On July 4, Rwanda will celebrate its 20th Liberation Day, nine days before the World Cup 2014 final in Brazil.
It is an interesting irony, because the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and its armed wing, the Rwanda Patriotic Army, now Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF), took power on July 4, 1994 after a four-year rebellion.
It is the date that the government considers it ended the three-month spree of killing that year in which nearly one million people, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutus, were slaughtered by extremists and rogue government troops.
However, the fact that the genocide started in Rwanda during the build up to the 1994 World Cup, and the height of the massacres happened at the peak of that tournament, had far reaching consequences.
Nearly everything about the Rwanda genocide remains controversial, among them the negligent attitude of the international community - for which leaders like Bill Clinton apologised when he visited Rwanda when he was US president – the alleged complicity of European nations like France with the genocidaires, and the role of the UN that dismissed pressure to bolster its small beleaguered peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time.
However, one of the things that made the Rwanda rebellion and genocide and their last days unusual was the number of big news and global sports that distracted world attention from it; including the 1994 World Cup in the US. And during that tournament, a footballer from Cameroon was to wow Africa and the world so much, that it seemed impossible to pay attention to anything else however good or horrible on the continent.
The other big thing that stole world attention from those blood-drenched days in Rwanda was closer home, in South Africa: Nelson Mandela.
Dele Olojede, Nigerian journalist and publisher, and former foreign editor of Newdsay in New York, who won a Pulitzer prize in 2005 for his reporting on Rwanda, has told this writer he thinks the world might have acted differently if all the resources of international media were not concentrated on South Africa, watching the country as it moved to elect the African National Congress (ANC) and Mandela as the country’s first black president in the nation’s first multiracial democratic election.
Olojede himself by 1994 was Africa correspondent for Newsday, based in Johannesburg.
The morning after nightmare
With Mandela having been sworn in, the 1994 World Cup ended on July 17 with Brazil defeating Italy 3-2 on penalties to take the prize after the game ended in a 0-0 draw after extra time. By then, the genocide was done, and Rwanda was already living the morning after nightmare.
The best reporting and writing on the Rwanda genocide, happened only after the slaughter. Olojede returned to Rwanda in 2004 for the series that won him the Pulitzer, and New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch’s powerful book on the Rwanda genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, came out in 1998.
If Africa’s story at the 1994 World Cup had been the same as at Brazil 2014, it might have been different. However, against the background of the controversy of how the US, not a noteworthy footballing nation at that point, had won the bid to host the tournament, Nigeria made its first appearance in that World Cup.
And there was drama galore. It was the World Cup when Argentine legend and captain Diego Maradona sensationally failed a drugs test, and was removed from the tournament.
But it was Cameroon’s Roger Milla who swept the continent and the game with his victory jigs. Milla, who was, in footballing terms at least, an incredible 42 years, scored against Russia and became not only the oldest player ever to play in a World Cup, but the oldest to ever score a goal.
There was no getting Milla off the front pages. In the bush, meanwhile, between battles, football fanatics in RPA were keeping one eye on the pitch in the US.
Affected crisis response
General Patrick Nyamvumba, RDF’s Chief of Defence Forces, acknowledged to Mail & Guardian Africa that in Nyagatare to the east, French missionaries who had fled the fighting left the RPA soldiers with keys to their home – where they had a TV with a satellite feed that was still working.
Young fighters would make perilous journeys of several kilometres, sometimes dodging Rwanda government troops, and sneak into the missionaries’ house to watch the World Cup at low volume.
In Mulindi, eastern Rwanda, the RPA rebels operational headquarters where now-president Paul Kagame had his war bunker (which is being turned into a national museum) was next to a football ground. When it was safe from air and mortar attacks, the soldiers would play football there. The RDF team, APR FC, the leading military team in eastern Africa, was born in those fields.
In both good and bad ways, then the July 4, 1994 capture of power by the RPF/RPA came with a football in its mouth.
And the fact that Mandela’s election, South Africa’s return to democracy, Milla’s heroics and Maradona’s fall far away in the 1994 US World Cup thousands probably affected how the world might have responded to the Rwanda crisis, demonstrates that the world has always been more interconnected than most imagine.
Rwanda has been having an emotional marking of the 20th anniversary of the generation since April. However, like it was then, perhaps Brazil 2014 could again distract many people from events in Kigali on July 4.
At another level, the fact that Boko Haram militants are killing fans watching the World Cup, yet in 1994 RPA rebels were breaking camp to go and watch it, and during the Liberia civil war warring sides would take a football truce, reveals the values gap developing in Africa.