Marc Dominianni | SIPA Class of 2018
His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand was not the only king to die last month.
Another, exiled and crownless, passed away in a suburb just 15 miles from his country’s embassy in Washington, DC. With a stable government, an indomitable leader and a development success story back home, no one is asking who’s next in line.
No information has been released about a successor to his throne. Kigeli, not to be confused with Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, adhered to a custom that exiled kings do not marry, according to the Washington Post, and died childless. Discussion of the monarch and throne has been made a taboo in Rwanda since his deposition, so his story is not widely known, even by Rwandans. His line stretched back over 500 years.
“I need to know if they still want me to be their king”
In his final years, Kigeli still considered himself the country’s king because he was not removed by popular vote, he told the BBC in a rare interview in 2007. He has long preached democratic ideals. Paul Kagame, current President of Rwanda and de facto leader of the nation since 1994, left the king’s requests to hold a nationwide vote on his return as a constitutional monarch unanswered.
“The [Rwandan] people may or may not want me. But in order to return home, I need to know if they still want me to be their king,” said Kigeli, according to the BBC. “The monarchy has come to be seen potentially as a source of moderation and ethnic reconciliation, and the [Kagame] regime views that very much as a threat,” Timothy Longman of Human Rights Watch told the Washingtonian.
“My heart, which beats with both Tutsi and Hutu blood, grieves”
The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR), a beleaguered opposition party, favored Kigeli’s reinstatement. They offered the example of neighboring Uganda, where several subnational kingdoms maintain cultural autonomy from the central government in Kampala. Conflicting interests in development and resource management have led to disputes in the past, however, and real power remains in the hands of the President and National Assembly. Rwanda, presumably, would have seen similar discord were the king present, especially following the ethnic conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis.
Militant Hutus targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the 1994 genocide that saw nearly a million people killed over three months. “My heart, which beats with both Tutsi and Hutu blood, grieves,” Kigeli said from afar during the genocide, according to the Vancouver Sun.
Tensions existed between the two groups for decades preceding the genocide, aggravated by the country’s Belgian colonial rulers, until its independence in 1962.
Kigeli, a Tutsi, was deposed in 1961 by a vote he claimed was rigged by Belgian authorities. “I am not clinging to power. I accept and I will always accept the people’s verdict; what I cannot accept is that the Belgian Administration should influence or distort this verdict,” Kigeli wrote in a statement to the United Nations at the time, according to the Washingtonian. In those years his nation was rife with violence, with riots by the Hutu majority in opposition to the ruling Tutsis.
Under Kagame, also a Tutsi, Rwanda has come to be considered one of Africa’s development success stories. The country has new infrastructure and a growing economy. With the assistance of major international donors such as the Gates Foundation and Bill Clinton, Kagame’s government has upgraded education and public health systems.
“Evaluators wonder if Rwanda could have escaped these tragedies”
Kagame’s party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), however, has been accused by Human Rights Watch of stifling its political opponents and critical news outlets. Ahead of the 2010 presidential election, a declared opponent was jailed, some say unfairly, for allegedly disregarding genocide-ideology law, which bans downplaying or denying the slaughter. Opposition parties, including the DGPR, were banned from registering.
Some see Kagame and the RPF as unjustly escaping charges of human rights violations and war crimes committed during the genocide and the ensuing chaos. Were the monarchy reinstated, however, evaluators wonder if Rwanda could have escaped these tragedies and followed the path of other sub-Saharan kingdoms.
In Swaziland, for example, King Mswati III enjoys a lavish lifestyle, routinely ranked among the wealthiest royals worldwide by Forbes and famous for his exotic car collection, while over 60 percent of the population of 1.2 million people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Swazis have almost no voice—their government is little more than a shell of democracy and effectively run by the king and his cohorts, according to detractors.
“What we want is a modern Rwanda that would be democratic”
But in Rwanda, where there is no king, are the people any better off? Over 40 percent of the country’s 11.2 million people live below the poverty line, according to World Bank data. Critics in the international media call Kagame a benevolent dictator who does not spread his nation’s new wealth fairly.
Even as the last lights of ancient traditional monarchies burn out, countries like Rwanda are faced with a new set of kings, ruling not under the pretext of heritage and bloodlines but through consolidated power and upward momentum.
“What we want is a modern Rwanda that would be democratic,” Kigeli told the New York Times in 1990. More than a quarter century later, some say his dream remains unfulfilled.