Kabuga’s trial in Arusha will lift the lid off a dirty East African family secret

Wednesday October 07 2020

A courtroom sketch made on May 20, 2020 showing Felicien Kabuga, one of the last key suspects in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. PHOTO | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

France's top appeals court on Wednesday ruled that the alleged 1994 Rwandan genocide financier Felicien Kabuga should be transferred to a UN tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, to stand trial.

Kabuga, who had been on the run for 25 years and stayed briefly or lived in several countries in Africa and Europe, was arrested near Paris in May.

He had wanted to be tried in France. His lawyers said he was in poor health, and played the “he wouldn’t receive proper care in Africa” card, and that he was too old. Kabuga says he is 87. It will be a few weeks before he is moved to Tanzania, and given the way these things go, it could be another birthday or two before his trial proper gets underway.

Privately, for France that has wanted to bury the accusations that it was complicit in the genocide, the appeals court must have been welcome news. It takes the story of its role in the genocide far away, as it will not be covered in the national media daily when it starts.

However, the trial will be inconvenient in Arusha too.

Kabuga is one of the biggest players in the genocide who will ever be on trial, and what distinguishes him is that he was the network man — who allegedly knew where to get the machetes, transport them from wherever corner of the world they came from, through places like Kenya — and likely Tanzania — and put them in the hands of the Interahamwe.


He is the guy who was moving money around and buying the equipment to set up genocide broadcaster Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM).

He was not a village man. He was global. His trial is therefore likely to embarrass some surprising regional and global partners, and bankers.

But, even more problematic, it could spotlight a dirty East African, nay African, family secret. The Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army campaign was not universally popular with most East Africans. Certainly not in Kenya, and not in Tanzania.

It took the genocide to shift opinion, but even then, it’s not clear how much it changed. Why? There are many reasons, but one of the key ones is that in 1990 when the RPF campaign started, until 2001 when Uganda and Rwanda clashed in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, there was a strange alignment of opinion on the political left and right, that the Rwanda campaign was really a small part of a broader plot by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and his Rwanda allies to build, to use the expression of the time, a “Hima-Tutsi empire” in Central and East Africa that would subjugate everyone else.

People in Europe and North America, politicians in Kenya, later leaders in southern Africa like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and many otherwise serious people, used to offer these views with a straight face. These are things many would prefer to be forgotten.

Kabuga’s trial in Arusha will be a big news story, so for journalists it is a feast they can’t wait to arrive. I suspect that the people who were big men and women in East Africa between 1990 and 1994 would prefer that the French keep him.