The Death of an African King in Exile


The world learned last week of the recent death of King Kigeli V, the last traditional monarch of Rwanda.

When the Belgians colonized Ruanda-Urundi (as the nation was called back then), the Rwandan monarchy, then headed by Kigeli’s uncle, was deposed and exiled.

The colonists also created a caste system that favored the slim-nosed Tutsi and placed them in positions of authority. Hitherto, the Rwandan monarchy had ruled as non-tribal.

After the death of the exiled king, Tutsi chiefs crowned Kigeli V to his own surprise and that of the Belgians, who felt bypassed given their efforts to eliminate the monarchy.

Kigeli V was coroneted in 1959 by the chiefs of his people, the Tutsi. He was 23 years old.

In short order, Hutus in turn staged an insurrection, under the impression that the Belgians had imposed Kigeli upon them, adding insult to their injury. Thousands of Tutsis were killed, and Kigeli V eventually fled the country.

It is worth mentioning here that Belgium itself remains a monarchy to this day. Its reigning king is Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders, crowned July 21, 2013.

Several other countries, including Great Britain, Sweden and Denmark, still have monarchs. Many African tribes also still have ceremonial kings such as the Toro of Uganda and, of course, King Mutebe of Buganda. These exist even under democratic governments, while other nations in Africa are ruled solely by monarchs (Swaziland, Lesotho).

Be that as it may, the Belgians displaced the Tutsi dynasty and (some allege) supported a Hutu-led insurrection that eventually led to the infamous genocide that tore both Rwanda and Burundi apart and left a million dead.

Kigeli V and his chancellor moved from country to country seeking political asylum, finally settling in the United States, with the help of an unlikely American partner.

A non-English speaker, the exiled king relied on his advisor to translate as he spent most of his life in the USA helping Rwandan refugees also seeking asylum and advocating for peace and national unity. The king’s advisor also worked part-time as a mattress salesman at Sears while Kigeli V lived off food stamps in welfare housing.

When Paul Kagame took over Rwanda in 1999, he told the king he could return, but not as king. Kigeli told him that was for the people to decide; that if his people wanted him back as king, he’d be willing to serve, if only as a ceremonial head. If they did not, he would return as an ordinary citizen.
Kagame told the king he would get back to him.

When journalists asked Kagame in 2003 why he had not allowed the king to return, he took offense. “You are trying to make him more important than he is,” Kagame said. “For him to wait for my answer whether he should return is none of my business. I was not among those that dethroned him and therefore have no authority and obligation to reinstate him.”

“Kagame no doubt knows…”, the Washingtonian Magazine reported in a 2013 feature on Kigeli V, “that the symbolism of the monarchy—with its open embrace of Hutu, Tutsi, and a third group, the Twa, as equals—could prove powerfully alluring to segments of the population left out of the Rwandan comeback. But only in the event of a restoration.”

“The monarchy has come to be seen potentially as a source of moderation and ethnic reconciliation, and the regime views that very much as a threat,” a Human Rights Watch field officer in Rwanda told The Washingtonian. “In Rwanda, you cannot openly embrace the king; you cannot call for the king’s return. You’ll be thrown in jail.”

The King died waiting for a response at 80 years old on welfare in America, living in subsistance housing on food stamps.

What would it have cost Kagame to allow the old man to come home to live and die in dignity? Would it have diminished his government? No, it would have been magnanimous – kind, generous, big-hearted of him; and would have enhanced his statesmanship in the comity of nations. At home, this single gesture could even have helped heal the wounds between Hutu and Tutsi.

Other observers did not see the king as having been a threat to Kagame, since he was now elderly and largely unknown among the youthful population, having been exiled since 1962. Even if a successor had been named after Kigeli’s death, monarchies and democratic governments have been known to coexist.

But no, Kagame could not see that far.

These African leaders really must be careful how they carry on. What goes around comes around. The biblical concept of reaping what one has sown is very, very real, and this business of fearing every other symbol of leadership but oneself is absolutely ridiculous—and most unfortunate.

Kagame should know that national unity is his greatest asset; and that today he may be the darling of the West but tomorrow . . .

As for the king without a country, perhaps Kagame will finally have the decency to bury King Kigeli with the honor he so richly deserves – despite the very terse statement his government issued on the king’s passing. The government of Rwanda stands ready to offer any assistance necessary, it read in part.

Perhaps King Kigeli will finally be welcomed home, if only in death.


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