March 1, 2021

Rusesabagina’s Case Has Been 60 Years In Making


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Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of “Hotel Rwanda” movie will reappear in court this Friday, March 5, 2021, with 20 of his co-accused, including two former spokesmen of rebel group FLN, Callixte Nsabimana, alias Sankara and Herman Nsengimana.

The Hotel Rwanda Hero is accused of, among other things, terrorism and forming an armed group with the objective of attempting to overthrow a government.

Mr. Rusesabagina is the president of MRCD─an opposition party based outside Rwanda and the alleged leader of its armed wing, FLN based in the DRC. The latter is accused of attacking the country between 2018 and 2019 in the south-west resulting in the death of some citizens, miming others and looting.

When he first appeared in court for the substantive hearing of his case on February 17, Rusesabagina told court that he is Belgian, not Rwandan, and his lawyers questioned the jurisdiction of Rwandan courts to try him. On the second appearance, on February 26, the court dismissed the jurisdiction objections; a decision his defense lawyers appealed.

The case has attracted unprecedented interest and debate both within Rwanda and outside.

Like most major events since our founding as a modern independent state, commentators have taken diametrically opposed views. While some focus on “how” Rusesabagina was brought to Rwanda, others dismiss this as immaterial, and instead concentrate on “where” he was originally going and “what” he was going to do or has been doing.

Considering that the case is before court, I will not comment on any of this or the merits and demerits of the case.

Instead, in view of what Rusesabagina is accused of─forming an armed group, and his claim to Belgian citizenship at the expense of Rwandan, I propose to put this case in its proper historical context and argue that this is a case that has been in the making for 60 years.

My central point though is that, seen from its broader historical context, this case not only pinpoints where it started raining on us as a nation, but also speaks to the sociology of our politics and the political psychology of our elites─both mainstream elites in power and counter-elites with regard to what they consider to be the proper source of power despite what legal texts and the Constitution say.

Let us explain using an “obscure” story; but which has immense historical significance.

Where it started raining on us

Writing in his memoir, “Mission au Rwanda”, Colonel Guy Logiest, the Belgian military-man who oversaw the 1959 “social revolution”─that some say was no revolution, narrates how he facilitated Grégoire Kayibanda─our first president, to stage the so-called “coup of Gitarama” of January 28, 1961, in which a republic was declared and a monarchy overthrown even before independence.

 This event, carried out by a few Rwandan counter-elites to the ruling class at the time, marked the first extra-legal overthrow of government with foreign support─if we exclude “Rucuncu” and its aftermath. The elite internalized its methods and, as a nation, we have never looked back.

Colonel Logiest narrates what happened prior to the sordid thus: “It was in the evening of January 25, 1961, around 10pm…I heard someone call at my door and I reached for my gun. When I opened the door, I saw Kayibanda who had arrived at my house in a manner that looked mysterious. I was surprised. I gave him a seat and asked him the reasons for his unusual visit at night”.

Logiest then says that Kayibanda “replied”: ‘I have left my car in about 200 meters so that no one can know I was here. We spent the day in Gitarama planning and I have now come to ask for your support so that we can achieve what we have agreed. The way we see developments, things are not going well on our side since we believe the United Nation’s decision to extend elections to unknown date favours supporters of the King to put in place leadership based on terror…The UN representatives will work such that when elections are held, UNAR (the party at the time supporting the continued rule by the King) wins. We trust you to help us’.

Col Logiest goes on to write: “I didn’t know what he wanted me to help him with but I promised I would be happy to help as I had done in different ways in the past”.

Then Logiest describes how Kayibanda responded to his promise: “He continued and told me”: ‘All of us who were elected in the communal elections want to meet in Gitarama and declare a republican government and immediately conduct elections for members of parliament, its president and even the president of the republic’.

After Kayibanda made his request explicit, Logiest tells his readers: “After he completed, I gave him a glass of whisky to allow myself time to think about what he had just asked me to do”.

He goes on: “After thinking deeply about this request, I decided to support him but pretend as if I didn’t know what was going on. I agreed to help him with logistics and equipment that would be needed for the meeting, transporting those to attend the meeting…and providing microphones. But I also requested him not to tell anyone about what we had agreed”.

On the day of the coup, Logiest remembers: “On that unusual Saturday on 28/1/1961, I was there in secrecy. I monitored what was happening from the home of Pattyn, the territorial administrator who was also a friend of mine”.

On what happened on the D-Day, he writes: “In front of thousands of people, everything went according to plan as I had agreed with Kayibanda”.

On that day, Dominique Mbonyumutwa was “elected” the president of the “Republic” (while Rwanda still under colonial rule!) with 83% of total votes of communal leaders; Joseph Gitera of APROSOMA party became President of the 44-member “National” Assembly while Kayibanda became Prime Minister and Minister of Education in an 11-member cabinet.

The Moral of the Story

Clearly, Kayibanda, in his own words, feared a “terror” government and “defeat in elections”. And, since he neither controlled the army or state machinery, he asked the man who controlled tools of violence to help him stage a coup, not against the colonial state that had real power, but fellow “natives” with whom he was competing to determine who would control the post-independence government.

It was at this point, beside the upheavals of 1959, that extra-legal means and the military were introduced into effective national politics as determinants of “who” can rule.

Reflecting on his help to Kayibanda, Col Logiest wrote in a memoir published in 1988: “Today, twenty five years later, I ask myself what was it that made me act with such resolution. It was without doubt the will to give the people back their dignity. And it was probably just as much the desire to put down the morgue and expose the duplicity of a basically oppressive and unjust aristocracy”.

But after that violent change of government, a UN Commission prophetically wrote in a report: “The development of these last eighteen months have brought about the racial dictatorship of one party…An oppressive system has been replaced by another…It is quite possible that some day, we will witness violent reactions…”

So, what Col Logiest didn’t say or care about, but which the UN foresaw, is that an oppressive and unjust system had been replaced by another using violent means. Most importantly, it’s at this time that the belief in, and method of ascending to power using the gun was inaugurated. It has since remained in the psych of our elites.

Thus, it doesn’t matter from which angle one speaks on the Rusesabagina case─whether the legalistic or government or those on the side of the man at the center of the case, we must agree that at its core, this trial is also a trial of how our elites have historically fought for, and gained power as well as how, in the process, they have treated each other and the citizens they led or seek to lead.

In fact that is also why what classical political scientists call “circulation of elites” (transfer of power) has never, historically, taken place without the use of extra-legal means. Nor without external support or wink, as in the Gitarama coup.

And the reason for this state of affairs is that, every society, including ours, always has two types of elites: the mainstream who rule and the contending seeking to partake. But due to the zero-sum and violent nature of our politics inaugurated in late 1959 and early 1960s, the two types of elites have never found a common formula to contest for and gain power on a level playing field based only on the legal-rationale enforced by a neutral party.

In part, that explains why, within the EAC, we probably have the highest number of rebel groups per capita and why, since the Logiest-Belgium assisted coup in 1961, we have had at least three violent changes of government.

Thus, beyond legality, if we are to put the Rusesabagina trial in its historical context, we could say that ghosts of Gitarama still abound.

For, while Rusesabagin claims Belgium nationality at the expense of Rwandan─a continuation of foreign “brotherhood”, if you listen to what infuriates government officials in this case, it’s the seeming support foreigners accord the man. Suppose foreigners were saying: “This was a good and legal arrest. Thank you” and adding: “We have confidence in your justice system”, would our leaders be bothered?

In the end, for those who perceive life to have begun this century, this is an individual case. But for those with a sense of history, this case is an indictment of how our elites have historically sought to gain power and their penchant to treat citizens as subjects.

To understand that, one needs to comprehend why, while in the 1960s we only had one rebel group fighting government, today we have a couple. With this insight, you would then ask whether, if all these rebels were to be “facilitated” to come back home for trial, they would all fit in one courtroom as Rusesabagina and co-accused.

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