African Regime – The Baseline And The Exodus

AW Kamau, Going Postal
Paul Kagame, aka Pilato.
Rwandan president Kagame,
Вени Марковски
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

From RANU to RPF

The Tutsi diaspora were working to keep community identity alive. In Kampala, a refugee welfare foundation had initially been established but fell foul of Amin. It morphed into the more militant Rwanda Alliance for National Unity (RANU).

Originally the movement was purely civilian. Amin’s ousting in 1979 had a major impact. Having helped campaign for M7 in the 1980 elections, when M7 rejected the result, another core signal was sent, when Banyarwanda began signing up to NRA in droves. Obote’s ethnic cleansing campaign turned it into a torrent. The majority of members were conscious of RANU’s weakness. If the movement was going to acquire a sizeable support, it needed to go beyond a Tutsi minority (14% of the population). With many hundreds of thousands of Hutus also Ugandan refugees, RANU had to reach out. Courtship of Hutu activists and former politicians was undertaken to prove it was in good faith and that Hutus needed to be placed in high-profile positions.

The new approach/“policy” ruffled feathers among those Tutsis who loathed Hutus had been hard-baked into them in refugee camps, but seemed self-evident to former NRA cadres. In December 1987, RANU moved its annual congress from Nairobi to Kampala. The movement rebaptised itself as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The congress also adopted an 8-point manifesto, nearly identical to M7’s NRM, but differed slightly. Whereas NRM placed democracy at the top of its priorities, this one put national reconciliation first.

Fred Rwigyema was eventually voted chairman with the deputy being Peter Bayingana. A steady clandestine militarisation was undertaken, making the most of the access and resources their positions offered them to get more Banyarwandans into the Ugandan armed forces (and easier to poach them later).

At the end of September 1990, M7 boarded a flight to attend the UN General Assembly circus for heads of state. He was escorted to Entebbe by Fred Rwigyema, the last time they would be together.

The Exodus

Major troop movements would normally set alarm bells ringing in any country scarred by a succession of civil wars and coups, but those giving orders until recently had been at the top of the military echelon, men the president trusted so no alarm bells rang. The perfect cover/window dressing also presented itself with 9th October being Uganda’s Independence Day, a national holiday, usually marked with a military parade. For anyone querying why so many young men in trucks were going west, they were told the parade was being staged at Mbarara.

In the evening of 1st October, the main border post between Uganda and Rwanda at Kagitumba was a mass crossing of Banyarwanda army deserters. Initial reports suggested no more than a dozen soldiers had deserted, only later was it confirmed as an exodus. When the pre-arranged signal was given, every Banyarwandan in every brigade went, taking with them weapons, ammunition, uniforms, boots, transport. The defections would continue for a month, reaching around 4,000 men in total. 2,500-3,000 crossed over on the first day.

In the West, what limited Lame Stream coverage there was presented the RPF move as an unprovoked invasion of a peaceful, recently democratised Central African government.

The euphoria was short-lived. M7 sent a personal messenger to reach Fred Rwigyema but was told he was not available. Sensing a supressed tension among RPF commanders, guessing something was wrong, he reported back his findings to M7.

On the second day, Rwigyema was shot dead in the head, which discouraged the RPF fighters. There is a dispute about the exact circumstances of Rwigyema’s death; the official line of Kagame’s government was that Rwigyema was killed by a stray bullet. Rwigyema was killed by his subcommander Peter Bayingana who was supported by Maj Chris Bunyenyezi, following an argument over tactics. Bayingana and Bunyenyezi were long standing challengers to Rwigyema. Kagame, summoned back from a year-long course at US Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, titular head of the RPA would now be giving orders to older fighters with far more military experience. Further, his issue of unpopularity with officers, which was premised on his profile during NRA years in the bush, leadership was questioned from inception.

On Rwigyema’s death, formal chairmanship of the RPF had automatically passed to Alexis Kanyarengwe, in Tanzania, so Kagame became vice-chairman – although this was to be a recurring RPF theme – there was no real doubt as to who was in actual command of forces on the ground. One of his first moves was to court martial and have executed Bayingana and Bunyenyezi. The official RPA/RPF version is both were killed in battle three weeks after Rwigyema.

Having fully entered the battle zone, Kagame’s inexperience shone through as the invasion turned into a rout. By the end of December, not a single guerilla fighter remained on Rwandan soil. It took them a year to recover, regroup and recruit. Those Banyarwandans from NRA days used their experience organising in the Virunga mountains, which form the border between Uganda, Rwanda and Zaire.

The dark side reappeared during recruitment, training of new combatants. In theory the RPF/RPA was not Hutu, Tutsi or Twa, the labels invented by colonials to divide and rule. Like its Ugandan predecessor, paranoid about infiltration and information relayed back to President Habyarimana’s intelligence services, rigorous screening was undertaken. Volunteers deemed to have failed the screening were rewarded for enthusiasm with a shallow grave. Kafuni, the farmer’s hoe was once more put to use. Francophone volunteers from Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire were viewed with utmost suspicion by Anglophone trainers – often never made it through.

No divide would cut deeper than that between the English-speaking Tutsis from Uganda, who saw themselves as midwives to the RPF and therefore its natural leaders and the Francophone Tutsis from Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire.

The Rise and Rebranding of Pilato to Kagome

The reborn RPF carried the indelible stamp of its new leader. Having joined the RPZ/RPF in the field at a difficult time, his qualities, discipline, focus, control were paramount. He wanted to ensure total control.

Kagame set out to intimidate and overawe. Fighters were warned when approaching Kagame, to talk in whispers, as the new commander seemed hypersensitive to noise and to avoid eye contact. Doing what he knew best, introducing his top-down discipline was rigidly enforced. From the man who had once reported schoolmates to their teachers and prosecuted fellow fighters, introduced a draconian disciplinary code that listed eleven separate offences deemed worthy of execution and twenty-four lesser crimes meriting corporal punishment. Pilato’s name rebranded to Kagome, “the mean one.”

A former RPF combatant put his finger unerringly on the approach and the individual:

“There were lots of senior army commanders, but only one had the nickname of that sort. He used kafuni to silence dissent at the top level and right down through the ranks. He’d made the RPF a perfect army, but by using the wrong methods. With his gnawing insecurity, he was working out of fear, because he lacked confidence. He knew senior commanders didn’t believe in him, so he used force instead.”

M7’s Geopolitical Input

In the wake of the invasion debacle, M7 took an Executive Decision, admitted to African leaders several years later: “Uganda decided to help the Rwandese Patriotic Front materially so that they were not defeated because that would have been detrimental to the Tutsi people of Rwanda and would not have been good for Uganda’s stability.”[1]

M7 had to tread carefully. France, ready to leap to the defence of Francophone African states that made up its colonial chasse gardée (private hunting ground), saw the invasion by English-speaking RPF as part of a sinister project by the US and UK to expand Anglophone influence across Central Africa[2]. Paris packed a considerable punch, so Uganda’s support needed to be deniable.

RPF Bounce Back

The shattered RPF bounced back with extraordinary speed. By January 1991, the Virunga force was ready to reengage, on 22nd January the RPF took Ruhengeri. Further fighting continued and ground taken. Under pressure from Rwanda’s former colonial master, Belgium, the RPF and Habyarimana Government signed a ceasefire in Zaire in March 1991, but was swiftly broken. Neither side had realistically assessed the enemy’s strength, so neither were ready to compromise.

As the French boosted its military support, Habyarimana’s forces launched a top-speed army recruitment drive and went on a huge weapons-buying spree. In October 1991, the RPF again pushed into northern Rwanda again. This time they did not see the need to retreat.

In seeking to identify what triggered Rwanda’s genocide, beyond the well-known public version, a simpler cause and effect gets ignored. Enemy invasions, especially when followed by prolonged occupation, change societies.

Coinciding as it did with growing international pressure on Habyarimana’s government to open the political space, the RPF’s invasion radicalised a state in which over history, relations between Hutus and Tutsis were already toxic, creating a sense of siege among Hutus who viewed Tutsi neighbours with even more suspicion. Even as a new multiparty government was established in Kigali in April 1992, thousands of young Hutus were signing up with militias established by Habyarimana’s most extreme supporters.

With the crisis clearly escalating, France, US and Uganda pushed for serious talks between the two sides, and the Arusha peace process began in July. Another classic utopian donor exercise in knocking heads together, were to prove no more successful than a teacher ordering two school kids who detest each other to be nice. Its initial impact actually increased the fighting as both sides attempted to improve their position on the ground before an eventual cease-fire.

Crucially, the RPF had been granted a seat at the negotiating table. The Arusha Accords were signed on 4th August 1993.

Attempts to replicate the hearts and minds campaign the NRA had successfully done in Luwero collapsed on contact with the sour, rather frightening reality of operating inside Rwanda, on what should have been home territory, but didn’t. The RPF’s political ambitions shrivelled accordingly. There were in Rwanda no liberated zones where alternate modes of governance were introduced under the benevolent eye of a new administration. There were no resistance councils, committees and no effort to reach out to mobilise peasants politically, in order to transform them into a human resource.

Where in Luwero Triangle there had been mutual respect between villagers and rebels, in Rwanda there was distrust. When an occupying force registers how thoroughly it is disliked, that its “liberation” is seen by villagers and farmers as an occupation, local residents become both a logistical nuisance and a “security risk.”

During this period, the RPF’s upper echelons were themselves experiencing some high-profile losses in spurious circumstances. Two dozen front-line commanders (all chosen by the late Rwigyema) were either killed in mysterious road accidents, shot “accidentally” by fellow officers, had IEDs placed under their cars, or were poisoned by lethal injection when in the sick bay for treatment. All were officers who did the actual fighting in the line of contact, running the war. They weren’t afraid of, and to stand up to, “Kagome”, be vocal when they disagreed with him, which was often. This was something Kagame hated.

With the Arusha Accords signed, which ruled out arms imports, one of the undertakings of the UN peace keeping force and Western embassies tried to police, both sides were energetically arming themselves.

As a first step toward implanting the Arusha Accords, 600 of RPF’s best troops moved under UN escort from Mulindi to Kigali. They had been allocated the former parliament building as a base, and there they stacked sandbags and dug trenches. Nominally, their job was to protect RPF’s designated ministers in the unity government. But in the eyes of Habyarimana’s “Akazu” political supporters, a sinister fifth column had just won access to the capital. While both sides publicly declared their commitment, Rwanda was primed for civil war.


[1] Elijah Dickens Mushemeza, The Politics Of Empowerment Of Banyarwanda Refugees In Uganda 1959-2001
[2] Robin Philpot, Rwanda And The New Scramble For Africa

© AW Kamau 2023