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Uwilingiyimana, Agathe (1953–1994)

Uwilingiyimana, Agathe (1953–1994)

Rwandan interim prime minister. Born in 1953 in Nyaruhengeri, Rwanda; assassinated by opposition soldiers on April 7, 1994; received master's degree in chemistry; married a university employee; children: five.

Agathe Uwilingiyimana was born in 1953 in the village of Nyaruhengeri, southeast of Rwanda's capital city of Kigali. Although a child of peasant farmers, she obtained an education, earning a master's degree in chemistry. Agathe, who remained in the countryside to teach science for ten years at the high school level, was eventually named to a government post as director for small- and medium-sized industries in the Ministry of Commerce of Industry.

Uwilingiyimana was a member of the moderate, multiethnic Rwandan Democratic Movement, and was also a member of the minority Tutsi tribe that had traditionally ruled the country before the majority Hutus took power in the 1960s. Rwanda had been shattered for years by tribal violence between the two groups. Uwilingiyimana, who had been named minister of higher education, was a strong advocate of equal educational opportunity for everyone, regardless of ethnic group. This view, as well as her Tutsi heritage, generated many enemies. In April 1993, assailants broke into her home and beat and raped her; she suspected that they had been sent by her political opponents.

When a tentative peace agreement was brokered, a coalition government dedicated to implementing it named Uwilingiyimana prime minister on July 18, 1993. However, political infighting in the coalition government led her party to expel Uwilingiyimana that same day; as a result, Rwanda's president Juvénal Habyari-mana officially dismissed her from the post after less than a month. Since agreement between the country's many political parties was still tenuous, however, Uwilingiyimana remained in the post as a caretaker. She was to have given up power to a transitional government in March 1994, but one of the participating parties withdrew from the ceremonies, and she remained in the post.

In April 1994, Rwanda exploded into violence when a plane carrying President Habyari-mana and President Cyprians Ntaryamira of neighboring Burundi—both Hutus—crashed under suspicious circumstances while returning from a conference dedicated to ending the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. While both Hutus and Tutsis had motives for the assassinations and could have fired the rockets that brought the plane down, Hutu soldiers used this as an excuse to begin reprisals against Tutsis and Hutu moderates, particularly those in government. When Uwilingiyimana prepared to address the nation, asking for calm after the president's death, Hutu soldiers surrounded her home. Ten Belgian soldiers, part of a 2,400-member United Nations peacekeeping force, helped her to leave. The Hutu guards followed, disarmed the U.N. guards, and killed Uwilingiyimana. The Belgians were tortured and killed, and three other Tutsi ministers in the government were shot. That same day soldiers went to her home and also murdered her husband in front of their five children, who survived but were forced to flee the country. The deaths of the president and the prime minister restarted the full-scale tribal conflict that Uwilingiyimana and her colleagues had tried so hard to resolve, leading to over 800,000 violent deaths that year.

During her brief tenure, women were encouraged by her progressive ideas. After her death, Uwilingiyimana was honored by the Forum for African Women Educationalists, a group to which she had belonged, by the establishment of the Agathe Uwilingiyimana Award, which honors innovative achievements in women's education. Subsequent Rwandan governments also announced the intent of building a shrine to the memory of the late prime minister and others killed in the violence.

sources:

Hill, Kevin A. "Agathe Uwilingiyimana," in Women and the Law. Rebecca Mae Salokar and Mary L. Volcansek, eds. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 323–328.

Masland, Tom, Joshua Hammer, Karen Breslau, and Jennifer Tanaka. "Corpses Everywhere," in Newsweek. April 18, 1994, p. 33.

Michaels, Marguerite. "Descent into Mayhem," in Time. April 18, 1994, p. 44.

Ms. July–August 1994, p. 13.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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