“It was a bit like what could have happened in South Africa if Nelson Mandela was murdered before assuming the presidency in 1994,” said one pol later.
A prince, a pro-independence nationalist, a Tutsi who had married a Hutu and spurned a tribal leadership position lest he cast too sectarian a profile, Louis Rwagasore became prime minister in the fall of 1961 on the strength of his party‘s comprehensive electoral victory.
Rwagasore admired Patrice Lumumba. He was destined to share Lumumba’s fate.
Two weeks after his election, “the one truly popular national figure” was gunned down by Kageorgis, a Greek mercenary drawing pay from Belgian settlers who reckoned a better situation (French link) for themselves with Hutu governance. A revolution of (Belgian- and Catholic-backed) Hutu in Rwanda had had a “neo-colonial” character, according to Rene Lemarchand … and it had heightened ethnic tensions in Burundi.
With the murdered prince went ethnic cohesion; the bloody Kamenge riots of January 1962 presaged worse to come as leadership in the Rwagasore-less party collapsed. Ethnic conflict sharpened through the 1960’s, with a Tutsi-dominated dictatorship ultimately gaining control of the country and setting the stage for intermittent massacres (two classed as genocides) that haunt Burundi to this day and form part of the context for the Rwandan genocide.
Rwagasore Day — October 13, the anniversary of the prince’s assassination — is still observed in Burundi. Kageorgis’s execution date is notable for other reasons: it was the last day before Belgian authority in Ruanda-Urundi officially ended.
* This Greek newspaper gives the killer’s name as Ioannis Karagiorgis.