Rwanda in crisis as President resigns

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The Independent Online

Plunging Rwanda into its worst political crisis since the 1994 genocide, President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned Thursday after a month of power struggles that have exposed the ethnic fault lines and corruption many in this tiny central African nation have been desperatly trying to overcome.

Although largely ceremonial, Bizimungu's six-year presidency was seen as crucial for national reconciliation between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis in the aftermath of the 100-day slaughter of more than 500,000 people, orchestrated by an extremist Hutu government.

Bizimungu, 49, a Hutu technocrat, was embroiled in conflict with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front - a former rebel group-turned political movement that stopped the killings of minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in July 1994 - over issues of corruption and the prosecution of some ministers suspected of graft and mismanagement.

Some members of the government accuse Bizimungu of trying to amass power and of thwarting an anti-corruption campaign that was supposed to spare no one. He has been accused of using his office to protect political proteges and to expand his private business - a bad example for the impoverished country of 7.2 million hoping for a fresh start on the ruins of a decade of conflict.

"From today, March 23, 2000, I resign from the post of President of the Republic of Rwanda," Bizimungu said in a terse letter to the President of the Supreme Court.

He made no further comment since delivering the statement at noon local time (1000 GMT).

Joseph Bideri, a government spokesman, said the RPF still had to decide whether to accept Bizimungu's resignation, although it appeared it had little choice.

Political analysts said Bizimungu's resignation could have been timed to avoid a possibly embarrassing appearance in parliament which on Thursday disputed a speech he made Monday in which he accused legislators of wrongly prosecuting ministers on allegations of graft.

Parliament has been a growing force in moves to oust allegedly corrupt officials, including the previous speak of parliament and former Prime Minister Pierre-Celestin Rwigyema.

RPF secretary-general Charles Muligande said the party would meet on Friday to name two candiates for president before a joint session of the 18-member Cabinet and the 70-member National Assembly.

In the interim, the presidency will be exercised by National Assembly speaker Vincent Biruta, a Tutsi from the Social-Democratic Party.

According to a 1993 power-sharing agreement between the then Hutu government and the RPF - under which Rwanda is still governed - the RPF names the candidate for president. Parliament and the Cabinet must ratify its choice.

Under the agreement, Rwandan political parties are allocated seats in both the Cabinet and parliament according to inter-party arrangements. The country's leaders last yespeech Monday before parliament, Bizimungu accused legislators of wrongly going after Rwigyema, also a Hutu, who resigned Feb. 28 following accusations of corruption.

But senior RPF members and legislators charged that Bizimungu was invoking ethnic problems as a smokescreen because he was opposed to the campaign against corruption for fear of being accused himself.

They said Bizimungu has registered two of his trucks in neighboring Congo to avoid paying taxes on them in Rwanda, failed to compensate people he evicted from land where he is putting up a new building and repeatedly obstructed laws that would allow parliament to censor ministers.

Bizimungu, who is also RPF vice chairman, escaped from Rwanda in the early 1990s and joined the rebels based in neighboring Uganda after one of his brothers, a colonel in the former Hutu-dominated army, was assassinated on orders of the late Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana.

The RPF, which modeled itself on rebel movements in Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea that took power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, insists that corruption must be prosecuted from top down, starting with its senior members.