By Ariel Sabar
He ruled Rwanda for just nine months before fleeing a revolt and has spent the last half century in exile, powerless to stop the violence that ripped through his country. Now 76 and living on public assistance in Virginia, Kigeli V Ndahindurwa longs to return to the throne—but only if his people want him back.
The last king of Rwanda lives in low-income housing, at a dead end between US Route 66 and State Route 655 in Oakton. He is 76 years old now, his tottering seven-foot-two-inch frame stooped by age and the vagaries of fate.
His working-class neighbors in the complex of connected Section 8 townhouses know little about his faraway homeland. But Kigeli V Ndahindurwa has lived at the Oak Creek Apartments long enough to have won an honorific.
“They call me the King of Africa,” Kigeli told me when we first met, delight breaking across his face. “Ah, it’s good. It’s good.”
In English, a language that normally eludes him, His Majesty said that the children of the Oak Creek Apartments had a particular fondness for their real-life colossus of a neighbor. They turn up at his doorstep, claiming a birthday and reaching across the threshold for a treat. “I give them sweets,” Kigeli said, his long limbs shaking with laughter. “I give them chocolates.”
“‘No, no, it’s a liar!’ ” He went on, mimicking his exchanges with the children, some of whom seem, oddly, to have more than one birthday a year. “ ‘No, no, it’s a birthday!’ ”
The task of distinguishing the truth tellers from the cheats also confronted Kigeli during his short time on the throne. But the stakes back then—a half century ago—were considerably higher.
Back then, the fate of an entire country and the future of a centuries-old dynasty hung in the balance. Now, only the passing happiness of a few Virginia children.
I had driven through the housing complex and wanted to see the inside of Kigeli’s home, but his longtime assistant and translator, Boniface Benzinge, warned that it wasn’t suitable for official audiences. “He is living very humbly,” said Benzinge, who is 78. “It is not a king’s place.”
So we met in the lobby of the Fairfax Marriott at Fair Oaks. Kigeli deems the roadside hotel more appropriate for royalty, even if it means dipping into his paltry savings for a taxi ride. (Kings don’t drive—this one doesn’t even have a license. “He must be escorted,” Benzinge told me.) The hotel, wedged between Route 50 and the yawning parking lots of Fair Oaks Mall, is also a convenient spot for Benzinge. When he isn’t serving as the king’s chancellor, Benzinge is a part-time mattress salesman at the mall’s Sears.
We had been chatting for four hours when the subject of Kigeli’s neighbors came up. It was the most animated I’d seen him. Benzinge was translating from Kinyarwanda, the native Rwandan tongue. But on the subject of his neighbors, His Majesty needed no liege.
“The King of Africa?” Kigeli, who has a receding Afro and a long, genial face framed by narrow eyeglasses, looked as though he were considering the phrase’s ring. Then he smiled and shrugged. “Okay! The King of Africa!”
If only other people—important people, his own people—were as easily persuaded.
If Westerners know Rwanda at all, it’s as the site of a genocide the world ignored. Over 100 days in 1994, nearly a million Rwandans were murdered by other Rwandans, a massacre of the country’s Tutsi minority by its ruling Hutu majority. Bill Clinton would call his administration’s failure to intervene one of the biggest regrets of his presidency.
Kigeli V (as in the fifth) might himself have been easily forgotten, an accidental, throwaway ruler of one of the smallest and poorest countries in Africa, the last twitch of a monarchy abolished in 1961 as Rwanda moved from colonial feudalism to independence. Kigeli drifted in exile for decades, trundling from one African sanctuary to the next. A man with a kingdom had become a man with a street corner, like the one in Nairobi where curiosity seekers in the 1980s paid a few shillings to meet someone who’d once worn a crown.
But the genocide and its political aftermath opened a door, if ever so slightly, for Kigeli’s return—possibly even his restoration. Arriving penniless in the United States in the early 1990s, Kigeli robed himself in the mythology of the Rwandan monarchy: He was the eye through which God looked upon Rwanda, a father figure above clan, politics, and tribe, singularly qualified to pacify his fractious children.
“My heart, which beats with both Tutsi and Hutu blood, grieves,” Kigeli told guests at a luncheon in 1994. “Rwanda must go back to the future. Now the time has come to restore what has been good in the past.”
He told people he was ready to come home, to take the throne again. But not by force. He was a modern, democratically minded ruler. He would be content with a palace, some guards, and a ceremonial role, like the queen of England. But first the people should decide. If Rwandans voted him back as king—as he’s confident they would—he would serve. If not, he’d accept the demotion to ordinary citizen. All he wanted was a chance.
Could the last in a line of once-absolute monarchs be any more sensible? The difficulty was that, by 1994, few Rwandans really knew him. The country’s post-genocide leaders, members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, had distanced themselves from the king as they prepared to retake power, with violence if necessary, in the early 1990s.
When Kigeli visited the State Department in 1994 to “talk about his options,” political backing from the US wasn’t on the table. “We told him perhaps he could get a job as a professor, teaching African history,” a spokesperson told the Washington Post at the time.
Nor could Kigeli bankroll his own campaign. He gets by on food stamps, a Section 8 housing subsidy, Medicaid, and private donations of cash and clothing, as well as the occasional sale of Rwandan knighthoods to jet-set strangers in search of novelty status symbols.
Timothy Longman, a Rwanda scholar who directs Boston University’s African Studies Center, says that royal riches in Rwanda weren’t particularly fungible. “The monarchy amassed a lot of wealth in cattle and land, neither of which do you any good when you’re in exile,” Longman explains. “He couldn’t ship hundreds of cattle to Washington.”
Kigeli’s case for restoration was thus left almost entirely in the hands of other people, not all of whose motivations overlapped with his own.
One of the first to leap to his aid was the Monarchist League, a 70-year-old British group that campaigns for the preservation and restoration of kingdoms the world over, largely through receptions and newsletters.
Never before Kigeli V Ndahindurwa had the league encountered so available a king. “He was the only one who came across our radar who was completely bereft of outside help,” says Charles A. Coulombe, a leader of the league’s Los Angeles chapter, which took Kigeli under its wing. “There’s really not been anyone else in quite the position he’s in. The [descendants of] the shah of Iran and emperor of Ethiopia live in Virginia, and there are a lot of Ethiopians and Iranians they can turn to. But when he came here, the Rwandan king had nobody. ”
Members of the league bought Kigeli a tuxedo. Coulombe paid for flights, hotels, and meals for a Kigeli “peace tour” and squired His Majesty across Southern California in a Honda Accord.
Rwanda was in the news, and Los Angelenos, never late to a cause, were eager for insight into the unspeakable things they’d been hearing about half a world away. Tippi Hedren, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, invited Kigeli to see the lions and tigers at her Shambala Preserve. Hugh Hefner asked him to lunch at the Playboy Mansion, where Kigeli enlightened some Beverly Hills councilmen, a civil-rights lawyer, and a few other of Hefner’s friends. (Hefner himself didn’t attend.)
Others saw him as an oracle on all things African, such as the earnest teacher at the black-owned Marcus Garvey School, who asked Kigeli how Rwandans celebrated Kwanzaa. As Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday—not an African one—Kigeli looked flummoxed. “We call it Christmas,” he replied.
Like many others I interviewed, Coulombe says that Kigeli’s humility—and amenability—often left the greatest impression: “If he was going to be stuffed into a Honda Accord and taken to Denny’s, he was as delighted as if he was taken to the Ritz-Carlton. And I know because we did both.”
But as with all Kigeli’s moments in the limelight, this one was fleeting. The Rwandan genocide receded from the headlines, and a guilt-ridden West threw its support behind Paul Kagame, leader of the Tutsi rebel force that brought an end to the mass killings. Kagame, who had the support of Bill Clinton and the Gates Foundation, became a darling of the international-aid circuit. Before long, he had made Rwanda’s economy the envy of Africa, ushered in dramatic improvements in education and public health, and enforced a fragile peace in a country where convicted mass murderers live beside the families of their victims.
In 1996, while in Washington for meetings, Kagame summoned Kigeli to a private reception room at the Willard InterContinental hotel and told him he was welcome back to Rwanda as a private citizen but not as king. Kigeli said that was for the people of Rwanda to decide. Kagame, who is two decades younger than Kigeli, said he’d get back to him.
What was the reply, I ask Kigeli.
“I’m still waiting,” he says.
For Kigeli, the silence has grown particularly painful as early optimism about Rwanda’s rebirth has given way to a more muddled picture. A growing number of reports have found that the fruits of the Rwandan renaissance have been confined to the small minority of Tutsi, such as Kagame, who joined the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front in the late 1980s while in exile in Uganda. Left out are the vast majority of Rwandans—Hutu and Tutsi—who were in Rwanda during the genocide. Kagame was taken to task in two New York Times op-eds last year for an autocratic regime that imprisons journalists and political rivals and has allegedly financed a rebel movement in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
When Rwandan journalists asked Kagame recently about his 1996 meeting with Kigeli, Kagame grew angry. “You are trying to make him more important than he is,” he 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 what several Rwanda experts told me: 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,” Timothy Longman, who once headed a Human Rights Watch field office in Rwanda, says. “In Rwanda, you cannot openly embrace the king, you cannot call for the king’s return. You’ll be thrown in jail.”
Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, with nearly 12 million people in a landlocked area smaller than Maryland. With no oil and few valuable mineral deposits, as many as 90 percent of Rwandans till the land, mostly at the subsistence level.
The country’s Tutsi minority are generally taller and thinner than the majority Hutu. But those designations held little sway in everyday life until after World War I, when the newly arrived Belgian colonists barred Hutu from higher education and declared that only Tutsi could serve as public officials. The Belgians ordered Rwandans to carry official cards identifying themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, transforming what had been largely fluid categories into fixed castes.
Though all of Rwanda’s kings were born Tutsi, upon ascending to the throne they disowned group affiliation, changed their names, and became “raceless.”
Royal power had waxed and waned over the centuries, but the Belgians were bent on stamping it out. By the time Kigeli was born, in June 1936, his father—King Yuhi V Musinga, whom the Belgians had deposed for being too independent—was living in isolation in remote southwestern Rwanda. Four years later, the colonists exiled the entire family to a village in the Congo, where Musinga died of pneumonia in 1944.
Kigeli’s earliest memories were not of royal splendor but of exile, privation, and death. “We were very poor,” Kigeli says. “Everything was difficult.” His father had at least five wives, and Kigeli—born Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa—was among the younger of Musinga’s 15-odd children.
After Musinga’s death, his son and successor, King Mutara III Rudahigwa, convinced the Belgians to repatriate Musinga’s wives and children. The young Kigeli went to Catholic schools in Rwanda, then to a school in the Congo that trained Tutsi for jobs in the colonial government.
After Kigeli finished school in 1956, the Belgians made him a subchief, and soon a chief, in southern Rwanda. Kigeli delighted in the work, which he equated to being “mayor.” He made a point of getting down among the people and demonstrating firsthand how to plant crops, cut forests, and erect buildings. “I was happy about it,” he says. “I was still so young.” The people were happy with him, too, he adds. “I didn’t want to stand there being a boss. I was interested in meeting people and showing them by example how to work in agriculture, build houses, improve their lives.”
I ask Kigeli about his relationship with his half-brother, Mutara, the king. “He was a big friend,” Kigeli says. They played Ping-Pong together and liked soccer, but Kigeli didn’t share his brother’s stomach for game hunting. “Sometimes I would go with him, but I was really very careful around the animals.”
On July 25, 1959, after watching the film The Lords of the Forest, a Belgian documentary about the Congo, King Mutara felt ill. A Belgian doctor gave him an injection, and moments later, Mutara, still in his forties, was dead. Rumors swirled of assassination, and the country plunged into what United Nations observers at the time called “an atmosphere of extreme tension.”
On July 28, at Mutara’s burial, the abiru, traditional guardians of ritual, stunned onlookers by declaring Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa—thereafter Kigeli V—the next king. (Rwandan kings pick successors from among their male kin, but the choice is secret until the monarch’s death; Mutara was married but childless.) In a photograph of the announcement, the lanky Kigeli, then in his early twenties, stands in a Western suit and tie—a head or two taller than everyone else—his hands clasped behind his back and one knee bent gingerly forward. The Belgian governors, in white suits encrusted with medals, look on with slack jaws and grimaces.
It wasn’t the choice of Kigeli that dumbfounded the Belgians but that Rwandans had bypassed them in making it. The episode came to be known as the mwima coup d’état, the coup of the king, though it surprised Kigeli as much as anyone.
Jan Vansina, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who witnessed the ceremony, wrote in a memoir that Kigeli “stood perplexed when the chiefs shoved him forward.”
Kigeli says he had no idea he was even under consideration: “I was carried by the people. They took me and put me in front of the [Belgian] governor: Here’s the king.”
He was 23 years old, his country in tumult. How prepared did he feel? “In the beginning, I was just shocked. I asked: How can this have happened? But then I said, okay, this is my responsibility. I have to be courageous. I can’t go back. I’ve been given a responsibility. I have to fulfill it.”
In November 1959, Less than a month after his coronation, the Hutu revolted, killing hundreds of Tutsi and sending tens of thousands into exile. Newly formed Hutu political parties cast Kigeli as a tool of the “feudal-colonialist Tutsi regime” and accused him of complicity in retaliatory attacks on Hutu leaders during their uprising.
In July 1960, Kigeli fled to the Congo, which days earlier had declared its independence from Belgium. Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swede who was then secretary-general of the United Nations and who was in Leopoldville mediating the Congo crisis, granted Kigeli a meeting. But the Belgians had made up their minds: The king was persona non grata.
When the United Nations began hearings on the upheaval in November 1960, officials had trouble summoning Kigeli from his Manhattan hotel room. “According to reliable sources, it was not awe of the United Nations that confined the shy, 25-year-old ruler of Ruanda to his room . . . or even the head cold that has been bothering him,” the New York Timesreported at the time, under the headline RULER OF RUANDA SHUNS U.N. TALKS: LEAVES SEAT BESIDE FOES VACANT AT TRUST HEARING—stays in hotel room.
“The Mwami’s ailment was diagnosed as a ‘diplomatic illness,’ ” the article continued. A committee room where he would face questions from UN delegates and accusations from rival Rwandans “clearly . . . was no place for a sensitive Mwami.”
More than a dozen other witnesses from the Belgian territory of Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanda and Burundi) were present, and the hearing proceeded without Kigeli, who submitted only a written statement. (Kigeli disputes the Times account, saying he read his statement aloud. UN records and another Times account suggest that if he did read it aloud at the UN, it was some three weeks after the hearing.)
In his eight-page statement, Kigeli expressed support for democracy and his own circumscribed powers and accused the Belgians of egging on the Hutu rebellion as a pretext to purge political enemies. “I am not clinging to power,” he wrote. “I accept and I will always accept the people’s verdict; what I cannot accept is that the Belgian Administration should influence or distort this verdict.”
Kigeli appeared for a short time to have won the day. The UN General Assembly called on the Belgians to permit the king’s return and release political prisoners. Only then, once the field had been leveled, should Rwanda hold elections on the monarchy’s future. The Belgians agreed to elections and released political prisoners, including Benzinge, who fled in 1961 to the Congo. (In December 1962, he says, his parents, who stayed behind, were murdered by Hutu tribesmen.)
But on the question of whether Kigeli should return before the election, the Belgians were recalcitrant. So two days before the vote, Kigeli disguised himself as a pregnant woman, donning a dress and scarf that covered everything but his eyes. Collaborators placed him in the back seat of a car and loaded the trunk with two cases of beer. They slipped into Rwanda near the Burundi and Tanzanian border, where they were stopped by Hutu soldiers.
“ ‘You better not be bringing Kigeli in here with you,’ ” Kigeli recalls the soldiers joking. Not at all, chuckled the driver, who offered them the beer as thanks for their hard work.
When the car arrived in the capital, Kigeli dashed across a banana field in the predawn darkness to the residence of a UN delegate to let him know he was in the country. He then went to the home of his friend François Rukeba, leader of the ultraconservative Tutsi-dominated party, UNAR, which was demanding immediate independence from Belgium under a constitutional monarch. By 5 am, Belgian soldiers had surrounded Rukeba’s house.
“The people accompanying me wanted to resist,” Kigeli recalls. “I said no.”
As the elections unfolded on September 25, Kigeli was under house arrest. The published results were overwhelming: With 95-percent turnout, some 80 percent of voters said they were opposed both to the continuation of the monarchy and to Kigeli personally.
During one of our meetings at the Fairfax Marriott, I reminded Kigeli of his remarks to the United Nations, in which he said he would defer to the will of the people. Hadn’t the people spoken?
Kigeli and Benzinge exchanged disbelieving glances and shared a long laugh. The Belgians, Kigeli told me, had rigged the elections. While under arrest, he’d even heard senior officials in the next room concocting vote tallies. If the elections had been fair, he contended, he would have had more than 60 percent of the vote.
Rwandan historians I spoke with said there’s no known evidence of fraud and that elections in the preceding half decade had revealed growing disenchantment with Tutsi elites. Still, in view of the Belgians’ heavy hand in Rwanda’s affairs, ballot manipulation couldn’t be ruled out.
On October 2, 1961, a few days after the elections and a few months before Rwanda’s independence, Kigeli was deported to Tanzania. He hasn’t set foot in Rwanda since.
Over the next three decades, Kigeli lived in the countries bordering his homeland, staying in one until political gales blew him to another. Ugandan strongman Idi Amin had given him a house in Uganda in 1973, but with Amin’s overthrow six years later, Kigeli decamped for Kenya.
Kigeli poured his energies into arranging medical, legal, and financial aid for Rwandan orphans and refugees. This social service was his greatest legacy, he says: “Helping my people.” Yet the art of politics escaped him. In his years in exile, historians told me, Kigeli was woefully incapable of bringing together—let alone rallying—refugee leaders.
“He was really pushed to the sidelines by the more militant personalities at the time,” says René Lemarchand, an emeritus political scientist at the University of Florida and author of a landmark history of the Hutu revolution. “You had a whole bunch of more radical, young Tutsi who were in charge. Kigeli—he was essentially just a symbol.”
Kigeli’s ticket to the United States landed in the form of a twangy blond Oklahoman in cowboy boots, walrus mustache, and ten-gallon hat.
William A. “Bill” Fisher had worked as a lumberjack, a saloon bouncer, and a band manager before reinventing himself as an international wheeler-dealer with a taste for the odd job. It was 1986, Fisher says, and a deal he’d put together to supply Uganda Airlines with a used 747 had just gone south, after a Ugandan official demanded a bribe.
Fisher remained hopeful that his Africa trip might yield other business. A former major in Idi Amin’s security force asked Fisher if he wanted to speak with an exiled Rwandan king living in Kenya. Fisher met Kigeli and Benzinge at a downtown Nairobi hotel, and the trio immediately hit it off, despite a gaping cultural divide. “It was a little odd at first for this Oklahoma cowboy to hear everyone call my buddy Your Excellency,” Fisher says in an accent that wouldn’t be out of place on Hee Haw.
When Fisher returned to Nairobi the next year, Kigeli invited him to his house, which Fisher describes as comfortable but not opulent. Fisher watched Kigeli greet an unending procession of supplicants. Some were businessmen, others refugees. To show respect, many backed out, rather than turning around, as they left. Fisher says that Kigeli and Benzinge often dug into their own pockets to help their down-and-out countrymen. “That was one of the things I liked about him,” Fisher says. “He wasn’t stuck up, he wasn’t egotistical—he was more like a father figure.”
None of the business ties Kigeli tried to make for Fisher led to any deals, but the two kept in touch.
In 1990, under Western pressure, Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu who had ruled with an iron first for nearly two decades, agreed to share power with other parties. Seeing its chance, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the militant group of Tutsi exiles in Uganda, invaded, igniting long-dormant tensions between Hutu and Tutsi.
Kigeli refused to endorse the RPF’s violent tactics, but a Rwandan journalist who interviewed him in Kenya was arrested upon his return to Rwanda on charges of harming state security. Kenya’s then-president, Daniel Arap Moi, had close ties to Habyarimana, and Kigeli and Benzinge began to fear for their security.
The United States wouldn’t just be safer, they thought; its freedoms of speech would allow them to broadcast Rwanda’s plight to the world. They picked up the phone and called the one American they knew: Bill Fisher. Fisher, whose family had been prominent in Oklahoma political circles, asked then-US senator Don Nickles for help in expediting visas. To avoid drawing attention to their departure, Kigeli and Benzinge left relatives and most of their belongings behind, including the tasseled headdress that had been Kigeli’s crown.
“One suitcase each,” Benzinge says.
“No gold, no diamond,” Kigeli adds ruefully.
In June 1992, they landed in Oklahoma City. Fisher took them to the Cowboy Hall of Fame and his Baptist church, where Kigeli told parishioners about “what the gospel had done in his life.”
After a week in the heartland, the king and his retainer came to Washington. With the help of Catholic Charities, they applied to the State Department and obtained political asylum.
Though Kigeli is a devout Catholic who worships in traditional Latin at St. Athanasius on Leesburg Pike in Vienna, his quest for charity was nondenominational. At one of their first stops, a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Takoma Park, worshipers helped Kigeli and Benzinge fill out applications for food stamps and social services and found them a nearby apartment. Each time housing or benefits ran out, the pair threw themselves on the mercy of another sympathetic pastor.
Benzinge, a divorcé with five children and a wife he’d left behind in Kenya, eventually got paying jobs as a salesman at Sears and as an occasional Kinyarwandan interpreter for the courts. In 2009, he got his own house in Manassas. (Before that, he had lived with Kigeli, whom he has served, unpaid—translating, photocopying, ironing—since 1973.)
When I stopped by Benzinge’s townhouse in a quiet subdivision, I asked why his boss had never sought work in the United States. “Who would employ him?” he said. “What could they hire him for?”
I asked Benzinge about his many personal sacrifices for the king. He invoked love of country—Benzinge wanted peace and an end to lingering colonial-era “injustice” and had come to see Kigeli as Rwanda’s best shot at salvation.
Charles Coulombe, of the Monarchist League, who has known the pair for many years, says of Benzinge, “He gave up a lot. But he has a very fatalistic idea about it: Do your duty and let the rest sort itself out.”
When the king isn’t watching pro wrestling on TV or napping or taking one of his evening constitutionals, he’s often on the phone, gathering what he says is street-level intelligence from Rwandans around the world.
His sources had warned him of the coming 1994 bloodshed, and on March 21 of that year, Kigeli sent a memo to the United Nations predicting “terrible chaos.” A little more than two weeks later, a ground-to-air rocket struck a plane carrying Habyarimana and Burundi’s president near the Rwandan capital, killing both men and eight other passengers. The attack, still unsolved, set off the paroxysms of genocidal violence that left nearly a million Rwandans dead.
From his apartment, Kigeli watched TV reports and fielded calls from the Rwandan diaspora. His country was drowning in blood while the world’s greatest powers did nothing. Though most of his relatives were in exile, he mourned for strangers as if they were his family. He often felt helpless. “I had an explicable sadness,” he says. “The only thing I could do was pray for these people.”
After the genocide, on his “peace tour” with the Monarchist League, Kigeli told reporters of his lifelong hope of returning to Rwanda.
But the words rarely translated into deeds, according to many former associates. For reasons they could never quite grasp, Kigeli failed to take basic steps—learning English, courting allies in US and international circles—that might have buoyed his chances.
Gary Potter, a Washington writer and activist who was then president of Catholics for Christian Political Action, served pro bono as Kigeli’s unofficial press aide from 1995 to 1997. “I used to be very active on the Hill—I had contacts at the time in Congress,” Potter says. “If he had wanted it, I might have gone to a member of Congress and asked to arrange a luncheon with other members of Congress.” But Kigeli never asked—for anything.
Potter believes that Kigeli would have gone back to Rwanda if called: “But he wasn’t doing anything about engineering a call. My activity on his behalf just sort of petered out because—how to put it?—he did not seem all that interested.”
Geoffrey Hazzan, a retired Virginia businessman who became Kigeli’s friend while trying to teach him English, grew similarly frustrated: “I wanted him to improve his English, to get around a bit more and to do what Democrats and Republicans do when they’re not in power. They socialize and make their case, and he was unable to do that. He wanted to do it but couldn’t do it. It’s very hard for someone who isn’t broke to understand people who are broke. They are depressed. I would be depressed in Oakton, stymied: Where do I go? What do I do?”
Hazzan gave Kigeli English worksheets and tried to teach him the Rudyard Kipling poem “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs . . . / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you . . . .” But the king, distracted by his constantly ringing phone, made little headway.
As international support swung behind the Kagame regime, the little official interest in Kigeli all but evaporated. Gregory Copley, Kigeli’s adviser for several years and president of the International Strategic Studies Association, a nonprofit policy group, remembers a cold front as he tried to draw the attention of US officials to Kigeli’s plight: “This was a case, across the board, of ‘We’ve already picked our winner,’ ” Copley says, referring to Kagame. “The general view was ‘We are giving this guy a place to stay. Isn’t that enough?’ ”
A State Department spokeswoman says that the agency was “not aware of any requests for assistance” from Kigeli. Neither did it have a position on his return to Rwanda.
A window that was once perhaps big enough to climb through is now all but shut. Kigeli, who is childless, has observed a royal custom forbidding marriage in exile. Rwandan kings can also name brothers or brothers’ sons as heirs, but when I asked about a successor, I got a no-comment: It’s secret until a king’s death. Kigeli says that just one of his siblings—a sister, Princess Speciosa, in Kenya—is still alive.
On doctor’s orders, Kigeli has lost weight and tried to cut sugar and fat from his diet. Though he doesn’t speak of it publicly, he was diagnosed a couple of years ago with kidney failure. He goes to a clinic three times a week for full-day rounds of dialysis, which leave him exhausted.
On a Saturday in early September, I went back to the Fairfax Marriott for what felt like a kind of last stand. Kigeli had summoned dissidents, human-rights activists, and representatives of opposition groups to the hotel for an unusual meeting. The guests—nearly all Rwandan—had come from as far away as California, Michigan, and Canada. It was an important enough occasion that Kigeli, no stranger to public transit, hired a stretch limousine to ferry him from the Oak Creek Apartments to the hotel’s driveway.
Programs and invitations had been printed. Waiters were setting up a lunch buffet of grilled flank steak and sautéed chicken in dill-Chardonnay sauce.
Benzinge told me that the exiled dissidents, unable to overcome internal rivalries, had pleaded with Kigeli to exercise his traditional role as peacemaker. About 20 people—12 men, 8 women, Hutu and Tutsi—took seats around tables in a small conference room off the lobby. I found myself sitting next to Israel Ntaganzwa, a retired correctional officer and counselor from upstate New York.
“With Kagame, you cannot discuss Rwandan history,” Ntaganzwa told me. “He stopped teaching Rwandan history because he thinks it divides us.”
Kigeli, on the other hand, was a figure who could unite Rwandans around its rich precolonial culture. “Even if it was a symbolic thing, it worked for us,” he said of the monarchy. “The Rwandans in the country want him back. The problem is Paul Kagame does not want to be number two.”
Kigeli, in a gray suit and autumnal-colored tie, delivered his speech from a chair at a long table on a platform in the front of the room. Translating into English for the non-Rwandans in the audience was Leopold Munyakazi, a former Goucher College professor facing possible deportation amid charges by the Kagame regime that he took part in the genocide. (Munyakazi and some prominent American supporters have accused Kagame of fabricating the charges as a political smear.)
“What causes me so much pain is that there are people who are still behaving as though they didn’t learn anything from the lessons of the past,” Kigeli told the dissidents. “They should come together, act as a single group, share a vision, and rebuild the country to help people suffering at the hands of a tiny group of individuals.”
The dissidents I spoke with were full of fiery rhetoric and vitriol toward the Kagame regime. But in his remarks to them, Kigeli trafficked in vague bromides, noting his availability as an “elder” and “wise person” to a younger generation deciding for itself how best to lead the country. The word “king” wasn’t mentioned. Neither was the name Kagame.
If he held the Rwandan president responsible for Rwanda’s current woes, I asked later, why didn’t he mention Kagame by name? “I like to put it generally because I’m reproaching the action, not the individual,” he said. “I don’t want to enter politics.”
Was this soft-pedaling born of a kind of innate diffidence, I wondered. Or was something else at play? As devoted as he is to his people, would he have chosen—if the choice were his—to be king?
Kigeli brushed aside the question, saying there was no choice. At the very beginning, though, when elders named him to the throne, he demanded less power. His predecessors had ruled with an absolute hand, but Kigeli asked to be sworn in as a constitutional monarch, with mostly ceremonial prerogatives. His request required a change to the oath of office, and his coronation was delayed by three days.
“I think in a sense he may have been too gentle for the historical period into which he was thrust,” Gregory Copley, who had served as Kigeli’s strategic adviser, says. “There are times when you can be a king who is merely a symbol of decency and unity. And there are times when you have to be commanding and inspiring.”
In October, I reached Paul Rusesabagina by phone at his home in Brussels. President George W. Bush had awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 for saving the lives of hundreds of Rwandans during the genocide as the manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in the capital of Kigali. (Don Cheadle portrayed Rusesabagina in the film Hotel Rwanda.)
Rusesabagina, an outspoken critic of Kagame, says that Rwandans are “120 percent” ready for new leaders. But Kigeli, whom he considers a friend, has been too long gone to offer himself as a credible alternative today. Residents of Rwanda—where the median age is 19—know too little about him, in part because the king’s public statements are too infrequent and too milquetoast.
Rusesabagina believes that Kigeli’s limited education and failure to learn English—despite five decades of exile in Anglophone Africa and the United States—have raised questions about his vulnerability to manipulation by more worldly leaders. “He’s a very good human being, but as a leader, Rwandans have not really had an opportunity to know him,” says Rusesabagina. “He has no platform to convey his message.
“He’s just like a noble lion that does not bite.”
When I relay some of these critiques to Kigeli, His Majesty says that tradition permitted no other path: “In Rwanda, a king is seen as a father of his nation, and because I am a true father, I have to be among my children without favoring some over others.”
Is Paul Kagame his child, too?
“Yes,” Kigeli says. “Even a bad child, he’s still yours.”
Not long ago, Kigeli’s friends launched a website, KingKigeli.org, but few of the links work. Someone has set up Facebook and Twitter accounts in his name, but an aide says both are unauthorized and Kigeli wants them taken down. A humanitarian foundation Kigeli established in 1992—which has gone, variously, by the names Rwandese Refugee Social Welfare Organization, King Kigeli’s Children, and King Kigeli Foundation—had its charter revoked by the state of Virginia in 2003 for nonpayment of annual fees.
Kigeli still issues annual New Year’s Day messages to his people, but when strangers in America ask what he does, he doesn’t say he’s king. “I’m a businessman,” he tells them. “My name is Jean.”
Civilian life, he has discovered, offers riches unavailable on the throne. “In a palace you have a very private life,” he says. “I prefer living in an apartment because I can meet all the neighbors and the children who come over. I can walk wherever I want. I can go out, and people don’t recognize me.”
The only people with real power or money Kigeli sees these days are those seeking knighthoods. In 1998, he revived the Order of the Lion, first granted by his late half-brother, King Mutara. More recently, Kigeli introduced a series of new orders—of the drum, the crown, and the crested crane, all icons in the royal coat of arms—when it became clear they might appeal to benefactors.
“We’ve seen donations anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000, but the average is $3,000 to $5,000,” says Alex Montague, a financial adviser in Miami who processes the requests as the king’s current secretary-general.
Montague is a 51-year-old first vice president at Morgan Stanley, where he manages the assets of people with at least $1 million to invest. He had been researching his own family’s Polish heritage about seven years ago—fishing for a possibly noble line—when he came across reports about Kigeli and flew to DC on a lark to meet him. “I’m very interested in history and in meeting different heads of state,” Montague says.
Montague began writing Kigeli checks and pressing some of his associates to do the same. Kigeli soon relieved his then-secretary-general of his duties and replaced him with Montague, to whom Kigeli has awarded each of his orders as well as the European title of marquis.
Montague has arranged Miami fundraisers for Kigeli and paid to fly the king—and himself—to meetings with dukes and princes in Portugal and Italy, where the gathered royalty often exchange orders, exchanges in which Montague is included. When Kigeli feels too ill, Montague travels on his behalf. “Two years ago, I went to Geneva without the king, where I sat with the son of the last king of Italy—the duke of Savoy and the prince of Naples,” Montague says.
Montague’s Facebook page identifies him as the recipient of more than 50 royal orders, from places as far-flung as Italy, Ethiopia, and the Sultanate of Sulu. I ask how many of those he obtained through his association with Kigeli.
“All of them,” he says. He displays the certificates—brevets, as they’re known—on his office wall, where they make an impression on his high-net-worth clients. “It really starts a conversation.”
Montague assures me that he cares deeply about Kigeli’s own aspirations, for his country and his people. He says that the meeting of dissidents last September left His Majesty with unprecedented optimism: “I’ve never seen him more excited and more energized than I have in the last couple months that he will return one day to his country, in the near future, rather than later.”
Would Montague accompany Kigeli on that trip?
“I used to kid him all the time: ‘Your majesty, when you return to your country, I will be there to support you in every way. But I’m coming on the second plane.’ ”
Ariel Sabar is the author of two books, including My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past. His website is arielsabar.com.