Observation Deck

The False Idols of Rwanda’s Genocide

Is Paul Kagame’s government using museums to commemorate the past—or cement its grip on power?


In Rwanda, April 7 is a public holiday of the most tragic kind: the annual commemoration of the 1994 genocide of nearly a million people. One of the sites that host remembrances is the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a museum honoring victims—including some 250,000 buried in mass graves beneath the facility. Rwanda’s most prominent genocide tribute attracts plenty of international attention. On the mass slaughter’s 20th anniversary, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lit a flame there; Lonely Planet recommends it as a “top choice” for tourists, tens of thousands of whom visit it each year. To these guests, the museum delivers a clear message on behalf of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the country’s ruling force for more than two decades: “Never again.”

Over the past several years, however, a new breed of museum has appeared across Rwanda. These government-run sites—former historical homes and headquarters of the country’s rich, powerful, and royal—have received just a fraction of the global publicity given to genocide memorials. And the media have largely overlooked the sites’ troubling, if subtle, messages: signals of Rwanda’s increasing authoritarianism.

In December 2015, the government staged a rushed referendum on a constitutional change allowing President Paul Kagame to run for three more terms; he has already served more than 15 years. Against this backdrop, the new generation of memorials suggests a regime quietly bent on anchoring its legacy in brick and mortar and justifying its continued existence with a selective view of Rwandan history—one citizens know better than to contradict.

Take former President Juvenal Habyarimana’s villa in Kigali, opened as the Presidential Palace Museum in 2009. Habyarimana, an army chief of staff who led a presidential coup in 1973, lived in paranoid anticipation that his own turn would come: His palace is a mini-fortress equipped with motion sensors on its stairs and a fake wall in a TV room that opens to reveal a concealed rifle rack and secret staircase—an escape route for his family. Habyarimana famously perished alongside his Burundian counterpart when a jet they were traveling in was shot down in April 1994, the event that triggered the genocide. The plane fell right next to the presidential villa, which lies in an elegant Kigali suburb underneath the main flight path into the capital’s airport. A British TV crew that visited the site soon after the double assassination spotted what looked like human brains spattered on Habyarimana’s Mercedes-Benz.

Today, the plane’s twisted, rusting debris still sits where it crashed, just outside the villa’s garden walls. Museum visitors can wander around it as they please. So can the Rwandan couples who choose the villa as a venue for their wedding receptions, often held in a marquee on the lawn.

The anxiety-infused home and untouched plane wreckage serve as implicit warnings to anyone contemplating a change in Rwanda’s leadership. Officially, the Kagame-helmed RPF insists it had nothing to do with Habyarimana’s assassination; a 2010 government inquiry pointed the finger at extremists within Habyarimana’s own inner circle. Yet the regime perversely benefits from dogged suspicions of its guilt, voiced by its critics, because they are reminders of the RPF’s capacity to destroy its enemies. And destroy it does: As Human Rights Watch reported in 2014, the government “does not tolerate opposition, challenge, or criticism” and uses “arbitrary arrests, detentions, prosecutions, killings, torture, enforced disappearances, threats, harassment, and intimidation against government opponents and critics.” It has allegedly sent emissaries as far as Kenya, the United Kingdom, and South Africa to track down dissidents who, like Habyarimana in his villa, live in constant fear that the end is nigh.

The National Liberation Museum Park in Mulindi also carries a trenchant subtext. A two-hour drive north of Kigali, the park occupies a former tea estate that RPF rebels, who invaded from Uganda in 1990, claimed as their main military base. The hilltop locale offered the RPF views in all directions, excellent radio signals, and easy access to friendly forces back across the border. Braced for possible air attacks, Kagame and his trusted commanders retired at night to sandbagged bunkers; today, museumgoers can stand in the dark, grave-like burrows, just large enough to hold a single mattress each. According to a guide manning the grounds, a cable car will eventually hoist visitors up to the site.

“We must know where we come from to know where we are going,” Kagame declared at the museum’s inauguration in 2012. A cynic, however, might view the memorial as a carefully tailored exercise in political nostalgia, rich in historical irony. For the RPF is no longer a close-knit band of brothers sharing good times and bad. Many of Kagame’s Mulindi bunker-mates have been among those denounced as traitors, forced into exile, and even assassinated. Moreover, the museum is a reminder not only of the formidable military force Kagame led in the early 1990s, but also of the powerful one he now commands. The RPF sees itself as a regional chess master, free to first topple, then prop up, then challenge successive administrations in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also stands accused by U.N. experts of meddling in troubled Burundi.

Reaching back further in time than do other museums, the King’s Palace in Nyanza, southwest of Kigali, commemorates Rwanda’s centuries-old Tutsi monarchy, the king of which was called the mwami. The Modernist palace was built by the Belgians for the 1931 enthronement of Mutara III Rudahigwa—an ancestor of Kagame. Today, a display of black-and-white photos captures the 7-foot Mwami Mutara and his father as etiolated figures: toothy, hair coiffed to make them look even taller. Next door to the palace, the government has erected a replica of the giant rondavel that the mwami inhabited before being persuaded by the colonial administration to upgrade to stone. The traditional round mud hut with a thatched roof speaks of court ritual, dynastic legitimacy, and ancient bloodlines; it is a memento of days when leaders were chosen by God, not voters.

Rwanda’s two types of museum could be said to represent the paradox that is Kagame. The country’s recovery from one of the 20th century’s most grotesque massacres once seemed all but impossible. The Kigali Genocide Memorial and other sites dedicated to that 1994 tragedy underline the image—embraced by the likes of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Tony Blair—of a benign technocrat who rebuilt a traumatized state and miraculously delivered peace, stability, and economic growth rates routinely exceeding 5 percent each year. The newer museums point instead to an iron-willed strongman consolidating indefinite rule. From the latter vantage point, the message projected by the King’s Palace since it opened nearly eight years ago—perhaps the most sinister message of those delivered by Rwanda’s memorials—is surely intended for Kagame’s constituents: I am the new mwami, it seems to declare.

A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June issue of FP magazine under the title “False Idols.”

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

 Twitter: @michelawrong

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