Kigeli V: A king who scorned corruption now lives exiled in Virginia

King Kigeli of Rwanda

OCALA, Fla., April 4, 2014 — Today, almost 238 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, a king lives in Virginia.

He is not of England, or even Europe. Rather, his story began in one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most war-torn countries; Rwanda. Gradually, it played out westward until he and a loyal friend found themselves just south of Washington, DC.

Both are elderly and live under humble circumstances in the Northern Virginia suburb of Oakton. His Majesty’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 supports both of them by way of a sales job at Sears.

Most would probably not believe the life story had by each of these men. To be certain, there is nothing which can compare in modern history. As one might imagine, the lessons from their ordeals are numerous as they are valuable.

Over the last few days, the history of King Kigeli V’s short reign has been featured in this column. It is impossible to summarize here, other than to say that his life stands at the hazardous intersection of age-old monarchy, oppressive colonialism, longstanding tribal conflict, and modern-day democracy.

Despite facing seemingly insurmountable hurdles upon assuming office in 1959, Kigeli, then just twenty-three, strived to make a difference.

It was his idea to surrender much of the monarchy’s power so that citizen participation would play a dominant role in governance. This was in stark contrast to Kigeli’s predecessors, who ruled with absolute authority. He also had a very calm temperament, was averse to personal conflict, and sought to unify tribes on the warpath.

The Belgian government, which controlled Rwanda in a de facto sense, wanted increased tribal warfare so that its economic agenda could go forth unencumbered. It should go without saying that this agenda did not meet the best interests of native-born Rwandans.

In 1961, the Belgians evicted Kigeli on two occasions; the second time in violation of a United Nations mandate. Despite holding international law on his side, he was left without a place to call home.

“Kigeli lived modestly in Nairobi for many years,” Dr. Timothy Longman, who heads the African Studies Center at Boston University, explains to Communities Digital News. “He was known to hold court every Sunday afternoon in front of a movie theater in downtown Nairobi. There were many Rwandan exiles in Kenya, and he served as a support to the community.

“I am not familiar with why he ultimately came to the United States, but life if of course much more expensive here. I have heard that he was supported for a time by the Ugandan government, when it was in conflict with Rwanda during the Second Congo War. I believe that he has also depended on support from the Rwandan exile community in the US.”

Kigeli would drift around the interior of southern Africa for decades. For a period, he lived in the Congo. Uganda, under the rule of Idi Amin, afforded him a house for several years. Eventually, the Amin dictatorship created such a terrible situation that Kigeli was forced to flee. This is how he ultimately wound up in Kenya.

Though Rwandan exiles were plentiful there, they were by and large destitute. Kigeli tried to raise funds for them, but the era was one of financial turbulence. Contrary to what most would expect, Kigeli was anything other than a wealthy man.

“Most of the Rwandan royal family’s wealth was in land and cattle, neither of which came with Kigeli when he fled the country,” Dr. Longman says. “His experience of exile and poverty may explain in part the reason so much of the Rwandan population is able to identify with him.”

Charles A. Coulombe heads the Monarchist League’s Los Angeles chapter. His group is devoted to providing for the interests of royals everywhere; a challenging feat in our thoroughly democratic age.

Coulombe tells CDN that if Kigeli were “a president of the type so familiar in (though far from restricted to) Africa, where kleptocracy has been so common, he doubtless would have salted away a good part of the treasury in foreign bank accounts. But like so many exiled Monarchs, that kind of action never occurred to him. I wonder what state any of us would be in to be ejected from our country with only the shirts on our backs.”

Unfortunately, Kigeli’s relative peace in Kenya was to be short-lived. With the 1990s’ dawn came severe trouble for Rwanda. Then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, who had been more of a tyrant than chief executive, made forced concessions with his political opponents. His Hutu administration was not merely ethnocentric, but ethnonationalist. Long-discriminated against Tutsis rose from the shadows with deadly force.

Finally, the stage for 1994 had been set.

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