Habyarimana, Juvenal 1937–1994
Juvenal Habyarimana 1937–1994
President of Rwanda
In 1994, the African nation of Rwanda was engulfed in a bloody civil war heightened by the sudden death of its president, Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana. The charismatic Habyarimana, who had run Rwanda essentially as a dictator for more than 20 years, was killed instantly in a plane crash just outside his nation’s capital on April 6, 1994. Although the precise circumstances of the crash will never be known for certain, most observers in Rwanda and elsewhere believed the accident was not what it seemed, but rather, was an assassination. The wholesale carnage that erupted in Rwanda following Habyarimana’s death threatened to devastate the country and perhaps destabilize its neighboring nations. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were killed, and more than one million people sought refuge outside the country, creating enormous problems in the region.
Such troubles in Rwanda are part of an ongoing enmity between the nation’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Habyarimana was a member of the Hutu majority who, throughout his presidential tenure, assured Hutu control of the government. Only in the 1990s, when his regime was threatened by Tutsi-dominated rebel forces from the Rwanda Patriotic Front, did Habyarimana seek to include Tutsis as significant participants in the government and the armed forces. Most observers feel that it was this decision that marked Habyarimana for death. Within a week of his apparent assassination, organized gangs of civilians—often armed with nothing more sophisticated than machetes and clubs—unleashed an orgy of “ethnic cleansing” against the Tutsis of Rwanda and any Hutus felt to be sympathetic to the Tutsi agenda.
The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry began as early as the 14th century, when the taller Tutsi people began to migrate into east-central Africa and establish cattle ranches. Slowly but inexorably, the Tutsi exerted political and military control over the resident Hutu people, who were primarily farmers. By the end of the 19th century the process was complete. Tutsi kings ruled the entire Rwanda-Burundi region, even though their people only comprised about 15 percent of the population.
Just after World War I, the League of Nations created Ruanda-Urundi as a Belgian mandate. The Belgians, seeking to exploit Rwanda’s mineral resources and coffee plantations, recognized and extended the Tutsis’ political power. Hutu youths were denied education and were therefore unable to advance themselves in society. Where
Born August 3, 1937, in Gasiza, Gisenyi, Rwanda; died in plane crash, April 6, 1994, in Kigali Rwanda; son of Jean-Baptiste Ntibazilikana (a landowner) and Suzanne Nyirazuba; married Agathe Kanziga, 1963; eight children. Education: Attended College of St Paul, Bukavu, Zaire, and Lovanium University, Kinshasa, Zaire; military training at Officer’s School, Kigali, Rwanda, 1960-61.
Platoon leader of Rwandan National Guard, 1961-63; chief of staff of National Guard, 1963-65; cabinet minister for the armed forces and the police, 1965-73; led coup to depose president Grégoire Kayibanda, 1973; president of Rwanda, 1973-94; minister of national defense, 1973-94; prime minister, 1973-90. Founder and president of Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour la Développement, 1975-94.
Member: Organization for African Unity.
Selected awards: Golden Heart of Kenya, 1981 ; numerous foreign decorations.
once the Hutu and Tutsi had co-existed in relative peace, the two peoples began hating one another. The situation exploded in 1959, when the Hutu led a successful rebellion against the Tutsi king, Kigeri V. In a pattern that would become frighteningly predictable, large numbers of Tutsis were killed or forced into exile, and the Hutu took over control of the government and the armed forces. Rwanda was declared a republic in January of 1961, and became independent of Belgium the following year.
The national historical events held great significance for Juvenal Habyarimana. The son of a wealthy Hutu landowner from northern Rwanda, he was ambitious and educated beyond the norm for his people. Habyarimana had earned a degree in mathematics and the humanities from the College of St. Paul in Bukavu, Zaire. The years prior to the Hutu uprising found him pursuing a medical degree at Lovanium University, also in Zaire. When the Hutus assumed power in Rwanda, Habyarimana decided to change professions. He left medical school and enrolled in an officer’s training school in Kigali. There he completed his courses with distinction in 1961, and quickly assumed a position of power in the Rwandan National Guard.
Habyarimana’s engaging personality and education helped him to advance quickly within the National Guard. At the tender age of 25 he was named chief of staff, and just months later he became commander. Not surprisingly, his prominence brought him notice from Rwanda’s president, Grégoire Kayibanda. In 1965, Kayibanda named Habyarimana Minister of the Armed Forces and the Police. That cabinet-level position was the single most powerful one in the entire Rwandan military, and when he earned it Habyarimana was only 28. Experienced beyond his years, Habyarimana had been deeply involved in the ongoing tribal warfare in Rwanda.
After more than a decade of reprisals against the Tutsis, Rwanda still seethed with ethnic tensions. These were compounded by inter-tribal rivalries between Hutu officials from the north and those from central and southern Rwanda. On July 5, 1973, Habyarimana and a cadre of associates from the north seized power in a bloodless coup. Former president Kayibanda—who had been responsible for Habyarimana’s quick ascent through the military—was placed under house arrest. As the nation’s new leader, Habyarimana promised, through a program of national unity, to bring the ethnic violence to an end. The young and energetic president found support from Western governments, including Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but in his own country he was faced with numerous unsuccessful coup attempts and continued ethnic-based hostilities.
On the second anniversary of his assumption of power, Habyarimana announced the creation of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND). The new coalition became Rwanda’s only recognized political party; membership was compulsory, and citizens were enrolled at birth. A new constitution introduced in 1978, provided for an elected legislature, but all candidates were required to be members of the MRND. For his part, Habyarimana sought re-election in 1978, 1983, and 1988, but was the only candidate for president on the ballot. His cabinet ministers, as well as many of the top military personnel, were fellow Hutus from northern Rwanda whose loyalty was beyond question.
Many pressures were brought to bear on the Habyarimana regime as the 1980s drew to a close. A collapse of world coffee prices threatened the Rwandan economy. At the same time, influxes of Hutu refugees from Burundi brought an added burden to a country already beset by overpopulation problems. Habyarimana was forced to introduce an economic austerity program that led to widespread unrest. In hopes of curbing the anti-government sentiment, the president convened a national commission to study how best to implement a multi-party democracy in Rwanda.
The movement toward democracy meant little to the Tutsi minority. Even if democracy was introduced, they would gain very little, if any, political power. They wanted guarantees of some sort of significant participation in national affairs. Habyarimana did little to accommodate them until late in 1990, when the large and well-equipped Rwanda Popular Front invaded from Uganda. This military force, populated primarily by expatriate Tutsis, engaged the Rwandan army in heavy fighting that at times threatened even the security of the capital city. Actions taken at the start of the civil war foreshadowed the graphic violence to come—human rights observers documented cases where civilians were tortured and killed simply because of their ethnic heritage. The abuses occurred on both sides, with Tutsi rebels murdering Hutu citizens and the Rwandan army murdering Tutsi citizens.
The civil war continued for three years and further eroded Rwanda’s fragile economy. In an attempt to restore peace, Habyarimana sought arbitration help from United Nations mediators and other African leaders. In August of 1993, representatives of the Rwandan Patriotic Front met with officials of the Habyarimana administration to negotiate a settlement of the conflict. The resulting Arusha Peace Accord guaranteed the RPF half of the officer corps and 40 percent of the enlisted men in a reorganized Rwandan army, as well as Tutsi representation in key government posts. Habyarimana reluctantly endorsed the accord and began to set it into motion in the autumn of 1993.
According to Lindsey Hilsum in Africa Report, Habyarimana actually carried out a “two-track policy … on the one hand, going along … with the United Nations-supervised peace process designed to bring power-sharing to the Tutsi-dominated rebels … and, on the other, arming extremist militias to ensure continued Hutu supremacy.” Whether or not Habyarimana himself quietly recruited Hutu extremists, two militias formed to fight in the war—the Interahamwe (“those who attack together”) and the Impuzamugambi (“those who have the same goal”) stood ready to defy any Tutsi incursion. Hilsum explained, “As the months went by and the political parties squabbled over the division of parliamentary seats and ministerial portfolios—something which was supposed to have been settled at Arusha—tensions rose. The installation of the broad-based transitional government, a cornerstone of the Arusha Accords, never happened.”
The coalition government was not to be. Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash as he returned from a summit meeting about the continuing Hutu-Tutsi hostilities in Rwanda and Burundi. Witnesses to the crash—which also killed Burundi’s acting president, Cyprien Ntaryamira—claimed to have heard explosions or gun fire just before the plane went down. The Rwandan Patriotic Front denied responsibility, and many observers feel that it is more likely that Habyarimana was marked for death by hard-line Hutus in his own government.
Whatever the case, Habyarimana’s assassination served as an excuse to unleash unprecedented ethnic violence in Rwanda. Quasi-military units like the Interahamwe butchered Tutsi citizens indiscriminately, as well as Hutus who were thought to support the pluralist cause. Whole villages were decimated, the corpses left to rot in their homes or thrown in the rivers. Even children and Red Cross workers were murdered, and the small United Nations peacekeeping force on hand was not authorized to interfere. Refugees streamed into Tanzania and Uganda, creating instant cities where infectious diseases flourished. Time magazine reporter Nancy Gibbs described post-Habyarimana Rwanda as “defining what barbarism means in the late 20th century, and defying the rest of the world to try to do something about it.”
Indeed, other nations were reluctant to intervene in Rwanda, despite of the moral prerogative to protect innocent civilians from wholesale slaughter. Hilsum observed that Rwanda “has no strategic significance, no wealth, too many people, and not enough land. It is therefore of little interest to the world powers.” As organized fighting continued between the RPF and the Rwandan army in 1994, any sort of peaceful solution to the crisis seemed unlikely. In the wake of Habyarimana’s death, Rwanda’s future looked bleak. Hilsum concluded: “When the war ends, Rwanda’s population will have been decimated and the divisions of ethnic and political hatred etched in people’s minds more deeply than ever.”
Rake, Alan, Who’s Who in Africa: Leaders for the 1990s, Scarecrow Press, 1992.
Africa Report, January-February 1992, pp. 62-4; January-February 1994, pp. 32-5; May-June 1994, pp. 13-17.
Jet, April 25, 1994, p. 21.
Newsweek, April 18, 1994, p. 33; April 25, 1994, p. 32.
New York Times, April 7, 1994, pp. A-l, A-10.
Time, April 18, 1994, p. 44; April 25, 1994, pp. 44-6; May 16, 1994, pp. 57-63.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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