Rwanda, Twenty Years On

Glen Newey

Twenty years ago, on 6 April 1994, the aircraft carrying Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyrien Ntaryarima, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi respectively, was shot down near Kigali airport as they returned from peace talks in Tanzania. Both died, along with others on board. In the following months between 800,000 and one million Rwandans were murdered; as a central Africa co-ordinator for Amnesty at the time, I remember it all too clearly, not least the wilful flannel deployed during April and May by the Clinton presidency and his secretary of state Madeleine Albright to dodge using the action-triggering term ‘genocide’.

Coverage of the 20th anniversary, at least in Europe and America, has played up the massacres’ ‘tribal’ dimension. According to Lieutenant-General Wesley Clark, his staff officers asked: ‘Is it Tutsi and Hutu or Tutu and Hutsi?’ The cod-ethnographic terms ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ originated with colonial rule in Ruanda-Urundi, which became a Belgian protectorate after Germany surrendered them in the Treaty of Versailles. Supposedly paler, taller and brighter, the Tutsi were felt to benefit from Eurasian (in its more extravagant versions, Hamitic) ancestry and so were naturally fitted to rule over the darker, squatter, dimmer Hutu. By the 1930s all citizens had to carry an ID card designating them as Tutsi or Hutu. Sixty years on, ethnic labelling on ID cards offered the génocidaires a ready and easy method of identifying ‘Tutsi’ inyenzi or ‘cockroaches’.

Habyarimana had been fighting a civil war against incursions by the mainly anglophone Rwandan Patriotic Army operating from southern Uganda. RPA contingents had received training from US Green Berets based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the RPA’s political leadership) came to power in 1994, Rwanda provided a base to back insurgency operations in eastern Congo (then Zaire) against the former US client Mobutu, carried out by Laurent Kabila's Alliance for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. Rwandan forces participated in the war as well as taking reprisals against their co-national suspected génocidaires, many of whom had fled to Kivu. Part of the aim was to install a US-compliant post-Mobutu regime in Kinshasa, but it was also to secure the mineral-rich Lake Kivu region (it produces coltan, a key component of mobile phones). Before seizing power, Kabila had already renegotiated minerals contracts with such firms as American Mineral Fields.

The genocide was no bolt from the blue. The UN general Roméo Dallaire was warning the US state department and the UN as early as January 1994 that genocide was in the pipeline after a French Dassault aircraft piloted by a Belgian crew landed in Kigali with a cargo of munitions destined for Habyarimana’s army. Dallaire had learned that the arms were intended for use by the government-backed interahamwe mobs who would spearhead the massacres a few months later; the UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali refused Dallaire permission to raid pro-government militia arms caches. Under the restrictive terms of the blue-helmet UNAMIR mandate, Dallaire was stopped from interdicting the shipment. In a disastrous misjudgement by the UN, Belgium had been allowed to provide fully 50 per cent of UNAMIR’s manpower; when ten of them were murdered by the interahamwe, Belgium withdrew its contingent and left Dallaire to swing.

As the RPA advanced in northern Rwanda, France launched Opération Turquoise in the south-west of the country, on the premise that the incumbent government, which it had armed, was francophone and so part of ‘françafrique’. Under the ‘humanitarian’ guise of creating a cordon sanitaire, the operation cleared a route to freedom for génocidaires. Among them was Agathe Habyarimana, the president’s widow and centre of the akazu group that planned, instigated and directed the massacres; as Philip Gourevitch has recounted, on arrival in France she got 230,000 francs under a scheme to provide ‘urgent assistance for Rwandan refugees’ (she’s since been prosecuted, but a French court has denied Rwanda an extradition warrant for her). A diverted International Development Association grant used to buy arms without an audit trail remained accessible to Habyarimana's party via an account at Bank Bruxelles Lambert in Belgium as the massacres continued.

In an interview this weekend with Jeune Afrique, Paul Kagame, the RPA general who came to power after the RPA takeover in July 1994, accused France of direct complicity in the genocide. The Quai d’Orsay is boycotting the 20th anniversary commemorations in protest. Still, that position has a certain integrity to it. In the words of Bernard Debré, co-operation minister in the Balladur government in 1994-95:

What one forgets to say is that, if France was on one side, the Americans were on the other, arming the Tutsis who armed the Ugandans. I don’t want to portray a showdown between the French and the Anglo-Saxons, but the truth must be told.


  • 9 April 2014 at 4:47pm
    Richard Kareem Al-Qaq says:
    Indeed, there was a 'proxy war' dimension to the horrific events of 1994 in Rwanda. In which case, we should pay just as much attention to the political and military logic of the UN peacekeeping operation (UNAMIR): it was not designed, nor equipped, to be a humanitarian peace enforcement operation. Rather its essence was political, to implement a peace accord negotiated at Arusha that reflected a military balance of power that greatly favoured the RPF. The regime had no option but to accept the terms of this accord. Their only alternative was certain defeat on the battlefield. UNAMIR was intrinsically part of this process. It was designed to allow RPF units to enter the capital, Kigali, take-up a significant role in the national army, and hold seats in a power sharing government.  The regime accepted the agreement but procrastinated - hoping delay in implementation may provide space to rearm and regroup. In this light, UN decisions at New York headquarters made sense: constant delays in implementation and increased violence were met by numerous and explicit threats from the Secretary General and Security Council that UNAMIR would be withdrawn if no progress was made. Why? Simply because withdrawal would led to the collapse of the ceasefire, a re-ignition of this proxy conflict and the sure victory of the RPF. When Hayarimana was shot down the RPF was in essence unleashed by the Security Council and free to take the country by military force.

    Today we have a situation where a certain discourse of the Rwandan tragedy dominates, which does very little to further our understanding of the period. The Rwandan genocide did not exist in a vortex separated from the region or wider world, but was rather an unusually violent episode of insurgency and counter insurgency, among many others in Burundi, Uganda and now the Congo.