Who killed the president of Rwanda?
2010-01-21, Issue 466
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Has one of the great political murder mysteries of our time finally been solved? I'd say the answer is probably yes, although we can be confident the solution will be rejected by many.
On the evening of 6 April 1994, just as it was approaching Kigali, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana home from Tanzania was shot down by missiles fired from the ground. Also on the flight was the president of Burundi, Cyprian Ntaryamira, as well as several high-level Rwandan political and military officials. But from the first movement there was no doubt that the target was Habyarimana. What was in doubt was the culprit, and on this the debate has raged furiously for the past almost 16 years.
To most of those who have studied the genocide, commonsense always pointed to Hutu extremists in the Rwandan government and military. They passionately opposed the agreement that had been reached at Arusha, Tanzania, in mid-1993, for power to be shared among Habyarimana's followers, other political parties, and the Tutsi-led rebels of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). To prevent this betrayal, the extremists had decided on a final solution – the extermination of the entire Tutsi minority in Rwanda, between 10 and 15 per cent of the population. When Habyarimana was about to capitulate to international pressure and implement these power-sharing arrangements, they murdered him and implemented their carefully-planned genocidal conspiracy.
This analysis seemed logical enough in all respects, but there has never been an official investigation of the crash or evidence beyond the circumstantial. In fact, from the first there was an alternative interpretation. It has always been quite counter-intuitive and based on dubious foundations, and yet has been embraced not only among those who deny the genocide entirely, but also, quite surprisingly, among those who are hostile for whatever reasons to the RPF and particularly its long-time leader and now Rwanda president, Paul Kagame.
From the moment the plane crashed, Hutu extremist propagandists, directed by hate-radio station RTLM and echoed by officials of the government of France, pointed the finger directly at the RPF. From time to time, Belgium was implicated by France, as was Uganda. Uganda's only known connection to the crash was that it was an English-speaking country where the RPF had originally formed. But for France, speaking English is evidence enough of culpability when it comes to Africa.
It's never been entirely clear what motive Kagame could have had for murdering Habyarimana at the very moment when the president intended to implement the Arusha Accords. The RPF had been the huge winner at Arusha, about to receive substantial political and military power. Conversely, Habyarimana's officials were the great losers, about to surrender the monopoly on power and resources they had cherished for the previous two decades. How could the RPF benefit from the chaos, anarchy and lust for vengeance that was sure to follow Habyarimana's assassination? The on-and-off again low-intensity civil war since 1990 had bogged down in a stalemate; why assume the hot war that was sure to follow the plane crash would lead to an RPF victory rather than an RPF rout, especially if France came in behind Habyarimana's forces?
But if attributing the missile attack to the RPF didn't make much sense, it was extremely functional to the Hutu extremists. If the RPF was guilty, it meant the attack on the plane was not the first step in the genocide plan. The killings of the subsequent 100 days could simply be put down to mass Hutu fury at the murder of their beloved president, and no genocide would have taken place. This spin has been the motive driving many of those who have busily spent the past decade and a half devising a multiplicity of ‘proofs’ to pin the evil deed on Kagame and his forces.
THE NEW REPORT
Now along comes a new document prepared by an ‘Independent Committee of Experts’ appointed by the government of Rwanda, with the explicit title Report of the Investigation into the Causes and Circumstances of and Responsibility for the Attack of 06/04/1994 against the Falcon 50 Rwandan Presidential Aeroplane [sic], Registration Number 9xR-NN. The head of the 7-person committee was Dr Jean Mutsinzi, former Justice of the Supreme Court of Rwanda, now a judge of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. The other members are apparently lawyers or authorities on aircraft matters, but an annex offering their resumes is not unfortunately part of the commission's report (which is easily available online at mutsinzireport.com).
In my view, the Commission's report is largely persuasive. But you can immediately see how much more credible it would be if the members hadn't all been Rwandans appointed by the Kagame government. I am confident that an independent commission appointed, say, by the African Union, would have delivered the same conclusions but with far more credibility. An obvious precedent was the OAU-appointed independent International Panel of Eminent Personalities (IPEP) whose report, Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide[ PDF], has achieved a certain authority. But I readily acknowledge that genocide deniers, Hutu extremists and Kagame-haters will reject any and all conclusions that give Kagame the benefit of the doubt, and the evidence be damned.
Perhaps that's why his government consistently acts on its own, without waiting for external validation. It did the same with the report on the role of France in the genocide, delivered by a panel of Rwandans also appointed by the government and headed by well-known RPF militant. In my view its report was overwhelmingly accurate and appropriately damning for France. But I wished they had asked outside experts like Linda Melvern to undertake that project, to give it real international credibility. But that is not the way the Kagame government does things.
We are left, then, to judge the report on the plane crash on its merits, and in this respect it seems to me to have made a major contribution to settling the great question of who was responsible.
In a word, the ‘Committee of Experts’ documents the logic most of us have accepted since the start. They pin the blame directly and fully on a group of Hutu extremists who were simply not prepared to accept the power-sharing provisions of the Arusha Accords. In this sense, they prove a terrible point: The very agreement that was to bring harmony to Rwanda led directly to the genocide. This is a staggering truth for all those involved in conflict resolution and peace-making to conjure with.
The committee took two years to complete its report, which contains 169 pages plus many appendixes with countless documents, plus a ballistics report from staff at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom based at Cranfield University. Its members heard 557 witnesses, including former officials of the UN military mission to Rwanda at the time (UNAMIR ), former members of the Rwandan army and Presidential Guard under Habyarimana; and they perused post-genocide reports by Belgium, France and the United Nations, plus the work of western authors who have studied the genocide, plus the book written by UNAMIR's head, General Romeo Dallaire, based on his experiences at the time. While all the authorities they consulted won't be happy with the way their work has been used, an overwhelming consensus emerges from the Committee's research and interviews.
Let me try to summarise briefly the main points of what is often lengthy, highly technical, and geography-specific material.
1. For months before Habyarimana's assassination on 6 April 1994, rumours abounded that senior government and military officials in his own government were determined the Arusha Accords would never be implemented. These stories included specific suggestions that the President would be murdered if he dared to put their power-sharing arrangements into practice. For years we have known that radio station RTLM and Kangura, a small publication that functioned as the voice of Hutu extremism, had publicly stated that something dramatic was going to happen to Habyarimana in late March or early April. In its cover story of December 1993, for example, Kangura declared that Habyarimana would be assassinated the following March. General Dallaire and others have cited the threat uttered at a social occasion on 4 April by Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, a leader of the extremists widely considered the mastermind of the genocide. ‘The only plausible solution for Rwanda,’ Bagosora said to a small group that included Dallaire's senior Belgian aide, ‘appears to be the extermination of the Tutsi.’
What the new report adds to our knowledge is how widespread these stories were. Dozens of witnesses had heard them beginning late in 1993 and escalating through the early months of 1994. There was even a specific rumour that Habyarimana's plane would be shot down. The President himself had heard such stories, it appears, as had the French crew that came with the Falcon 50 that President Mitterrand had gifted to Habyarimana (apparently that's how a socialist president of France rewarded his favourite African presidents).
On 6 April Habyarimana flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a summit with fellow regional presidents. (The Burundian president, who had no luxury jet, made the fatal mistake of later hitching a ride home with Habyarimana via Kigali.) That summit is usually described as focusing on Rwanda. In fact, the new report informs us, it was about the unstable situations in both Rwanda and Burundi. Habyarimana began the meeting by telling his peers that he was implementing Arusha two days later, and the rest of the day was spent discussing Burundi's extremely turbulent political crisis.
But if Habyarimana was aware of threats against his plane, why did Habyarimana agree to fly to Dar es Salaam that day? He could simply have told them by phone or through an emissary of his intentions to introduce the Arusha arrangements. Why did his pilots agree to fly him there? Why did some of the leading plotters against him, like his brother-in-law Colonel Elie Sagatwa, an extremist Hutu ironically in charge of the president's personal security, agree to accompany him? All went down to their fiery deaths on 6 April, yet all apparently were aware of the risk. It is a glaring omission in the report that it never asks this obvious question, let alone attempts in any way to answer it.
Still, the fact remains that Hutu extremists were known to be furious at Habyarimana and were determined to stop the implementation of the Arusha Accords. Since the President announced explicitly on 2 April that he intended to swear in a new broadly-based coalition government on 8 April, it has always been logical to assume that attacking the plane on 6 April was the execution of their plan.
2. The RPF couldn't have infiltrated anti-aircraft missiles and missile launchers into Kigali. It could not have smuggled them into Parliament, where an RPF contingent was temporarily billeted, as agreed by the Arusha Accords. It could not have then snuck them to the area where those who blame the RPF claim the missiles were fired. The committee establishes persuasively that both UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) and above all the Rwandan army maintained very close surveillance of the RPF troops holed up in the parliament building, and these monitors could not possibly have missed the activity required to bring the missiles in, set them up and fire them. The committee also shows that the alleged firing area was constantly patrolled by Rwandan troops and no RPF soldiers carrying missiles and launchers could have infiltrated the area without being spotted.
3. The missiles could only have been fired from an area near the Kanombe military camp, the President's home, and the main Kigali airport, and this entire area was completely controlled by the Rwandan army. This is the area where Rwandan soldiers suddenly refused UNAMIR to enter during the day on 6 April. This key conclusion by the committee is based on a large number of eyewitnesses and what it calls ear witnesses, including pre-genocide Rwandan soldiers, employees of the adjacent airport where the plane was to land, and soldiers from UNAMIR and the Belgian Military Technical Cooperation.
Perhaps most significantly, it's also the conclusion of the report prepared for the committee by Mike Warden and Alan McClue of the Department of Applied Science, Security and Resilience, Cranfield University, Defence Academy of the UK.
The online documentation of the committee's work includes the formal contract that the committee signed with the two researchers, so that every part of it is transparent. In turn, the two presented a 109-page paper, often extremely technical, which concludes that the missiles must have been fired from the Kanombe area. Beyond dispute, this area was wholly controlled by Rwandan government forces. So the missiles were not fired from the area where those who blame the RPF say they came from, and they were fired from the area where only government soldiers (and French soldiers) could go.
It is hard to imagine staff at the Defence Academy of the UK exaggerating or falsifying their conclusions. It therefore seems to me that this independent ballistics report adds great credibility to the findings of the Committee of Experts, with which it of course concurs.
4. The committee shows that the Rwandan army possessed the kind of surface-to-air missiles that might have shot down the Focus 50, even though earlier reports, especially from France, claimed they did not. Conversely, it shows that the repeated assertion by those who blame the RPF – that Kagame's rebels received the missiles from Uganda (who got them from Russia) – is wrong and based on a deliberate deception at the time by Rwandan government soldiers, which enemies of the RPF have been only too happy to swallow.
6. Colonel Theoneste Bagosora is named as the instigator both of the attack on Habyarimana's plane and the genocide that it triggered, as planned. This corroborates the widespread view of Bagosora's role by everyone from General Dallaire to many of the historians of the genocide to the justices at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, who found Bagosora guilty of genocide and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
5. In the process of their report, the committee does a useful job of discrediting the hatchet job performed on the RPF by French Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere in his own 2006 report on the plane crash. Bruguiere, following completely the script long favoured by the French establishment, baldy accused Kagame and the RPF of shooting down the plane in order, somehow, to take power in Rwanda.
Bruguiere's research was always problematic, to say the least. He relied on alleged eyewitness who were dissident Tutsi RPF members, with plenty of motive to malign the RPF. Some of these have since recanted their accusations against Kagame and the RPF or claim they never said what Bruguiere claims they said. And while the judge, remarkably, never went to Rwanda to investigate the crash site or to interview anyone in the RPF government or army whom he indicted, he did go to Arusha to interview men being held by the ICTR for their alleged role in the genocide. This included Colonel Bagosora himself, who even before his formal conviction was almost universally believed to have been a leader of the genocide. At one stage Bruguiere writes of a particular matter: ‘The real nature of the message…was also confirmed by the evidence in Arusha from former FAR soldiers [Habyarimana's army].’ He names four of these soldiers, including Colonel Theoneste Bagosora. This would be akin to asking P. W. Botha about apartheid and not asking Nelson Mandela.
6. France's cynical hand is felt throughout the committee's report, as indeed it must be in any recounting of the genocide. French soldiers were allowed in to the Kanombe military base on 6 April, while Belgian UNAMIR soldiers were not. French soldiers were at the plane wreck within moments, going through the debris and looking for the black box, which they removed. French officials scrupulously followed the original extremist Hutu line of blaming the Belgians, along with the RPF, for the missile attack. When the accusation against the Belgians had lost any credibility, President Mitterrand's senior Africa advisor, his chief of staff and the French ambassador to Rwanda all accused the RPF of responsibility. During the French parliamentary inquiry into the France's role in the genocide, French officials were anxious to implicate the Ugandan government in the plane attack. Never did they suggest that their close allies among the Hutu extremists, many of whom have long been hiding in France, may have had the slightest involvement.
As one former western diploma has put it, ‘In an ideal world, France would apologise to Rwanda, put 20 former senior French officials in the dock, and extradite 15 or 20 genocidaires living in France.’ We will see whether the recent France-Rwanda rapprochement will usher in a more ideal world.
The report of the Committee of Experts could have been better (although I dare say this is true of every report ever written). The organisation and the writing are sometimes confusing. Loose ends are left hanging, not least obscure references to three ‘whites’ who somehow might have been involved in the attack on Habyarimana's plane. At times it seems the plot to assassinate the president was hatched in late 1993, elsewhere that it all happened in the first few days of April 1994. It fails to analyse why Habyarimana agreed to fly to Dar es Salaam on 6 April even in the face of explicit death threats.
Despite an obvious attempt to be objective, its biases occasionally slip out. The committee asserts that ‘the practice of genocide against the Tutsi’ was initiated by the first Hutu-dominated government in the early 1960s, and that 1994 was ‘the final stage of genocide’. This is bad, partisan history that is accepted by no reputable historians of whom I'm aware. The fact is the massacres launched against the Tutsi after 1959 stopped after Habyarimana's coup in 1973 and didn't begin again until 17 years later, with the RPF invasion of Rwanda. Those early killings were terrible, but they were just that – massacres, pogroms, not the first stage in a 45-year plan exterminate all Tutsi. The final genocidal plot only began some time after the 1990 RPF invasion.
These flaws reduce the authoritativeness of this report. They will be jumped all over by those who will never accept any conclusion that fails to blame Kagame and the RPF for Habyarimana's murder. So there's no point whatever in trying to prove anything else to these deniers and extremists. They have no interest in the truth.
But for those genuinely searching for the most convincing answer to this great political murder mystery, the strengths of the committee's report overwhelmingly outweigh its few unfortunate flaws. Of course it would still be best to have the definitive report by a truly independent group of international experts. But until we do, the conclusions of this report should stand. And if there ever were an independent external study, I'm confident its conclusions would echo those of this Rwandan committee of experts:
‘We know who shot Habyarimana's plane down. We know why they did it. We know how they did it. And we know that they came within an inch of success in their diabolical plan. Before they were defeated, the Hutu extremists who assassinated President Habyarimana wiped out thousands of decent Hutu who wouldn't go along with their fiendish plot and three-quarters of their country's Tutsi. The attack on the president's plane was the opening shot in one of the purest genocides of the past 100 years, launched for no better reason than the greed of a few power-hungry Hutu fanatics. It was one of the greatest man-made tragedies of our time.’
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* Gerald Caplan has a PhD in African history. He recently published The Betrayal of Africa.
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