Who shot down President Habyarimana’s plane, triggering the 1994 genocide? A report by two French judges has definitively resolved one of the controversial mysteries of the late 20th century. Gerry Caplan considers the implications in the light also of the extradition of alleged genocidaire Leon Mugesera.
Two seemingly unrelated Rwandan stories made both history and the headlines this week. One was the dramatic finding by a French inquiry that members of the pre-genocide Hutu government and military must have shot down the plane carrying their President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, launching their planned genocide only hours later. (The President of Burundi was also a passenger on the ill-fated plane, as were other senior Rwandan officials.) The second was the decision of the Canadian government to deport to Rwanda at long last a man named Leon Mugesera, accused of inciting his fellow Hutu to massacre Tutsi about one-and-half years before the plane crash. In fact, the two stories are closely related.
Responsibility for the plane crash has been the source of bitter dispute from the very moment it happened. Given the extraordinary number of direct and explicit threats from Hutu extremists that they intended to annihilate all Rwandan Tutsi and would come after anyone who failed to support their conspiracy, even the President, and given Habyarimana’s intention after much stalling to implement a power-sharing plan with the largely Tutsi RPF rebels, the perpetrators of the crash always seemed obvious. In fact all of Chapter 9 of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, is devoted to outlining the publicly-known evidence that a massacre of unprecedented proportions by Hutu extremists would one day be carried out.
Logic suggested than the extremists decided to murder the appeasing Habyarimana as the signal for the genocide to be launched. And just as events prior to the genocide pointed directly at Hutu extremists as the only logical culprits, so the events immediately following the crash strongly pointed to a carefully-organised plan that was now ready to be executed: the roadblocks that immediately went up; the murder of the prime minister and other moderate cabinet ministers, judges and senior officials; the beginning of the systematic hunt to slaughter all Tutsi; the murder by government soldiers of ten Belgian soldiers from the UN military mission; and through it all, the provocations of hate radio RTLM. How could there be any reasonable doubt as to the perpetrators of the crash?
This is where the case of Leon Mugesera comes in. He was among the first of the Hutu extremists to publicly call for the extermination of the Tutsi, helping to create the atmosphere of hysteria and hatred for the Tutsi that eventually allowed the conspirators to mobilise so many ordinary Hutu to carry out the genocide. Mugesera was an academic, governing party executive member and demagogue. In October 1992, addressing a large crowd in rural Rwanda, he called repeatedly for the extermination of the Tutsi.
Referring to Tutsi who escaped the anti-Tutsi pogroms that were launched at the time of Rwandan independence from Belgian rule, he declared that: ‘The mistake we made in 1959 is to let you live.’ In other words, all Tutsi should have been have killed so they would never again be a threat. Referring to the parents of children who had joined the RPF invaders – Tutsi children — he asks: ‘Why do they not exterminate them? Why do they not exterminate all of them?’
Mugesera shrewdly understood how to dehumanise the Tutsi by labeling them as ‘inyenzi’ — cockroaches — and to challenge their very existence by proclaiming them aliens who had come from Ethiopia and had no right to remain in Rwanda. ‘I am telling you,’ he said to whip up his Hutu audience, ‘that your home is in Ethiopia, that we will send you by the Nyabrongo River [a source of the Nile flowing into Ethiopia"> so you can get there quickly.’
As it happens, this speech was taped and was later re-played around the country. A short portion can be found on YouTube. It was such remarks, and the hundreds of others like them, that lent credibility to the automatic assumption that Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by extremists following in Mugesera’s footsteps, fed up with Habyarimana and ready to activate their genocide conspiracy.
Mugesera himself fled to Canada, and though he was convicted of inciting hatred, for years he found legal ways to resist being shipped back to Rwanda for trial. Now, however, he seems to have squeezed the last possible ounce out of Canadian appeal processes and will soon be back home. During his trial the relation between his inflammatory exhortations to genocide and the plane crash 17 months later should become quite clear.
Yet from the start, in their typically cynical, shrewd way, the genocidaires, with the help of France, began blaming everyone else for the crash: the Belgian soldiers in the UN mission, Uganda, and above all the RPF and their commander, Paul Kagame. But from the start, the motives for Kagame and the RPF were entirely obscure. How could the RPF gain by the chaos that was bound to ensue? Or for the ferocious witch-hunt by Hutu against the Tutsi that were bound to follow Habyarimana’s murder? Did it make the remotest sense to think Kagame shot the plane down precisely in the hope there would be a genocide against his own people that would somehow, in some incomprehensible way, lead to RPF rule of the country? These questions have never had anything close to a sensible answer, which didn’t stop two groups of people from accusing Kagame of shooting down the plane.
The first group consisted of all those who for various reasons have denied that any genocide ever took place. Their interest here was simple: If Kagame shot the plane down, then there was no carefully organised genocide conspiracy by Hutu extremists that the crash was meant to trigger. This group included, among others, unrepentant genocidaires and their many white supporters in Europe and parts of North America, as well as twisted left-wing North Americans who believed Kagame was nothing more than a tool of American imperialism. (See my article, ‘The Politics of denialism,’ Pambazuka News, 2010-06-17, Issue 486) For example, Peter Erlinder, the American lawyer and leading genocide denier arrested in 2010 when he appeared in Rwanda as advisor to imprisoned presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, has always asserted that Kagame himself had caused the 1994 massacres (not genocide, of course, but massacres) by shooting down Habyarimana’s plane.
A second group agreed there was a genocide but had grown so hostile to every act of the Kagame government that they concluded he had to be responsible for the crash as well. Besides the lack of motive, they had not a shred of evidence besides the testimonies of disaffected and vindictive RPF members, many of which were in fact retracted by several key informants. This group included well-known scholars like Rene Lemarchand, who wrote in his Rwanda chapter for Totten and Parsons’ Century of Genocide (3rd edition, 2009) that ‘there is growing evidence to suggest that Kagame was indeed the central actor behind the crash.’ But he adduced not a shred of such evidence which indeed did not exist.
Both groups found vindication for their unprovable position in a 2006 report by a French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, that found President Kagame and several top aides guilty of deliberately assassinating Habyarimana. In the annals of shoddy, dishonest, biased, worthless reports, Bruguiere’s will forever take a dishonorable place. With his report he joined that large group of French establishment officials, including politicians and bureaucrats alike, who have systematically betrayed the people of Rwanda for the past two decades, a phenomenon ending only with the 2010 rapprochement between Presidents Sarkozy and Kagame.
The list of Bruguiere’s blunders beggars belief and can hardly have been mere oversight on his part. He relied on the testimonies of RPF defectors, ignoring their obvious personal agendas, most of who in any event eventually retracted their statements or claimed the judge had completely distorted their testimony. He never went to Rwanda to examine the site of the shooting and failed to interview a single RPF official, including those he accused. He did travel to the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha to interview accused genocidaires and in his report cited their testimonies against the RPF. This included Theoneste Bagosora, eventually found by the ICTR to be guilty as charged of being a key leader, if not the ringleader, of the entire genocide. As was clear from the moment his report was issued, Bruguiere had disgraced and discredited himself, which of course didn’t stop a single denier or Kagame-hater from embracing his report.
The next chapter in this remarkable saga unfolded exactly two years ago with a report by a commission of enquiry into the crash appointed by the Rwanda government. In my review of the Mutsinzi report (‘Who killed the president of Rwanda?’ Pambazuka News, 2010-01-21, Issue 466), I concluded that despite its flaws, the Commission had proved as conclusively as was possible that the RPF had neither the capacity, the motive nor the opportunity to shoot the plane down, while Hutu political and military officials had all three. The Commission even sought an independent assessment of certain logistic issues by the Defence Academy of the UK, which corroborated the Inquiry’s own conclusions, and I could find no conceivable reason why the Academy might have had a pro-RPF bias. I also fearlessly forecast that those who were certain of the RPF’s guilt would be completely unshaken by the Mutsinzi findings.
Sure enough, Pambazuka soon printed an abusive response to my essay from Prof. Susan Thomson, who wanted the world to know that my piece was ‘shocking’, ‘incendiary reporting’, ‘unbalanced in favor of the RPF’, ‘abhorrent’ from an academic point of view, and ‘dangerous and thoughtless’. In Remaking Rwanda, a book of essays he co-edited, Lars Waldorf writes sarcastically that the Mutsinzi enquiry ‘not surprisingly’ found the crash to be the work of Hutu extremists. Filip Reyntjens, indefatigable Belgian scourge of everything RPF, wrote one of his patented extremely long, infinitely detailed rebuttal of both my essay and the Mutsinzi report, with his usual awe-inspiring and unparalleled depth and breadth of knowledge of every aspect of the case, however minute or technical, in which he proved to his own satisfaction and to his ever-faithful Kagame-hating followers that virtually every word the Mutsinzi Commission wrote was a deliberate lie or distortion.
And now comes the latest shot in this critical war, perhaps the final attempt to answer definitively one of the great mysteries of the late 20th century: Who shot down Habyarimana’s plane, triggering the 1994 genocide? It’s a report by two other French judges, Marc Trevidic and Nathalie Poux, that they began working on four years ago, soon after Bruguiere. The two made it clear from the start that they had no intention of replicating the disgraceful hatchet job on the RPF by Judge Bruguiere. They would seek out every conceivable piece of evidence and draw the appropriate conclusions from them. In the process, they conducted the most comprehensive, most professional and most technical investigation ever done on the plane crash.
In brief, their report completely vindicates the key findings of Rwanda’s own Mutsinzi report, that biased, partisan, RPF report scorned by so many. Linda Melvern, probably the most authoritative authority on the genocide and related events, did not quite share my view of Mutsinzi. While she found its findings plausible, she still feared the world would never really know beyond doubt which side shot the plane down. But she has been converted by Trevidic and Poux. Here is her assessment of their report in the Guardian:
‘After 18 years it has essentially settled the central question of who was morally responsible for triggering the genocide.
‘In some 400 detailed pages, including the conclusions of six experts who visited the crash site in 2010, the report has provided scientific proof that, as the plane made a final approach, the assassins were waiting in the confines of Kanombe military camp – the highly fortified home of Rwanda's French-trained elite unit known as the Presidential Guard, and which is directly under the flight path. This secure military barracks would have been inaccessible to RPF rebels, a point made in a report on the crash produced by the Rwandan government.’
Trevidic and Poux do not name the individual Hutu extremists who were actually responsible for shooting down Habyarimana’s plane, and although someone must know who they were, it’s possible the world never will. Nor does the report indicate the murky role that French officials seem to have played in the crash. But none of that is as important as their overall conclusion that the RPF could not have shot down the plane and that only those Hutu government and military officials with access to the government-controlled Kanombe military camp could have done so.
What happens now? Will we see a torrent of heart-felt apologies from those who for two decades have insisted on Kagame's guilt? Alas, we should probably not hold our breath waiting. I presume the report will now allow French-Rwandan relations to move forward smoothly, even though France has never apologised for its complicity in the genocide, or for implying there had been no genocide at all, or for helping perpetuate the myth that Kagame caused the plane crash. But it is of course Rwanda’s right to tolerate the absence of such apologies.
Above all, the historical record is now finally clear and beyond dispute. Truth has won out. Hutu extremists like Leon Mugesera deliberately contrived to stir up lethal anti-Tutsi hysteria. Their plot to exterminate all Tutsi gathered increasing support from government and military officials. When President Habyarimana decided he had no choice but to implement the power-sharing arrangements with the RPF as agreed in the Arusha Accords, the time to strike had come. The extremists shot the President’s plane down, and the genocide began.
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* Gerald Caplan has a PhD in African history. He recently published The Betrayal of Africa.