A probable repeat of 1993/94 in Rwanda and Burundi

At the eve of the upcoming elections in Burundi, it is reported  that Burundians are fleeing their country and some are crossing into Rwanda in steady numbers.

They fear ethnic troubles come next month because the incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza is not ready to release power despite the fact that he hold the high office since 2005.

According to the Burundian constitution, he is not legally entitled to be candidate at the end of his second term.

Back in 1993, first democratically elected Burundian Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye was killed on October 21st, only three months of him being in office.

His assassination by Tutsi extremists of the Burundian army was followed by genocides among both Hutu and Tutsi communities.

Some sources link that assassination to president Paul Kagame of Rwanda who at the time was leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) then fighting the Rwandan government led by Juvenal Habyarimana.

His motive was apparently to have free hands on the south front when the invasion of the then Zaire would be in full swing.

Getting into today Democratic Republic of Congo had to be delayed because of the massive presence of Rwandan Hutu refugees in Eastern Congo.

Once Rwanda conquered, the then rebel leader needed in Burundi an allied government, and the presence of a Hutu government there wouldn’t have facilitated his military operations in DRC.

With the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, thousands of Hutu Burundians fled to Rwanda. At the start of the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s attack on Rwanda from Uganda, there were Burundian refugee camps in the Mutara area.

During the Rwandan genocide, it is reported that many Burundian Hutus from those refugees took their revenge on Rwandan Tutsis because they had lost almost everything in the hands of their Tutsi compatriots and extremists who had killed their president and families.

In fact, in the space of seven months, from October 1993 to April 1994, it was not only one but two Hutu Burundian presidents (Melchior Ndadaye and Cyprien Ntaryamira) who had been killed by Tutsi extremists in the two countries.

If you add the assassinated Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, this amounts to three Hutu presidents killed.

Tragic events that followed those murders have been parts of Rwandans’ collective history though generally narrated differently depending on which community group one belongs to or the consequences of telling the truth could cause.

Those events did not affect only Rwandans. DRC is the most significant example of fundamental changes and not particularly pleasant but regrettable that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 brought about.

As mentioned earlier, Burundian refugees were reported to have participated in the Rwandan atrocities of 1994.

In 2015 there are again Burundian refugees flooding into Rwanda because of the increasing insecurity in their country.

There are strong probabilities that the Rwandan president Paul Kagame, faced with internal political problems regarding his intentions of staying in power come 2017, might use the Burundian refugee issue to create a situation of total insecurity to justify his stay.

In 1994 he triggered and used the Rwandan genocide to gain power. He didn’t care about the lives that his political and military stratagems took away.

Internal political parties which were seeking change and remove Juvenal Habyarimana from power were used to achieve Paul Kagame’s ultimate aim of becoming president of Rwanda.

Being at the helm of his political career – he has led Rwanda for almost 21 uninterrupted years – he has mastered the art of deception to the point where he plays his interlocutors and compatriots as a champion chess player moves his different pieces on the chessboard.

Contrary to the belief of many, he might not need to change the constitution to stay in power. He only needs to create an internal and regional context where such supreme law becomes unnecessary, obsolete or almost irrelevant: a situation of total but controlled insecurity/chaos.

The chances of succeeding on this path are however slim because 2015/16 and most importantly 2016/2017 are or will be totally different from the prevailing context of 1993/94.

Many parameters have changed and not necessarily in his favor.

Even by only considering the time he will have been in power, that is a very sufficient reason for anyone who might have been at one time or another his fervent supporter to want him out whatever he might have done, good or bad, during his time in office.

By using his usual tactics of deception – pretending that he won’t be candidate to his own succession in the 2017 general elections, while working hard his subordinates to manipulate the populations into requesting him to stay, therefore finding himself a logical reason to overstay, – the Rwandan president appears to be testing different options in order to find out which one could work best.

At the same time, the militarization of the nation hasn’t been as assiduously pursued as it is today. One hears time and again these training programmes that almost any formally constituted Rwandan society groups get forced into at military bases like Gabiro, as if across the whole country there couldn’t be anywhere else where people could gain new knowledge without being under a military environment.

This appears to be part of an overall strategy of the Rwandan president of using military tactics and personnel in every aspect of the country’s life, even in areas where you would expect them the least like the Rwandan Bar Association where the bureau must be controlled by RPF.

Such type of political leadership explains significantly abnormal statements from ordinary Rwandans claiming for example that if president Kagame wasn’t allowed a third term they would commit suicide. Invraisemblable as it sounds, declarations like these demonstrate the level of political manipulation people are under.

In fact, it is difficult to fathom that someone whose family members have been exterminated by RPF, or whose surviving children cannot get education because they are not Tutsi, or has been dispossessed, speaks out loudly demanding Kagame to be in power, let alone get an extended stay.

For those among Rwandans who recall the prevailing political situation of 1993/94 in Rwanda and the region, it is possible to make some relative parallels with what is going on today: a Rwandan president who does not want to leave power, but instead readying his tools and other resources for a confrontational stay with subsequent damageable consequences, on the one hand. On the other, there is the neighboring Burundi that could sparkle trouble in Rwanda, on top of hurting itself as well, this depending on the RPF’s attitude towards unfolding events.

If lessons could be drawn from past experience, concerned Rwandan people should today sit down together, then reflect on the most appropriate path that would avoid a repeat of the suffering that their nation went through – and from which it hasn’t recovered fully – instead of only tapping on the table saying that president Paul Kagame should not change the constitution to stay in office after 2017. The major issue being here that – if he is not accidently killed – he is there to remain  with or without changing the constitution. Whatever the scenario, Rwandans should assess in their own interests, how to manage effectively between now and then, and then thereafter, the ultimate course of events in order to limit the collateral damages of any of these would-be unfolding eventualities. A strategy game format as a drawing board would be useful.

Ambrose Nzeyimana

Ambrose Nzeyimana
Political Analyst/ Activist
Organising for Africa, Coordinator
The Rising Continent, Blog editor

London, UK
Email: [email protected]