Obituary: Juvenal Habyarimana

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The Independent Online
Juvenal Habyarimana, soldier, politician: born Gasiza, Gisenyi province, Ruanda (now Rwanda) 8 March 1937; President of Rwanda 1973-94; married 1963 Agatha Kangika (seven children); died Kigali, Rwanda 6 April 1994.

THERE IS a cruel symmetry in the fact that a single rocket should destroy the plane in which both the President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were returning on Wednesday from peace talks held in Tanzania. Rwanda and Burundi, neighbouring states in central Africa, were twinned at birth when gaining independence from Belgium in 1962, and both inherited the same disease, a perpetual ethnic conflict between the once dominant minority Tutsi tribe and the majority Hutu. Both Habyarimana and Ntaryamira were Hutu and both were engaged in a life-long struggle to quell the raging flames of ethnic conflict and bring a degree of equilibrium to their densely populated countries. Both were killed when their plane was brought down and now one fears that the flames of hatred between the competing factions will turn into an inferno.

Like most of his ethnic group, Habyarimana was short and stocky, but his composure indicated a great strength of will and his darting, piercing eyes an unusually active intelligence. He needed both qualities to rule one of the most turbulent countries in Africa singlehandedly for 19 years and for a further two years in conjunction with his prime minister.

Habyarimana was born at Gaziza in the Gisenyi prefecture, northern Rwanda. He studied mathametics and humanities at St Paul's College, Bukavu, in Zaire, before spending one year at the medical school at Lovanium, in the same country.

He gave up medical studies to become a soldier and joined the Officers' School at Kigali, the Rwandese capital, in December 1960. He was regarded as an outstanding cadet and also trained as a parachutist. He passed out with distinction and became one of the first officers in the National Guard as a second lieutenant in December 1961. Two years later, he was appointed Chief of Staff in the National Guard and made an immediate impact when he routed a strong Tutsi force.

Although the Hutu form 85 per cent of the population of Rwanda, they had been virtual slaves of the cattle-rearing Tutsi who arrived in the 'land of 1,000 hills' from the 15th century onwards. The Tutsi developed a system of feudal overlordship unsurpassed outside Ethiopia. Tutsi lords controlled the allocation of land and exacted tribute in the form of forced labour. The master-servant relationship reached extreme proportions when the Hutu came to be regarded as less than human and their food considered profane.

Tutsi overlordship was intensified under colonisation, first by the Germans, from 1890 to 1916, and later the Belgians, from 1916 to 1962, who accorded them administrative powers and a monopoly on


Following violent uprisings, the Belgian authorities finally introduced political concessions which brought in Gregoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, as the first president of independent Rwanda in 1962. A series of revenge attacks against the Hutu followed and Habyarimana's sterling leadership in the face of Hutu insurgency brought him to the attention of Kayibanda. He was made Minister for the Armed Forces and the Police in 1965, at the age of 28, and promoted to Major-General in 1973.

Following widespread tribal tensions in the country and unrest among northern Hutu officers, Habyarimana staged a bloodless coup and put Kayibanda under house arrest. He banned all political activity but ruled through a largely civilian cabinet. In July 1975, he formed the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) which became the sole party and of which every Rwandan automatically became a member.

Habyarimana introduced a measure of democracy into the single-party system. In 1988 he was re-elected president for the third time. Responding to Western pressure, he presented a charter for the introduction of a multi-party system but was besieged by economic problems caused by over-

cultivation of the land. In addition, Tutsi exiles had organised themselves into the Rwanda Popular Front and had begun mounting damaging guerrilla strikes.

In 1992 the country held its first multi-party elections and changes in the legislation provided for both a prime minister and a president. But by early 1993, the dire state of the economy, exacerbated by the collapse of coffee prices led to renewed tribal tensions.

The Prime Minister, Dismas Nsengiyaremye, a Tutsi, accused Habyarimana's supporters of massacring 350 Tutsi. Despite support from French troops, Habyarimana was unable to stop the rebel RPF from advancing to within 30 miles of the capital. He was forced to sign a peace pact with the RPF last year in Arusha, Tanzania, as a result of which the RPF would gain a share of government.

It was while returning from further peace talks that Habyarimana was killed.

(Photograph omitted)