If all goes according to plan, a consortium of local investors will soon develop service apartments on part of the 5.5 hectares of land on which Nyarugenge Prison, commonly known as 1930, sits.
Early this month, authorities relocated the last group of inmates from 1930, located in downtown Kigali, to the new Mageragere correctional facility in the Mageragere suburb of Nyarugenge District.
Kayisime Nzaramba, the Mayor of Nyarugenge District, said that the prison is no more and one part of the area it occupied will be preserved for historical purposes and another part will be developed according to the Kigali City master plan.
Nyarugenge District’s heritage areas as recommended by the approved Master plan, according to the Mayor, include religious buildings with historical significance, such as Sainte-Famille Church, the Presbyterian Church, St Michel, St Étienne Church and the Alfath Mosque.
Others, she noted, are buildings with historical significance, including Nyarugenge Prison (1930), Kandt House, State House and the Belgian memorial in Camp Kigali, where Belgian peacekeepers were executed by the genocidal regime.
Then there are conservation areas like Nyarugenge market and the busy commercial street, commonly known as Quartier Matheus also in downtown Kigali.
But, not so much is known about the earlier life of one of the oldest prisons in the country, and it is the present ‘1930’ structure sitting on about two hectares of land that gets most attention.
According to Prof Deo Byanafashe, a historian, the proposed historical site, once in place, will have an important education purpose especially considering the impact of the colonial history in the country.
The colonialists, he said, improvised an effective way of punishment that did not exist before.
Prof Byanafashe said: “The concept of the prison as existed in western culture did not exist in Rwandan society until it was introduced by the colonialists. A historical site will serve to preserve the memory and educate people about the colonial history this country went through.”
Bernard Noel Rutikanga, another historian, said the colonial establishment needed obedient and hard-working population and local leaders.
Rutikanga said: “They needed to extract resources from colonies without facing problems of instability and rebellions. Any manifestation of resistance against colonial order or any sign of nationalism was nipped in the bud. To safeguard colonialism, prisons were established.
Before such prison facilities were introduced, offenders, he said, were punished depending on the gravity of their offences. Some offenders were just warned against repeating offences against the society or individuals, others were shamed through songs which were purposely composed and sung in order to pinpoint the wrongs committed against the society or individuals.
In most cases offenders apologized for offences committed and paid compensation which was decided by the arbitrators who were gacaca judges of the community, he said.
“Death sentences were meted to the people who had committed murders or treason. The king or prominent chiefs could as well punish some serious offences by dispossessing the guilty parties with their cattle or land or by forcing them into exile,” Rutikanga said.
But all that changed, the historians confirmed, when colonialists arrived and imposed their way.
Rutikanga added: “The most important in Rwanda was Kigali Central Prison, nicknamed 1930 because it was built or extended in 1930. Its inmates up to 1959 were major offenders from all corners of the country who committed such crimes as murder, theft, aggravated assault, failure to pay tax or to accomplish compulsory labour obligations.”
Prison life was so harsh, he explained, that many people who were threatened of going to prison decided to flee to neighbouring countries.
Many, it is reported, died in the colonial prisons.
According to CIP Hillary Sengabo, the spokesperson of Rwanda Correctional Service, though Rwanda was an active monarch when the prison was established; “I don’t think that it was established by (the King’s) wish because we would have seen many more other [positive] infrastructure being put up during that time but this did not happen not until at least in the 1960s when the First Republic was in place.”
This period, Sengabo said, is the time when the country got its first university, the national university in Butare, and University Teaching Hospital of Kigali (CHUK).
Sengabo said: “So, the first prison was set up for people who wanted to rise up for independence. It could have also housed some criminals but much of it targeted people who had potential to rise up for independence because this was the time when such voices were expected to rise.”
“When you look at the prison infrastructure, you realise that by that time, back in 1930, it was a state of the art kind of structure. It was very expensive, meaning that it was in the interest of the colonial masters than any one.”
When the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) launched the liberation struggle on October 1, 1990, Habyarimana and his followers attempted to use the RPF attack to rebuild their slipping hold on power by rallying the Hutu against the Tutsi.
The genocidal regime quickly began a campaign to label all Tutsi and Hutu allied with them as ibyitso, “accomplices” of the RPF. The government arrested thousands of people opposed to it immediately after the invasion and thousands more in subsequent weeks. At the time, local government officials directed the initial massacres of the Tutsi which would gradually culminate in the 1994 Genocide of the Tutsi.
Laurent Nkongoli, a human rights activist and lawyer, is one of the few former ‘ibyitso’ inmates who were lucky to escape from the prison in the 90s.
Nkongoli who was “tortured endlessly” says the then government committed a crime against humanity. The plan, he said, was to kill everyone but, luckily, the RPF was keeping a close eye and they were released thanks to international pressure which, among others, required that political prisoners be released.
Nkongoli as well believes the prison was set up because the colonialist had to force the people to conform.
“When you look at the material and structure of other prisons built elsewhere in the region at the same time there is no doubt that colonialists had decided that there will be people who want to commit offences and a jail would be required,” Nkongoli said.
“People older than me were imprisoned there because of political problems. It wasn’t a prison meant for thieves and other criminals but for people simply against the colonialist’s system. The colonialists were aware that whatever they had come to do in African countries would not be easily accepted by citizens. They knew they were going to face resistance.”
Nkongoli, a former commissioner at the National Human Right Commission, notes that the prison’s inmates in the years before 1994 should not be mixed up or confused with those later found, by courts of law and the Gacaca system, to be guilty of committing Genocide and other crimes against humanity.