iOS app Android app More

Rwanda President Paul Kagame Sends Off Oklahoma Christian Grads Amid Controversy (VIDEO)

First Posted: 05/21/10 09:46 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:20 PM ET

Paul Kagame

OKLAHOMA CITY — Rwanda President Paul Kagame honored Rwandan graduates at an Oklahoma university Friday, the same day lawyers for the widows of two African nation presidents killed in a plane crash tried to serve him with a lawsuit accusing him of ordering the men's deaths.

Kagame, who has denied any involvement in the 1994 crash in Rwanda, was the keynote speaker at Oklahoma Christian University's commencement and celebrated the first graduates in the school's Rwanda Presidential Scholars program.

Kagame shook hands with the 10 Rwandan students and other graduates, saying education would be key in helping his war-torn country continue to recover from genocide. But he left shortly before the ceremony ended, and never mentioned the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City.

University spokesman Ron Frost said unsuccessful attempts were made to serve Kagame with the lawsuit during the commencement. There were no apparent disruptions during the ceremony.

The widows of Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi don't live in the U.S., but filed the wrongful death lawsuit in Oklahoma because of Kagame's ties to the school, their attorneys said. The university has given Kagame and his wife honorary degrees.

The suit, filed by Lawton attorney John Zelbst, said Rwanda has "no independent functioning judiciary" and any lawsuit brought there against Kagame and nine other defendants would be futile.

Habyarimana and Ntaryamira were aboard a plane that was shot down in April 1994 by unknown assailants as it approached the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Both were returning from a regional peace meeting in Tanzania.

The $350 million wrongful death lawsuit accuses Kagame of ordering the plane to be shot down and of igniting the genocide that left at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. The killings spread across Rwanda and lasted 100 days, until Kagame's Tutsi rebel army overthrew the Hutu government.

Kagame's government has denied the accusations.

Frost, the university spokesman, said Kagame came to Oklahoma to honor the graduating Rwandan students "and we're not going to get involved in the politics of the country."

About 60 Rwandan students attend Oklahoma Christian and 40 are involved in the scholarship program, including the 10 who graduated Friday. The graduates' combined grade point average was 3.79 and all plan to pursue higher degrees.

"They will put to good use the knowledge they have acquired here when they go back to Rwanda," Kagame said. "What you get from a university is only the start of a much bigger assignment, a much longer journey."

Kagame called education just as important as his nation's natural resources, nothing that Rwanda lost much of its educated class during the genocide. He said he appreciated Oklahoma Christian's approach of "putting values at the center of education."

"Education is only as good as the character of the person who receives it," he said.

Before the ceremony, two of the Rwandan graduates said they appreciated Kagame's presence during their graduation.

"There are many other things going on in Rwanda, but he's coming here," said Evangeline Rukundo, 25. "Education means a lot to him."

Added 21-year-old Yves Mujyambere: "Education is one of the pillars ... of how we want to transform the country. If you want to have a knowledge-based economy and you don't promote education and invest heavily in it, you're not going to be able to do that."

WATCH: Kagame's speech.

President Paul Kagame - 2010 Commencement Address from Oklahoma Christian on Vimeo.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST COLLEGE

Filed by Leah Finnegan  |