8th February, a footnote in history that could have been so much more

Every year, Rwanda marks important dates of significance in the struggle for the liberation of the nation. One date however passes unnoticed by most, perhaps because its greatest importance lies in what could have been, rather than in what did happen, important though as that was.
RPA fighters during the liberation struggle. File.
RPA fighters during the liberation struggle. File.

Every year, Rwanda marks important dates of significance in the struggle for the liberation of the nation. One date however passes unnoticed by most, perhaps because its greatest importance lies in what could have been, rather than in what did happen, important though as that was.

On the 8th of February twenty-five years ago, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), ordered its armed wing, the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), to launch an offensive against the then government of Juvenal Habyarimana.

The warring parties were at the time in peace talks in the Tanzanian city of Arusha. But, the RPF asserted that the Rwandan government was in clear violation of the terms of the cease-fire.

The offensive on the 8th of February was a serious shot across their opponent’s bow, a heavy hint of what might happen, if as the RPF saw it, they continued to break the terms of the cease-fire agreement as it then stood.

Had this agreement been observed in full, it is unlikely that hostilities would have continued beyond 1993, and 1,074,017 lives lost during the Genocide in 1994, might have been preserved.

The stipulations of the agreement were complex yet clear. On the RPF side, they sought not only to halt the conflict, but, to fundamentally address the causes of the conflict. Aforesaid

The aforesaid agreement was signed in N’sele (then Zaire) on 29th March 1991. It would later be amended in Gbadolite (then Zaire) on 16th September 1991, and again in Arusha on 12th July 1992.

From article 1 of the agreement, the RPF would show its concerns and intentions. “A cease fire is here established throughout the territory of the Republic of Rwanda, between the Government forces, and those of the Rwandese Patriotic Front”, it read.

For the RPF, “throughout the territory of the Republic of Rwanda...” was of particular importance.

They complained that while hostilities ceased in disputed territory, the Government of Rwanda continued to carry out attacks against unarmed civilians far away from the battle-front.

These attacks were both verbal and physical, often involving targeted killings.

Equally, if not more significant, was Article 2. There would be a neutral military observer group, after cessation of hostilities, following which there would be withdrawal of all foreign forces.

The RPF exempted foreign military officers serving in Rwanda, “under bilateral cooperation agreements”. They may as well have said French military officers serving with the Rwandan army, since that is exactly whom they had in mind.

Article 7 reiterated the first and second articles, “cessation of hostilities shall mean the end of all military operations, all harmful civil operations, and denigrating and unfounded propaganda through the media.”

The cease-fire agreement also emphasised that “Violation of the cease-fire shall mean non-observance of any provision of the agreement”. These “harmful civil operations, and denigrating and unfounded propaganda” were the unfolding of the genocide ideology in practice, leading to murders of the Tutsi.

It is against these violations of the cease-fire as they saw it, that the RPF launched its offensive. During that offensive, the RPF gained over twice the territory it had held up until then, and advanced within a few kilometers of the capital Kigali.

At this time, France was arming the Rwandan military, helping and advising the formation of militia groups, including the notorious Interahamwe, who would spearhead the genocide. Little if anything was done by the government without knowledge, and advice of the French. They were at the centre of the Rwandan government.

Following the offensive, it was certainly France which instigated and led the international community’s pressure on the RPF to withdraw from its newly captured territory. The RPF high command’s response must have come as a surprise to them. For perhaps the first time in history, a fighting force holding all the military advantage, would agree to voluntarily give up territory it had captured, for the sake of peace.

It certainly came a shock to the rank and file of RPF fighters, some of whom would find it impossible to understand the decision of their superiors. It is testament to the discipline within both the RPF, and the RPA, that the orders of the high command were nevertheless followed to the letter.

But, for the RPF, the significant change was that henceforth, both they, and the other side knew that the RPF would be negotiating from a position of particular strength. And it was given further evidence, if any were needed, that while it was concerned about the causes of the conflict, the international community, was only interested in cessation of the hostilities at the front. Its efforts to draw the international community’s attention to the killings within Rwanda fell on deaf, indifferent ears.

As so often happens when Western powers divide spheres of influence amongst themselves, it had been tacitly decided that France would have the last word on Rwanda. Since for all intents and purposes France was a party to the conflict, the RPF’s sacrifices for the sake of peace would prove futile.

RPA’s military superiority however had earned them the right to set the terms of their withdrawal. Neither the Rwandan government, nor the French, who by now were effectively in charge of the Rwandan army, and exercised great influence over the government, could wish away that reality.

What they could do however, would be to increase the rate of murders inside the country, a foreshadowing of the terrible events to come, events to which the French were privy, and tragically, the RPF could never have conceived even in their worst nightmares.

The conditions put forward by the RPF were consistent with their central objective to address not just the conflict, but, the causes of the conflict. The new conditions were therefore largely a reiteration of the original cease-fire agreement.

In addition, the territory from which the RPF was to withdraw, would remain militarily neutral. It would remain under administrative civilian control of the government, but, the RPF would be free to come and go through it. The cease-fire agreement would be respected and observed to the letter.

In particular, the government’s hate filled propaganda would have to be halted. Broadcasts on national radio, political rallies, continued to declare so-called Hutu Power, while calling for attacks on the Tutsi, whom it called enemies and accomplices of cockroaches, meaning the RPF. This propaganda went hand in hand with killings of the Tutsi in various parts of the country.

French troops, now virtually in control of government forces would have to withdraw. Up until now the government’s tactics when negotiations weren’t going their way, had been to call off discussions, and increase the rate of killings within the country. The RPF wanted these tactics ended. They wanted no more stalling-stop-start in the negotiations.

At the same time, in an effort to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, the RPF begun direct talks with Rwandan opposition political parties in the Burundi capital of Bujumbura. This was followed by direct negotiations with the Rwandan government in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-salaam, during which the RPF explained to the international community their reasons for the punitive offensive against government forces.

At the restarted negotiations in Arusha, early March 1993, the Rwanda government offered the RPF 9-12% of the envisaged “Formation of a national army consisting of Government forces and those of the Rwandese Patriotic Front”. The RPF countered that it would offer the Rwandan army as it then stood, 15% in the combined force, adding that given the state and condition of the Rwandan army, this was especially generous.

The RPF delegation pointed out that the Rwandan forces lacked discipline, were infused with genocidal tendencies, and as the last offensive against them exhibited, were not up to much as a fighting force.

When Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, one of the top-most genocidaires revealed that he would unleash the apocalypse, the RPF could have had no inkling of how chilling the threat was. They would dismiss it as tasteless bravado from a buffoon.

The French however knew, and understood his meaning exactly. They had a good idea of what had been long in the planning.

If the international community had not been effectively represented by the French, who were essentially representing the murderous Rwandan government, the history of Rwanda would have turned on that day.

If the RPF had a whiff of what was being planned by the government, those plans would have been still borne, at the point of a gun.

If there had been no involvement whatsoever from the Western world, France included, the story of Rwanda would have been a happier one. The Rwandan government would have had little choice than to accept the terms of the RPF’s withdrawal, and plans of genocide would have been a matter of historical conjecture.

“Life is full of what-ifs, many of which could easily have been realities, had just a few things been different” says British Philosopher Julian Baggini. For Rwanda, there can be heartrending, no more cruel, tortuous—what if, than that of 8th February 1993. A day that could have been so pivotal.



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