Who killed the president of Rwanda?

Published on Pambazuka News, by Gerald Caplan, 2010-01-21.

Has one of the great political murder mysteries of our time finally been solved? I’d say the answer is probably yes, although we can be confident the solution will be rejected by many.


On the evening of 6 April 1994, just as it was approaching Kigali, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana home from Tanzania was shot down by missiles fired from the ground. Also on the flight was the president of Burundi, Cyprian Ntaryamira, as well as several high-level Rwandan political and military officials. But from the first movement there was no doubt that the target was Habyarimana. What was in doubt was the culprit, and on this the debate has raged furiously for the past almost 16 years … //


Now along comes a new document prepared by an ‘Independent Committee of Experts’ appointed by the government of Rwanda, with the explicit title Report of the Investigation into the Causes and Circumstances of and Responsibility for the Attack of 06/04/1994 against the Falcon 50 Rwandan Presidential Aeroplane [sic], Registration Number 9xR-NN. The head of the 7-person committee was Dr Jean Mutsinzi, former Justice of the Supreme Court of Rwanda, now a judge of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The other members are apparently lawyers or authorities on aircraft matters, but an annex offering their resumes is not unfortunately part of the commission’s report (which is easily available online at mutsinzireport.com).

In my view, the Commission’s report is largely persuasive. But you can immediately see how much more credible it would be if the members hadn’t all been Rwandans appointed by the Kagame government. I am confident that an independent commission appointed, say, by the African Union, would have delivered the same conclusions but with far more credibility. An obvious precedent was the OAU-appointed independent International Panel of Eminent Personalities (IPEP) whose report, Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide[ PDF], has achieved a certain authority. But I readily acknowledge that genocide deniers, Hutu extremists and Kagame-haters will reject any and all conclusions that give Kagame the benefit of the doubt, and the evidence be damned.

Perhaps that’s why his government consistently acts on its own, without waiting for external validation. It did the same with the report on the role of France in the genocide, delivered by a panel of Rwandans also appointed by the government and headed by well-known RPF militant. In my view its report was overwhelmingly accurate and appropriately damning for France. But I wished they had asked outside experts like Linda Melvern to undertake that project, to give it real international credibility. But that is not the way the Kagame government does things.

We are left, then, to judge the report on the plane crash on its merits, and in this respect it seems to me to have made a major contribution to settling the great question of who was responsible.

In a word, the ‘Committee of Experts’ documents the logic most of us have accepted since the start. They pin the blame directly and fully on a group of Hutu extremists who were simply not prepared to accept the power-sharing provisions of the Arusha Accords. In this sense, they prove a terrible point: The very agreement that was to bring harmony to Rwanda led directly to the genocide. This is a staggering truth for all those involved in conflict resolution and peace-making to conjure with … //

… These flaws reduce the authoritativeness of this report. They will be jumped all over by those who will never accept any conclusion that fails to blame Kagame and the RPF for Habyarimana’s murder. So there’s no point whatever in trying to prove anything else to these deniers and extremists. They have no interest in the truth.

But for those genuinely searching for the most convincing answer to this great political murder mystery, the strengths of the committee’s report overwhelmingly outweigh its few unfortunate flaws. Of course it would still be best to have the definitive report by a truly independent group of international experts. But until we do, the conclusions of this report should stand. And if there ever were an independent external study, I’m confident its conclusions would echo those of this Rwandan committee of experts:

‘We know who shot Habyarimana’s plane down. We know why they did it. We know how they did it. And we know that they came within an inch of success in their diabolical plan. Before they were defeated, the Hutu extremists who assassinated President Habyarimana wiped out thousands of decent Hutu who wouldn’t go along with their fiendish plot and three-quarters of their country’s Tutsi. The attack on the president’s plane was the opening shot in one of the purest genocides of the past 100 years, launched for no better reason than the greed of a few power-hungry Hutu fanatics. It was one of the greatest man-made tragedies of our time.’


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