December 10, 2021

Inside Battle for Rwanda’s Seventh Day Adventist Church

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Above, Urayeneza Gérard has fought for survival of his Gitwe University. Below, Hesron Byiringiro, the head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rwanda, wants no other institution other than the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA)

A Rwandan businessman and educationist Urayeneza Gérard is facing decades in jail if convicted on the charges of genocide denial in ongoing trial. But as The Chronicles reports, his many supporters have put his troubles on the doorsteps of his very bitter rival.

For the past 28 years, squabbling within religious groups have exploded into the open. For the Catholic Church, it has its own special status; accused of giving ground to growth of the genocidal project that end up in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

When it came to Seventh Day Adventist Church, SDA, with over half a million members as of 2019, it has remained immune. However, this current fight, as we now report, has been simmering underneath for years.

The Chronicles traces the battle raging between the two men who have divided up the church, which had remained scandal-free compared to other groups. The men in question are Urayeneza Gérard, on the one hand, and Hesron Byiringiro, the head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rwanda. Both men are in their 70s.

The two men have never spoken publicly about their battles, leaving it to their foot soldiers to conduct media campaigns against the other camp. While Byiringiro has notable backing from inside Rwanda, Urayeneza has loud supporters in the Rwandan exiled community. Facebook, blogs and YouTube have been the battlegrounds.

Nowhere has the fight been visible as the ongoing court process. Since last month, the war is playing out on appeal at the High Court Chamber for International Crimes located in Nyanza district, several dozen kilometers from the supposed crime scene.

On June 15 last year, the country woke up to surprising development, that Urayeneza Gerard, the founder of the Gitwe University and Gitwe Hospital – all based in Ruhango district, southern Rwanda, had been arrested. Urayeneza is well-known in Rwanda because of the many schools he has helped found.

The arrest of Urayeneza with eight others by RIB, followed weeks of speculation about genocide victims said to have been buried under the foundations of Gitwe Hospital. Exhumations had been taking place at different spots in reaction to information provided by genocide survivors and convicts, according to the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB).

Preliminary reports had suggested that the mass graves contained many victims, mostly women and children. By end of the exhumation, remains of eight people, all adult males, were retrieved from the hospital compound.

Urayeneza was charged in a highly publicised trial for concealing information related to victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Prosecution said the act amounted to denying the genocide. These are serious charges in Rwanda.  

Prosecution witness paid with alcohol

The trial ensued. They were denied bail. State prosecutors brought many witnesses including people serving genocide sentences, who said they worked with Urayeneza or were given orders by him. Others were survivors who said they were present and survived acts that were commandeered through government security officers since Urayeneza was a respectable figure at the time.

Urayeneza Gérard

Among cases highlighted was that of 93 Tutsis reportedly loaded onto a pickup truck and taken to be killed in 1994. Testimony from prosecution witnesses said Urayeneza provided the pickup to his cousin and soldiers to take the victims to their deaths.

Throughout the proceedings, evidence was vast and grim, showing how Urayeneza used his influential status in society at the time to help the genocide machine accomplish the mass massacre of Tutsis.

Due to the nature of Urayeneza’s profile, all the other co-accused were eclipsed. Their cases were mentioned in passing by the ever-present media. The case was covered like a celebrity trial.

Aware of the media coverage, Urayeneza took advantage. His team of defense lawyers ensured the legal aspects and the hidden maneuvers causing the problems, were brought out in their own submissions and those of defense witnesses.

For the start, the defense said Urayeneza was not in Murama commune, specifically Gitwe region, during the genocide. There is no way Urayeneza could have managed a genocide operation when he was away, argued the defense.

In March this year, a three-judge bench comprising of Jean Marie Vianney Nkundakozera, Nyiraguhirwa Judith and Kamali Christophe sentenced Urayeneza to life in prison, plus a Rwf 1.6billion ($1.5m) compensation for victims’ families.

Urayeneza’s co-accused were also given long sentences.

They appealed to the Intermediate Court of Muhanga, which dismissed their appeal with a few weeks. They filed another appeal at the High Court’s Chamber and that is where the hearings are taking place since late last month.

In a shocking turn of events, some of the key prosecution witnesses during the low court trial, have changed sides, now acting as defense witnesses for Urayeneza. Several have recanted their prosecution testimony, with one claiming the earlier testimony was given after he had been intoxicated by alcohol.

What is clear is that different camps in this battle are going the extra mile; paying up whoever is willing, to testify. Some have admitted being paid money to say whatever they were saying.

First, the allegations of having leading role in the genocide was quashed in the Gacaca courts back in 2008, according to Urayeneza’s defense. The panel of Gacaca community judges cleared him of all charges.

To emphasize their point, the defense brought a witness Sibomana Aimable who had given evidence against Urayeneza before the Gacaca court. However, this time, at the High Court Chamber, Sibomana gave contrary evidence, saying the accused was never in the region during the genocide.

Sibomana said he was engaged by a one Ahobantegeye Charlotte who bought him alcohol, plus promising him money and a phone, to give evidence against Urayeneza. Sibomana said the payment was so that he could allege that he had been part of a team that emptied the Gitwe Hospital latrines where they found remains of Tutsis, but was asked to never reveal the information by Urayeneza’s associates.

Who is Ahobantegeye Charlotte?

Habiyambere Ildephonse, is another formerly prosecution witness. He was the burgomaster (mayor) of Murama commune, the area where the accused is said to have managed the killing of Tutsis. Habiyambere the High Court Chamber that he doubted Urayeneza was in the region. The ex-local official is serving time for genocide.  

The former local official also dismissed claims that Urayeneza owned a gun which he used to hunt and kill Tutsis. Other witnesses said indeed Urayeneza had the gun, but  was instead he used it for personal protection and safeguard Tutsis he had hidden.

Another witness who had claimed that Urayeneza had a gun and machetes together with his sons, this time, said indeed they had them but that Urayeneza for his part didn’t use them to kill Tutsis.

Another defense witness who changed his story is Munanira Alexandre. During the original trial, he had claimed that his father was among the Tutsis killed with direct involvement of Urayeneza helped. But at the High Court Chamber, Munanira said it was Ahobantegeye Charlotte who promise him goodies to make up the story.

Another issue which the prosecution had brought up is where Urayeneza is accused of providing the pickup vehicle which was used by his children and cousin brother to ferry Tutsis to be killed. In his defense, Urayeneza says indeed the pickup was his, but that it was taken without his permission.

The appeals session at the High Court Chamber will continue on December 29, which time the defense is promising more shocking revelations.

During the initial court proceedings, and at the High Court Chamber, one name kept coming up; Ahobantegeye Charlotte.

According to elaborate details which have run in the local media for past two years, she was introduced as a former senior financial official at Gitwe University.

What has since emerged is that her mobilization of witnesses against Urayeneza was her was of fighting back against her dismissal from Gitwe University. A government-ordered external audit of the University found she had been dismissed after failing to provide evidence for expenditures reaching over Rwf 170m. She availed fake invoices.

It is alleged Ahobantegeye is a major player in the camp of Hesron Byiringiro, the head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rwanda. Supporters of Urayeneza say, some of which allegations appeared in the court sessions, that the former Gitwe accounts official changed her allegiance to Byiringiro.

Ahobantegeye is just a small item in a very complex battle pitting Urayeneza and Byiringiro, going back many years and over strategic interests. Either side wants to be the go-to-person for all affairs concerning the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Which camp is government supporting?

The two men are embroiled in supremacy squabbling as to who the Seventh Day Adventists followers should pay allegiance to.

For his part, Urayeneza has been running schools, at all levels from primary to University, since the 1980s. It is documented that he used his access to the government of former president Juvenal Habyarimana, to start schools run by the Adventist Church.

Urayeneza opened a teacher training college at Gitwe in 1993 called ISPG (Institut Superieur Pedagogique de Gitwe). It would be transformed into University of Gitwe in 2011. Urayeneza moved a step further, opening a medical school at the University.

The medical school first had Faculty of Biomedical Sciences that among other skills trained laboratory technicians. Other medical fields like surgery would be added.

However, at the same time, the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) began operating in Rwanda in 1988. And then in 1997, UNILAK, University of Lay Adventists of Kigali, was born. Both operate to date and have government clearance.

According to Urayeneza’s supporters, while the fight between Urayeneza and Byiringiro isn’t new, it took on a new twist when Gitwe University launched a medical school. UNILAK also did the same. The country now had three medical schools, together with the government’s own at the University of Rwanda.

However, in 2003, a ministry of education team of experts, which also included UNESCO representatives, recommended the medical school at UNILAK be shut down. The team also ruled that the University had no capacity to award degrees.

It is reported that the leadership of the Adventist Church at the headquarters blamed their woos on Urayeneza. They didn’t sit back, opening a new war front.  

Questions began arising over the competency of Gitwe University. The Education Ministry refused to license the University’s medical school. The faculty was closed in 2017 and given two years to improve facilities.

A government-ordered audit in late 2018 found the medical laboratory and hiring qualified teaching staff, which were recommended, hadn’t been fulfilled. Instead, Urayeneza brought lecturers from Nigeria, DR Congo and Burundi, supposedly qualified to teach medicine and surgery. The government said they were not qualified.

The audit also found the University had spent up to Rwf 1.5billion paying these imported lecturers, so they could be just present in case government supervisors came.  Government issued a definitive decision in January 2019, closing completely the medical school and all related courses. Despite petitioning Parliament, lawmakers could not help him. Urayeneza had lost this stage of their war game.

The soul of the Seventh Day Adventist Church began experiencing infighting following a 2004 conference bringing together SDA pastors to map the church’s future. The conference was attended by more than 900 delegates, held at Gitwe, which is Urayeneza’s home turf.  

At the conference, one camp backed by Urayeneza fought to elect Pastor Josue Rusine as head of SDA Church Rwanda. The scheme was meant to unseat Byiringiro. Bizarrely, Rusine is a longtime confidant of Urayeneza, and has been University of Gitwe Registrar for many years till to date.

Hesron Byiringiro

The Urayeneza camp also claims Byiringiro has used his office as head of the Seventh Day Adventist Church of Rwanda to mobilize government agencies to destroy Urayeneza, plus reputation of Gitwe University and Hospital.

The two camps want the other’s blood so much that they are using ethnic tags to describe the other. The kind of language used is not fit for publication in our pages.

Before the smoke could disappear, the Seventh Day Adventist Church headquarters, in June 2019 unveiled the East-Central Africa Division (ECD) School of Medicine. It was inaugurated by President Paul Kagame together with Blasious Ruguri, president of the Adventist Church’s East-Central Africa Division (ECD).

The brand-new ECD medical school is hosted by the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) on the Masoro Main Campus in Kigali. It becomes the second of its kind on the African continent and the seventh in the Seventh-day Adventist Church worldwide, according to official accounts from the launch event.

The education ministry has not spoken directly about whether it backs Urayeneza or Byiringiro camps. It has instead given general defense that its actions against Gitwe, is purely professional, aimed at ensuring the best possible education is provided to Rwanda’s children.  

With Urayeneza fighting for his liberty so that he doesn’t have to spend decades in jail, it remains to be seen what will become of his educational and health facilities.

There is no way both men could exist on the same Rwandan territory. One had to go. Even if Urayeneza is cleared of all charges, which is unlikely, he will have no reputation to come back to.  

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