Why the myth of the Akazu genocide conspiracy lies at the heart of the official narrative of the Rwandan genocide – a reply to Keith Somerville.
The official narrative of the tragic events of April 1994 in Rwanda, catalysed by the shooting down of the plane carrying President Habyarimana, holds that responsibility for the death toll lies primarily with those who intended to destroy Rwandan Tutsis per se in order to secure Hutu domination. Genocide is characterised above all by the matter of intent. Every substantial account that upholds the official line links the issue of genocide planning with the Akazu – a shadowy organisation linked to the President that turned against him, the line goes, because his signing of the peace agreement known as the Arusha Accords was a betrayal of the cause of Hutu domination.
Contrary to Somerville’s assertion in his review of my book, “˜Rwanda 1994: The Myth of the Akazu Genocide Conspiracy and Its Consequences’, I go into significant detail about the Akazu’s supposed membership and their activities. I demonstrate that none of the supposed ringleaders was found guilty of conspiracy to commit genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I make a careful separation between the issues of genocide preparation and implementation, and discuss several convictions for acts of genocide. Nowhere do I state that the Akazu were said to be the sole agents of genocide.
Along with other proponents of the official narrative, Somerville believes that Hutu extremists were “desperate to cling on to political and economic power by any means” and turned against Habyarimana because they feared that he “would sell out dominance by those Hutus committed to Hutu superiority”. This is a reference to Habyarimana’s signing of the Arusha Accords in August 1993. But the cause of Hutu supremacy, whatever its political salience may or may not have been, was surely over by this time.
Somerville misses completely the significance of the fact that Habyarimana had played a key role in the democratic reform process in Rwanda, as US Ambassador Robert Flaten points out, and signed a new democratic constitution into law in June 1991. The days of one party rule were over and discrimination of any kind was outlawed. Habyarimana also conceded to a coalition government with four opposition parties in April 1992. The new minister of Defence, James Gasana, took measures to reduce the influence of the northern Hutu military leadership by appointing officers from the south.
The backlash to the reforms amounted to the formation of a new party, the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) in March 1992, and in threats within the military to Gasana which drove him into exile, but not to any conspiracy to bring about a genocide. With the coalition government in place, Habyarimana invited the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to end its war and register as a political party. With poor electoral prospects, this was not an option the RPF would consider, for them power could only be attained by means of the gun.
The social and political tensions that escalated through 1993 and erupted into mass slaughter in April 1994 were created by the prospect of the RPF seizing power. Apart from Hutu extremists, all ordinary Rwandans – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa – had reason to fear and loathe the RPF. From the moment of its Ugandan-backed invasion in October 1990, the RPF made no attempt to win over popular support. Each of its offensives resulted in the depopulation of targeted regions. Its largest offensive in February 1992 brought the population of internal displacement camps to almost a million. Byumba, the region hardest hit, was also Rwanda’s breadbasket with the result that famine loomed in late 1993.
The rising fortunes of the RPF were due to its military capacity which, by the end of 1991, was superior to that of the Rwandan army, and to the diplomatic backing they received from the US. My book shows that the “˜Arusha Peace Process’, as negotiations between the Rwandan government and the RPF were called, was the product of coercive American diplomacy. The US clearly wanted the RPF in government regardless of its standing with the Rwandan electorate. With a mediating team biased in the RPF’s favour, the RPF emerged in a powerful position with the Arusha Accords, with 50:50 control of the proposed integrated army.
The problem for the RPF was the elections that were scheduled by the Accords. The prospect of becoming no more than a minority party in an elected government was something the RPF had to avoid at all costs. It had to find an excuse to resume the war. Assassinating Habyarimana, whose political standing had risen greatly and who was by this time the former ruling party’s greatest asset, would have been certain to generate a violent backlash. As long as the resulting violence was blamed on Hutu extremism, the RPF could justify tearing up the Arusha Accords and settling the issue of state power by military means.
Western acceptance of the RPF’s claim of an Akazu-orchestrated genocide conspiracy is central to the RPF’s success in having the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane blamed on Hutu extremism, and their seizure of power legitimised as a genocide-relief exercise. Not by any stretch of the imagination is the debunking of the myth of the Akazu genocide conspiracy “˜a straw man relatively easy to knock down’. Paul Kagame’s standing as the man who led an army that liberated Rwanda from genocide is the sole source of his legitimacy as Rwanda’s strongman, and is the only excuse the US and its allies have for backing him.
The evidence I give for Kagame’s responsibility for shooting down Habyarimana is limited, according to Somerville, to “˜fiercely anti-Kagame former members of the RPF’. Not so. I go into detail about how the United Nations’ own investigation team became convinced of Kagame’s responsibility, and how their investigation was terminated by Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour as a result. The report of Robert Gersony, another UN investigator who detailed RPF atrocities met the same fate. Aloys Ruyenzi repeated to me what he has said under oath in court that he had witnessed Kagame ordering the plane shooting; Jean-Baptiste Mberabahizi told me he was in the room when Kagame received the message that the aerial assassination had succeeded and saw the RPF units given immediate marching orders.
Somerville may well object to the findings of Christian Davenport and Allan Stam that the majority of the dead during this tragic period were Hutu, but he cannot simply dismiss them as “˜rough estimates’. Their analysis is far more rigorous and their method more transparent than the others on Rwandan casualty figures from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, African Rights, Gérard Prunier, Filip Reyntjens and the Government of Rwanda.
The issue of numbers is important for our understanding of events, but they do not in themselves tell us anything about the issue of genocide. My book describes the genocide committed by officers in the army of German South West Africa, in which the death toll of Herero and Nama people may not have exceeded a hundred thousand.
Somerville’s most risible attack on my book is where he states that “˜the judgement by Judge Marc Trevidic that the missile that downed the plane could only have been fired from an area of Kigali under the control of Rwandan Presidential Guard…’ and that if I had paid more attention to this, rather than confining it to a “˜footnote’, my thesis would fall apart.
First, the report was not produced by Judge Trevidic, but by five experts as a submission to a judicial inquiry led by judges Marc Trevidic and Nathalie Poux. Second, it was not a “˜judgement’ but a submission to an on-going inquiry that has yet to be concluded. Third, it did not state that the location of the missile could “˜only’ have been an area under the Presidential Guard’s control. It states that the area from which the missiles were most likely to have been fired was not confined to Kanombe military camp, but to an area that included the camp but comprising about a hundred hectares, and could extend by a further hundred yards or more to the south and east, outside the control of the military. Fourth, the report is guarded about even these findings, not least of all because the acoustic tests that were used to determine the location of the missiles were not conducted anywhere near the airport in Rwanda but on a military airfield in France.
The judges have included the evidence that was collected by their predecessor Jean-Louis Bruguií¨re from those Somerville dismisses as “˜fiercely anti-Kagame’, and were due to hear from another key witness, Emile Gafirita. That now looks unlikely, since Gafirita was kidnapped by Kagame’s agents in Nairobi on 13th November 2014. We do not yet know what Trevidic and Poux are going to conclude, nor whether their conclusion will be the last word on the authors of Habyarimana’s assassination.
Somerville describes my book as a “˜thesis of denial’. Anyone who challenges the official narrative of Rwanda’s tragedy is inevitably accused of “˜denial’. This is the stock in trade of the Kagame regime’s treatment of its opponents, and on this Western upholders of his line are no better. Denial refers less to political analysis than to psychological disposition, and as such evades rational argument. More importantly, it has the odious implication of Holocaust denial and thereby often succeeds in closing down debate.
Somerville does not disabuse the reader of the notion that I may be a Holocaust denier because he is silent about an entire chapter of the book which examines three genocides of the last century: the Nazi Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the genocide of the Hereros and Nama. My argument is that in these genocides, a clear line was crossed when controlled persecution became controlled annihilation, and that the parallel with Rwanda is forced.
The Emeritus Professor René Lemarchand, an established authority on the politics of the African Great Lakes region, reviewed the PhD thesis from which my book is drawn. While he takes issue with my problem with the killings in Rwanda being labelled genocide, he states that “˜there is no denying the author’s meticulous scrutiny of the evidence, his analytic skills, and the monkish travails into deconstructing the dominant narrative’. In challenging the narrative, I have “˜in effect laid the foundation for a radically new interpretation for Rwanda’s plunge into the abyss.’
Somerville’s effort to defend the narrative leaves him clutching at straws.
Barrie Collins is the author of ‘Rwanda 1994: the myth of the Akazu genocide conspiracy and its consequences’.