Defeat Is the Only Bad News: Rwanda under Musinga, 1896–1931

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Univ of Wisconsin Press, May 17, 2011 - History - 306 pages

A Rwandan proverb says “Defeat is the only bad news.” For Rwandans living under colonial rule, winning called not only for armed confrontation, but also for a battle of wits—and not only with foreigners, but also with each other. In Defeat Is the Only Bad News Alison Des Forges recounts the ambitions, strategies, and intrigues of an African royal court under Yuhi Musinga, the Rwandan ruler from 1896 to 1931. These were turbulent years for Rwanda, when first Germany and then Belgium pursued an aggressive plan of colonization there. At the time of the Europeans’ arrival, Rwanda was also engaged in a succession dispute after the death of one of its most famous kings. Against this backdrop, the Rwandan court became the stage for a drama of Shakespearean proportions, filled with deceit, shrewd calculation, ruthless betrayal, and sometimes murder.

Historians who study European expansion typically focus on interactions between colonizers and colonized; they rarely attend to relations among the different factions inhabiting occupied lands. Des Forges, drawing on oral histories and extensive archival research, reveals how divisions among different groups in Rwanda shaped their responses to colonial governments, missionaries, and traders. Rwandans, she shows, used European resources to extend their power, even as they sought to preserve the autonomy of the royal court. Europeans, for their part, seized on internal divisions to advance their own goals. Des Forges’s vividly narrated history, meticulously edited and introduced by David Newbury, provides a deep context for understanding the Rwandan civil war a century later.

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This is a real bad book. As the title of the book shows,Allison DesForges is "rubbing it in," in her description of Rwanda at the end of World war 1,when the Germans who had colonized Rwanda were replaced by Belgians whom she seemed to favor as better colonialists.Better because they made it easier for her to write and to trash Rwanda,which would help to enhance Belgian barbaric colonialism.The caricature-like photo of King Musinga was obviously uncalled for,and she admitted that to me when I contacted her during the Genocide when she was appearing almost daily on CNN.When you read her book and when you listen to her plights during the genocide it was like listening to two different people.But that was because she had finally learned the truth about Rwanda,that she could not have seen when she wrote the book that served to enhance her Belgian benefactors' practices. Why was King Musinga exiled? Why was his son Mutara Rudahigwa assassinated by Belgians in 1959 along with Lumumba and Rwagasore the Prime Minister of Burundi? And Why was the latest King Kigeri V Ndahindurwa forced to leave Rwanda before Independence against the United Nations recommendatuions? DesForges cannot answer that.She does not even want to go there.
The book reads like a gossip columnist's page where she reserves a large portion on these irrelevant petty quarrels between local chiefs,princes and other influential personalities that she used rather well to project Rwanda in a colonial racist image where Africans live in a chaotic and savage society.The whole book is negative from page 1 to the end.That is why most of us Rwandans were shocked to see her on CNN in 1994,when she was in all sincerity pleading for Rwandan victims of Belgian colonialism,that she had so passionately defended in her first book.Though she never had the courage to apologize to Rwandans for writing a bad book,during the genocide she went out of her way to make the World community get a clear understanding of Rwanda,and we all wish she did the samething in her first book.One of the reason for her passion on CNN,was the fact that she saw the genocide as an opportunity to fame and fortune.From an obscure teacher at a local college in upstate New York,she was catapulted to the Empire State Building in Manhattan,New York City,as the new boss of the Human Rights Organisation.She passed away just before our meeting when we were going to discuss some of these issues that I had pointed out to her in our brief correspondence.This is one of the books that Belgian colonial administration helped to publish in mid 1950,using Anglophone scholars like her as mules to cover up their colonial atrocities.Prior to 1960,foreigners were strictly prohibited by law to enter Rwanda,Burundi and the Congo,unless they had authorization from Belgium.Only authors like Allison DesForges and others who had agreed to work for Belgians had free access to their ciolonies,which was in contrast to British and French colonies which were open to anyone.Allison DesForges' book unfortunately,has contributed a great deal to the exacerbation of Rwandan crisis,because she deliberately neglected to expose Belgians practices of destroying Rwanda by creating factions for future conflicts,which is exactly happened in the subsequent years following Independence,when the nation was ruled by those that they had left in power.Of course DesForges never had the courage to point fingers at the Belgian colonial administration,because that would have been bitting the fingers that were feeding her.If she was still alive,I am sure she would have made a public apology.This is a very bad book.
Israel Ntaganzwa,
New York 2014

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"DEFEAT IS THE ONLY BAD NEWS." Totally inappropriate title of Allison DesForges' book.
Under the difficult circumstances that Rwanda was going through,being colonized by barbaric Belgians whose
atrocities were and are still well known in the annals of African colonialism,King Musinga was absolutely justified in refusing to accept Belgian rule.And look at what they have done to his Kingdom! Can anyone blame King Musinga for denouncing these obnoxious Belgians with their catholic priests co-conspirators? DesForges wrote her bestseller for her masters thesis and there is no doubt that it was clearly dictated by her Belgian benefactors whether she understood that she was being used or not.We must point out that few selected individuals were ever allowed to enter Rwanda and Burundi before Independence,which is why very little is still known about those two nations except the carefully well placed Belgian propaganda like DesForges book.Before she passed I had an opportunity to discuss this point with her and she agreed that she could have picked a better tittle of the book.That is why she had changed her views on Rwanda during the genocide even though she never had the courage to point the finger at the Belgians who are responsible for all Rwandans miseries since 1916.
Israel Ntaganzwa
New York


The Accession of Musinga
2 The Catholic Church the German Administration and the Nyiginya Court
3 The Missionaries the Court and the Local Community 19041910
4 Musingas Coming of Age 19051913
The Conquest of the Northern Regions
6 The Europeans New Court Tactics 19131922
Belgian Rule and the Court
Emerging Factions at the Court
The Deposition of Musinga
Editors Epilogue
Rwandan Interviewees

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About the author (2011)

Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges (1942–2009) was a Yale-trained historian, a leading activist with Human Rights Watch, and the author of Leave None to Tell the Story. David Newbury is the Gwendolen Carter Professor of African Studies at Smith College and author of Kings and Clans: A Social History of the Lake Kivu Rift Valley.

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