Interview by Maghene Deba
Translated from french by Arnold Gakuba
In three months, the trial of Félicien Kabuga should be held before the International Mechanism called upon to exercise the residual functions of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This moment should mark the epilogue of a case that began 26 years ago and which stands at the confluence of many issues. Donatien Kabuga, returns for Oeil d’Afrique on the stakes of this trial which promises to be historic. He reveals to us the fragile state of the health of his father, the difficulties encountered with their lawyer and lifts the veil on his reading of the accusations made to his father. Interview with Donatien Kabuga, son of Félicien Kabuga, one of the most famous fugitives of the 21st century.
Oeil d’Afrique :Your father, Félicien Kabuga is an important figure at the heart of the Rwandan political game, both before and after the genocide. Tell us about the man. What is his background?
Donatien Kabuga : Today, my father is the object of fantasies and manipulations of all kinds. Contrary to what Paul Kagame regime doesn’t believe, my father was not a political figure before the genocide. My father was born in the early 1930s. He comes from former Mukarange commune which was located in the former Byumba province. As he was born into a modest family, he did not have the chance to attend school. He learned to read and write on his own. He is a “self-made man” who, starting from almost nothing, has built a respectable heritage.
How did he manage to build this heritage?
He earned his first franc around the age of twelve, by selling baskets that he had woven by himself. Little by little, he made savings which allowed him to switch to selling salt at the market. In 1955, he obtained the coveted entry in the Commercial Register. He then built a house in the Rushaki trading center in Kiyombe commune in Byumba province in which he carried his business.
Is it from there that your father opened the way to conquer the Rwandan economy?
Effectively. In the early 1970s, he moved to Kigali where he had just completed the construction of a two-level house which served both as a store for his business and as a home for his family. It was also from this moment that he became an importer. First of all, he imported second-hand clothes from Holland, the United States and Belgium. Then imported consumer goods from America, Europe, Asia and Africa. In addition to the import-export trade, my father invested in many other sectors of the economy such as transport and logistics, agro-industry and real estate.
PROXIMITY WITH PRESIDENT HABYARIMANA
Whenever we introduce your father, we always mention in capital letters that he was close to President Habyarimana and his regime. What was the nature of their relationship and when did it date back?
Before taking power in 1973, my father did not know President Habyarimana, who was a young senior officer. At the time my father was already one of the most important traders in the country, he certainly had to be the first.
They first met when President Habyarimana showed up at my father’s shop for an unannounced inspection.
Malicious rumors were circulating about the fact that my father would import merchandise without declaring it to customs, so President Habyarimana wanted to mark the occasion with a sort of “zero tolerance” operation. After presenting all his papers which were in order, my father was able to continue his business.
Contrary to what rumors would suggest, my father never enjoyed any advantage. He was already a successful importer before Habyarimana came to power. In the 1980s the two were brought together because of their respective positions. But there is nothing abnormal, in all the countries of the world the elites are brought together. My father was in strict compliance with the law.
However, rumors are persistent because of the marriage of two of my sisters to the sons of President Habyarimana.
All the same, a marriage between two families is never trivial. So you can understand that two marriages in such important families can at least raise questions?
The first marriage took place in December 1992. At that time, President Habyarimana was heavily criticized and in a political crisis. Many people were turning their backs on him, in short he was in a delicate situation. If a person had wanted to have advantages from President Habyarimana, this was really not the right time.
Unless marriage was to reinforce the relationships that already existed and which would have allowed Félicien Kabuga to obtain favors previously.
Not at all. Besides, I don’t see what favors my father would have needed. As I said, he was already prosperous before President Habyarimana came to power. So it’s not thanks to him that my father went to see him.
Then the second marriage took place in 1996. President Habyarimana had been dead for 2 years and we had already left Rwanda.
Tell me then what are the advantages sought when President Habyarimana was no longer alive. These are just fantasies and manipulations. The truth is simple: Habyarimana children and Kabuga children liked each other and got married in the most natural way.
Félicien Kabuga is said to have played a central role within the Akazu (House), which is said to have been particularly responsible for preparing the Interahamwe militia for the offensive against the Tutsi. How do you explain that your father still holds a prominent place in the circles of influence of power at the time?
You would like me to tell you that my father was involved in reprehensible activities while I am sharing with you the reality that I witnessed. Beyond my word, my father is unanimously recognized as an honest businessman. Even in the false accusations that were made against my father, his probity was never questioned.
To come back to the Akazu , it is also a fundamental file to understand the difference between media propaganda and the reality on the grounds. In this regard, the acquittal of Mr. Zigiranyirazo, former prefect of Ruhengeri and brother-in-law of President Habyarimana, by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is eloquent. The main accusation made against him related to his alleged membership of the Akazu, which is presented as a kind of crime. By this acquittance, the justice purely and simply brought down this concept which is unfounded and of which no proof could show the existence.
It is now clear that Akazu is a concept to manipulate public opinion and which reinforces the fantasy around the power of Habyarimana. Some former opponents of Habyarimana regime recognized the invention of this term to denigrate the power his power.
At the start of the 1990 war, Westerners turned their backs on Habyarimana regime, which had to resort to local financing of the war. Was Félicien Kabuga asked to participate in the war effort?
No. It never happened. According to many people, my father was so rich that he was able to finance a state on his own. This is obviously not the case. The vast majority of my father’s fortune was in his real estate and in his stocks of goods. He also had sizeable liquidity, but not enough to finance a state. Rather, he was requested by the RPF.
If your father did not have extraordinary liquidity, what would have prompted the RPF to seek him out as you have said? And how did the rebellion of the time come into contact with Félicien Kabuga?
It is common knowledge that many traders clandestinely financed RPF. Each gave what he could to their cause; a goat, 10% of his salary and so on.
As far as my father is concerned, shortly after the start of the war in 1990, during one of his trips to Kenya, a Tutsi trader who had fled the country came to see him and let him know that the RPF would like him to contribute to their cause. It is a trader whom my father set foot to strangle him as he liked to do for young dynamic traders whether they were Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. He had no distinction.
So your father would have refused to support the RPF?
You have to understand that we are from Byumba in northern Rwanda. This is where the incursion of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the armed wing of the RPF, took place. In its fighting, the RPA committed appalling massacres to the populations so that in 1994, there was in Nyacyonga, near Kigali, a million displaced people from Byumba and the region of my father.
The million displaced people were of terror and killings which had never happened. We were directly affected by what happened since a large number of our family member joined us in Kigali.
My father could not help people who came by killing the population. My father said to his interlocutor in Nairobi: ” If you come in peace, I will help you, as I helped you in your business “. However, he replied: “if we arrive in Kigali, we will no longer need your help “.
Nevertheless, in its advancement, the RPF captured our native village and used the family home as its headquarters. My father therefore told them that the occupation of this house was considered as his contribution. This was a way to looking for peace without supporting their military action. From that moment, the RPF put him on the list of undesirable people.
Not long ago, the prosecutor dropped the accusation that made your father the money-maker of the genocide since it accused him of having financed the massive importation of machetes in the preparation for the Genocide. Do you think this is a good step forward for your father?
Of course. This established our line from the start. Kagame regime narrative crumbles over time as everything said is easily verified. You see that the accusation is dropped at the fateful moment since they know that they cannot find any proof.
On the other hand, many studies like Tissot’s report go in the same direction and irremediably weaken the thesis of the importation of machetes in order to prepare genocide. Both Akazu and importation of machettes were abandoned. These were forgeries of Kagame regime.
Since the genocide of 1994, your father was designated as the funder of genocide that the Hutus perpetrated against the Tutsi. Did your father make a reason for this label?
Obviously, no one can accept such ignominy. The propaganda was well orchestrated since he refused to finance RPF and they failed to eliminate him in Nairobi. They used their Anglo-Saxon support to prevent them from coming to claim his property. I admit that this propaganda was carried out with a master hand.
SHAREHOLDER OF RADIO-TELEVISION DES MILLE COLLINES (RTLM)
Your father is part of the founders of Radio-Television Mille Collines (RTLM) which played a central role in the spread of hate during the genocide. Isn’t this a convincing element that accredits his participation in the planning of the events?
Contrary to what is suggested, my father was not the main shareholder of RTLM since his contribution was limited to 1% of the subscribed share capital.
Like his other participations which we talked about, RTLM represented for my father a future investment opportunity which had just opened to competition in Rwanda. As a reminder, the idea of RTLM germinated in the context of the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Program by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) whose objective was to increase the privatization of the Rwandan economy. The media sector which was a state monopoly was becoming attractive and it was in this situation that my father appreciated the business opportunity.
Listening to you, you totally clear your father by asserting that he had no power within the radio …
Absolutely. The symbolic title of President of the initiating committee that he received did not grant him any particular prerogative. Neither in the administration of the company, nor in the choice of programs and even less in its editorial line of RTLM. Félicien Kabuga had officials in the management and in the editorial staff who were tried in what was called “the media trial”.
Moreover, it is undoubtedly good to specify that, in this trial, the judges of the Court of Appeal came to the conclusion that the programs which were broadcast before April 6, 1994 have no role in the fact that genocide has occurred.
The trial of your father Félicien Kabuga starts in three months as suggested by the UN Mechanism. What state of mind reigns in him?
As you probably know, my father is very old and has an extremely poor health. Since he was arrested, he was already hospitalized five (5) times. He is so weakened that he could not attend the meeting that Judge Iain Bonomy wanted to organize by video conference. This meeting was finally conducted in writing, on March 9, 2021, between his lawyer and the court. Concerning his physical condition, we are rather worried.
On the other hand, the communication with his lawyer Altit is more than being difficult. He refuses any collaboration with the family while in the current situation of our father does not allow him to properly prepare his defense. You understand well that in this situation, we have to help lawyer Altit to fulfill well his mission. However, the communication between the family and lawyee Altit was broken.
Why does lawyer Altit refuse to be assisted while compiling the file?
We have no idea. As long as our father was not yet in the hands of the Mechanism, the relationship was going perfectly. Everything has changed since then.
Can you challenge him?
My father asked to change the lawyer. And apparently, lawyer Altit immediately asked to be relieved of his duties, but the court refused.
If he took the step but the court refuses to relieve him of his functions, what exactly do you blame lawyer Altit for?
Today my father is in a worrying health status. We need to collaborate with the lawyers who defend my father. It is a necessity because we need to be informed of his condition and we must prepare his defense as well as possible. As far as we are concerned, our father is today taken in hostage, unable to change his lawyer.
Is your father allowed to get in touch with his family, by phone for example?
Yes, we call him regularly but the conversation never lasts more than a minute, he is too weakened. These are exchanges that sadden us enormously because we can see that his condition is deteriorating day by day. It worries us a lot.
Félicien Kabuga continues to be prosecuted for having coordinated “the transport and distribution” of the machetes. Given the situation you describe, what are the chances that he will be able to defend himself in an attempt to dissociate his name from the dire memory of the genocide?
Enormous means was put in place for communication to support indictments aiming to influence the public. Last year, an entire episode of the “World’s Most Wanted” series airing on Netflix was devoted to my father by repeating a story that presented him as the person who imported large quantities of machetes to prepare massacres. In our opinion, this story no longer holds the truth as it does not prevent some malicious people from continuing their disinformation.
However, we know that over time the truth gains the ground. The contents which yesterday appeared to be dogmas like the books of Alison Desforges or the Galand-Chossudovsky report are today being discussed. We are beginning to realize that the whole sections of the story that serves as the word of the gospel is no longer solid and does not stand up to counter analysis. The other point that in my opinion will help restore the truth is the highlighting of the multiple falsifications of evidence at the ICTR. Again this point was mentioned in the media trial.
JUSTICE AND RECONCILIATION
Your country is commemorating the 27th anniversary of genocide this year. Does the official formulation of “Genocide against the Tutsi” represent an implicit judgment for the Hutu ethnic group to which you belong?
We can at least observe the semantic shift over the years. From an inclusive formulation which took into account all the victims of the tragedy, we are today at an exclusive formulation. We can also note that President Kagame politicizes the issue to avoid being accountable for his actions since 1990. The massacres during the war, those after the genocide in the refugee camps and in the various killings committed in Congo since 1996. Who Can say that what is happening in the Congo for almost 30 years is not a crime against humanity and responsible persons remains unpunished?
We must get out of political cynicism and “double standards” because life is equivalent to another and a crime is equivalent to another.
Looking to the past, did your father ever express any regret for what he should or should not have done before and during the disaster?
The regret that my father always expressed is the tragedy and the slaughter that befell Rwanda since October 1, 1990. I think almost all Rwandans share this regrets.
Is reconciliation possible when the story of the victors serves as a doctrine?
How can you speak of sincere reconciliation when a young singer like Kizito Mihigo speaks of compassion for all the victims and gets murdered? Can we speak of authentic reconciliation when Bahati, another singer, speaks freely to ask for more investment in human capital rather than showing buildings and he is killed?
There are a lot of disappearances, assassinations, a lot of killings, it’s a totally unbreathable climate simply because Kagame enjoys media coverage which gives a false image of reality.
Do you have an alternative solution for true reconciliation in Rwanda?
What could change things is that we first talk about the reality, which by definition is multiple and not one. That we recognize the status of victim to all Rwandan survivors, whether Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa.
That we tell each other the truth, even the one that annoys … The truth above all, it is what can save us as Rwandans but also our brothers Congoleses. Perhaps the Congoleses do not know it well but we are in the same boat, we are victims of the same evil.
What do you expect from your father’s trial?
I would have liked two things that I did not notice: one, that the Tribunal which is holding this trial be impartial; two, that my father can be in a good health status which will enable him to face a trial and thus prove his innocence.