Kigeli V: The king just off of Route 66

U.S. Army Captain James Văn Thạch & King Kigeli V of Rwanda in May 2011

OCALA, Fla., March 31, 2014 — When most people think about a house fit for a king, chances are that they conjure images of a palace tucked between rolling hills in some faraway land.

While that might be the case for many monarchs, perhaps more in past years than today, it isn’t for one king.

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 on Earth did a situation like this come to pass? Furthermore, who are these people to begin with?

The story begins almost eighty years ago, in what has come to be known as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most challenging locales. Jean Baptiste Ndahindurwa was born into Rwanda’s royal family during the summer of 1936; a time when drastic changes were coming down the pike. The then-Belgian-controlled country is a small place — roughly the size of Maryland — but densely populated, with longstanding tribal tensions.

As one might imagine, the Belgians ruthlessly exploited these for monetary and geopolitical purposes. 

“Kigeli was….a son of King Yuhi Musinga, who was deposed in 1931,” Dr. Timothy Longman of Boston University explains to Communities Digital News. He is an associate professor of political science who heads the African Studies Center.

“Rudahigwa was not the eldest son,” Dr. Longman continues, “but he was regarded as the most pro-Catholic and pro-Western of the sons, so the Belgian authorities pushed him into the position as king. When Rudahigwa Mutara died under mysterious circumstances in 1959, his younger brother Jean Baptiste succeeded him and became King Kigeli Ndahindurwa.

“Though a prince, he had not been expected to succeed to the throne so had little preparation or training to become king. He was only 23 when he came to office.”

To this day, many are convinced that Rudahigwa was murdered by Belgian authorities so that an even more receptive leader could be installed. Seeing as colonialism was on its last legs, but new business prospects continually revealed themselves, it is no stretch to imagine that the Belgians would resort to such a level.

In any case, what happened next would be far from the norm for any monarch.

“Kigeli came to office at a time when massive changes were going on in Rwanda,” Dr. Longman tells. “The Tutsi chiefs were fleeing the country and the Belgian authorities were replacing them with Hutu. Colonialism was clearly coming to a close, and the country was moving rapidly toward independence.

“As a very young and inexperienced king, Kigeli had little respect and influence. He was regarded as largely ineffective, as he had little impact on the rapid changes that were overtaking his country. Ultimately he was swept aside as an impediment to the establishment of a modern independent state with majority rule, but he was regarded as irrelevant long before he was driven from office.”

Some would disagree that Kigeli was not a major factor before his ouster, but it is indisputable that he stood between two worlds. The first was an autonomous Rwanda, and the second a legacy of foreign control. Ultimately, his representing a potentially independent state angered the Belgians, while his imperial status reminded several ordinary Rwandans of their non-democratic past.

A public vote indicated that an overwhelming majority of Rwandans wanted to abolish their country’s royal house. However, one cannot forget that the Belgian government facilitated this referendum and counted all ballots. If its leaders wanted Kigeli gone, rigging the election would have been almost expected.

There can be no doubt that they wanted him not only gone from power, but his nation. Kigeli would be forcibly evicted from his own house and made to live in exile. This would not last for long, though. Kigeli garnered support from the United Nations, which made a proclamation in his favor.  

Despite being allowed to return by international law, the Belgian authorities resolved to arrest him on sight. So, Kigeli approached the Rwandan border incognito, and made it pass the guards. After entering the country, however, he was detected within hours and met by heavily armed police forces. Lucky to have been spared his life, or at least a long term of imprisonment, Kigeli was evicted again.

He has not been in Rwanda since.

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 Kigeli’s ouster “was an incredible injustice on the part of the colonial power, Belgium – and at the same time a terrible tragedy for the Rwandese people. This is a man whose entire training (and the example of his older brother, Mutara III) was to devote himself to the good of his people: a people who, given the unique nature of their society, needed such leadership as they were thrust into modernity. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is a far from unique story in the annals of decolonisation.”

This is an understatement. Exactly why bears important lessons for us all.

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