forces would be integrated and form a transitional government that would oversee scheduled elections for a peaceful and democratic Rwanda.

In the widely accepted account, blame falls squarely upon Hutu 'extremists'
But, the story goes, all these good intentions were destroyed by the genocide - and the shameful episode of Western non-intervention that followed meant that the genocidaires came close to achieving their goal. Since the RPF had stopped the genocide, and the 'moderate' Hutus were either dead or in exile, there was nobody beside the RPF ready and able to run the country. In this way, Rwanda has been rewritten as a morality play of our times - with Hutu extremist bad guys, Tutsi and moderate Hutu victims, guerrilla Tutsi good guys, and, most importantly of all, a salutary lesson for the West on why it should do more to resolve conflicts around the world.

A more dispassionate political analysis would indicate that all is not quite how it seemed. The moral (not to mention racist) caricature of Rwandan Hutus as 'extremists', 'moderates' and peasants who had a 'culturally embedded' disposition to obey and commit mass murder, tells us very little about the internal and external factors that gave rise to the war.

For example, very few accounts show that some of the democratic reforms instituted by Habyarimana, whose regime certainly had a bad human rights record, were fairly genuine (2). He instituted a programme of political liberalisation, which resulted in a democratic constitution being written into law in June 1991. Rwanda now had a multi-party system with scheduled elections. All exiled Rwandans had the right of return. It was by no means certain that the ruling party would win this election - the opposition Movement Démocratique Républicain (MDR) was confident that it would win - and yet there were no signs of an 'extremist' backlash against this challenge to the president's party.

For its part, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had waged war since 1 October 1990, claiming that only armed force would enable exiled Rwandan Tutsis to return home, and only they could ensure that the persecution of Tutsis (an occasional but recurrent feature of Rwanda since independence in 1961) would end. The process of political liberalisation meant that, had they wanted to, the RPF could have come home and operated like the other legalised parties, including the predominantly Tutsi Liberal Party (PL). There was certainly no case for the continuation of war by mid-1991. The RPF, backed by governments in the West, was out to seize power.

With each of its military offensives, the RPF displaced huge populations from their homes. No attempt was made to win domestic support in the way that many African national liberation armies had done previously. By the time of their largest offensive before Habyarimana's assassination, in February 1993, over a million Rwandans had been displaced; many had been displaced several times. In the late 1980s, the RPF won support from President Museveni's government in neighbouring Uganda, which acted as an Anglo-American proxy in the region; even after the USA became aware that Museveni was behind the RPF, Uganda continued to receive relatively high levels of aid, including military aid, from America (3).

Rwandans serving in the Ugandan military received training from British forces at their base in Jinja, Uganda, while the Americans began schooling the RPF leadership. RPF leader, and current president of Rwanda Paul Kagame, had previously been Museveni's director of military intelligence. He had received training in a Command and Staff course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, just prior to his forces' invasion of Rwanda. In America, Kagame learned 'organisation, tactics, strategy, building human resources, psy-ops (psychological operations), information, psychology and communications among the troops' (4).

By mid-1990, Uganda was preparing the RPF's invasion of Rwanda. Confident of Ugandan, and therefore American, backing, and with a better public relations capacity than the Rwandan government, the RPF was able to make a convincing case to journalists and Western governments that it was motivated more by considerations for human rights than anything else. The Rwandan government was no match for them in what proved to be a more crucial arena for winning hearts and minds than the hills of Rwanda - the international community.

The RPF justified its major offensive of February 1993 as a response to massacres of Tutsi civilians. The RPF was fortunate in that an influential human rights report, conducted by Human Rights Watch and others, was produced the following month. It blamed President Habyarimana and his immediate entourage for massacres between October 1990 and January 1993. This report was widely distributed among Western donor nations (5).

But the real motivation behind the RPF's offensive was to increase its bargaining power in the negotiations being held in Arusha in neighbouring Tanzania. Having demonstrated its capacity to drive back the Rwandan army and depopulate a large swathe of Rwanda, the RPF was able to win extraordinary concessions at the negotiating table. At the crucial discussion on the composition of the proposed integrated army, the RPF won a half share of the military leadership; on the discussion of the composition of the transitional government, the RPF won key cabinet posts while Habyarimana's position as president was stripped of political power and relegated to a largely ceremonial office.

The RPF was out to seize power for itself
This 'peace process' was conducted under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity, whose president at the time was, conveniently for the RPF, President Museveni of Uganda. The subsequent Arusha Accords, signed in August 1993, had translated RPF prowess on the battlefield into a position that was arguably the most powerful of all the parties involved. As Herman Cohen put it, 'Such an arrangement could give the Tutsis an equal role in the power structure: their position of equality in the military would effectively neutralize Hutu majority political power' (6).

This created an untenable situation. It was unrealistic to expect a Western-backed guerrilla army that had fought its way to a position of pre-eminence to succumb to the will of the Rwandan electorate in the forthcoming elections (the previous scheduled elections had been abandoned as a result of the escalation of conflict) and accept a downsizing to the status of a minority party, which was widely expected to be the outcome of the elections. Rather, the RPF had the capacity to take over Rwanda militarily. And again, the intervention of outside powers played a key role in paving the way for the RPF's final offensive. While America and Britain backed the RPF, Belgium and France supported Habyarimana's government. During the course of the war, Belgium withdrew support for Habyarimana and shifted towards the RPF, allowing it to set up offices in Brussels. This left France as Habyarimana's sole Western supporter. With the departure of French forces in 1994, the way was clear for an all-out RPF takeover.

Rwanda's domestic opposition parties were thrown into disarray by the strengthening of the RPF, and by the positions it attained in the Western-backed Arusha Accords. Having previously tactically sided with the RPF in order to weaken the hand of Habyarimana, many of the leading opposition members began to regard the RPF as a greater threat to democracy than Habyarimana. As a consequence, they began to fragment into pro- and anti-RPF factions, a political division that mirrored a polarisation that was taking place throughout Rwanda. The recently opened democratic space was closing, overcome by fear and mistrust of the RPF. This has been crudely portrayed as an extremist-moderate division, with the extremists said to be coalescing into a 'Hutu Power' faction that was to embrace genocide.

The ensuing political turmoil meant that the institutions provided for by the Accords showed little sign of coming into being. The situation was further complicated by the refusal of the RPF to have another party, the 'extremist' Coalition pour la Défence de la République (CDR), included in the transitional government. This was despite the fact that all the other parties, and all the observing Western diplomats, had argued that it would be in the interests of stability to have this party on the inside rather than on the outside of the transitional government.

The resulting stalemate and non-implementation of the Accords denoted an increasingly dangerous state of affairs. Western intelligence officials noted that tensions had risen to the point where any kind of shock could lead to an outbreak of mass violence. When he left office in April 1993, Herman Cohen's 'analysis of the Rwandan conundrum was less concerned about possible extremist action by the Hutu-dominated regime than by a slow and insidious return of minority Tutsi control, in a throwback to pre-independence days. I was mesmerised by the skilful way the RPF was manipulating the Hutu opposition in Arusha. Thinking in terms of the Arusha agreement moving forward, I did not consider a non-implementation scenario' (7).

So, back to the shooting down of Habyarimana's plane on 6 April 1994. New revelations about it are threatening to undermine the belief that it was the work of the Akazu, as a signal for genocide. In a public statement in April 2000, former RPF officer Jean-Pierre Mugabe alleged that after signing the Arusha Accords, RPF general Paul Kagame 'started visiting our unit commands and the areas controlled by the RPF. He told army soldiers not to believe at all in the Accords: "Be ready with your military equipment, we are going to fight for the final war against the Kigali government."' (8).

Mugabe gives a detailed account of the military training and preparation for this 'final war', naming individual officers in charge of secret operations to infiltrate men and arms into the capital. His statement is supported by the accounts of two further RPF defectors who, along with Mugabe, in February 1997 submitted to James Lyons, the local head of UN investigations for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Lyons, a former FBI agent seconded to the ICTR by the US State Department, led a 20-member team investigating, among other issues, who was responsible for shooting down Habyarimana's plane on 6 April 1994. According to Lyons, the RPF defectors gave credible and highly detailed testimony regarding the planning and execution of the rocket attack.

They claimed that Kagame formed a commando-type group known as the 'network', and that he and his senior advisers put into effect a plan to shoot down the presidential aircraft as it approached Kigali airport. Michael Hourigan, Lyons's team leader, briefed the ICTR chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, on the matter, and was invited to The Hague in order to discuss it further. At the meeting, however, Arbour unexpectedly ordered the investigation to be shut down, claiming the attack on the president's plane was outside the tribunal's jurisdiction (9). Former French Minister of Cooperation Bernard Debri gives additional circumstantial evidence of the RPF's responsibility for the assassination, claiming that records of RPF communications prove its soldiers were ordered to begin advancing toward Kigali on the morning of 6 April (10). This author has two other independent accounts of RPF troop movements on that morning.

In a recent report, BBC regional analyst Martin Plaut provided a statement by a former RPF captain Josue Abdul Ruzibiza. According to this statement, Ruzibiza said that he had entered Kigali in December 1993 as part of the battalion sent to the capital to guard the RPF's MPs and ministers. He had been ordered to secure an area close to Kigali airport, in order to provide security as missiles were fired at the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. Two missiles were brought from Parliament House, where the battalion was being housed. As the plane came in to land, the first of two missiles was fired. 'The missile didn't hit the engine and so didn't cause the plane to roll over. It was the second missile that that hit the engine. The first one hit the wing, and the plane could still land. But the second one finished the plane off', said Captain Ruzibiza.

The war was inflamed by Western meddling in Central Africa
His account comes after the result of a French judicial inquiry was leaked in early April 2004, blaming the downing of the plane on President Paul Kagame, then the leader of the RPF. The report has been dismissed by the Rwandan authorities, but it fits with Ruzibiza's testimony, who says the two men who fired the missiles are now senior officers in the Rwandan presidential guard and military (11). Many have noted that at the time the plane was shot down, the French were still supporting Habyarimana's government. If the accusations of RPF responsibility for assassinating President Habyarimana prove to be true, the conventional account of what occurred - that Akazu shot the plane down in order to instigate the Hutu genocide - needs to be questioned.

As does the accepted wisdom that it was a lack of Western intervention that allowed the genocide to occur. On the contrary - the war in Rwanda was provoked and inflamed by Western meddling in Central African affairs. Direct American support for the RPF, as well as through Uganda, emboldened the RPF to choose war over the proposed 'democratic reforms'; the shifting of Belgian support to the RPF, and French support for the Arusha Accords and subsequent military departure from Rwanda, cleared the way for the RPF's takeover. Given the deep tension and instability inside Rwanda, such intervention triggered a brutal life-and-death struggle.

One of the reasons why the USA chose not to intervene, after hearing the first claims of genocide from Human Rights Watch on 19 April (12), was because of a statement issued by the RPF 11 days later, on 30 April, which opposed the idea of an international intervention force: 'The time for UN intervention is long past. The genocide is almost completed. Most of the potential victims of the regime have either been killed or have since fled.' (13) Furthermore, as early as 12 April, a US intelligence document stated that 'the RPF will probably defeat regime forces in Kigali…' (14). The USA was prepared for the RPF to take over. Even if UN forces could have got there in time to save lives, America probably did not want to mount a risky operation that would also get in the RPF's way.

The RPF's statement reveals much about the political use of the word genocide. In order to deter an international force from intervening, the RPF said that the genocide was 'virtually over' by 30 April. That would mean that the genocide took place over 24 days (starting with the shooting down of Habyarimana's plane on 6 April). Yet the official view of the current RPF-dominated government of Rwanda is that it took place over 100 days while the West simply looked on.

When we strip away vested interests, and the simplified versions of the Rwandan conflict that dominate today, the story of Rwanda's tragedy offers a salutary lesson: Western intervention into Rwanda's internal affairs had a profoundly destabilising impact. The war with the RPF was conditioned by external actors, as was the Arusha 'peace process'; various actors inside Rwanda began to place more importance upon their relationship with the international community than on the question of accountability to their own people.

Herman Cohen asks somewhat ruefully: 'Looking back to the first day of the crisis, 1 October 1990, why did we automatically exclude the policy option of informing Ugandan President Museveni that the invasion of Rwanda by uniformed members of the Ugandan Army was totally unacceptable, and that the continuation of good relations between the USA and Uganda would depend on his getting the RPF back across the border?' (15). So much for the shameful episode of Western non-intervention.

Barrie Collins is author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, Perpetuity Press, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and a contributor to Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(1) Hirondelle News Agency (Lausanne), 2 April 2004

(2) For a discussion on claims made in the literature about Rwandan Hutu culture, see Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, Barrie Collins, Perpetuity Press, 1998

(3) See acknowledgement of this by former US Secretary of State for Africa, Herman Cohen, in Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent, HJ Cohen, St Martin's Press, 2000, p164

(4) 'Rwanda: East Africa's "New Breed" leaders and their policy of information warfare', John Githongo, in East African Alternatives, September/October 1998

(5) 'Report of the International Commission of Investigation on Human Rights Violations in Rwanda since 1 October 1990', Africa Watch, March 1993, cited in Leave None to Tell the Story": Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, 1999, p93

(6) Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent, HJ Cohen, St Martin's Press, 2000, p175

(7) Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent, HJ Cohen, St Martin's Press, 2000, p176

(8) 'An eyewitness testimony to the shooting down of the Rwandan presidential plane', International Strategic Studies Association, 21 April 2000

(9) 'Covert Action in Africa: a Smoking Gun in Washington DC', James Lyons, Public statement at a conference organised by US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, 2001

(10) Leave None to Tell the Story": Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, 1999, p182

(11) Eyewitness 'confirms' Rwanda attack, Martin Plaut, BBC News, 11 March 2004

(12) See The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda, Alan Kuperman, Brookings Institution Press, 2001, p31

(13) Statement by the Political Bureau of the Rwandese Patriotic Front on the proposed deployment of a UN intervention force in Rwanda (.pdf 191 KB), US Department of State, 30 April 1994

(14) Unclassified but decaptioned document (.pdf 63.1 KB), US Department of State, 12 April 1994

(15) Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent, HJ Cohen, St Martin's Press, 2000, p177

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