Africa File: Rebels lose their 'good guys' image

The murder of the three Catholic bishops in Rwanda adds a ghastly new dimension to what must be one of the worst pogroms ever. The rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had a relatively good reputation for a guerrilla movement until recently. Its fighters seemed disciplined and well-organised and although they shot first and asked questions later, they did not perpetrate the massacres of women and children.

Yesterday the RPF radio admitted that four of its fighters had killed the three bishops and 10 other clergymen at Kabgayi, just south of Kigali. They had been guarding the clergymen and the radio said the fighters believed the bishops had taken part in the killings of their families.

It is remarkable that the RPF has owned up to the killings. Not many hard- pressed guerrilla movements whose troops go berserk would make such an admission. But the killings destroy the image of the RPF as the good guys trying to seize the country in order to stop the killings. The admission confirms reports from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other aid agencies that the RPF has been carrying out reprisals. It is now clear that many of their fighters, driven to a frenzy of revenge and hatred, have caught the killing disease and have cracked.

Two of the bishops killed were close to the former president and all three were Hutus. Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva of Kigali was a bastion of the old Hutu, one-party state establishment. He served on the central committee of the ruling party from 1975 until 1990 when the Vatican forced him to resign. He had recently come under criticism for not speaking against the massacres. So had Bishop Joseph Ruzindana of Byumba. Bishop Tadeo Nsengiyumva, no relation of the Archbishop, was much more a man of the people.

When the killings started in April he said in despair: 'The Christian message is not being heard. After a century of evangelisation we have to begin again because the best catechists, those who filled our churches on Sundays, were the first to go out with machetes in their hands.' In Rwanda, which is 60 to 70 per cent Catholic, the Hutu bishops are said to have blocked the appointment of Abbe Mulvara, a well-known priest who is Tutsi, to a bishopric.

The local Catholic Church seems to have betrayed its record elsewhere in Africa where it has a good, though rarely heroic, record of keeping a distance from dictators and staying close to the people.

SUNDAY is the anniversary of Nigeria's aborted election last year which was won by Chief Moshood K O Abiola, a wealthy businessman. His victory wasn't part of President Ibrahim Babangida's plan so the election was cancelled. General Babangida was then forced out and power was seized by his former deputy, Sanni Abacha.

Mr Abiola, who has vowed to form his own government by Sunday, now says that he has not pressed his claim too vigorously because General Abacha and his soldiers promised to let him become president. 'They assured me that I will become president,' he said. 'The arrangement was that I would be sworn in in April of this year. But soon after they came in and tasted power, they began to sing a different song.'

I SHALL always keep the little note I got this week from Nad Pillay, the soft- spoken spokesman for the African National Congress in London. He announces that the ANC office in Penton Street is finally closing. It was a dingy place, piled with posters and pamphlets. It should be preserved as a monument to persistence in adversity. Correspondence, says Nad, can be forwarded to the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square.