For an event of such significance, much about the crash remains a mystery. On the evening of April 6, 1994, Habyarimana boarded the Dassault jet in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, accompanied by Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, a three-man French crew, and seven additional Rwandan and Burundian officials. The group was returning from a meeting discussing the Arusha Accords, a peace agreement signed the previous August between Habyarimana’s government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The two had been at war since October 1990, when the RPF, a guerrilla force formed by Tutsi exiles, invaded from neighboring Uganda. Although a cease-fire was in effect, implementation of the Arusha provisions had stalled, and Habyarimana, a member of Rwanda’s Hutu majority, had been reproached throughout the day by several regional leaders. As the plane took off along the Indian Ocean coast, the mood on board was likely tense.
With characteristics of both an ethnic group and a caste—though not quite either—the Tutsi minority had traditionally ruled Rwanda, a mountainous, densely populated, monolinguistic nation that existed as a centralized kingdom long before it was a modern state. Though governed by Tutsi kings, precolonial Rwanda also reserved political space for its Hutu peasant majority, and the two groups co-existed in an orderly, integrated society.
By using Tutsi elites to rule by proxy, however, Rwanda’s Belgian colonizers had upended this balance of power, stoking Hutu resentment, and unknowingly sowing the seeds of future violence. Eventually coming to fear the Tutsi it had coddled, Belgium threw its weight behind a Hutu political awakening as it prepared to abandon Central Africa. By independence in 1962, leadership was firmly in Hutu hands. Between 1959 and 1964, facing a wave of anti-Tutsi uprisings, more than 300,000 Tutsi fled the country.
Belgium eventually came to fear the Tutsi
Three decades later, in early 1994, Rwanda sat at the edge of a precipice. Under the Arusha Accords, Habyarimana was supposed to lead the creation of a transitional government, with power shared between his ruling MRND party, the RPF rebels, and four existing opposition groups. Yet intra-party divisions, stoked by the growing clout of anti-Tutsi extremists, had repeatedly delayed the new government’s formation.
On the ground to facilitate the transition, U.N. peacekeepers began to warn of a shadowy “third force”—radical Hutus out to sabotage the peace process and prevent the RPF from assuming a role in government. In January, an informant told the U.N. that army-backed youth militias, already flooded with weapons, were drawing up lists of Tutsi in every commune, and waiting for the signal to commence with their extermination. In Kigali, radio with ties to the Hutu supremacist party CDR called for the blood of Tutsi “cockroaches.”
Then, around 8:25 p.m. on April 6, 1994, two surface-to-air missiles hit Habyarimana’s jet as it approached the Kigali airport. Moments later, the plane lay in a crumpled heap at the edge of the president’s garden. All 12 occupants, including Habyarimana, were killed in the crash. The murders of political moderates and their families, and of Tutsi men, women, and children, began within hours.
The assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana sparked the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Despite several investigations into the crash, the last released in 2012, it remains unclear who ordered Habyarimana’s death. The most widely accepted scenario, which leading Rwanda scholar Gérard Prunier presents in The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, is that the plane was shot down on the command of Hutu extremists, including members of the opposition CDR and/or the so-called akazu—close associates of the president’s wife Agathe who had long wielded a high degree of power. Among them was Théoneste Bagosora, the army chief of staff, who presided over a “crisis committee” following the crash and is considered to be a key mastermind of the subsequent killings. This version of events presumes Habyarimana’s assassins saw him as a liability to their plans to foil Arusha and commence with the Tutsi extermination—the only way, they believed, to fully guard against a future Tutsi threat.
As Prunier argues, this scenario is supported by several facts. First, warnings of “something big” had been circulating among extremist media in the days before the attack. Second, within 45 minutes of the crash, army-backed militias had established roadblocks around the city and begun to search the houses of political enemies, suggesting their mobilization had been previously planned. According to Prunier, Bagosora even called the U.N. on the night of the crash, described the assassination as a coup, and claimed he and his associates would “save the nation.”
Some witnesses reported seeing white men flee Masaka Hill minutes after the crash
Finally, witness testimonies and multiple investigations suggest the missiles—probably Russian-made SAM-16s—were fired from either the Rwandan army’s Kanombe barracks or from farther away in the vicinity of Masaka Hill, which was under patrol of the Rwandan Presidential Guard. Some witnesses reported seeing white men flee Masaka Hill minutes after the crash—possibly mercenaries hired to fire the missiles, which required technical knowledge that the Rwandan armed forces lacked.
A second theory, highly controversial in Kigali, blames the assassination on the RPF, which captured power three months later in the war that resumed as the massacres started. Although the RPF had received a favorable settlement at Arusha, proponents of the theory argue, Major General Paul Kagame, its top commander and Rwanda’s current president, ordered Habyarimana’s death to provide grounds for spoiling the cease-fire, and pave the way for an outright military victory.