Residents in the former Ruhengeri prefecture played a key role in the defeat of genocidal insurgency that rocked the country’s north-western regions in late the 1990s, Boniface Rucagu has said.
Rucagu, until recently the chairperson of the National Itorero Commission, said the residents of Ruhengeri had initially collaborated with the insurgents, which complicated efforts to end the war that killed thousands of innocent civilians over several years.
However, the tide turned against the infiltrators once the residents started buying in to peace and reconciliation messages from government and withdrew their support from the insurgents, infamously known as Abacengezi.
Rucagu, 71, became the prefet of Ruhengeri in 1997 when the region was in the middle of the insurgency waged by the remnants of the militia and army that had committed the Genocide against the Tutsi three years earlier, killing more than a million Rwandans.
Ruhengeri, now largely covered by present-day Musanze District in Northern Province, was a battleground between the RPA forces that stopped the Genocide on the one hand, and the ex-FAR forces and the Interahamwe militia – two groups that are largely blamed for the Genocide – on the other.
Rucagu served as the Ruhengeri prefet (equivalent to present-day provincial governor) until the 2006 territorial and administrative reforms when he was named the governor of Northern Province, a position he held for three years.
In 2009, Rucagu, one of the country’s longest serving civil servants having started out as a teacher at a public school in 1966 under the regime of Gregoire Kayibanda, was named as the chairperson of the National Itorero Commission, a position he held until August 30, this year, when President Paul Kagame appointed him a member of Rwandan Elders Advisory Forum, an advisory body of the government that’s composed of senior citizens with vast experience in different fields.
“The people in the north understood that they had to listen to me because I had always worked for them and served their interests. I told them that we had lost the war and that we had to join the new government and embrace its peace and reconciliation agenda as it was in our own interest,” he told Saturday Times in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
“I would address them during a community meeting and ask them to think about it and give me feedback the next time we would meet. Eventually, they started telling me that what I was saying made sense and would benefit them. That’s when they stopped collaborating with infiltrators and became peaceful citizens,” Rucagu said.
‘Leveraging the bond’
The politician, who escaped several attempts on his life during the insurgency, said he leveraged the bond that had formed between him and the residents of the northern region over the years, to drive home the new government’s pro-people policies.
For 10 years in the run-up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Rucagu served as a Member of Parliament representing Ruhengeri.
Prior to that, he had served as an official in the Ministry of Local Government, and a regional administrator (sous-prefet) for different regions, including Byumba, Ruhengeri, Gisenyi, Gitarama, Ngarama, and Kibungo (spanning a period of 12 years, 1972-1984).
“It took a while, but they eventually trusted the new government and the RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) because of the latter’s pro-people polices and progressive programmes,” Rucagu said.
The insurgency war had been complicated by the fact that residents would shelter, give material support and provide intelligence to the infiltrators, many of whom were their sons or close relatives who had served in Habyarimana’s ex-FAR army or had been recruited into the Interahamwe militia.
The insurgents would mount ambushes along highways during which they killed, burnt or maimed passengers and torched public and private vehicles as well as hospitals, schools, government offices, and other public installations.
At the height of the insurgency in 1997, the infiltrators attacked Nyange High School in the then Kibuye prefecture, killing six students and injuring many others.
The insurgents had crossed back into the country from DR Congo where they had fled to as the genocidal regime fell in 1994.
At the National Itorero Commission, Rucagu was replaced by former MP Edouard Bamporiki.
Members of the Rwandan Elders Advisory Forum – where Rucagu has moved to – are appointed by the Head of State from citizens who are aged at least 50 years and have played a significant role in building and developing the country, have proven experience and ability in solving national problems, and previously occupied senior leadership positions.
Read the full interview with Rucagu, which covered his five decades of uninterrupted service, how he joined the RPF, among other issues, in tomorrow’s Sunday Times.