On April 30, 2010, a team of lawyers and process servers arrived at the campus of Oklahoma Christian University (OCU) in Edmond to serve notice of a civil lawsuit that had been filed the day before in federal court in Oklahoma City. The defendant being served was His Excellency Paul Kagame, president of the long-troubled African Republic of Rwanda, a country famously drenched in the blood of genocide. While lawyers pleaded with American Secret Service agents and Kagame’s body guards to allow them to deliver summons and the hundred-plus page long petition, Kagame was giving the commencement speech to OCU’s graduating class, 10 of whom were Rwandan citizens.
The lawsuit was filed, in part, on behalf of Madame Agathe Habyarimana, the widow of Juvénal Habyarimana, the former President of Rwanda. It alleged that in 1994, Kagame, a Tutsi, assassinated former president Habyarimana, a Hutu, by ordering his jet shot down as it approached the runway in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The suit claimed it was Kagame’s intention to spark an outbreak of widespread violence, which ultimately resulted in genocide, by ordering the shooting of the Falcon 50 that carried Habyarimana and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, whose widow is also a plaintiff in the suit.
The two presidents were flying back to Kigali from neighboring Tanzania after signing a peace accord between exiled Tutsi forces and the Hutu-led government of Rwanda. The jet was struck by two surface-to-air missiles fired from close range. All aboard were killed. In retaliation, Rwandan Hutu extremists unleashed one of the deadliest acts of genocide the world has ever seen, systematically killing Tutsis and anyone sympathetic to them.
The lawsuit states, “General Paul Kagame deliberately chose a modus operandi that, in the context of the particular tension pervading both in Rwanda and Burundi between the Hutu and Tutsi communities, could only bring about bloody reprisals against the Tutsi community, and which offered [Kagame] a veneer of legitimacy for his renewal of hostilities and his seizing of State power in Rwanda by criminally violent means.” In the lawsuit, the widows of the dead presidents accused Kagame of wrongful death and murder, crimes against humanity, violations of the rights of life, liberty, and security, and torture, among other things, and requested damages against him in the total amount of $350 million.
The plaintiffs had to clear two procedural hurdles before the lawsuit could even begin in earnest. The most daunting issue was the question of service and notice to Kagame. Before a judge can make any order affecting the rights of a particular defendant, a defendant must be given notice. It is usually accomplished by a process server physically handing a copy of a filed lawsuit and other legal documents to the person being sued.
The other hurdle was jurisdictional. American law dictates that there must be a substantial connection between the person being sued and the place they are sued. In the case of Habyarimana v. Kagame, attorneys for Habyarimana would have to show that Kagame had substantial connections and contacts with the federal jurisdiction of the Western District of Oklahoma in order to maintain the suit there. It was the OCU-Kagame connection that the lawyers were counting on to fulfill the jurisdictional requirement.
In accordance with the Rwandan Presidential Scholars Program, scholarships funded by the Rwandan government are awarded to 10 Rwandans each year to attend OCU. Upon graduation with either bachelor’s or master’s degrees, the graduates are required to return to Rwanda to “help develop their country,” according to OCU’s website.
While lawyers negotiated with the Secret Service and Kagame’s entourage, Kagame addressed the assembled graduates: “I am sure you know that among the distinguished [graduates] today are the first cohort of Rwandan scholars at OCU. Their graduation marks an important milestone in the partnership, and indeed, friendship between OCU and Rwanda.” Extolling the necessity of an educated citizenry, Kagame said, “You need no reminding that in Rwanda, one of the long-lasting consequences of genocide was the decimation of the educated class.”
Of the “decimation” of 1994, Philip Gourevitch, author of the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, wrote, “Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech—performed largely by machete—it was carried out at dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least eight hundred thousand people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Ron Frost, Vice President of Communications at OCU, said that some of the first Rwandese students to attend the university were orphaned by the genocide. Some were old enough in ’94 to have visible memories of family, friends and neighbors being murdered by machete.
Rwanda’s intertribal animosities began with their colonial occupiers, the Belgians, as early as 1919. Through a mixture of biblical myth and Nazi-style eugenics, the Belgians decreed the Tutsis to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, and inherently superior to their countrymen, the Hutus. Tutsis took the flattery to heart. The Belgians placed Tutsis in middle-management roles overseeing and directing the hard and forced labors of their designated inferiors, the Hutus. The Belgians even went so far as to issue identification cards labeling a person either Hutu or Tutsi. Though there exists so much intermarriage between Hutus and Tutsis to blur any genealogical difference between the two, it was considered a high distinction and prize to have the word “Tutsi” printed on your identification card.
Rwandan history after the withdrawal of Belgium is pocked by a series of uprisings and clashes between the two tribes. In 1961, when Paul Kagame was three, he and his family fled for Uganda during a revolt that left as many as 150,000 Rwandans dead, with Tutsis taking the largest number of casualties. Kagame was raised and schooled in exile. As a young man, he became involved in military operations as a guerilla fighter in the Ugandan National Resistance Army that eventually overthrew the Ugandan government in 1985.
Shortly thereafter, Kagame helped to form the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), which was comprised of both exiled Hutus and Tutsis in Uganda. From the start, their aim was to seek re-entry to Rwanda for its exiled population and to gain involvement in Rwandese governance.
In 1990, Kagame was the second in command of the RPF while he was undergoing special military training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. The training was offered to Kagame by the President of Uganda who had the backing of the U.S. Government after having overthrown the brutal regime of Milton Obote. Kagame quit his training early to return to Uganda when news reached him that the leader of the RPF had been killed in combat by Rwandese forces.
At about the same time, peace talks began between the RPF, with Kagame at the helm, and the Rwandan government, headed by then-President Habyarimana. By all accounts, Habyarimana was less than enthusiastic about the proposals being generated in the peace talks. The talks revolved around proposals that would substantially diminish Habyarimana’s influence as head of state.
Peace talks notwithstanding, a vicious propaganda machine was busy cranking up Hutu hostility towards Tutsis within Rwanda, with the apparent blessings of Habyarimana and his wife. A widely read newspaper called Kangura, founded in part by Agathe Habyarimana in reaction to a moderate periodical critical of her husband, became the daily digest for the “Hutu Power” movement that was picking up steam. One edition ran with an article entitled “The Hutu Ten Commandments.” The eighth commandment stated, “Hutus must stop taking pity on the Tutsis.”
The commentators at radio station RTLM, based in Kigali, and whose signal reached across Rwanda, began to refer to Tutsis as “cockroaches,” and warned them to watch their backs.
The dreaded interahamwe was formed. Interahamwe means “those who fight/attack together” in the Rwandese African tongue. The interahamwe consisted of groups of young machete-wielding Hutu men who would be responsible for most of the 800,000 Tutsi dead by the end of the summer of 1994.
Interahamwe groups would regularly have rallies “where alcohol usually flow red freely, giant banners splashed with hagiographic portraits of Habyarimana flapped in the breeze, and paramilitary drills were conducted like the latest hot dance moves,” writes Philip Gourevitch. “The president and his wife often turned out to be cheered at these spectacles, while in private the members of the interahamwe were organized into small neighborhood bands, drew up lists of Tutsis, and went on retreats to practice burning houses, tossing grenades, and hacking dummies up with machetes.”
“Hutu Power” Radio RTLM reported to Rwanda that Juvénal Habyarimana was dead. Its commentators encouraged that “the tall trees be chopped down,” code for “kill the Tutsis,” and began almost exclusively referring to Tutsis as “cockroaches.” According to multiple sources, commentators at RTLM would read out names of Tutsis and Hutus sympathetic to Tutsis, and give directions as to how to find them. In turn, RTLM would announce the news after someone on their list had been killed by the Hutu interahamwe.
At the outset of the genocide, Agathe Habyarimana flew to Paris, where she lives in exile to this day.
Some have speculated that Hutu extremists were responsible for shooting down Habyarimana’s plane in retaliation for signing the peace accord with the RPF, and as a pretext for sparking the genocide that resulted. Others believe that the orders to shoot down the plane were given by the RPF, and specifically by Kagame himself, also as a pretext to spark the genocide and justify an invasion into Rwanda from the northeast in Uganda, which is exactly what happened. Kagame steadfastly denies the accusation that the RPF, and he, had anything to do with the shooting down of Habyarimana’s jet.
Lt. Col. Charles Vuckovic, a U.S. defense attaché for the Defense Intelligence Agency, was in Kigali when the president’s plane was shot down. He told reporters for PBS’ Frontline, “There are many theories as to who shot down the plane. I don’t know if anybody has the answer to that. Was it Hutu extremists or was it Tutsi extremists? Was it done by the Tutsis as an excuse to begin the movement south by the RPF and take control of the country? Hard to say. Or was it used by the Hutu extremists to begin the genocide that took place? I don’t know the answer to that.”
After the RPF took over Rwanda and quashed the Hutu-led genocide, the French Government produced a report that concluded the genocide was intentionally sparked by the RPF and Kagame. The plaintiffs’ case in the Oklahoma lawsuit relies heavily on that investigation conducted by French authorities.
An investigation was also undertaken by the Kagame-led Rwandan government. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that President Habyarimana was assassinated by members of his own inner circle. Kagame’s report concluded, “The attack was a deliberate attempt by Hutu extremists close to the president to scupper an imminent peace agreement with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels.”
A new investigation by the French corroborates Kagame’s version of what happened, and directly contradicts the previous French investigation championed by the plaintiffs in the Oklahoma case. On January 11, 2012 two French judges announced that based on their investigation into the matter it is their belief that the missiles were fired from a Hutu military base by Habyarimana’s own soldiers. For the foreseeable future that is the narrative the French government and Kagame’s Rwanda have settled on, thereby thawing what had been a contentious relationship between the two countries.
In the commencement speech given by Kagame at OCU, he also said, “The ills that have characterized our country … such as conflict, poverty, disease, and corruption are in many ways a result of lack of value-based leadership. In Rwanda, we learnt that lesson the hard way …” He ended his speech by saying, “Congratulations again to you all, and may God bless you.” Kagame left the OCU campus, surrounded by his bodyguards, without papers being served on him. University officials escorted the lawyers for Agathe Habyarimana off campus grounds.
Peter Erlinder, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case and an international law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, said, obviously disgruntled, “Rather than accept service, members of [Kagame’s] staff refused to accept documents and the university ordered process servers and lawyers to leave campus … which is interference with service of process, a misdemeanor under Oklahoma law. … [B]ecause the university has now involved itself in the conspiracy to cover up Kagame’s crimes, they have exposed themselves to liability.”
According to university officials, there has been no legal retaliation on the part of the plaintiffs in the Oklahoma City case to date, and there is none expected.
Ron Frost of OCU said with a chuckle, “There was no way [process servers] were going to get within 20 feet of President Kagame.” According to Frost, Kagame’s bodyguards numbered close to 30 and were armed with automatic weapons.
After months of legal wrangling between the plaintiffs’ lawyers and Kagame’s over the procedural issues of whether Kagame was properly given notice of the law suit, and whether the Western District of Oklahoma was the proper court to hear the case, the U.S. government stepped into the fight.
The Department of Justice (DOJ), at the behest of the Obama administration, filed a “Suggestion of Immunity” in September 2011. The DOJ’s Suggestion of Immunity urged the court to dismiss the suit against Kagame citing international law, foreign policy and precedent. In the history of American jurisprudence a suggestion of immunity filed by the DOJ on behalf of a sitting head of state has never been rejected.
The Oklahoma City federal judge, Lee West, dismissed the suit against Kagame on October 28 of last year. The lawyers for the widows are appealing the Oklahoma judge’s ruling.
In September, a French court rejected a case filed by the Rwandan government against Habyarimana to have her extradited to Rwanda to stand trial for the planning and execution of the genocide, an accusation she has always denied. A Rwandan official said that the French ruling would be respected “for whatever it is worth.”
Rwandan students enrolled at OCU declined to be interviewed for this article. When asked why, Ron Frost said, “We asked a few of our Rwandan students if they would like to be interviewed. They would just rather not talk about it.”
Maybe their silence is rooted in a pragmatic wisdom. That the blame for the genocide that occurred over a decade ago in Rwanda, leaving close to one million men, women, and children dead, can finally and legally be assigned to one person or another, to the satisfaction of all, seems as improbable and as unhelpful as the case against Kagame moving forward in Oklahoma federal court.