Untying Filip Reyntjen’s Rwanda Genocide Spin

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By: Tom Ndahiro

On 2nd January 2017, Belgian Professor Filip Reyntjens posted a draft paper written with two unnamed “colleagues” on his Facebook page. He did that, “seeking the opinion of current & former Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) leaders on precolonial history”. Basically, questioning the RPF’s position on “military institutions and values in post genocide Rwanda”.

In effect, Professor Reyntjens was summoning the “leaders and former leaders of the RPF” to explain themselves to him.  There is no doubt, he was nostalgically looking back to a time during Juvenal Habyarimana’s genocidal government, when all he had to say was jump, and any Rwanda political figure would simply ask how high.

It is a time when the professor was the most favoured adviser to the Rwandan Government. So imbedded within the Habyarimana government that in 1990, he could represent Rwanda at a conference in Geneva.

In November 2007, the professor told a London court about his role in the Geneva conference: “Because, you know, many people discovered Rwanda in 1994 through the lens of a genocide.  We were not that many ‘Rwanda specialists’ before 1994, certainly not before 1990.  I myself and others warned that the attack by the RPF on 1st October 1990 put the Tutsi community at great risk.  That is eventually what happened.  I mean, there is a clear line going from the attack of 1st October 1990 to the start of the genocide, or the genocide between April and July 1994.”

Professor Reyntjens’ suggestion that the RPF attack inevitably had to lead to genocide is nothing short of obscene. He claims to have prophesied genocide–as a Rwanda “specialist”. The truth is that he would have known about the plans for genocide because of his closeness to its planners.

And as for his inference that other “specialists” might agree with him, other than the perpetrators of the genocide and their sympathisers, no credible academic, or commentator on Rwanda has ever made a direct link between a war and commission of genocide.

Note for instance this warning given in 1964, by Gregoire Kayibanda, the first president of an extremist government in Rwanda–that if refugees attacked Kigali “will be the end of Batutsi”. Both Habyarimana and Francois Mitterand’s governments had similar apocalyptic prophecies.

But, I must perhaps beg the professor’s pardon. He must know by now however, that these RPF leaders he summons are likely to be too preoccupied with the business of national reconstruction to jump to attention at his demand.

Indeed one cannot help but conclude that his obsessive attacks on the RPF are at least in part because he no longer enjoys the influence he once had over Rwanda’s political figures. By the professor’s leave however, I shall try to respond to his paper.

His central thesis questions the historical and cultural basis for the current policy of emphasizing the historical unity of Rwandans. He denies that the divisive politics of twentieth century Rwanda were conceived by the colonising powers, and claims that the RPF is wrong to base its reconciliation and reconstruction policies on precolonial harmony within Rwandan society.

In rebuilding Rwanda, the RPF look back at how Rwandans conceived it, rather than how the colonizing powers reshaped it to their purposes. Their vision is of a modern Rwanda steeped in its precolonial cultures and values.

This is anathema to Reyntjens, and no wonder. He wants to assert to the colonial state and the neo colonial state which replaced it. This is no mere debate about the detail of history. Reyntjens fights for the dying embers of a Rwanda as the colonial powers imagined it.

Reyntjens is lauded as a Rwanda expert. Yet no credible historian questions the established structures of the precolonial Rwandan state. Nowhere within those structures is there a cleavage between ethnic groups. This only comes into being in the twentieth century instituted by the colonial powers as a means of control. Divide and rule.

Professor Reyntjens is not about historical accuracy, it is the assertion of an ideology. What historian questions the ravages of colonialism on colonized societies? These ravages were especially severe in Rwanda, mainly because of the intricate complexity of its social and political structures.

Reyntjens relies almost entirely on Jan Vansina to argue his case, and dismisses other sources as fantasy. We are never told what makes Vansina an infallible authority and every other source a fantasy. According to Vansina, and Reyntjens, Rwanda “does not really become a state until the 20th Century”. This is a ludicrous claim. Europeans first arrive in Rwanda in 19th Century, and they find a highly organized state with established structures to rival any in the world.

It is this state and these structures that they set about dismantling. How to respond to anyone who questions established historical fact without evidence to the contrary? It is my opinion and therefore a fact, seems to be Reyntjens’ argument.

As interesting is evidence Reyntjens chooses to overlook. On 24th March 1957, a group of Bahutu intellectuals, including Gregoire Kayibanda, published the infamous “Hutu Manifesto”. The document was to be the genocide bible. Though published by this group of Rwandans, it was in fact conceived by the Catholic Church, represented by two priests, Arthur Dejemeppe, and Chanoine Ernotte. The Catholic Church was the chosen institution through which colonial power was largely exercised.

It is notable that Kayibanda and his group saw themselves as “committed Christians”. The ideology for genocide came wrapped in pseudo Christian colours. Kayibanda and his band of extremists were servants of the Church, the colonial state. Kayibanda was at the time editor of the Catholic newspaper, Kinyamateka. He worked from within…his intellectual roots were firmly within the Church, so when he declares that, “[Hutu and Tutsi] are two Nations in a single state… two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers of different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”, he is expressing the position of the colonial power structure Reyntjens defends 60 years later. The ideology that was to underpin genocide was sanctioned by the Church.

But, let’s overlook the absurd presumption aside, and look further at his supposed evidence and reasoning. He argues that Rwanda is not “a natural nation”, and its history is characterized by wars of conquest.

This astoundingly untutored view from an established professor ignores the obvious fact that there is nothing “natural” about any nation state. And what monarchy hasn’t been characterized by wars of conquest? Try a brief look at European history. A hundred years’ war ring any bells?

With snide sarcasm Reyntjens scoffs that the RPF presents a precolonial Rwanda ruled over by wise kings where all was peace and harmony. The RPF makes no such claims. Some kings were wise as others were capricious. There were no doubt injustices as there were everywhere else. The point is that whatever injustices there were, were not against any specific group because of their ethnicity, that’s the point.

There is no doubt that the terms Hutu and Tutsi existed in precolonial Rwanda, but significantly, individuals moved between these groups. A point acknowledged by the International Tribunal for Rwanda in the trial of the trial of one of the leaders of the genocide, Jean Paul Akayezu. “Indeed, the demarcation line was blurred, one could move from one status to another, as one became rich or poor, or even through marriage.” This court also agrees with many that one can hardly talk of ethnic groups as regards Hutu and Tutsi, “given that they share the same language and culture”.

The ICTR goes on to say, “In the early 1930s, Belgian authorities introduced a permanent distinction by dividing the population into three groups which they called ethnic groups…In line with this division, it became mandatory for every Rwandan to carry an identity card mentioning his or her ethnicity. The Chamber notes that the reference to ethnic background on identity cards was maintained, even after Rwanda’s independence and was, at last, abolished only after the tragic events the country experienced in 1994.”

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