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"Rwanda: The Untold Story": facts and fabrication

A BBC documentary on Rwanda produced great controversy, including in an article by Andrew Wallis. But his own critique is itself selective and inaccurate in important ways, replies one of those he criticised.

It was to be expected that the documentary Rwanda: The Untold Story, first broadcast by BBC2 on 1 October 2014, would cause considerable controversy. And so it proved, including intense and heated debate on Twitter and Facebook, and many statements for and against the programme issued by commentators and organisations. The arguments were predictable: those critical of or opposed to the Rwandan regime applauded the film, those supporting it, and of course the Rwandan regime itself, vehemently attacked the BBC.

One of the problems here, as with many things Rwandan, is that both sides selectively use facts or even engage in outright lies, thus allowing two opposing truths to emerge. It would clearly not be practical to discuss all the interventions to demonstrate this point, so I will do so by using the example of a coherent and well-articulated denunciation of the documentary: Andrew Wallis's article "Rwanda: The Untold Story: questions for the BBC" , first published by openDemocracy on on 6 October and reprinted the next day in the Rwandan regime daily, the New Times.

Wallis starts by quoting the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) as saying that genocide took place in Rwanda in 1994, and that the majority of those killed were Tutsi. These are facts no one would deny. However, he then goes on to claim that the documentary “totally reattributes” this historical reality. Apart from a passage I will address in a moment, that is not what the film does. Wallis creates this confusion by stating that the film “pushes aside” scholarly research, witness interviews for the ICTR, and reports by international organisations and human-rights groups; but he doesn’t clarify in detail what these sources address and therefore what can be “pushed aside”.

I share Wallis’s concern about the claims made by Allan Stam and Christian Davenport. Although they have never published a scientific contribution on this issue and while they offer no verifiable substantiation, including on their website (genodynamics.weebly.com), Stam and Davenport state that, assuming one million people were killed during the genocide, 200,000 were Tutsi and 800,000 were Hutu (by the way, contrary to what Wallis states, they don’t claim that all those Hutu were killed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front [RPF]).

There is no basis for these figures. In 1997, I myself found a death toll of about 1.1 million, around 600,000 Tutsi and around 500,000 Hutu, and these figures have never been seriously challenged (those published by the Rwandan government are factually impossible). While we know by whom and why Tutsi were killed, the cause of death of Hutu was much more complex. This ranged from political to criminal to personal reasons, the cholera epidemic in the Goma region, as well as - yes - massacres by the RPF. The latter could well exceed 100,000, as claimed by Gérard Prunier, one of the academics mentioned by Wallis.

Wallis, rather than addressing matters of substance,  then goes on to claim that the BBC documentary lacked balance, treating its viewers with “crushing tabloid accusations”, “pithy soundbites”, “sly insinuations” and “slo-mo shots of the Rwandan leader looking suitably diabolical”, in the end being reduced to a “good vs evil parody that left anyone with knowledge of the country and its history (…) with a feeling of frank disbelief and anger”. This is a strange claim as the RPF has in the past greatly benefited from the “good guys - bad guys” dichotomy, with the RPF itself in the role of the “good guys”. Also, I suppose that even Wallis will not argue that I am without knowledge of Rwanda and its history, and yet I would agree with much in the documentary which, to a large extent, reflects the findings in my latest book Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

On the shooting down of Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on 6 April 1994, I share Wallis’s surprise that only the Jean-Louis Bruguière report is mentioned in the film, but not that of his successors Marc Trévidic and Nathalie Poux. He, however, wrongly claims that the latter “showed clearly the missiles were fired from an area controlled by extremist Hutu units of the presidential guard”. Indeed, there is no "report" by Trévidic and Poux, rather just technical ballistic and acoustic reports that, together with numerous other pieces of evidence, were added to the file in January 2012. Had Trévidic and Poux found the evidence in those reports as compelling as Wallis seems to suggest, they would long have decided to close the case against the RPF suspects.

The research done in 2008 by Cranfield University at the request of the Rwandan government did not “come to the same conclusion”. Actually it came to no conclusion at all on who may have downed the plane. Also, contrary to what Wallis states, there is not just “a single RPF defector” who claims that the RPF is responsible. Only one is interviewed in the documentary, but several have affirmed this in a consistent fashion. Based on a number of impeccable Ugandan sources and several other elements, I myself believe that the RPF downed the plane.

Wallis misrepresents me as “a long-term advisor to Habyarimana”. This character assassination is consistently used by the Rwandan regime and its supporters when they don’t have any substantive argument to oppose me. I don’t know whether Wallis believes this himself, but it is factually untrue. Quite the contrary, I have been a Habyarimana critic since the late 1970s and 1980s, a period when this was all but obvious. I’ve published critical articles on elections, detention on remand, prosecutions for attempts against state security and human-rights abuses. I have asked Amnesty International to investigate Rwanda more seriously than it did. I have criticised the massive arrests of so-called RPF “accomplices” in late 1990 and have spent several months in Rwanda in early 1991 to contribute to their release. When I participated (by the way, together with a Tutsi lawyer) in drafting the 1978 constitution, something that some now hold against me, this was the consequence of my critical comments on an earlier draft.

In the remainder of his text, Wallis attempts to discredit RPF defectors who are now critical of Paul Kagame. They are “accused of”, “said to”, “alleged to”. The fact that they were convicted in absentia to long prison sentences seems to be taken by Wallis as proof of their guilt, while he could have asked questions about the use of courts in Rwanda to harass opponents. I should add that the fact that they now oppose Kagame doesn’t make them saints in my eyes. Wallis terribly downplays the massive and systematic massacre of tens of thousands of civilian refugees in Zaire/DR Congo, trying to justify these crimes by claiming that the refugee camps were a security risk for Rwanda. This was undoubtedly true, but after dismantling the camps, the Rwandan army deployed search-and-destroy units specifically aimed at exterminating people that posed no military risk at all.

Much more could be said about the way in which Wallis criticises the BBC. I myself am not in full agreement with everything said in the programme, but in order to be credible the criticism must be based on facts and the emotion must not be selective. So when Wallis finds “factual inaccuracies, misleading generalisations and omissions” in the film, that characterisation would apply to his rebuttal as well.

About the author

Filip Reyntjens is professor of law and politics at the University of Antwerp. He has studied Africa's Great Lakes region for almost forty years and has published widely on the subject. His latest book is Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

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Filip Reyntjens is professor of law and politics at the University of Antwerp. He has studied Africa's Great Lakes region for almost forty years and has published widely on the subject. His latest book is Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2013)


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