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The Kings of Rwanda - Fathers of a Nation Part III: Not For the Power, But For the People

The Reign of H.M. King Kigeli V



The stunning loss of their beloved mwami left the people of Rwanda shocked and grief-stricken. Even as the nation mourned however, the abiru, who had not not been called upon to order the royal succession since the days of Yuhi V Musinga, made hasty preparations to proclaim the accession to the throne of a new mwami. Sensing that the Belgian colonial authorities would seek to take advantage of this period of instability to forcibly create a regency under their complete and direct control, thereby effectively crushing the hopes of the nation for autonomy, the aged counselors of the kingdom gathered in conclave to settle upon a successor.

H.M. King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, with Belgian Officials

Despite the lack of a direct male descendant of Mutara III Rudahigwa, however, it soon became apparent that he had made known his wishes with regard to the royal succession. The Abbé Kagame, one of the leading religious figures of the kingdom, as well as a key political personality, declared himself ready to swear an oath that the late mwami had in fact secretly revealed to him his choice for the throne. That his choice should also have lighted upon a member of the royal family, and one of absolutely sterling reputation, held in the highest esteem by both the Rwandan people and the Belgian administration, was considered to be nothing short of providential.


The Investiture of H.M. Kigeli V Ndahindurwa

Despite the fact that other candidates were briefly discussed by the abiru, and by members of the Supreme Council, in the end the choice was a clear and resounding one. Mutara's half-brother, Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa, was called upon to take up the burden of the throne, and to be invested with the power and responsibility of the sacred office of mwami. It is quite telling, in fact, that the new mwami, who was famed for his goodwill, his devotion to Christ and his care for the people, did not at all consider himself to be a likely candidate for the throne. According to witnesses, early on the day of his designation as mwami, he had simply gone out to tend to his herds of cattle, much as he had done in the days and months past, and was therefore entirely unaware of all the tumult and excitement surrounding his elevation to the kingship.

The scene at the public funeral of the late king, which took place on July 28, 1959, was understandably anything but a peaceful one. There was both profound grief and considerable tension in the air, as the people and the court prepared themselves for the next move of the Belgian administration in its seemingly incessant campaign to cripple the hopes of the Rwandan monarchy. The aged abiru, however, despite their relatively small numbers and the somewhat decrepit state of the traditional Rwandan protocols of state, were to play their hand brilliantly, effectively trumping the Belgians at their own game. Honoring scrupulously the ancient Rwandan royal traditions, and carefully following the various rites associated with the transfer of power, they took as their central inspiration the ancient formula of succession: Umwami aratabazwa, igihugu kigahabwa undi mwami kitaraye nze ("The mwami is buried, then the country receives a new mwami, without passing one day with a vacant throne").

After the funeral of Rwanda's lamented hero-king on the hill of Mwima, in Nyanza, the announcement of his successor was made in the presence of the assembled mourners and the officials of the Belgian administration. When the name of Ndahindurwa was made known to the crowd, there was a great acclamation from the Rwandan people. Given the enormously positive response to the succession of the young monarch (who assumed the throne name of Kigeli V Ndahindurwa) to the royal dignity, the Belgian authorities, including Governor-General Jean-Paul Harroy, had no choice but to acknowledge that they had been outmaneuvered by the abiru, and they were therefore forced to put a good face on their defeat. In point of fact, however, and despite the deeply questionable nature of their ultimate plan for Rwanda, the Belgian authorities themselves privately expressed a sincere, if somewhat grudging respect for the character and abilities of the man who had just become king.
Born in Kamembe, southwest Rwanda on June 29, 1936, to the exiled King Yuhi V Musinga and Queen Mukashema, the young mwami had been baptized a Roman Catholic, taking the name of Jean-Baptiste. He had been educated at the Groupe Scolaire d'Astrida, had continued his studies at Nyangezi College in Zaire (modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) and had worked with the Belgian administration in the Astrida Territory from 1956 to 1958. He was named the sub-chief of Bufundu in 1959, and was widely recognized to be a devout young man of great probity, with a deep sense of social justice and a keen knowledge of his country, its people and their needs.

Mwami Kigeli V of Rwanda and King Baudoin of Belgium

The new king's reign began in an atmosphere of extreme tension and growing unrest among certain elements of the people. With the population secretly stirred to dissent by the Belgian authorities, who sought to undo the positive accomplishments of the late mwami, and to hobble the chances of the new king, incidents of political violence and other types of crime grew throughout the nation. It was not until October 9, 1959, and after considerable difficulty that His Majesty Kigeli V Ndahindurwa was to swear his oath of investiture at Kigali. As a precaution, and because of the volatile nature of the political situation in his struggling country, the new mwami had demanded that explicit mention be made of his wish to reign as a constitutional monarch, so as to avoid any future possibility of nullification of his enthronement by the tutelary authorities. In addition, having requested to reign constitutionally, Kigeli V Ndahindurwa was now possessed of an almost irrefutable argument in favor of the speedy and equitable creation of an independent native government and a new national constitution.


H.M. King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa

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