Kigeli V: An exiled king in America who can’t go home

The King's Palace in Rwanda

OCALA, Fla., April 2, 2014 — When one associates the words “king” and “Virginia,” images of British monarchs basking in opulence are conjured.

While this was certainly true for the Commonwealth pre-1776, today a very different story presents itself.

This is the story of King Kigeli V, Rwanda’s long-displaced monarch.

He lives in the Northern Virginia suburb of Oakton, just south of Washington, DC. His Majesty’s house does not stand alone; it is connected to many others in a humble subdivision off of the fabled Route 66. Not far away resides his last remaining assistant, who holds the title of chancellor. The Chancellor supports both of them by way of a sales job at Sears.

Just how a situation like this come to be almost defies belief. The day before last, Dr. Timothy Longman of Boston University and the Monarchist League’s Charles A. Coulombe explained about Kigeli’s ordeals. Summarizing their comments, and the historical facts of the King’s life, would be impossible here.

Instead of a rehash, let’s discuss his forced eviction from Rwanda.

“The expulsion of the Rwandan king was part of a larger program of attacks on Rwanda’s Tutsi population in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Dr. Longman says. “The monarchy in Rwanda had cooperated with colonial rulers in dominating and exploiting the majority Hutu population. After the uprising against Tutsi chiefs in 1959 and the expulsion of the king in 1961, however, the Rwandan government was dominated by Hutu.

“The new Hutu leadership used scapegoating of Tutsi for political advantage long after Tutsi had lost their political power and privilege. The strategy of blaming Tutsi for all national problems ultimately culminated in the 1994 genocide, in which supporters of Hutu dominance sought to divert attention from their own corruption and secure their power by uniting Hutu in a campaign of systematic attacks on Tutsi.”

Eventually, non-Africans took notice of the ’94 massacres, which were further driven into public consciousness by the Academy Award-nominated Hotel Rwanda ten years later. However, the roots of this carnage went largely unexplored. Many of those who traced back regional history stopped at the Belgian government, which long controlled Rwanda, and blamed it for planting seeds of destruction.

Their summation was not incorrect, technically speaking. However, it only tells part of the story. Even as the Belgian colonialists pitted one tribe against the other — including the Twa, a rarely mentioned third group — the Rwandan crown provided some measure of stability.  

By and large, this can be attributed to a longstanding tradition which calls for the king to abdicate membership in any ethnic group. Although each monarch belongs to one — in Kigeli’s case, the Tutsi — he is expected to lose any sense of tribal identity upon assuming the throne. Such a thing allows for the king to relate with Rwandans of all ancestral backgrounds, and shun ethnocentrism in government policy. 

Needless to say, it is a system far ahead of its time.

“The organizers of the genocide based their anti-Tutsi ideology in part on the claim that the rebel group attacking the country, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, wanted to reinstall King Kigelii to once again oppress the Hutu,” Dr. Longman tells. “In reality, the RPF was divided over its attitude to the king. The first leader of the RPF, Fred Rwigyema, was killed in the first days of combat in 1990.

“Rwigyema was seen as sympathetic to royalists and was apparently killed by those opposed to the return of the king. His successor as head of the RPF and the man who now serves as president, Paul Kagame, is from the clan of the Queen Mother, the Abega clan, which had long been in conflict for political power with the king’s clan, the Abanyiginya clan. Kagame has been a visceral anti-royalist, and some people see his rise to power as the ultimate victory of the Abega over the Abanyiginya.”

During the mid-1990s, Kagame offered to allow Kigeli’s return. This initially fostered an atmosphere of intense optimism, but such a thing was premature. Negotiations between the two broke down when Kagame revealed that he would only permit Kigeli’s homecoming if the latter abdicated his throne. Kigeli, seeking to unify a ravaged Rwanda, refused and that was that.

Beyond his clannish differences with Kigeli, it is easy to see why Kagame does not want the Rwandan monarchy on its own soil. Dr. Longman mentions that “(i)ronically, since 1994, the king has come to represent a more moderate political position that could potentially unite both Hutu and Tutsi in opposition to the authoritarian and ethnically biased policies of the RPF regime.”

Perhaps more than anything else, this why Kigeli continues to be banished from his country — more than half a century since those who sent him packing left.

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