The Banyarwanda, the Kinyarwanda-speaking community, constituted one of Central Africa’s biggest ethnic groups, its footprint stretching from eastern Zaire to western Tanzania and up to western Uganda. At its core sat the tiny, mountainous former kingdom of Rwanda. The community’s geographical overflow was explained by a series of migrations prompted by acute land hunger, popular resentment at high taxes, a series of bitter royal wars of succession, and ethnic tensions that deepened every decade.
For their part in the Scramble for Africa, Germany’s envoys established a relationship at the turn of the 19th century with the Mwami, the Kingdom of Rwanda was one of Africa’s most centralised states, highly organised, and deeply suspicious of visitors and the potential for change they represented. The royal court had achieved that status after centuries of conquest and subjugation, with rival princes and warlords either killed or co-opted – a record of violence discreetly and currently played down today by local historians.
When defeat in WWI spelt the end for German East Africa, Mwami cannily used available German firepower to further extend his rule. With Ruanda-Urundi transferred to Belgian control, the king played the same game with Brussels as long as he could, before he was eventually banished into exile. The infighting continued, with battalions dispatched to eliminate rival challengers, literally wiping out every man, woman and child in order to extinguish rival bloodlines.
The Hutu-Tutsi distinction has never been the only one that matters in Rwanda. Each of the remaining 20 major clans in Rwanda includes both Hutu and Tutsi. If the divide was not the intention of colonial authorities, they sharpened and entrenched the difference. ID cards identifying Rwandans as “Hutu”, “Tutsi” or “Twa” made it official.
What struck outsiders, was the rigid stratification to Rwanda’s feudal society. The Tutsi aristocracy accounted for 14% of the population but owned most of the country’s cattle and dominated the standing army. The Hutus, accounted for 85%, did the farming and were locked into a client-patron relationship with the Tutsi rulers, trading labour and a share of each annual harvest. Twa pygmies made up the rest of the population.
The difference between the communities to the Belgians was stark who decided only migration could explain the difference. They suggested to themselves and concluded that Tutsis were “Hamites” who had migrated to the Great Lakes from Egypt and Ethiopia, conquering the indigenous Bantus, introducing more sophisticated, civilized ways. It was obvious which of the ethnic groups “European under black skin” versus “the backward negro” the Belgians regarded as natural allies. Tutsi royals were built on different physical lines, enjoying better standard of living and much taller. Compared to the “stubby Hutu peasants”, Belgians initially thought they were separate races. The basis of a system of Central African apartheid was laid.
In 1959, the Belgian Colonial authorities dramatically, disastrously, swapped sides. Tutsi intellectuals had been reading the anti-imperial radical writers of the day and started campaigning for the white man’s departure. Suspecting the Tutsi of Marxist sympathies, and egged on by firebrand young Flemish priests, Brussels abandoned the Tutsi elite, siding instead with the emerging Hutu political parties.
The U-turn which upended existing power relations couldn’t have been better calculated to foment community hatred. Activists loyal to an all-Hutu Parmehutu political party and members of the pro-Tutsi monarchist party attacked one another killing the majority of local officials.
In January 1961, the first local elections delivered most posts to the Parmehutu party and with Belgian approval, Parmehutu abolished the Tutsi monarchy, declared Rwanda a republic, and Karyibanda, a Hutu, the country’s first elected president.
The wind of destruction, dubbed “Mayaga” the Hutu Revolution turned Tutsis into fair game. The next few decades saw a steady ratcheting up of violence, each wave readying Rwandan society for the next bigger wave. In 1959 several provinces saw minor pogroms against Tutsis, some fled Rwanda. After 1961 elections, more Tutsis departed, some joining guerilla groups in Burundi and Uganda, were dubbed inyenzi (cockroaches). They launched attacks on Rwanda, triggering massive revenge massacres of Tutsi civilians still in Rwanda.
Events in Rwanda’s southern neighbour Burundi also upped the ante. In 1972, in one of the least reported genocides of modern history, the Tutsi army slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Burundian Hutus in their suspicion that given a chance, their own aggrieved, ousted former Tutsi rulers would do exactly the same.
In 1990, a year whose significance which will become clear – Uganda, then a country with an 18 million population was estimated to hold 1.3 million Banyarwanda. Around one-third were descendants of people who happened to be living in what became Uganda when its boundaries were finalised in the early 20th century, a classic example of colonial map drawing ignoring realities on the ground. Half were economic migrants, descendants of Rwandans who moved between 1920 – 1960. The remaining 15% were refugees fleeing Muyaga, and solely Tutsis. From 1959-1964, UNHCR estimated 40% – 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsis simply walked out of the country. Between 50,000 to 70,000 went to Uganda.
Some had money, bought land and resettled. The majority poured into refugee camps/settlements in western Uganda, there would be eight in all. It was this community of “fifty-niners” that would play a small but key role when M7 came to challenge the Ugandan Government of the day. This group included 2-year-old Paul Kagame and 3-year-old Fred Rwigyema, who would later both be taken under M7’s wing.
Rwengoro Primary School, on the outskirts of Kahunge village, about 40 miles north of Mbarara. The school is a nondescript modest single-storey structure, like most in East Africa, its pristine blue mabati roof is at odds with everything else. The reason for the mismatch, a few years back, a teacher discovered a Primary Leaving Certificate made out to Paul Kagame, Rwengoros’s most famous alumnus, abandoned in a school cupboard. He took it to the Rwandan High Commissioner. The school sent a delegation to Kigali to present the certificate along with a request for funds to mend a leaking roof. The old boy relationship is very important in Uganda, Kagame did not disappoint.
Former, fellow pupils remember a watchful, hardworking boy who excelled at maths and enjoyed table tennis. Even then, Kagame showed distinct signs of a disciplinarian streak. Appointed class monitor, he relished the opportunity to curb his peers’ behaviour. A former classmate recalled, “When we were shouting in class he’d take down our names and give them to the teacher to make sure we were punished, he hasn’t changed.”
Fred Rwigyema, who took the less popular boy under his wing, attended a school in Mpanga, 4 miles from Rwengoro, before being admitted to Mbarara High School. Then he suddenly disappeared.
14-year-old Emmanuel Gisa – “Fred Rwigyema” was a nom de guerre adopted to protect his family, had been talent spotted by Kahinda Otafiire, one of M7’s right-hand men, on the lookout for adventurous youngsters to join their guerilla organisation.
Rwigyema returned to Kahunge in the mid-1980s when he was in the National Resistance Movement, and again when he was Ugandan Army deputy commander in chief. Fred was always in search of the same thing, Banyarwanda youth willing to train and fight.
Opposite Rwengoro Primary School, also lived Peter Bayingana, who grew up to be a doctor, one of the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s leading intellectuals, and the man who would play a contested role in Fred’s future. Also nearby lived Frank Mugam-bage, who became an RPF major general and Rwanda’s long-serving high commissioner in Kampala.
The privations of refugee life are frequently cited as an explanation for the RPF’s eventual ruthlessness, the hardship, just as the humiliations of life in Lebanon’s Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in the 1970s gave rise to Palestinian extremism. Kahunge nuances that interpretation.
Ugandan officials insist that the RPF’s future ring leaders were from settlements not refugee camps. As far as indigenous locals were concerned, newcomers fared better than they did. Refugees received food handouts from WFP, special schools and clinics were built for them. UN scholarships earmarked for refugees allowed the brighter ones to attend secondary school, one reason Banyarwanda refugees tended to get better educated than the average Ugandan.
As the community grew, they realised names were malleable. And many Banyarwanda tweaked their names to sound Ugandan. The process of stealth camouflage was facilitated by sympathetic Banyarwanda officials in Kampala ready to invent fake backstories and issue fake IDs.
Milton Obote, Round 1
This did not go unnoticed by the authorities, and it fed concerns among Ugandan politicians that refugees were spilling beyond the confines of the camps and settlements, and taking land hungered by Ugandans. Worse, fake IDs meant refugees could vote, and Milton Obote, Uganda’s first Executive PM, knew who the Banyarwanda would support if they got the chance, his enemies.
Idi Amin, flamboyant character that non-Ugandans automatically attribute the country’s worst excesses to this clown. But it was the intelligent, articulate Obote, whose administrations claimed far more lives. Tragically, Obote enjoyed not one, but two terms in office.
Obote spent post-independence years centralising power in his hands. In 1966, he turned on his previous royal ally, the Kabaka, suspending the constitution and ordering army chief of staff Amin to attack the palace on Mengo Hill. Declaring himself president, Obote banned opposition parties and abolished all of Uganda’s kingdoms. As a northerner, he relied on his Langi people and the neighbouring Acholi for support, handing out government jobs and army jobs to secure loyalty.
Thanks to the evangelising role the Belgian White Fathers had played in Rwanda, the Tutsis who’d flooded across the border were predominantly Catholics. While Uganda Protestants supported Obote, Catholics traditionally supported his rivals. With so many of the refugees known to be ardent monarchists, the republican Obote automatically assumed the new Rwandan arrivals to be hostile.
In 1970, Obote began cracking down on the new arrivals. Refugees were forbidden to leave the camps, growing cash crops or sending their kids to Uganda’s secondary schools.
Businesses were ordered to dismiss unskilled Ugandans, a measure seen specifically aimed at two communities, Asians and Banyarwanda. In the run-up to 1971 elections, Obote further set alarm bells ringing by ordering an ethnic census in Ankole. The Banyarwanda wondered would they be deprived of the vote, then expel them?
The official antagonism ensured the refugee community became an easy recruiting ground for those setting out to challenge the “Big Man” of the day. In Uganda, there has never been a shortage of candidates for that role.
© AW Kamau 2023