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The Rwandan Genocide, and the Sins That Can and Can’t Be Forgiven

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Did the shooting down of a plane on 6 April 1994 trigger the Rwandan genocide? In this article, CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO shows that, far from being a spontaneous act of retaliation, the genocide in Rwanda was a premeditated strategy that was linked to events that took place at least four years earlier.

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As 2018 closed, news came from Paris that France had abandoned a probe into the shooting down of a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents and its French crew on April 6, 1994 – an event that is said to have sparked the genocide in Rwanda.

However, one cannot talk of the Rwandan genocide without referring to an attack four years earlier, on October 1, 1990, when rebels belonging to the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/A), comprising mostly refugees, launched an attack from Uganda in a campaign to reclaim statehood. Their campaign turned to disaster very quickly, with feuding within their ranks, and the killing in the first hours of the attack of their charismatic leader, Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema. He, like several RPA combatants, had been an officer in the Uganda army.

Weeks later, Paul Kagame, who was an officer in Uganda’s military intelligence and on a military training course in the USA, returned and took over the leadership of an RPA in disarray.

There are two principal accounts of how Rwigyema was killed. The official one in Rwanda is that he was shot by an enemy sniper in the head as he stood on a hill talking on military radio near the Uganda-Rwanda Kagitumba border through which the RPA had launched their attack. The other, more popular in Uganda and internationally, no less because of its rich conspiratorial flavour, is that Rwigyema was killed by one of his deputies, Peter Baingana, following an argument.

Baingana, a medical doctor and accomplished boxer while he was at Makerere University, was also an officer in the Uganda army, having joined Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) guerrillas in the early 1980s, like many Rwandan refugees. He represented an arcane, but deep, philosophical divide in the RPA: he was a leading critic of what the Rwandans disparaged as “integrationists”. Integrationists were the Rwandan (mainly Tutsi) diaspora and refugees, who were seen to have become too comfortable in their host countries, and who favoured either a negotiated return home, or were too deferential to Museveni’s views on how they should time their fight to return to Rwanda.

Rwigyema was a hugely popular figure in Uganda, and had been nicknamed “James Bond” for his exploits in the counter-insurgency that the Museveni government was carrying in northern and eastern Uganda against various rebel groups. He was Deputy Army Commander, and later Minister of State for Defence.

He was also into football. As a kind of patron of Villa FC. Weeks before the October 1990 attack, I went to Nakivubo Stadium to watch a Villa FC encounter. Rwigyema drove into the stadium just as the match was about to start, and a quite unnerving hysterical applause erupted as he walked to the pavilion. The spectators simply worshipped him.

In October 1990, Museveni was the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and didn’t want the attack to happen on his watch. In fact, when it happened, he was giving a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and he got egg on his face for it.

Baingana had led the invasion, while Rwigyema was at the (today South) Sudan border, as Uganda propped up the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) that was facing a new onslaught from Khartoum. He had to rush to catch up with the RPA, entering hours after Baingana had let them in. It’s also widely believed that an infuriated Uganda sent soldiers into Rwanda, arrested Baingana and his confederates, and executed them. To this day, one still gets stonewalled on these matters, as they would have been 24 years ago.

In October 1990, Museveni was the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and didn’t want the attack to happen on his watch. In fact, when it happened, he was giving a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and he got egg on his face for it.

Kagame gathered up the debris of the RPA, and undertook a seemingly insane expedition. He led his soldiers to the Muhabura Mountains, far away from the safety of the Uganda border, and closer to the stronghold of then President Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime, and so called “Hutu power”.

However, there was a method to his madness. Once up in Muhabura, it was easy for the rebels to secure themselves more easily. But learning to survive in the cold mountains, and mastering how to get to and from there through dangerous territory, was an unforgiving ordeal of Darwinian selection; it meant that only the most hardened and disciplined soldiers remained in the RPA ranks. In addition, for people who had been refugees for nearly 40 years, getting to Muhabura forced them to re-learn a country that they had been away from for a long time, or had never been to, having been born in exile.

This and the events in October 1990 form an important undercurrent to the narrative of what happened on April 6, 1994, and the French case. It goes to the question of when, after reckoning with earlier massacres and pogroms, did what has become known as the Rwandan Genocide begin?

On the evening of April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down near Kigali airport, killing everyone on board, including its French crew.

This and the events in October 1990 form an important undercurrent to the narrative of what happened on April 6, 1994, and the French case. It goes to the question of when, after reckoning with earlier massacres and pogroms, did what has become known as the Rwandan Genocide begin?

At that point, RPA guerrilla units had arrived in Kigali as an advance contingent, as the warring parties moved to implement the Arusha Peace Accord of August 1993, ending the war and establishing a Broad-Based Transitional Government (BBTG), with the RPF/A as part of it.

Within hours of the plane being brought down, extremist Hutu soldiers in the regular military and the Interahamwe militias fanned out in a 100 days frenzy of slaughter that left anything between 800,000 and one million people, mostly Tutsis, but also moderate and opposition Hutus, dead.

The RPF accuses France, a Habyarimana ally, of complicity in the killings, as it not only armed the regime, but allegedly also trained – and directed – the Interahamwe. The extremists, it holds, didn’t want the Arusha Accord, viewing it as a surrender by Habyarimana. Killing him not just got him out of the way, but also enabled them to settle the “Tutsi question” once and for all by eliminating them.

The French case, on the other hand, arose from the death of the crew, although the RPF saw it is as a cover-up for its role in the genocide. France made the political argument that the RPA didn’t want to share power, and sought to reassert Tutsi hegemony by taking a wrecking ball to it, so it shot down the plane.

But how could the extremists have been so organised and their militias so well-armed with machetes that enabled them to immediately spring into action as news of Habyarimana’s death spread?

The answers are to be found way back in Rwanda’s history, and in some of the events that played out after the RPA were beaten back in late October 1990.

Belgian colonialists took what was primarily an economic and class stratification and hardened it into an ethnic divide between the Tutsi (wealthier cattle owners who formed the elite because cattle was prized) and Hutus (mostly farmers). To do that, they had to come up with a profile. The Kigali Genocide Memorial shows videos of Rwandan peasants squatting in line in the sun as Belgian colonial officials walk through measuring their faces and body parts. Long nose? Tutsi. Short, big nose? Hutu, and so on.

Until then, there was the possibility of class mobility. A Hutu who acquired a large cattle herd and wealth could move up the economic class and become Tutsi. And a Tutsi who fell upon hard times could fall down the class ranks and be regarded as Hutu.

In 1926, the Belgians introduced ethnic identity cards differentiating Hutus from Tutsis, which enabled the Tutsi to consolidate as the ruling class. This ended in a bloody orgy with the “Rwanda Revolution”, which between 1959 and 1961 saw the Hutu majority overthrew the monarchy. Up to 20,000 Tutsi were killed, and over 300,000 – including Paul Kagame, who was barely two-years-old then – fled to neighbouring countries, mostly to Uganda.

Subsequent regimes refined the ID system into a Rwandan version of apartheid that sharply marginalised the Tutsi. As the Tutsi refugees in Uganda used the organisation and leverage they had got from the Museveni war and victory to mobilise their return, the regime in Kigali started to prepare.

The timing of the October 1990 attack was not fortuitous. Beside Museveni and his apparatus being out of town, he had been in power for four years already and the rot had started to seep into the revolution.

A worldly operator, Habyarimana – who in the twisted realties of African politics had helped the Museveni rebels – enjoyed links to some of them now that they were in power in Kampala. He is thought to have infiltrated the Ugandan security system so heavily by bribing senior officers, that by late 1990 he had all but neared a tipping point, and would have been able to get his bought network to prevent an RPF/A attack.

The trigger for his operation had happened two years earlier when the RPF had held a convention in Kampala where Rwandan exiles and their offspring from all over the world had converged in record numbers. If Kigali then had been under any illusions of the RPF threat, they were banished then. Habyarimana went into the trenches.

This preparation was evident in October 1990. As the first RPF/A attack disintegrated, the Rwanda military struck back, including attacking suspected rebel sympathisers, mainly Tutsi peasant families, in the northeast. Those who could get away fled in their thousands across the border into Uganda.

In mid-October, with William Pike (now a director with The Star in Nairobi, but then heading the government-owned New Vision in Kampala) and the BBC Swahili correspondent in Uganda, Hussein Abdi, we went to the Kagitumba area to cover the war.

We were told that there was a large refugee camp “nearby” on the Uganda side. We were to spend hours getting lost in the bushes as we were misled by cattle herders who kept telling us, “Ah, you have reached, drive ahead it’s at the corner”, and kilometres later, there was nothing in sight.

Eventually we did find the camp. It was raining, and the place was miserable. However, the most striking thing was how many people had wounds inflicted, we were told, by machetes and axes. The significance of it was to hit home much later: by the time the RPF/A attacked, the machetes were ready.

On the other hand, the excruciating Darwinian selection, and monolithic discipline (still evident in the RPF today after 24 years in power), which enabled it to survive and win, means it was unlikely to gamble on shooting down Habyarimana’s plane and set off events it couldn’t control. (France has in the past accused the RPF of shooting down the plane.)

Eventually we did find the camp. It was raining, and the place was miserable. However, the most striking thing was how many people had wounds inflicted, we were told, by machetes and axes. The significance of it was to hit home much later: by the time the RPF/A attacked, the machetes were ready.

It remains important to establish with some finality who shot down Habyarimana’s plane. But the shooting down of the plane did not spark the genocide, as many accounts like to tell it. Pegging the genocide to April 6, 1994, is to cleverly deny that there was premeditation and planning. It also wipes out a complicated and messy 82 years of Rwandan history – although perhaps it is what those who are here today can live with.

Charles Onyango-Obbo
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The author is publisher of Africapedia and a columnist.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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