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King Kigeli And Rwanda’s Complicated History

6 Min Read

On Sunday the January 15, at the funeral ceremony for Rwanda’s last monarch Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, the national flag in front of the Nyanza palace museum remained at full mast despite the ongoing ceremonies in the compound. When the Sports and Culture minister Uwacu Julienne rose to speak on behalf of government of Rwanda, she read out a prepared message that lasted just about a minute.

This was noticeable and deeply telling because a debate had been going on particularly in the media and online about what kind of funeral the former monarch would get and whether such would signify anything in the history of the country. Would the king be honoured as a former head of state or not? In the end, it was a mostly a family affair but a managed one and of great public interest.

The media, including myself, had turned out in force, with some online outlets giving live updates. The funeral of King Kigeli was always going to be a strange affair given his role and that of the monarchical system in general in the history of Rwanda. Firstly, the King as an individual was never widely revered as is common in other places with monarchies.

In 1959 he was enthroned dramatically by nationalists, despite the objections of the Belgian colonial masters following the sudden passing of his elder brother King Mutara III Rudahigwa. His reign would later be short-lived as the chaotic and violent process for independence saw a consequential referendum abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic.

The winners of the referendum, Permehutu who ruled the country at independence, maintained an ideology that portrayed the monarchy as a system that was oppressive to the Hutu masses. With the King exiled from 1961 up to his death in America last October, his commissions and omissions would become another source of controversy, not just in Rwanda but mostly among the Rwandan refugee population that fled alongside him. The most debated is whether or not he did enough to ensure his subjects returned home.

It is unknown whether he wrote an autobiography in which he gave his version and reasoning behind particular decisions but the overseer of the funeral Pastor Mpyisi put up a spirited defence of his legacy.

It is reported that the Late Mwalimu Nyerere of Tanzania kicked him out of his country because of his failure to lead a military campaign to oust the Gregory Kayibanda regime in the 1960s. This was after Nyerere had rescued him from Belgian custody in Burundi by holding Belgian hostages for exchange and threatening to cut trade routes.

Since independence, the institution of the Umwami (Monarchy) has always been seen as a possible alternative power centre by all the republican governments be it Parmehutu, MRND or RPF-Inkotanyi. And none ever tolerated any public organisation to express support for the return of the monarchy.

When the RPF struggle started, the role of the monarch was a silent but nonetheless present issuethat was strictly managed. It is said to have been at the centre of some of the most intricate intrigues within the liberation movement.

During the post genocide in the RPF era, at one stage, there was a big rumour about the existenceof the King’s loyalists -Ingabo z’Umwami- that were being silently purged and there was a reason. For the RPF government, it was probably wise to clearly insist that the king can only live in Rwanda as a private citizen albeit of some distinguished privileges.

One reason was the potential to upset the delicate social balance that has been achieved in recent years. This was because one of the rallying cries of Hutu power ideology was that the RPF intended to re-impose Tutsi domination that they claimed existed during the kingdom era.

Secondly, within the RPF, identity tensions; some based on clans for example Abanyiginya vs Abega that is rooted in the Rucuncu coup d’Etat of 1896 sometimes threatened to rear its head. Unlike previous regimes, the RPF has so far managed to curb and overcome politics of identity in line with its national unity and reconciliation politics.

And undermining the disputed kingship is well part of the process. Therefore, the caution exhibited in the one-minute speech by Minister Uwacu had sound logic behind it. As one wag put it, all the top offices of the land must have edited the three-sentence text for weeks before it could be agree upon. The fact that there were no taking chances indicated the country is managing but not yet at terms with its complicated history.