Rwandan star fugitive Kabuga was the ultimate ‘Mr Machete’

Félicien Kabuga, the mastermind of Rwandan genocide. PHOTO | UN

What you need to know:

  • Reports emerging after his arrest indicate that, over the years, he lived in various countries - including Kenya, Germany and France.
  • The wealthy businessman had at least 28 aliases and was found with four genuine passports of as many African countries!

Rwanda’s most wanted war criminal Felicien Kabuga, was finally arrested in Paris on May 16.

He is said to be one of the architects of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, which claimed nearly a million lives.

Reports emerging after his arrest indicate that, over the years, he lived in various countries - including Kenya, Germany and France.

The wealthy businessman had at least 28 aliases and was found with four genuine passports of as many African countries!

Kabuga was the “Mr Machete” and “Diabolical Genius” of the genocide. With the war raging between Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) rebels and the Juvenal Habyarimana regime in Kigali, Kabuga became one of the founders and funders of the genocide radio RTLM and its companion publication Kangura magazine.

Then he also poured money into importing machetes. Reports from January 1993 to March 1994 say 500,000 machetes were imported into Rwanda, “statistically one for every three adult Hutus in the country”.

The latest issue of Nation Media Group’s weekly regional newspaper, The EastAfrican, references a Sunday Times (London) report in which a representative of Chillington, a British tool manufacturer, which also made machetes, tells the paper in February 1994 that it sold more machetes in just one month to Rwanda than it had throughout 1993.


On the night of April 6, 1994, then-President Habyarimana’s plane, in which he was travelling with his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down as it approached Kigali International Airport, killing both men.

That turbocharged the genocide, but the infrastructure for it, and the dry runs involving smaller killings, were well in place.

The story of the machetes was big in the international media, regionally in Ugandan newspapers and occasionally popping up in the Kenyan press.

Allegations were rampant then about the Kanu government’s role in the conveyance of the machetes and ammunition to the Rwanda government and extremist Interahamwe militia.

Many people reading these accounts today would be perplexed by Kenya’s posture. At that time, though, the regional geopolitical game was different and very messy.

Besieged by a mass pro-democracy movement, and in economic crisis, the government of President Daniel arap Moi [he died on February 4], was wary of revolutionary-mouthing Yoweri Museveni, in power for only four years when the RPA launched its campaign from Uganda in October 1990 in a bid to reclaim statehood for millions of Rwandan refugees.

The Kanu regime kept accusing Kampala of plotting to “export revolution” (in fact, the more common expression was “export communism”) to Kenya, an “island of stability in a troubled region”.


It was common in Uganda, Kenya and sections of the European left to claim that Museveni was, with the RPA war, scheming to establish a “Hiima-Tutsi Empire” in East and Central Africa with him at the helm and Kagame his right-hand man.

The threat to the Kanu government from this alleged devious scheme loomed large.

Supporting, or at least turning a blind eye to Kabuga and the genocidaires seemed like a sensible survival strategy. Had Moi’s court been foresighted, it would have been less worried, as we all now know.

Nonetheless, Kabuga and his confederates got their machetes. Why machetes? Here is where the evil genius of the extremists is most evident.

In farming communities, the machete is cherished as a versatile tool — and people know how to use them, so, no need for training.

Most cynically, its use in the genocide dramatically democratised mass murder, allowing a huge number of ordinary people to participate at low cost.

It made the killing very personal. This was to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of people who participated formed an intimate personal connection to the genocide, which was hoped to be too huge a wall for the rebels to overcome and establish consent for their rule, if they ever took power. And it was so in the first years.


The machete also enabled the organisation of the slaughter to achieve the scale it eventually did. A group of killers didn’t have to do the taxing work of, say, hacking 100 people to death in a day.

They’d kill 50, and disable the other 50 by slicing their Achilles tendons, leaving them with life slowly sipping out of them.

That would allow them, with small radios held to the ear, listen to RTML broadcasts telling them where their next targets were hiding or the paths they had taken.

They would take a tea or lunch break, or a nap, or even retire for the night. In the morning, fresh and rejuvenated, they would finish their victims off.

Very few could come up with such a deadly, effective killing scheme. Small wonder Kabuga evaded capture for 26 years.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3