Born on March 8, 1937, the son of Jean-Baptiste Ntibazirikana, a former catechist (Munyarugerero, 2003: 151), he attended the small seminary of Kabgayi, before completing his studies in Latin and mathematics at Bukavu. His marriage to Agathe Kanziga, who came from an important family of land-owners in the north of the country, helped his social rise. He formed part of the first promotion from the Officers’ Schools of Kigali, which pledged its faith to Grégoire Kayibanda on December 23, 1961. He left with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and Major by promotion (Paternostre de la Mairieu, 1994: 170). Having become Minister of the National Guard and Police on November 9, 1965, Juvénal Habyarimana was one of the principal northern figures in the First Republic. Promoted to Major-General on April 1, 1973, he took power peacefully on July 5 of the same year, benefiting from the general discontent and the exhaustion of the regime of Grégoire Kayibanda. Juvénal Habyarimana drew on his practice of Catholicism, which reassured Christian-democratic movements at the time of his coup d’État.
The first two years of the Second Republic were marked by the creation in 1975 of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND), a single party of which every Rwandan citizen was a member from birth. The pursuit of ethnic appeasement inside the country and, between 1977 and 1981, high economic growth made the country a ‘good pupil’ as regards international aid (Uvin, 1999: 45-59). However, in 1984, the imprisonment of Félicien Gatabazi, accused of corruption, and the polarization of power onto the persons of Juvénal Habyarimana and his wife (Gasana, 2002: 47; Munyarugerero, 2003: 175), indicated the drift of the regime. Juvénal Habyarimana was elected President of the Republic in 1978 and then re-elected in 1983 and 1988, never with less than 99 percent of the vote. The economic crisis that struck the country from the second half of the 1980s, and the assassination in 1988 of Stanislas Mayuya, whom Juvénal Habyarimana regarded as his dauphin, helped weaken his political position. Subjected to external pressure (in particular, the announcement of the conditionality of aid made by François Mitterrand in his La Baule speech in 1990), and facing growing domestic discontent, Juvénal Habyarimana announced a ‘political modernization’ on July 5, 1990.
The war launched by the FPR in October 1990, the arrival of a multi-party system and emergence of opposition political parties in 1991, and the hardening of the Akazu around his wife ended up isolating him. His attitude during the transition seemed to be dictated by short-term considerations that betrayed his weakened condition. While he agreed to negotiate with the FPR and the opposition at Arusha, and accepted the establishment of a new Constitution, on November 15, 1992 he denounced the Arusha Accords, which he described as ‘shreds of paper’, and boasted of the action of the Interahamwe militias. In addition to the imprisonment of around 8,000 civilians, for the most part Tutsi, in the early days of the war in October 1990, he did not oppose the emergence of the CDR in 1992.
Despite his warm welcome for the International Committee of Inquiry into the Violation of Human Rights in Rwanda since October 1, 1990 (CIDH, 1993: 6), he did not pursue those responsible for the massacres of Kibilira in 1990 or Bugesera in 1992, or those responsible for the extermination of the Bagogwe in 1991. Compelled by the signature of the Arusha Accords of August 1993 to accept the establishment of a new government headed by Faustin Twagiramungu and a Transitional National Assembly, Juvénal Habyarimana tried to push back the starting date on several occasions at the beginning of 1994 (Reyntjens, 1995: 60). On April 6 that year, returning from a regional summit at Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) during which he had agreed to the establishment of the government derived from the Arusha Accords, he was assassinated, together with Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira and ten other passengers, in the plane that was taking them back to Kigali (see above).