2017 began on a bad note.
Earlier this month a court case played out in the suburbia of northern Virginia. It had nothing to do with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, super-PACs, or other subjects that come to mind when the Washington, D.C region is mentioned. Instead, its reason for existence is not only non-American, but no longer with us.
On Oct. 16, 2016, H.M. King Kigeli V ---- Rwanda’s exiled monarch ---- joined the long list of those who died too soon. As with so many other public figures last year, his passing was unexpected. Unlike them, however, his demise triggered an international incident.
“His Majesty’s long-term wish during life was to return to Rwanda as the King, a statement he made many times publicly. This is in accordance with the General Assembly of the United Nations Resolutions number 1580 and 1579 of December 20th, 1960, which calls for, amongst other things, the restoration of His Majesty to the throne,” The King’s royal council declared in a statement.
It continued: “Multiple previous attempts of His Majesty to return to Rwanda in accordance with these outstanding resolutions of the United Nations were not favorably received by the current government of Rwanda. Therefore, His Majesty’s burial wishes were to eventually return to Rwanda but not under a government that wasn’t prepared to either abide by these Resolutions of the United Nations or provide the people of Rwanda a vote to determine whether they wished to restore the monarchy.”
Kigeli had good reason to doubt that Rwanda ---- sans substantive political change ---- would be a dignified place for his remains. During 2013, the house he lived in while reigning was sold, torn down, and the property it stood on transformed into a car park. For roughly two decades, the King waited for Rwanda’s post-genocide president, Paul Kagame, to call him back about taking a serious role in their country’s future.
His Majesty died without ever receiving that call.
As Kigeli’s royal council and family members made funeral arrangements, they were hit with a most unpleasant surprise. The Royal Council revealed that “a member of the Royal family” filed a lawsuit demanding “the forcible return of His Majesty’s body, against his personal wishes, to Rwanda.” This was “financially supported by the current government of Rwanda.”
The trial was a fast one ---- and a final insult to the King. The court decided that his cadaver should be taken to Rwanda. This was, principally, because his half-sister filed the litigation and she was of greater blood relation to him than his nephews, both of whom recognized his wishes.
Kigeli, even in death, was dealt the shortest straw.
Nonetheless, during his often-painful life, the King relentlessly sought out the good in people. When political trends turned against him, he chose not to loot Rwanda’s treasury and make a quick getaway. As the toxic brew of genocide was stewed, he refused to support militants who promised him a return to power ---- even though their opponents were hardly royalists.
In the United States, Kigeli lived humbly among the shadows of Capitol Hill. His income fell far short of $1,000 each month, and despite having ample opportunity to raise funds for himself, the King instead established a charitable foundation so all Rwandans might benefit.
His death was reported in generally lowbrow terms by the world media. Little, if any, mention was made of how he consistently pushed aside his own interests for the sake of others. It was said, though, that Kigeli accepted public assistance, followed by the demonstrably false claim that he sold titles to line his pockets.
The story of Kigeli has a bittersweet moral: Men of utmost virtue can exist in our era, but the world around them will seek their destruction ---- and, insofar as worldly concerns go, probably get it.
Kigeli, fundamentally, was an honorable man in a dishonorable age. What does that say about the contemporary human experience?
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org