The BBC Documentary; Pre-Genocide Rwanda

The Rwanda Genocide Revisited: Part II – The BBC Documentary; Pre-Genocide Rwanda


Howard Adelman

I know it is hard to read this material. Not because of the subject matter – horrific as it is. But because this is an exercise in historical knit-picking. The vast majority of my readers simply will not. I totally understand and sympathize. However, it I much harder to write precisely because of the subject matter. Revisiting means literally that – going back to visit the horrors and re-experience them once again. Yet I am compelled. I simply cannot accept distortions about this genocide – especially when the distortion is the result of the techniques of academia or is packaged in the form of skillful journalistic persuasion.

Yesterday was about advertising. This morning it is about the content of that advertising.  The 2014 BBC documentary narrated and produced by Jane Corbin on the Rwanda genocide was publicized as a never before revelation about Paul Kagame, the current President of Rwanda for the last nineteen years, and the commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) before, during and after the Rwanda genocide. Yesterday, I argued that the claim about the account offered was totally incorrect. The insistence that the documentary constituted “Rwanda’s Untold Story” was belied by the large number of stories of the same ilk that preceded the BBC narrative.

That same story has been repeated time and again since the Rwanda genocide in 1994. One additional example only! Barry Collins wrote an article on 13 August 2008 entitled, “Rwanda: Obscuring the Truth About the Genocide,” which, along with this BBC documentary and many other writings before it, sums up a thesis that argues that previously the truth had been deliberately repressed in the past; for the first time, the author of this explosive revelation is telling the truth which is precisely opposite to the one that has been handed down, a version that has brainwashed almost everyone.

“We think we know the story,” Jane intones. “But do we?” Then her favourite academic cited in the story says on the screen: “What the world believes and what actually happened are quite different.” Then a Hollywood film on Hotel Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda) is cited as evidence, even though the film made no great pronouncements one way or the other on any of the contrary positions that Jane puts forth. The implication is that this film suggests that Paul Kagame stopped the genocide when it did no such thing. The film was an excellent Hollywood tear-jerker that arouses our horror and anger, and even contains its own distortions about General Dallaire. But Jane Corbin says nothing about Dallaire. The film itself, in any case and like most movies, is not about truth. It is certainly not about the large issues of historical veracity that Jane Corbin raises.

However, choosing to cite the film as an illustration is significant. There have been a plethora of articles, books, documentaries and films on the Rwanda genocide. Shere Razack argues that many of these, like Hotel Rwanda, are emotional roller-coasters intended to invoke horror in the viewer at the tale of the genocide, noting that we did nothing to stop it. (CF. her 2007 article “Stealing the Pain of Others: Reflections on Canadian Humanitarian Responses,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies: 29:4) Viewers or readers are, as a result, resolved to never forget and to never allow it to happen again. But we do forget. We do allow it to happen again. Razack argues that this is because the film is a form of emotional consumption, an exercise in horror consumption and not a transformative experience.

It should be no surprise that Jane Corbin starts her documentary with a ceremony in Rwanda re-enacting the Rwanda genocide in front of an audience of Rwandans and foreign dignitaries. That ceremony is intended to reinforce the lesson – “Never again”. Whether or not he had Israel in mind, Paul Kagame offers a tale of death and resurrection about Rwanda. Jane Corbin does not challenge the resurrection portion of the narrative, but argues that the same man who invokes the image of resurrection in 2014 is the one who lit the match originally. Corbin shifts the focus of outrage from the genocide to Kagame. The reality is that, although she clothes her documentary in the formal dress of a quest for the truth, she is even less concerned with truth than Hotel Rwanda.

The vast majority of the world has no opinion about the genocide. They barely know any version of the story except perhaps that a large atrocity took place. The cause of the genocide is of little or no interest. So it is easy to offer, indeed repeat, a claim of originality in the face of alleged conventional wisdom and to further suggest that she is the goddess that has delivered this new resurrection. Jane simply offers a different tale of death and resurrection, as contrived and ritualistic as the one performed in the Kigali arena. Jane Corbin wants to bury what she argues is an erroneous tale of death and substitute her own. The claim is made to establish this interpreter of the Rwanda genocide as an outsider to established thought. It is the modern day version of the Protestant Reformation with many claimants to the throne as the original protestor. Not only is it an old story repackaged as a new revelation, but the documentary uses the same techniques as all those other repetitions of the narrators of the converse tale. It interviews and presents only the evidence that it claims supports its thesis and omits any experts who would challenge its contentions.

Another technique common to these narratives is to make the argument an ad hominem account focused on Kagame personally as the villain of the tale. Further, the case usually argues guilt by association and makes Tony Blair and Bill Clinton guilty for befriending and supporting Kagame and Kagame guilty because he is supported by powerful people. It is the fallacy of being bad – in this case in two directions – because of the bad company you keep. There is a third dimension to this fallacy of association. Kagame may, in fact, be, as Filip Reyntjens, author of Political Government in Post-Genocide Rwanda, declares, the worst war criminal in office today – I think he is not the worst (look at Assad in Syria, the religious leaders in Iran, the military junta in Burma) – but even if he is the worst, one cannot establish Kagame’s guilt in the past because of his current guilt, though admittedly conduct in the present may suggest equivalent ruthlessness in the past. In fact, Reytjens’ book argues that Kagame and the ruling party’s authoritarian streak has evolved since the RPF took power. Kagame has increasingly perpetuated human rights abuses, rigged elections, repressed the opposition, engaged in wide scale retributive justice and even employed terrorism as distinct from Kagame’s and the party’s original puritanism.

Today I want to begin to examine the substantive claims made in the BBC documentary and not the spin about it, and put the position of the other side alongside the claims of the documentary. This is not the place nor is there space to also cite the lode of evidence. In doing so, I want to be clear that I am not accusing Jane of genocide denial. Her documentary makes clear that she accepts the reality of the genocide and that Hutu extremists were the main perpetrators. Nor is she even guilty of claiming that there was a double genocide, one committed by Kagame as well. But she does indict Kagame on a number of other charges as a prosecutor without allowing time for a defence attorney.

The BBC video is available at

The BBC documentary, as would be expected, has been expertly produced and narrated by Corbin. It is well worth watching, not only for its techniques, but for the position it puts forth as indicated above. Not the validity of the position, but the arguments for it should be considered, however repetitive, tiring (and painful) that may be, and however many times one has to refute its position.

The documentary, though far from original in its thesis, nevertheless, true to the corporation that produced such blockbusters as Sherlock or Planet Earth, offers a powerful indictment of Kagame’s dictatorial rule in Rwanda in spite of the economic success of Rwanda and the relative stability Kagame brought to the country. Jane Corbin endorses the truth of both of these latter two assessments.

To reinforce Corbin’s indictment of Kagame, however, there has been considerable evidence that Kagame has fallen out with a number of his former inner circle.

General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Chief of Staff of the Rwandan army, a former intelligence chief and a former ambassador to India, joined Colonel Patrick Karegeya, a former spy chief, Dr Theogene Rudasingwa, a former chief of staff to Kagame and ambassador to the USA, and Dr Gerald Gahima, a former prosecutor general in Rwanda, to form the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) in opposition to Kagame’s rule. General Nyamwasa is Jane’s star witness.

Nowhere does Jane report the failure of the RNC to hold a significant founding congress (perhaps because of money shortages, fear of reprisals, including assassination ordered by Kagame, political pressure from the African National Congress in South Africa, and inadequate political support from Rwandans). Nor does Carbin probe the widespread rumours, following the failure of the RNC congress, that Nyamwasa has since appealed to Kagame to allow his return and offered a public ereapology if he were allowed to come home, promising to retract the accusations he leveled at Kagame. (There are no rumours that I know of that Dr Theogene Rudasingwa, another star witness in the documentary, tried to make a deal with Paul Kagame to allow him to return home.) There have been at least two assassination attempts on Nyamwasa’s life. About a dozen dissidents in exile have been assassinated or disappeared in the last twelve years, including Col. Patrick Karegeya who was murdered at the end of December 2013. (Cf. the 16 March 2014 BBC Report, “Patrick Karegeya: Mysterious death of a Rwandan exile”.) Most finger pointing is directed at Kagame.

I have not undertaken the research to offer my version of Kagame’s rule over the last decade and a half. I will focus my criticisms of the documentary on the following substantive stated or implied claims:

  1. Kagame was chosen by America and backed by Uganda;
  2. Kagame led the Rwandan invasion from Uganda.
  3. By 1993, Kagame threatened to capture Kigali, the capital
  4. Paul Kagame was insincere in signing the Accords and was simply using the year between the signing and the outbreak of the genocide to prepare to seize power.

Tomorrow I will deal with the period of the genocide itself and the following:

  1. The charge that Paul Kagame personally ordered and was responsible for the shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane that instigated the genocide;
  2. The claim that most of those killed within Rwanda were Hutu and not Tutsi;
  3. The claim that Kagame did not stop the genocide.
  4. The charge that the Kagame regime slaughtered thousands of Hutu civilians at the Kibeho Internally Displaced Persons camp in Rwanda in 1995.
  1. Misrepresentations of the situation prior to the RPF invasion

Corbin makes two claims that are part of established lore and not part of this genre of critical accounts. She argues that the RPF was an offshoot of Museveni and that Museveni supported the invasion of Rwanda by the RPF in 1990. In our study, we argued that the overwhelming evidence suggested that Museveni knew about the impending invasion and did not try to stop it because, as advocates taking Corbin’s position have argued, that initiative rid Museveni of the Tutsi refugee problem within Uganda after he had been unsuccessful in getting Parliament to grant them citizenship. But we could not find evidence that the invasion was part of Museveni’s expansionist foreign policy and that the RPF was an extension of Museveni’s military apparatus. Corbin makes that claim without presenting any evidence to back it up and without mentioning a possible alternative narrative.

Second, Corbin suggests that the US picked Kagame for military training in the US because they spotted his potential, presumably as a future leader of Rwanda and possible satrap. Again there is no evidence offered. Paul Kagame certainly went to obtain advanced military training in the USA but as part of America’s agreement with Uganda to upgrade its officers. There is no indication or evidence that I know of that, in doing so, America did so because it had major future plans for Paul Kagame. In fact I find the suggestion that the United State was so far-sighted to be incredible.

  1. Historical Omissions re the invasion of Rwanda

Corbin omits to say that Kagame opposed invading Rwanda in 1990, was not in Africa when the RPF invasion took place. He was only called back from America to lead the RPF when the invasion had been repulsed and when the two RPF commanders were killed by President Habyarimana’s RPA — with assistance from the French military and some rear guard support by the Belgian military.

  1. The RPF threat to Kigali

By 1993, under Kagame’s leadership, the RPF was only 15 miles from the capital and since the RPF had the RPA on the run, questions have been raised about why Kagame stopped his army from taking the capital and why he agreed to the power sharing agreement with Habyarimana’s government, though that agreement was on very favourable terms for the RPF. The suggestion by Corbin is that this was a ruse until Kagame was in a better military position.

However, Kagame was in an excellent military position to advance at the time. Corbin does not mention let alone take Kagame’s own position into account. Further, Corbin makes a common error in insisting that the RPF was only Tutsi, whereas the RPF at the time consisted of some Hutu representation even though the military force was predominantly Tutsi. Finally, Filip Reyntjens, one of Corbin’s star witnesses against Kagame, describes how Kagame was not always as bad a guy as he came to be. Reyntjens argues that the RPF only decided it would have to rely on its military rather than on diplomacy near the end of 1993 and only when it became clear that the extremists within Rwanda would not allow a peaceful resolution. The fact that one of her star witnesses refutes her contention of consistent and high level evil is omitted.

Instead, Corbin interviews Marie, a twelve year old Hutu at the time, who says that her family, and Hutus in general, regarded the RPF, not as militant returning Rwandan refugees, but as foreign enemies. Hutus feared what the RPF would do to the Hutu population. There is no suggestion in the documentary that this was the party line of the Habyarimana government and one hysterically reinforced by extremist Hutus. The population indeed was indoctrinated to believe precisely that. Instead, the tale is told as if this was a fact. The RPF was the repository of evil. There is no mention of the Akazu, the small extremist Hutu faction that perpetrated the genocide. There is no explanation of why Hutus accepted that belief. There is only the implication that the belief was valid.

The documentary also explicitly states that President Habyarimana only signed the Arusha Accords because he was pressured to do by the West, the precise line that Collins took in 2008. There is no examination or even presentation of the preponderant scholarly opinion that Habyarimana signed the accords because there was by then a multi-party government committed to democracy. Domestic pressure combined with his own weak military position induced Habyarimana to sign.

Finally, Corbin suggests that it was the overthrow of the government in Burundi and the persecution of Hutus there that instigated the widespread fear and set the country on a course of genocide. Certainly the Burundi coup served as a catalyst to the impending resumption of the war and the genocide, but it was not the sole or even major cause of Hutu extremism. It was a late-comer. Hutu extremism was formalized after the invasion of Rwanda by the refugee Tutsi ex-pats and their Hutu allies. The extremists practiced Tutsi extermination long before the Burundi coup. Plans were developed much earlier. The Akazu was founded in 1991 and had been training small groups of Hutu to enable them to commit genocide since that time.

These omissions, distortions and misrepresentations during the pre-genocide period are relatively minor compared to her claims about Rwanda and the instigation and progress of the genocide itself.


Tomorrow: Part III: The Instigation and Progress of the Rwandan Genocide

3 comments on “The BBC Documentary; Pre-Genocide Rwanda

  1. Alex Zisman says:

    You did not post part I.

  2. George Intore says:

    Where is your documentation? I am sure RPF would be glad to supply it, if true- just like the proof the genocide was planned. WHERE IS IT?

    • Doug Robinson says:

      Like George said, where are your sources? You provide no citations to check against your claims. Are you familiar with Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s research on this subject?

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