Bizimungu, Pasteur 1951–
Pasteur Bizimungu 1951–
President of Rwanda
Pasteur Bizimungu became president of Rwanda in July of 1994 after a political crisis that attracted international notice for its scenes of horrific bloodshed as one of Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups attempted to annihilate the other. A onetime civil servant, Bizimungu is of Hutu heritage, but has been allied with a political rebel group of the Tutsi minority since the early 1990s. Working from abroad, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, attempted to overthrow a corrupt Hutu regime, and Bizimungu was a key player during this era; after a 1994 crisis that resulted in civil war and the RPF’s victory, he was named president of the troubled country.
Bizimungu was born in 1951 and hails from the northwest region of Rwanda. His career has been closely tied to the political fortunes of his land for much of his adult life. The small, impoverished Central African nation shares many similarities with Burundi, a neighboring country which, along with Rwanda, was once administered under the Belgian colonial regime. Rwanda’s other neighbors are Uganda to the north, Tanzania on the east, and the Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) at its western border. About the size of Vermont, it is a hilly but fertile country and its population of about 8.2 million (pre-civil war estimates) supports itself mainly through farming. About 80 percent of Rwandans are Christian, with two-thirds of that number Roman Catholic; the rest are Muslim or maintain traditional African tribal beliefs. The country’s per-capita income in 1997 was $234 a year, and the life expectancy for an average Rwandan is 49 years. It has an extremely high rate of AIDS cases and HIV infection, and many also die of malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition.
Rwanda is divided along two main ethnic lines, Hutu and Tutsi. As Bizimungu explained in a welcome speech to American president Bill Clinton in March of 1998, the genocidal bloodshed of the 1994 civil war “was not a product of centuries old ethnic hatred as it is often assumed. The ideology that led to genocide was planted in our society in the early part of the 20th century when the seven-century old Rwanda was conquered by Europeans. It was based on the contemporary European racist theories. Discriminatory policies were applied to
At a Glance…
Born 1951. Education: Attended the National University of Rwanda, early 1970s. Politics: Rwandan Patriotic Front.
Career: Electro-Gas (state-owned public utility), Kigali, Rwanda, manager until 1990; political activist and member of Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF); appointed president by RPF in July, 1994, for five-year term.
Addresses: Office —Residence de la Republique, Kigali, Rwanda, Embassy—The Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda, 1714 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
all walks of life.”
Though the two ethnic groups were similar, far different social customs arose over generations. The Tutsi gained an advantage over the Hutu by means of the “cattle-contract,” which first gave them economic power, then social and political hegemony. Belgian colonial authorities helped maintain this inequality, but a peasant uprising in 1959 led to the overthrow of the Tutsi monarchy and power passed to the Hutus. Rwanda gained independence from Belgium on July 1, 1962, and the political changeover led to the exile of a great number of Tutsi. The Republic of Rwanda was structured around a president, prime minister, and National Assembly, with the president controlling a great deal of power. France trained and supplied the Rwandan Army for many years after independence and maintained close ties with the Hutu regime. A military coup in 1973 installed Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, as president. There was one political party, the Mouvement Revolutionnaire National pour le Developpement (MRND).
At the time of this event, Bizimungu was a student at Rwanda’s only university, the National University of Rwanda. Over the years he rose through the civil service ranks and, until 1990, served as manager of Electro-Gas, the state-run utility. The utility was in dire financial straits, so Bizimungu campaigned Habyarimana to allow Electro-Gas to raise its rates, lay off some of its bloated payroll, and shut off service to those who were in severe arrears, which included many government agencies. He resigned in protest in 1990 when Habyarimana refused. He also accused the president and his government of rampant nepotism and other corrupt practices that fomented a political instability for the benefit of the Hutu regime.
Inside Rwanda there was a push for a multi-party, multi-ethnic democracy, and the Rwandan Political Front (RPF) formed in exile around this idea. It was primarily Tutsi, but there were also many disillusioned Hutu like Bizimungu who allied with it. When he went to Uganda to meet with RPF leaders in the summer of 1990, he informed rebels there, according to Gerard Prunier in The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, that the country’s political system was very weak and could be easily brought down. That same year RPF launched an invasion, and guerrilla fighting continued for the next three years.
Bizimungu eventually went to the Belgian capital of Brussels, where the RPF maintained offices. There he served as the RPF’s primary spokesperson and was a key player in the delegation that negotiated a peace settlement in Arusha, Tanzania in August of 1993. According to the terms of the settlement, President Habyarimana pledged to move Rwanda toward a more democratic era that included sharing power with Tutsi. But, as BBC correspondent Fergal Keane wrote in Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey, “for several years prior to the  genocide Hutus were exposed to an ongoing and virulent campaign of anti-Tutsi brainwashing.” This propaganda centered around “ten commandments” to guide Hutu-Tutsi relations, which condemned miscegenation and “urged Hutus to ‘stop having mercy on the Batusi,’” wrote Keane. “This last injunction was to be obeyed by thousands of Hutu peasants when the genocide began.”
In April of 1994, both Habyarimana and the president of Burundi died in a plane crash after their aircraft was fired upon and brought down near his palace’s landing strip. The event launched massive bloodshed in Rwanda as the RPF moved to take control and Hutus responded. A radio station owned by Hutu extremists and supported by the late Habyarimana himself broadcast the words “Tutsis need to be killed.” News footage of the carnage and reports of the systematic murder of children made international news. Machete-wielding gangs of militia roamed; women were beheaded in front of their children. Hutus who were in support of the RPF were also slaughtered in large numbers.
Bizimungu and other RPF leaders, after gaining control of the major cities, declared a cease-fire on June 15; pressure from other African states also helped halt some of the carnage. The political crisis was far from over, however. When Zaire (now the Republic of Congo) opened its border in mid-July, Rwandans crossed it in huge numbers. Overall, about 2.1 million (of a population of just over 8 million) fled to refugee camps there and elsewhere. The United Nations estimated those refugees at about half Hutu, half Tutsi in makeup. Conditions were desperate and dangerous in the camps, to say the least. Many died of cholera, and as late as 1997 opposing sides fired on the segregated camps.
“Because there were only a handful of Hutu in the rebel leadership ranks, human rights officials believe Mr. Bizimungu was important as a symbol of their multi-ethnicity,” noted a New York Times report. Indeed, the new Tutsi government (installed in place of Habyarimana’s Hutu-dominated one) had several key leaders of Hutu ethnicity. Bizimungu was one of them, as was his prime minister, Faustin Twagiramungu. Yet Twagiramungu had not been a member of the RPF, but rather of the provisional government in Rwanda since the assassination of Habyarimana. Only the RPF military chief, General Paul Kagame, was a Tutsi. Bizimungu was thought to be close to Kagame, but was at odds with Faustin Twagiramungu from the start. On one occasion Twagiramungu hinted that there was a potential for a dictatorship if Bizimungu did not call elections soon. Bizimungu ousted him in August of 1995, along with three other cabinet members.
The new president of Rwanda faced far more serious threats than the ones in his administration, however. “One of the new Government’s biggest challenges will be to persuade Hutu to return,” wrote the New York Times’s Raymond Bonner not long after Bizimungu and the RPF took over. A large, exiled Hutu population was more dangerous abroad than if they were confined in Rwanda under the eye of the RPF—as the exiled Tutsi had proven to the Habyarimana/Hutu regime. Many Hutu soldiers fled during the summer of 1994—some with their weapons—and vowed to return as an army to overthrow the RPF and Tutsi.
War crimes and Rwanda’s international standing were also pressing concerns for Bizimungu. In late 1994 he spoke before the United Nations General Assembly and requested the swift formation of an international tribunal to investigate the genocide. He said further delay could portend more bloodshed; his government detained nearly six thousand suspects in the atrocities.
Bizimungu also chastised France and its role in the 1994 civil war. The French military had set up a “safe zone” in a southern section of Rwanda, and were accused of sheltering ousted Hutu leaders there. A year later, Bizimungu accused France of withholding assistance until some Hutu were allowed back into power. In late 1995, according to a Reuters report, Bizimungu declared that “France has had a hand in the genocide in this country, because it wanted to protect its agents who were in power here and to make of this country what it would have liked it to become … What the French are after now is to restore these people to power. France is interested in the French language and the protection of its policies here.”
In late 1996 Bizimungu also encountered problems with neighboring Zaire: Tutsi were accused of firing on Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire, but Bizimungu said his government forces did not have the weaponry to do so. The new Rwandan government was also accused of giving military help to Banyamulenge Tutsi in Zaire; in the summer of 1997 rebel forces, led by Laurent Kabila, overthrew the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and restored the country to its previous name, Congo. Bizimungu attended Kabila’s inauguration ceremony, which was heralded as a sign of hope and stability in this region of the world. But a year later, in August of 1998, tensions had increased between the two countries, and forces hostile toward Kabila were gaining ground. Kabila accused Bizimungu and other African leaders of fomenting the conflict; many Rwandans helped to train the Congolese army inside the country, while dissatisfaction over Kabila’s authoritarian rule spread. Conversely, Bizimungu accused the Congolese military of training exiled Rwandans (primarily Hutu militia responsible for the genocide) hostile to his RPF government.
Most nations would be devastated after a civil war that resulted in the death of about ten percent of its population and the exodus of one-quarter of that number, but Rwanda had so little in the first place. Bizimungu struggled to put a National Assembly together, restore some semblance of normality, and put the economy back into operation; he also campaigned the international community for relief aid. In December of 1997 he hosted U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with whom he visited refugee camps. There were still attacks on camps—during her stay, a Tutsi camp housing refugees from the Congo was shelled by Hutu forces— but Albright pledged a nearly $4 million aid package. The Secretary of State also said publicly that Western nations like the United States need to accept some of the blame for not intervening in Rwanda when the genocide began in April of 1994. Bizimungu also hosted President Bill Clinton on his tour of Africa in March of 1998.
Keane, Fergal. Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey. Viking, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1997.
New York Times, June 15, 1994, p. A11; July 20, 1994, p. A6; July 25, 1994, p. A7; October 9, 1994, sec. 1, p. 19.
BBC World News, http://bbc.co.uk
Reuters Information Service, http://www.reuters.com, December 2, 1995.
Rwanda Information Exchange, http://www.rwanda.net
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