According to tradition, Ruganzu I Bwimba, a Tutsi leader, founded a kingdom in the Bwanacambwe region near Kigali in the 15th or 16th century. What is now central Rwanda was absorbed in the 16th century, and outlying Hutu communities were subdued by the mwami (“king”) Ruganzu II Ndori in the 17th century. In some areas of the country, independent Hutu principalities continued to exist, and in other areas, Tutsi and Hutu lineages lived in interdependent cooperation under the nominal control of the king. The borders of the kingdom were rounded out in the late 19th century by Kigeli IV Rwabugiri, who is regarded as Rwanda’s greatest king. By 1900 Rwanda was a unified state with a centralized military structure (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Upon the arrival of the Belgians in 1916 after the First World War following the defeat of Germany, the Belgians endorsed the Tutsi’s power over the Hutus as a means of controlling the country. The Belgians considered the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus. They considered the Tutsis as more like themselves. For this reason they supported them to be the upper-class of Rwandan society. Identity cards that distinguished Hutu from Tutsi became mandatory, like the Jews were categorized in during the Nazi regime. Belgium’s worst crime was the introduction of a racial theory aimed at providing proof of the Tutsi’s apparent greater purity and closer ancestry to Europeans. Skull measurements showing larger brain size, greater height, and lighter skin tones all reaffirmed the Tutsis’ superiority over the Hutus.
The final step in Belgium’s racial policy was implementing ‘Corvée’: peasant farmers, for the large part Hutus, were obligated to grow coffee beans on their land for Tutsi officials. Corvée is a system similar to slavery.
When Belgium relinquished power and granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutus took their place. Over subsequent decades, the Tutsis were portrayed as the scapegoats for every crisis. The oppressed Hutus decided to take revenge. During Grégoire Kayibanda’s regime (1961-1973), there was an increasing exodus of Tutsis from Rwanda into neighboring nations. The above mentioned developments culminated eventually in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide that left nearly one million people dead.
In 1961, with the support of the Belgian government, Hutu politician Dominique Mbonyumutwa led a coup d’état that took control of the Rwandan state and abolished the kingdom on 25 September 1961. King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa of Rwanda (1936 – 2016) was the last ruling king (Mwami) of Rwanda, from 28 July 1959 until the abolition of the Rwandan monarchy. Like his ancestors, he was a peacekeeper and preserved the unity in his country under the difficult times of Belgium oppression. Their support to overthrow the king as head of state was the last act of betrayal by the Belgians to the Rwandan people: the destruction of its centuries-old cultural identity.
The last official king of Rwanda led a life in exile for almost 60 years, both as a refugee and a consistent advocate for the immediate, safe and unconditional return home of all Tutsi exiles. One of the first to help the king was the Monarchist League, a 70-year-old British group that campaigns for the preservation and restoration of kingdoms the world over. In order to fund this great achievement, Kigeli V turned to westerners who were willing to support him financially in exchange for noble titles and other honors. Such a practice is not an uncommon business model for monarchs (whether reigning or in exile) to fund their court.
However, the living circumstances of this great man remained far from optimal. In 2013, Washingtonian magazine found the former monarch living in subsidized housing in Virginia and living off food stamps. He told the magazine that Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda and a fellow Tutsi, had permitted him to return to his home country but said that he could not resume the throne. In retrospective, I doubt that this was the right decision.
As the return to monarchy could be instrumental in preserving unity and peace in Rwanda and thus preventing further violence, it is interesting to investigate the question of who can be seen as a legitimate successor to king Kigeli V.
Line of succession
During the colonisation by the Belgians, all legislation governing the country was made by Belgian authorities and the mainstay of criminal and civil legislation was the civil and criminal codes of the then Belgian Congo. Though criminal law had universal application, written civil laws was applied only to whites. Customary law continued to apply to the natives. Hence the current Rwanda Civil Law Legal system is based on German and Belgian civil law systems and customary law. It is important to note that Rwanda is a civil law legal system that in the beginning of the 21st century was undergoing a transformation from purely civil law to a merge between civil law and common law. The evolutionary process has led to the reform of several laws such as the penal code, and the law of evidence among others.
During the time that Rwanda was a kingdom, the central government was manned by the Abiru through a complex and secret polity known as ubwiru. The Abiru were ritual loyalists who lived in the king’s palace. Their purpose was to explain occurrences and forecast the future. For instance, the Abiru alone could secretly determine the next king and define his mission during his reign (source: globalsecurity.org).
In my opinion, there currently is no formal law to derive a successor, since the kingdom has been replaced by a republic. The same cannot be said about the Abiru: this ancient institute cannot be abolished by the president of the Rwandan republic as it is part of the king’s personal entourage. Therefore, in respect to the legitimacy of a claim, customary law adopted to general principles of law that are recognized by civilized nations, should be seen as coming close to a law of succession and it is along these lines that I have formed an opinion about the legitimate successor of king Kigeli V.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Boniface Benzinge was a close friend and reliable confidant of the king. In many instances he can be seen by his side in the Kigeli V’ company, for example at the king’s last public interview of 30th August 2016. Mr. Benzinge also accompanied the king on his last visit to the United Kingdom in June 2016. The close relationship both men held, was mentioned by the Washingtonian in the 2013 article. Mr. Benzinge was Kigeli’s boyhood friend (source: Mr. Chris Kamo). He played various roles for the King, including his chancellor, counsellor, secretary and interpreter. He stayed with his friend for nearly six decades when almost all other Rwandans abandoned him and only a handful of Westerners circled around the former king with the sole purpose of obtaining royal titles and awards.
Based on the oral evidence, publicly given by Mr. Benzinge on 9 January 2017, in my opinion, the current claimant, Mr. Emmanuel Bushayija (1960), should be regarded as a legitimate successor to the headship of the Royal House of Rwanda. Bushayija is the son of HRH Theoneste Bushayija and grandson of HM King Yuhi V Musinga. He has assumed the title “Yuhi VI” and should be addressed as His Royal Highness in formal correspondence.
- I recommend to form an Abiru, consisting of Rwandans, who are able to act in accordance with the ancient traditions of customary law but are also open to implementing fundamental rules of modern law (for example regarding gender-neutrality). An Abiru, consisting of Westerners is not acceptable, since this would be in breach with customary law.
- The composition of the Abiri also needs to be transparent in order not to trigger discussion regarding future successors. The names of the members of the Abiri should be published on the website of the Royal House.
- Melvern, L. (2019). A people betrayed: The role of the West in Rwandas genocide. London: ZED Books.
- Chris Kamo (2016), His Majesty King Kigeli V Deserves Dignity Which Alluded Him While Alive, Grate Lakes Post.