Kigeli V: A king who chose honor over popularity lives exiled in Virginia


OCALA, Fla., April 8, 2014 — How many people know a king lives in Virginia?

He is not an exile from England, or anywhere in Europe, for that matter. He was born to rule the war-torn sub-Saharan African country of Rwanda, but forces beyond his control prevented him form having a long reign. It lasted for just about two years; from 1959 to ’61.

Today, His Majesty is nearing eighty. He lives under humble circumstances in the Fairfax County bedroom town of Oakton. The King’s house does not stand alone; it is connected to many others in a nondescript subdivision off of the fabled Route 66. Not far away resides his friend, who holds the title of chancellor. The Chancellor, one Boniface Benzinge, supports both of them by way of a sales job at Sears.

Some might find such a situation to be unbelievable. It is all too true, however. Last week, this column featured several articles about King Kigeli V, covering his life from birth to nomadic exile in sub-Saharan Africa.

Today we discuss how he arrived on American shores.

The story begins in Rwanda, during 1990. Then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been more of a tyrant than chief executive, made long-awaited concessions with political opponents. This did not come about on account of humanitarianism, but the influence of Francois Mitterrand’s French government, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. These three groups provided most of Rwanda’s foreign aid.

Habyarimana’s Hutu administration was not merely ethnocentric, but ethnonationalist. Long-discriminated against Tutsis rose from the shadows with deadly force.

In October of that year, the recently-formed Rwandan Patriotic Front swung into action. It opened an armed campaign against the status quo and seemed primed to draw Rwanda toward a state of permanent warfare. Most RPF members were Tutsis who had been banished to neighboring countries. While displaced, many of these rebels served in the Ugandan military, rising high through the ranks.

Their combat expertise backed Habyarimana into a dangerous corner. The RPF’s influence was not limited to him, though.

As Kigeli is Tutsi, the Front expected him to support their activities. He was appalled by their violent measures and refused to lend an endorsement. This greatly angered the RPF, who continued their campaign nonetheless. Despite sending the Front away, many in Rwanda’s Hutu majority refused to believe that their deposed monarch truly opposed the insurgency.

They had been inundated with ethnocentric politics for so long that non-ancestry-based policy-making was virtually incomprehensible.

By acting in accordance with his conscience, Kigeli maintained the dignity of his royal house. He also made powerful enemies. The Habyarimana government deemed him not only a power threat, but blood adversary. The RPF saw Kigeli as something of an ethnic traitor and throwback to an era whose noble values had no place in ‘90s realpolitik. Therefore, Kigeli was sure to be in trouble regardless of which side emerged victorious.

As the fighting dragged on, Kigeli’s situation became increasingly dire. He lived in Nairobi — Kenya’s capitol city — along with Benzinge. The two had long found this to be a relatively safe haven from the carnage of post-colonialism. A civil war in bordering Somalia threatened to throw their arrangement into disarray.

There was yet another problem, or at least the potential for one. Habyarimana enjoyed a strong alliance with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. It is not implausible that had the RPF made enough gains, Habyarimana would request the King be arrested and extradited to Rwanda.

There, the fate of a human bargaining chip, if not outright hostage, almost definitely awaited Kigeli. 

Whatever the specific reason might have been, Kigeli and Benzinge opted to leave Africa. In a profile of the King last March, Washingtonian Magazine contributing editor Ariel Sabar wrote that  “(t)he United States wouldn’t just be safer, they thought; its freedoms of speech would allow them to broadcast Rwanda’s plight to the world. They picked up the phone and called the one American they knew: Bill Fisher.”

Fisher, as Sabar noted, is a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur from Oklahoma. He met Kigeli on an unrelated business trip in 1986 and the two became friends.

“Fisher, whose family had been prominent in Oklahoma political circles, asked then-US senator Don Nickles for help in expediting visas,” Sabar explained. “To avoid drawing attention to their departure, Kigeli and Benzinge left relatives and most of their belongings behind, including the tasseled headdress that had been Kigeli’s crown.”

Kigeli and Benzinge were granted legal status in 1992 and have resided in America ever since, making their home in the Washington, DC outskirts. The next several years would bring a great many characters and happenings their way.

The King and the Chancellor now had to look out for themselves in a very different fashion.

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