Saturday, October 15, 2011

BBC's Debate on the 1994 Assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana

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BBC Kinyarwanda hosted a forum to discuss the allegations made by Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa implicating Kagame in the 1994 shooting down of the then President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane. Invited were three distinguished presenters: Noel Twagiramungu, a human rights activist and a PhD candidate at Tufts University; Janvier Forongo, head of Ibuka, an organization representing Tutsi survivors and Etienne Masozera, a former head of Ibuka.

The forum was characterized by the mixture of heated diatribes and some reasonable reflections. Despite the shortcomings, I think it is promising that such conversations are being held. Similarly, it is regrettable and shameful that there is no space in Rwanda to advance such debate due to severe constraints on free speech.

It another impediment against our desire to overcome the vicious cycle of violence. Do Rwandans have a right to study and reflect on their history? I think very few people would disagree. Are there some dogmatic truths about Rwanda that are immune to inquiry? I think the answer is in the negative. The history of the genocide is still young, it is not a saturated field and new information keeps emerging. How can we say that it is a closed file? Why would contributing to such a debate be construed as criminal?

I raise these questions because they are part of the shadow that follows every debate of Rwanda’s history. Much of the BBC’s debate actually circled around these questions.

Janvier Forongo, who was the first to speak, did not address Rudasingwa’s claims directly. Instead, he discussed the broader question on whether the genocide would have happened with/out Habyarimana’s death. On his part, Forongo believes it would. His evidence is based on the fact that Tutsis were victims of killings repeatedly since 1959. He argues that targeting of Tutsis as a people precede Habyarimana’s death.

Now, most and in fact perhaps all of the points Forongo makes are valid and reasonable. However, Forongo’s excellent exposition of Rwanda’s history has nothing to do with Rudasingwa’s claims. Rudasingwa (himself a Tutsi) is not denying Tutsi victim-hood—the very reason why he took up arms to fight Habyarimana’s government. Neither is he denying that the genocide was planned. His revelation hinges on one historic fact: the April 6th assassination of Habyarimana. He argues that Kagame is responsible for this attack; and more importantly, that he did so with full knowledge that such an event would trigger mass killings (of Tutsi).

Etienne Masozera, while also maintaining that the genocide was prepared in advance, admitted that the killing of the Habyarimana was the final straw. He also sought to make a distinction between the historical attacks against Tutsi people throughout the post-independence period and the 1994 genocide. He argued that the previous attacks were not systematic i.e. carried out throughout the country. He sees the murder of Habyarimana as an important historical event that needs to be understood, in order to add perspective to Rwandan history. I found his position to be sensible, although he was much to my disappointment also unable to weigh in on the validity of Rudasingwa’s claims.

Noel Twagiramungu stated the importance of a dispassionate analysis on Rwandan history. In particular, he cautioned what he regards as heavy reliance on emotions rather than reason. I agree with this. I think, individual experience, clouds us from having a collective sense of history. Of course, Masozera is also right that we should learn to let individuals tell their personal suffering—rather than seeking to tell the story on their behalf. An important addition, I think, is that a balance will need to be made between the personal experience and the collective experience. Otherwise, as far as building history goes, we remain doomed.

However, unless you are among those who shot the fateful missiles or were among those planned/witnessed the event, your experience is of little value in regards to this matter. Rudasingwa’s testimony is important because of his past credentials. Otherwise, no one would be paying attention to his claims. I wish Kagame had been called in to respond. But the man is contemptuous of debate, especially with people who “don’t belong in [his] league”.  And, apart from Rick Warren and Tony Blair, no one does. Will he ever respond to Rudasingwa’s claim? It depends. Circumstances change and so does history. For now, we will have to wait.

Lastly, some of the attacks advanced by Forongo are simply a reflection of intellectual laziness. To claim that Rudasingwa is revealing this information in order to “feed his belly” is disingenuous. Forongo insists that Rudasingwa is in the pay of Habyarimana’s family. What might be credible is Masozera’s observation that Rudasingwa’s testimony might be motivated by a desire to revenge against Paul Kagame’s regime. However, for anyone to take Forongo’s outrageous claims seriously, he will need to back them with evidence. Otherwise, many Rwandans will treat his portrayal of Rudasingwa as malicious character assassination.

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