All of the dictators profiled in this book made crazy decisions that cost millions of lives, destroyed countries, and usually led to the end of the dictator. Sometimes it was just one or two crazy decisions that had one major impact, but other times it was a whole series of craziness that gradually wore down the dictator and his country.

Rwandan dictator Juvénal Habyarimana is an example of the latter.

You probably don’t know much about Rwanda, but there’s a good chance that you know all about the Rwandan Genocide that took place there from April 7 to July 15, 1994. During that time, the majority Hutu ethnic group killed from 500,000 to one million members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group in a brutal and well-organized campaign of genocide.

The genocide was tied directly to Habyarimana’s policy and when he was assassinated, the genocide began the next day.

There’s no doubt that Habyarimana enacted some pretty crazy policies while he was in power. He took the name “Kinani,” which means “invincible,” as a sign to all of his opponents that he wasn’t weak.

He persecuted those who disagreed with him, controlled the press, manipulated elections to win by impossible margins, and ordered the people to dance and chant his name in elaborate political rallies.

All of those things may be crazy, but the craziest thing Habyarimana did was allowing tension between the Hutus and Tutsi to fester and grow. Habyarimana was very tolerant of the Tutsis early in his rule, but owing to pressures from Hutus, he progressively began to strip them of their rights.

The decision to dispossess the Tutsis of their rights proved to be disastrous because it led directly to his assassination, which set off the Rwandan Genocide.

Power Comes from the Barrel of a Gun

Habyarimana was born to an upper-class Hutu family in 1937. His background gave him the ability to travel and attend better schools throughout what was at the time colonial Africa, allowing him to make connections that he’d later use during his quick ascent to power.

Habyarimana was an excellent student, showing some academic promise in Belgian colonial schools. He also knew that, in Africa, it wasn’t about what you knew.

It was all about who you knew, and how many guns you had.

Instead of pursuing an academic career and possibly studying in Belgium or France as many of the upper-class Hutus did, Habyarimana went into the army because he had dreams of moving up the political ladder. He knew that the Belgians wouldn’t always rule his country and in 1962 that dream started to become a reality when Rwanda was granted its independence.

Rwanda’s independence didn’t come without some blood being shed, although it wasn’t the ruling Belgians who were killed but the minority Tutsis. The Hutus always liked their position of preference and the Belgians repaid them by standing by as they wiped out enough Tutsis to take control of the government.

Habyarimana saw that violence worked and that no matter how crazy he acted, if he had the backing of the right people, he could attain power.

Not So Invincible

There is no doubt that Habyarimana was probably one of the sharpest leaders in post-colonial African history. He was certainly a despot, but he knew how to plan things out and play the long game. Every connection he made while in the military was all done with the ultimate goal of taking power.

Finally, in 1973, Habyarimana used those connections to overthrow the president and take that role for himself. Habyarimana ruled Rwanda for more than 20 years through a combination of building a cult of personality, intimidation, and fraud.

The trifecta of despotism certainly worked, but one other thing he did—or didn’t do—that seemed to help was not stoking the embers of ethnic hatred.

Despite being in the Hutu majority, Habyarimana generally didn’t call for attacks on the Tutsis, which went remarkably far to maintain stability in Rwanda.

But forces outside and inside the presidential palace were constantly trying to persuade Habyarimana otherwise. An anti-Tutsi movement known as “Hutu Power” was gaining strength in Rwanda in the early 1990s and Habyarimana’s wife’s family were also anti-Tutsi.

The apparent pressure was too much for Habyarimana, causing him to make the craziest and most fateful decision of his rule. President Habyarimana gave in to the hate and decided to discriminate against and persecute the Tutsis.

The Tutsis decided not to sit back, striking out by taking down Habyarimana’s jet with a stinger missile…with him on board. The assassination immediately led to an orgy of rape and murder, many of them committed with machetes.

When the United Nations finally restored order in Rwanda, it was immediately clear that all the misery could’ve been avoided if Juvénal Habyarimana hadn’t made the crazy decision to go after the Tutsis.

Did You Know?

  • The first five years of Habyarimana’s rule were done under the military, but in 1978, he changed the country to a one-party state. The ruling party was the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development.
  • Juvénal Habyarimana was generally favored, or at least tolerated, by the West during the Cold War for his anti-communist stances.
  • Another crazy thing Habyarimana did was to invite Zaire military troops into Rwanda to help suppress a Tutsi guerilla group. The Zairian troops were more harmful than they were good, as they raped many Rwandan women, forcing Habyarimana to expel them from the country.
  • Habyarimana’s wife Agatha fled Rwanda after his assassination. She lived in different locations, fearful of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front killing her. She eventually moved to France but was denied political asylum. Later, the French government denied the Rwandan government’s request to extradite and try her for genocide in that country. She currently is in legal limbo.
  • Habyarimana survived an attempted coup in 1980.