The Canadian judicial system couldn’t find consensus on the word-to-word meaning of a speech considered today as the ideological ground for the 1994 genocide against Tutsis.
As a result, the defense team of the defendant, linguistics professor Dr Leon Mugesera prevented his deportation to Rwanda for more than 15 years.
Twenty-nine years after the infamous speech was delivered, Rwandan society is finding out that their language, Kinyarwanda, could be their worst enemy.
Technology has made it easy for many Mugeseras to churn out vast quantities of hate-filled broadcasts. As this is happening, the devastating impact of the genocide is a daily reminder for some inside Rwanda, as outsiders who don’t speak Kinyarwanda view what is said from a free speech lens.
YouTube has availed a widely accessed platform for anyone to post anything on their mind. Twitter and Facebook are home to armies of people hiding behind anonymity, to mobilize audiences.
The Mugesera speech has very little difference from what is said on Rwandan YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and blogs. The same tactic runs in stories published about Rwandan affairs by conventional media platforms; without the editors ever noticing they are aiding and abetting a mass murder project.
Here is how.
On November 22, 1992, an eloquent intellectual was invited to a podium to speak to thousands of local villagers in western Rwanda. Donning the afro hair style and large-frame eye glasses, Dr Leon Mugesera didn’t disappoint.
The delivery took roughly 30 minutes and the transcription of the original Kinyarwanda text amounts to some three thousand words.
Based on peer-reviewed studies of the Mugesera speech, we report how Rwandan society is on the road to the unknown – unless something magical happens to reverse the current trend of political discourse.
In Dr Mugesera’s brief introductory remarks (110 words), he identified four main points which the speaker would develop: the importance of being wary of alleged pro-Tutsi political parties within Rwanda such as the Mouvement démocratique républicain (MDR) [Republican Democratic Movement]; the importance of not allowing the country to be ‘invaded’ by the Tutsi; the necessity for his listeners to protect themselves against the Tutsi; and finally, the behaviour they should adopt.
The main body of the speech contains detailed argumentation addressing each of these main points in order (2700 words). This section is also characterised by frequent recourse to many rhetorical strategies to sustain the audience’s attention and to facilitate their understanding. These include lexical and syntactical repetitions, inclusive terminology (‘we,’ ‘us’), instructional language (‘we must not let ourselves be invaded!’/‘unite!’), humour in the form of mockery of political opponents, rhetorical questions, and the use of logical connectors (‘first,’ ‘second,’ ‘next’), which create the impression of a well-organised and well-argued presentation. The speech ends with a clearly labelled conclusion (150 words) comprising a brief recapitulation of its key points.
The target audience of the speech is identified in Mugesera’s opening lines as the faithful followers of the party—‘Abarwanashyaka ba Muvoma yacu’ [literally meaning militants of our movement]—and Mugesera repeatedly exploits the rhetorical devices of empathy and identification, to reinforce the notion of unity amongst the assembled group.
The MRND is symbolically represented as an extension of the family unit: Mugesera addresses his listeners throughout as ‘babyeyi, bavandimwe’ [parents, brothers]. He also employs the term ‘urugo’—the traditional enclosure surrounding the family home—to promote the notion of homogeneity between family, political party and country. The first mention of this word appears in a deliberately shocking metaphor for the conflict between the MRND-led Hutu majority and their political opponents who supported the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi political party in exile;
Mbe wa mugabo we, nawe wa mubyeyi we muri hano, harya umuntu azaza yicare mu rugo rwawe, ahannye, wongere wemere ko ahagaruka koko?!? Uwo ni umurizo rwose!
Hey, you, man and you, woman who are here, if someone comes and sits in your enclosure and defecates, will you really allow him to return? That is totally taboo.
In these lines, the Hutu are portrayed as being ‘at home.’ Their country Rwanda is both a physical space and a patriotic concept that it is their right and duty to defend. The Tutsi on the other hand are represented as outsiders who abuse the hospitality of the rightful owners and transgress all social mores by defecating. Tolerating such blatantly hostile behaviour is untenable: indeed, Mugesera categorically states that it is ‘umuziro’ [taboo]. By choosing this term, the orator introduces the connotation that such tolerance is not only unacceptable, but prohibited by the moral code underpinning the society. From this perspective, repelling the Tutsi is no longer simply a political or even an ethnic question. Instead, it is framed as a moral imperative to preserve the home[land]. This message is reiterated a few paragraphs later using a combination of the two powerful terms of ‘urugo’ and ‘umuziro’: ‘urugo rwacu ntiruvogerwa. Kuvogerwa rero mumenye ko ari umuziro!’ [our enclosure is not allowing itself to be invaded. Know that to allow oneself to be invaded is taboo!].
Many scholars have commented on the hierarchical nature of Rwandan society, identifying it as one of the key factors that contributed to the successful implementation of the genocidal agenda advocated by the Hutu extremists. However, a frequently made assumption is that the participation of thousands of Rwandans in the mass killings of the Tutsi stemmed from a basic ingrained response tantamount to blind obedience.
In this regard, Mugesera’s speech is a particularly valuable document in illustrating the level of sophistication of the orator’s message. In order for the speech to be effective, it was not sufficient for Mugusera to recite slogans or to give his audience blunt directives to eliminate the Tutsi. Instead, he presents a cleverly constructed argumentation that has the appearance of being firmly grounded in Rwandan law and Rwandan social traditions.
He cites authoritative texts such as the ‘Ivanjili’ [the gospel] in order to bolster the credibility of his arguments. However, these references are then subjected to manipulation and distortion to align them more convincingly with Mugesera’s own agenda with regard to the Tutsi. For example;
Mw’Ivanjili biranditse ngo’ko: ‘Nibagukubita urushyi kw’itama limwe uzatege ilindi bakubite ho.’ Njye mbabwiye ko iyo Vanjili yahindutse muri muvoma yacu: nibagukubita urushyi kw’itama limwe, uzabatere ebyili ku rindi hanyuma biture hasi ubutazazanzamuka!
In the gospel it is written: ‘If someone slaps you on the cheek, give the other one so he can hit it as well.’ I am telling you that this gospel has changed in our movement. If someone slaps you on the cheek, hit him twice on the other so he will fall to the ground and will not able to regain consciousness.
On one level, this revised ending can be read simply as an illustration of the idea that the Hutu must act to defend themselves against Tutsi aggression. However, Mugesera’s lexical choice of the term ‘ubutazazanzamuka’ [literally, so that he will not be able to come out of his unconscious state] could also be interpreted as a euphemism to convey the idea that these opponents should indeed remain permanently inanimate on the ground—in other words, that they should be killed.
This is an example of the point raised earlier with regard to the importance of elucidating the connotations of a given term, and there are a number of other instances of potentially polyvalent language throughout the speech. Whether or not this was the actual meaning Mugesera wished to convey is a pivotal question, as the onus of establishing intent is one of the core requirements in any judicial prosecution for genocide.
A significant stylistic feature of the Kabaya speech is Mugesera’s use of rhetorical questions. This is a powerful syntactical device used to engage the audience’s attention, but it can also fulfil a persuasive function by orientating the audience’s opinion in a specific direction. The most remarkable use of this linguistic strategy in Mugesera’s speech can be found in an accumulation of questions regarding families within Rwanda who actively support the Tutsi cause. It is also here that the core genocidal verb ‘gutsemba’ [to exterminate] is used for the first time:
Kuki abo babyeyi bohereje abana batabafata ngo babatsembe? Kuki badafata abo babajyana na bo bose ngo babatsembe? Ubu mutegereje ko bazaza kudutsemba koko?!?
Why don’t we seize those parents who sent their children and exterminate them? Why don’t we seize all those who bring them and exterminate them all? Are we really waiting now for them to come and exterminate us?.
The syntactical structure of these lines with their question format, further enhanced by repetition, carries the strong communicative force of a suggestion. It is therefore difficult not to see these words as an explicit call for the extermination of the Tutsi and their supporters, especially against the backdrop of the widespread denigration of the Tutsi as ‘inyenzi’ [cockroaches] that should be stamped out. This term is omnipresent in Mugesera’s speech, appearing more than twenty times, whereas the standard designation of ‘Abatutsi’ is used only once. Mugesera’s preference for the derogatory term illustrates the extent to which the stigmatisation of the Tutsi was already an ingrained component of the discourse of genocide ideologists in the early 1990s.
Mugesera’s stated purpose in addressing the audience at Kabaya was to instruct them as to how they should behave. This speech was therefore intended to have a lasting impact on the audience: to this end, it was important that crucial elements remain in the minds of the listeners long after the end of the meeting. Among the most powerful and memorable features of the speech are the singular images that Mugesera uses to provoke a hostile reaction to the Tutsi and their supporters.
The afterlife’ of Mugesera’s speech within the framework of the judicial proceedings in Canada provides an invaluable insight into how crucial the translation process can be for accurately conveying the ideas that were expressed in a language few people master outside of the Rwandan community.
In August 1993, Dr Mugesera left the country as a refugee and was granted permanent residence in Canada.
However, in 1995, the Canadian government through Minister of Citizenship and Immigration received information that Mugesera’s 1992 speech could have been considered an incitement to commit murder, genocide or hate, and a crime against humanity. A long protracted legal fight got underway up to the Supreme Court.
Based on translations by court-appointed independent translators, Mugesera’s lawyers successful cast doubt over the prosecution case. It allowed Mugesera to hang in there for years as the mass slaughter of Tutsis became a matter of public debate.
However, the Supreme Court of Ottawa did note in its 2005 ruling on the Mugesera case that the nature of the target audience was an ‘important contextual factor’ and that it was essential to consider how Mugesera’s speech would have been understood by that audience in relation to the sociopolitical events of the time.
In short, the court was saying; the English and French translations cannot be relied upon.
Despite endless legal manoeuvres, the Canadian government put Leon Mugesera on a chartered flight to Rwanda. The plane touched down at Kigali international airport at 11.30 pm on Tuesday January 24, 2012.
He has yet to be definitively convicted even in Rwanda.
The cryptic messaging used by Dr Mugesera is exactly the same style being used by a new breed of disciples.
YouTubers critical of the current government posture themselves as ‘voice of the voiceless’. When a YouTuber laments that “abanyarwanda benshi barakennye”, which can loosely be translated as “majority of Rwandans are poor”, it sounds a genuine demonstration of the fact.
However, the YouTuber knows in their mind that there is a particular section of Rwandan society which will understand what they are saying; Hutus are the destitute.
Another example of subtle Kinyarwanda sentences commonly used by YouTubers is that “Mu Rwanda ntiwabona akazi udafite ukuvugira” (You can’t get a job in Rwanda without a relative there). To the non-Rwandan reading the English translation, it sounds a legitimate assertion. Yet, the Rwandan YouTuber saying this will be speaking to certain audience in Rwanda telling them; all jobs are occupied by Tutsis and don’t expect to get in there.
Watch very carefully the YouTube monologues of Niyonsenga Dieudonné known by other names Cyuma Hassan and Theoneste Nsengimana, or Agnes Uwimana Nkusi. Until recently, all were practicing journalists. They have been stripped of practicing licenses in questionable circumstances.
Their choice of where to conduct their reporting, and who to interview, is deliberate. To a foreigner, the video seems like journalistic work of bravery.
Though mentioning ethnic divisions are a criminal offense, the YouTubers don’t use subtilty to escape prosecution; No. They do it with the knowledge that the “people” for whom the broadcasts are intended, will understand.
The use of ambiguity in speech has been the norm of Ingabire Victoire and her political partner Bernard Ntaganda. In many YouTube videos, another figure Hakizinana Rashid Abdul laments: “Kuki abandi banyarwanda bo batibukwa”. Translating this into English appears as if Hakizinana is simply calling for a mourning period. Instead, there lies negation and denial of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
The list of the Hakizinanas, Ingabires and Ntagandas is long.
Upon return to Rwanda on January 16, 2010. Ingabire headed to the Kigali genocide memorial center where she made a speech. It led to her prosecution and conviction. She was given presidential clemency.
Originally delivered in Kinyarwanda, you will be shocked at the English translation used by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) in a case where Ingabire had dragged the Rwandan government several years later.
In the face of the growing trend towards revisionism and negationism with regard to the genocide in Rwanda, it is imperative that the veritable intended meaning of speeches such as the one delivered by Mugesera at Kabaya not be ‘lost in translation.’
This is essential not only in the interests of establishing criminal responsibility and subsequently imposing the most appropriate sanctions on individuals such as Léon Mugesera, but also in the interests of enabling the international community to arrive at a far more accurate understanding of the unwavering and intransigent resolve underpinning the implementation of the 1994 genocide conducted against the Tutsi.