Q&A: RPF at 25: Reminiscing the struggle, celebrating success and forging ahead
On December 15, 2012, the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party will celebrate its 25th anniversary. On October 1, 1990, the party’s military wing, the RPA, launched a successful armed struggle against the former fascist regime, that did not only stop the Genocide against the Tutsi that had already claimed at least a million lives, but also ensured the repatriation of Rwandan refugees who had been denied their right to nationhood for over three decades. The New Times’ Paul Ntambara spoke to RPF historical and the party’s Commissioner in charge of Information, Senator Tito Rutaremara, who takes us through the party’s evolution, its defining moments, challenges and the future. Below are the excerpts.
TR: It started with Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU) in 1979 created by some young Rwandan intellectuals from Uganda, Kenya and Europe as a platform through which to discuss the problems affecting Rwanda at the time. When we started, we saw that people inside and outside Rwanda were suffering, the question was; are we going to sit back and do nothing about it? These discussions continued, resulting in the setting up of the structures and branches of this platform until RPF was born.
In 1985, there was a discussion and we were asking ourselves; how can we make a mass movement which is dynamic, able to bring together the Rwandan youth and women from all over the world? This is because we had remained a group of intellectuals discussing the problems of Rwanda but we were not a mass movement.
TNT: Who were you with during these discussions?
TR: We were many; take the example of Zeno Mutimura who was the chairman of RANU. We continued these discussions until 1986. In 1987 we created a task force charged with creating a mass and dynamic movement, I chaired that task force. We were later joined by the army people.
During this incubation period, we took some young people from universities and gave them tools of analysis; introduced them to philosophy, economics, democracy, taught them the Rwandan history, mobilisation and so forth. After one month, we sent them to the camps (of Rwandan refugees) in Uganda and other countries in region and beyond for mobilisation. Upon their return we held workshops where they gave us feedback.
TNT: What kind of feedback did you get?
TR: It depended on individuals, when you have students in a class, they don’t perform at the same level.
On the whole, the feedback was about 85 per cent success. Where there was failure we would send other cardes. In November. we wrote the RPF Document, with the Political Programme, Operational Guidelines and the Code of Conduct. We crafted easy-to-understand points that would unite all the people. It was important to give a message that was clear, simple and inclusive. The guidelines were made in such a way that they were flexible and autonomous. The code of conduct was that of teaching Rwandans to solve their own problems and to be self sufficient. It encouraged auto-criticism and constructive criticism.
In December 1987 after Christmas, we held a congress in Uganda, in a place called Mbuya.
It is during this congress that the RPF document was adopted. It is then that the Rwanda Patriotic Front was adopted. We created structures and political cadre schools where people would come and spend a month studying after which they would be sent to mobilise others. People would sacrifice their effort and time; they never worked for a salary. We started forming cells and the RPF structures. We were working as the executive, the political party and military wings -- all together .
TNT: How did the idea of that movement start?
TR: A movement is usually formed by three things; first there are ideas but then those ideas need to have what they call vanguard; people who come out, those to discuss these ideas, make a philosophy and then start teaching others. You can’t know when the ideas start...when you know you are a refugee, you always ask yourself; what is the end of this?
We were lucky that some of our people who had been fighting in Uganda came back, though some people like me were outside. I was in the external wing of the Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (Uganda’s ruling party).
People who were in Europe too helped whenever there was a struggle. I was also a member of ANC (African National Congress); I had been helping people from SWAPO, Nicaragua and wherever there was a struggle for people to fight for their own liberation. These struggles were ripe in the 70’s.
TNT: How did you manage to mobilise so many people, spread across several countries, with limited resources?
TR: We made it clear to the younger cadres -- men and women -- that we didn’t have money for mobilisation. They had to use the available tools of mobilisation to conduct their activities. We told them, “if you have understood the tools of mobilisation that we have given you then go and mobilise Rwandans. If you mobilise them well, they will facilitate you to go to, say, Mbarara (in Uganda), and from Mbarara it will depend on your mobilisation skills to get means to get to Nakivale, and so on. I remember we sent out people like the Hon. James Ndahiro (now a member of the East African Legislative Assembly) to Burundi ,through Tanzania, and many other cadres, like Connie Bwiza (now a Member of Parliament).
TNT: What are some of the challenges that you faced during the early years?
TR: We faced many challenges but we knew how to solve them. Mobilising some Rwandans who were, for example, in Zaire (renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo) was a big challenge. Some would not accept that they were Rwandans. So we had to get to them through their children. It was the same with Burundi; we had a challenge convincing people who had money. We told our young people to go to the refugee camps in Mushiha with a conviction that the older folks would join the cause later. Indeed that’s what happened.
Another challenge was that we didn’t have money, but later we realised that money was not the most essential thing because we did a lot of work without money; mobilisation was everything.
The challenge was that when the war started, all our trained cadres wanted to go to the frontline, to directly get involved with the armed struggle to liberate the country. No one wanted to remain behind, so we had to train other cadres. Fighting a war requires support from people working behind-the-scenes; you have to get the money, the ammunition and food. It was a big challenge to us. We had to spend about three months training a new pool of cadres.
TNT: When did you decide that it was time to attack?
TR: We were always ready to return home, peacefully or otherwise. We knew that if we could return home peacefully, then the better, but was it possible? All the time we knew that we had to return to our country either through peace or struggle or both but as long as there was a dictator (in power in Kigali) it was impossible to return peacefully.
Then there came a time when the Rwandan government was saying that the country was full, that there was no space left to accommodate more people -- the Rwandans who were in exile. In 1988, there was a conference in Washington to address the refugee question but the Rwandan government chose not to attend. It was then that it became clear to us, that we had to return by force. The regime had to change. The date and hour of the attack were influenced by other factors. (Ugandan President Yoweri) Museveni and (his Rwandan counterpart, Juvenal) Habyarimana were out of their countries, attending a summit in New York. Had Museveni been in the country (Uganda), he would have prevented us from going (luanching the armed struggle) and if Habyarimana was around, he would probably have mobilised his army (in response)...it was better to attack when both were away, the date of the attack came by chance, it was a coincidence and an opportunity for us, and we were prepared.
TNT: What was the inspiration behind the RPF eight-point political programme?
TR: When you read about Liberation movements elsewhere, they have such programmes. Take the example of Nicaragua, Vietnam, etc. The programme has to be uniting the people; it has to be clear and easy to understand. It has to help mobilise as many people as possible. That is the major characteristic, the rest depend on the particularity of the struggle. We were fighting for the unity of the country that was divided between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic lines, and mired in corruption, and so many other social ills.
TNT: Then on October 1 1990, the war started...
TR: When the war began, we suffered an early set back, our chairman and commander of the army (Maj Gen Fred Gisa Rwigema) died on the second day. At that time I was in Kampala. It was a very big setback. We even kept his death a secret so as not to demoralise our people on the frontline. It was around that time that (then Major Paul) Kagame (now RPF chairman and Rwandan President) came. He reorganised the rebellion.
TNT: What was the feeling like when you got the news that Rwigema had died? Did you feel like the struggle was lost?
TR: No, in every struggle you know that you are either going to die in the process or survive, but no matter what, the struggle has to continue, that you have to keep in your mind. Others will continue because you share that ideology, others will come out and fight for the same cause. The feeling was we would win whether in five, 10 or 40 years.
The Chinese fought for 40 years; the ANC (African National Congress of South Africa) fought for more than 70 years; in Ethiopia, they fought for more than 17 years; Eritreans fought for 35 years; in Nicaragua they fought for 12 years; we had prepared for a long struggle. Ours was actually short, it lasted for less than five years.
TNT: The war dragged on, then genocide, but finally Kigali fell on July 4. Was this the victory you expected?
TR: Well, it was a bitter victory. People had died, the Genocide (against the Tutsi) had claimed many innocent lives; I didn’t enjoy the victory. We were saying that the dictator is gone but he had left the country in chaos, people were destroyed physically and psychologically, we had to embark on a new hard, long journey of liberating the country. Liberation is a long process, even to date we are yet to fully liberate ourselves. Liberating a country comes in phases. It starts as an idea, then it gives birth to a group we call a vanguard, which mobilises more people. Then there is the phase of fighting the dictator.
When this is done you have to reconstruct the things that the dictator had destroyed. After that you have to lay the foundation and after, you to start building. The foundation has been laid, we are now building.
We will talk of being liberated when every Munyarwanda can have three meals a day, when they are able to access health care, send their children to school up to a desired level and when every Rwandan will be able to have a job and afford to take a holiday off.
TNT: What do you make of the RPF of the 80s and the one of today?
TR: Each stage has its own system of working and mobilisation. That period of mobilisation, creating RPF structures, training and creating a pool of political cadres had its own philosophy and enthusiasm; today it is a different stage. The war had its own enthusiasm, winning, losing, having people to die, it was all different.
When you come out of war and you are in a structure of a government, it is another atmosphere. You are faced with many problems quite different from those you had before. The way of working changes, now we are getting paid, people marry and have families, it is another atmosphere but RPF is still there and are still on the mission to liberate the country.
The RPF of today might not be as enthusiastic as that of the 80s because the environment is different. Here you are a member of parliament and you only have to enact laws while the RPF of the 80s was about mobilising people, fighting, looking for food; this time it is different work, one is an Member of Parliament another a minister, another working somewhere else as a judge, soldier, etc. when the struggle starts you do the same work but now we have thousands of jobs, we even meet rarely, maybe when there is a congress, yet then we would meet quite often, maybe every month. The enthusiasm might not be the same but the ideology remains the same. The objective is one -- to work for the country’s development...it is not easy to compare the two, the situation is different now.
It is the ideology and the policies that guide you, the ideology doesn’t change but the policies may change over time to suite the ever-changing environment.
TNT: How are you consolidating the gains that you have made over the years?
TR: Before we came in, the country was in chaos and people were ashamed of being called Banyarwanda (Rwandan) but now that pride has been restored. RPF changed the Rwandan society, people are now proud of who they are because of the current politics, decentralisation and several other innovations, I am proud of that, but there is still a long way to go.
TNT: There have been high profile defections in the party over the years, does this worry you?
TR: No, it doesn’t worry me. If you are in a bus, say traveling from Butare and and your objective is to reach Kigali, there are those who will get off from Save, while other people will come on-board. When you reach Nyanza some may remain there and others come on board, and by the time you reach Kigali, the bus is full. The Kayumbas (Nyamwasa -- a former army chief, now in exile in South Africa) left but others joined. What the RPF is doing now is to mobilise the youth. Those who started the struggle are getting old, we need to mobilise the youth to take the mantle, if we can mobilise them, RPF will only grow stronger and stay on for more than 100 years.
TNT: The common practice in the region and across the continent is that, the founders of such movements reach a point where they think that it is only them who can carry forward the vision; that it’s only them with a vision...
TR: (Interjects)....no the vision is not ours, it is for the country
TNT: Are you ready to pass on the mantle when your time is up?
TR: Yes...we are struggling to mobilise the youth to come out...the vision is not mine, it is for the RPF. The Rwanda Patriotic Front is a movement, not an individual. It has its own ideology and structures. The problem with some movements is that they don’t know how to bring in the youth so they can take over with time. In RPF, we are working on it.
TNT: As a party, what are the key challenges that you are faced with?
TR: When we arrived here we found a country that was in chaos, that was a major challenge but we had to run around to put things together. Another challenge is that when you are RPF you are homogenous...sharing the same ideology. But when we returned home we had to work with others who were not working like us. We had to learn to listen to people, to be patient. Something in our discussions that would normally take an hour would now take us two to three days because we have to mobilise others. Another challenge is to bring in the youth. In the structures of RPF, up to the executive level, the youth have to get up to 30 per cent representation.
TNT: As a political mobiliser and a historical of RPF what lessons have you learnt over the years?
TR: Well, did I learn anything? (smiles); We have learnt, as party, to be more tolerant because you are working with people who are not in the same movement, and dont have the same ideology and orientation. Working with other political parties is going to take you some time, you have to listen, you have to sell your ideas to people who are not in the same movement.
TNT: Where do you see RPF in the next 25 years?
TR: Well, I won’t be there.... (laughs) but if we manage to mobilise the youth and they take over, RPF will be stronger than it is today because we will be having a movement which is using modern technology, easy communication and having all means. Today, if I want to go say to Bugesera to mobilise, I travel by car but, before, we used to walk. The majority of Rwandans will be educated, this will make mobilisation easy.
TNT: Is this the country you aspired to live in, is this the country you fought for? Are you satisfied with the gains that you have made?
TR: Yes I am satisfied because RPF has managed to create good leadership, that is what satisfies me, we have good leaders. With good leadership everything is possible.
TNT: Last word
TR: A movement is not made of individuals; rather it is made of ideas. Individuals are usually behind those ideas. Let us strive to keep the RPF ideology. Thank you.