[Marxism] From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda 1990-94

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 28 17:14:27 MDT 2016


LRB, Vol. 38 No. 21 · 3 November 2016
The Big Man
Alex de Waal

 From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda 1990-94 by André 
Guichaoua, translated by Don Webster
Wisconsin, 424 pp, £73.95, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 299 29820 3

Did the Rwanda genocide happen because a few army officers and 
politicians, squabbling over whom they should appoint as leader, 
casually used mass murder as a means of obtaining a temporary consensus? 
The idea that the largest mass murder of the last 25 years came about 
through banal politicking is perhaps even more disturbing than the 
notion that it was the enactment of a grand ideological project.

Trying to make sense of the massacres in Rwanda while they were taking 
place, many writers – including me – were anxious to rebut the popular 
narrative that they were the result of ancient tribal hatreds that had 
turned more or less spontaneously into violence. Instead, determined 
that the crime should be classified as genocide, and the génocidaires 
defeated and eventually prosecuted, we stressed that this campaign of 
mass murder was a state project, which could only have been brought 
about by a conspiracy at the highest levels. We assumed that such a 
crime demanded significant planning and preparation, ideological 
commitment and mobilisation, as well as thorough implementation. We 
sought out key pieces of evidence: the arming of the Interahamwe 
militia, the racist tracts of the extremist press, the massacres 
committed against the Tutsis in previous years. This version of events, 
forged in the heat of the moment, became the dominant narrative, and 
indeed it is the basis of the state ideology of President Paul Kagame, 
who heads the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which took power by 
overthrowing the genocidal regime. It suits Kagame because it justifies 
his seizure of the state and his determination not to cede power. The 
basic fact – that the genocide was an organised state crime – also 
happens to be true.

André Guichaoua, who spent much of the last twenty years working for the 
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, has compiled a meticulous 
account of the politics of the civil war of 1990-94 and the genocide 
that followed. He recounts, day by day and sometimes hour by hour, what 
the main actors were doing. He describes a political class very similar 
to those found in other small nations. Some of its members are brave, 
some are indecisive, some rash, some cruel, some more capable than 
others. They know one another intimately through family, school, 
university, military college and the village-style politics of a small 
capital city. This is the story of a tightly regulated political 
business, run by the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana and his wife, 
Agathe Kanziga, disintegrating under the simultaneous pressures of a 
military invasion mounted by the exiles of the RPF, the end of 
single-party rule, the demand for democracy, and an economic crisis 
which meant that the standard practice of co-opting every political 
aspirant by offering jobs and money was becoming unworkable. As his 
ruling party, the Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le 
Développement (MRND) fragmented, Habyarimana got businessmen and the 
heads of parastatal companies to finance a new MRND youth wing, loyal to 
him, in anticipation of the need to mobilise the vote – and intimidate 
the opposition – in the scheduled multi-party elections. Meanwhile, 
others sensed an opportunity, including ethnic extremists and leaders of 
groups marginalised by the cabal around the president’s wife, Agathe, 
known as the Akazu, or ‘little house’. Some bargained with the leaders 
of the RPF, who by their invasion of the country in 1990 and subsequent 
guerrilla actions had shown themselves militarily capable, others tried 
to find a middle way between these two groupings. Meanwhile, the army 
officer corps was fractious, since the peace accords signed with the RPF 
in Arusha in 1993 required the retirement of a large number of senior 
officers so that the RPF could take up half the posts in the army.

The outcome was a volatile politics of continual repositioning, 
second-guessing, prevarication and manoeuvre, spiced with 
assassinations. There was certainly a determined effort to kill every 
Tutsi in Rwanda between April and June 1994, and it was state policy. 
But it was a hastily improvised policy, cobbled together a few days 
after the assassination of Habyarimana, whose presidential jet was shot 
down near Kigali Airport on 6 April, when the decapitation of the 
government led to the panicked radicalisation of the regime’s lieutenants.

Guichaoua’s account explains some of the mysteries of the Rwanda 
genocide. Why did Théodore Sindikubwabo, a lethargic man of little 
renown, become interim head of state during the genocide? Why did 
Agathe, the leader of the best organised and most ruthless political 
machine in the country, spend the few weeks after her husband’s death 
making a panicked attempt to flee the country? Why was a retired colonel 
called Théoneste Bagosora, the engineer of the assassinations of the 
moderate political establishment in the days after Habyarimana’s death, 
convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda of acts of 
genocide, but acquitted of conspiracy to commit genocide?

The outline of Guichaoua’s story is roughly as follows. The two key sets 
of political players – the coteries around the president and the RPF 
leadership – believed that the Arusha peace agreement was unsustainable, 
that power-sharing was not feasible. Both were preparing for the 
military option. The RPF struck first, bringing down Habyarimana’s 
plane. (Guichaoua discusses the idea that Hutu extremists shot down the 
plane, unhappy at the concessions that Habyarimana had made in the peace 
talks, and dismisses it on grounds of lack of evidence and improbability 
of motive.) The RPF expected a quick military takeover; the human cost – 
Guichaoua quotes one senior RPF cadre who anticipated that ‘maybe five 
thousand, at the most, twenty thousand’ Tutsi civilians would die as a 
result – was a price they were prepared to pay.

The assassination of the president, along with some key army officers 
including the chief of staff, did indeed jam the state machine. The 
struggle over who would replace them resulted, as anticipated, in 
violence. Colonel Bagosora seized the initiative, ordering the 
assassination of the figures who, according to the constitution, should 
have succeeded to senior office, including the prime minister, Agathe 
Uwilingiyimana. In this he had the enthusiastic backing of Agathe 
Kanziga and the members of the Akazu. The daughter of the dead 
president’s doctor, who was with the family after the assassination, 
reported that ‘during the day of 7 April 1994, we noticed that the 
entire family that was present, including the nuns, rejoiced whenever 
the death of an opponent was announced. It was the presidential guards 
who announced such when they returned from carrying out murder.’

The assassinations – including the murder of ten Belgian peacekeepers – 
continued for three days. Bagosora’s intent was to position himself as 
kingmaker. His problem was that he didn’t engineer the political 
succession smoothly enough, and the army high command didn’t support 
him, and in fact remained opposed to the genocide for some days. But the 
generals were no better at asserting control: they didn’t control either 
the presidential guard or the Interahamwe, the Hutu paramilitary 
organisation founded by Bagosora, and so there was no counter-coup. 
Bagosora and his accomplices decided to give themselves time to agree on 
a successor by establishing a government with a mandate of only ninety 
days. Just about any Hutu politician associated with ‘Hutu Power’ would 
do as a leader, and so Sindikubwabo was chosen. And, to insure 
themselves against the new government calling them to account for their 
crimes, they enlisted the likely members of that government in 
organising massacres of Tutsi civilians in their home regions. Guichaoua 
describes the bizarre banality of government members’ daily activities 
after they moved from Kigali to a supposedly safer small town:

And while there, constantly monitoring each other’s comings and goings, 
they passed their time in countless cabinet meetings, round-table 
discussions, sidebars … interminable arguments, flaring into deadly 
rivalries and the hatching of plots. It is through the prism of these 
political games and wagers, whether sophisticated or hare-brained, that 
they learned about the war and massacres they had directed, with a 
stunning detachment in the face of their horrific immediacy.

The policy of massacre was ‘simply the price that MRND leaders accepted 
to pay Col. Théoneste Bagosora in exchange for his withdrawal and to 
ensure his impunity.’

For the extremist leaders, devoting their military and organisational 
resources to massacring civilians was a suicidal decision: it meant that 
whatever chance they had had of halting the RPF’s military advance and 
achieving international respectability was irretrievably gone. But the 
spirit of vengeance that led them to celebrate the murder of the 
political elite was evident in their determination that the RPF victory, 
now fore-ordained, would be at the cost of the annihilation of the Tutsi 
population. For the remainder of the political class who’d been 
corralled into government, the primary issue remained who would succeed 
the dead president?

If genocide was the product of confusion, error and politicking founded 
on personal interest, rather than a long-thought-out plan, we require a 
framework that enables us to understand how everyday politics can turn 
to violence. During the 1980s, the Habyarimana regime had dominated a 
closed domestic political marketplace, using patronage funds (aid and 
export revenues from parastatals) and regulating by coercion. This model 
collapsed in 1990. The RPF threatened to take over and run the country 
using the same model. Unfortunately for Habyarimana, political 
liberalisation – demanded by both the population and aid donors, 
especially France – became inevitable at precisely this point, and so 
members of the political elite felt able to choose between his party and 
the RPF. Many of them took democratisation and the peace accords 
seriously, and assumed that the model of political competition regulated 
by elections and the rule of law would prevail. The price of their 
loyalty shot up.

Just as important, an element of uncertainty was added to political 
bargaining. The system of centralised and depoliticised patronage had 
been remarkably straightforward for the previous twenty years, but now 
things were more complicated. Western donors were drafting one set of 
rules, Habyarimana was trying to adapt the old system, and the RPF was 
promising (or threatening) a different model again.

At this point Habyarimana’s political budget – the resources earmarked 
for efficient patronage management – shrank due to the collapse in the 
price of coffee and the costs of war. This was the reason he decided to 
mobilise the party youth wing, as a cheaper way of regulating the 
political market – intimidating rivals in the short term, winning the 
elections in the medium term. All of this is familiar from other 
countries that have experienced deregulation, a shrinking budget and 
war. A similar set of events brought about the overthrow of the Nimeiri 
dictatorship in Sudan, the collapse of the Somali state and the 
regression of multi-party politics in Kenya into intercommunal violence.

The assassination of ‘high-value targets’ usually leads to an escalation 
of violence and often to the radicalisation of those who dispense it. 
After the death of Habyarimana his immediate subordinates instigated the 
killings, settling scores now that the big man was no longer in charge. 
When no new leader emerged, a temporary system was instituted to ensure 
that the political elite did not direct violence at its own members, but 
instead at those outside their circle: Tutsi civilians. Deregulated and 
competitive killing of the Tutsi became a mechanism for regulating 
internal political bargaining over who should take charge.

Three months later, on 4 July 1994, the RPF took power in a ruined land. 
The survivors of the genocide are well aware of the painful paradox 
that, without the war waged by the RPF on Habyarimana there would have 
been no genocide, but also that, without the RPF in power, the risks of 
renewed ethnic killings are very high. Inside and outside the country, 
Kagame’s government is seen as a Tutsi government, ruling on behalf of 
the ethnic minority. But in the first months of RPF government, that 
wasn’t the way it acted: it was the survivors’ organisation that 
demanded a national day of mourning to commemorate the genocide, pushing 
the RPF into dropping its plan to celebrate victory day on 4 July. 
Rather than a Tutsi regime, the Kagame government is an efficiently run 
business venture. Over twenty years, Kagame has proved a skilled and 
ruthless leader. He makes sure no other figure attracts loyalty, and 
keeps things that way through assassination, or the threat of it. This 
frees up funds for investment in public goods. But the country’s 
institutions are, if anything, less robust than they were 25 years ago. 
There is no mechanism for regulating political competition other than 
the actions of the president himself. There is no mechanism for an 
orderly transition to another political model or another leader – the 
same shortcomings that brought about the escalatory competitive 
political killings of 1994.



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