Tracing the roots of the Rwanda Patriotic Front and Army

All struggles, armed or otherwise, are presumed to espouse some form of ideology, if only to focus and sharpen the struggle’s intent and rally its adherents to the cause. The history leading to the Rwandan genocide molded the RPF and what it would turn out to be as a politico-military organization.
By Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara
By Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara

All struggles, armed or otherwise, are presumed to espouse some form of ideology, if only to focus and sharpen the struggle’s intent and rally its adherents to the cause.

The history leading to the Rwandan genocide molded the RPF and what it would turn out to be as a politico-military organization.

As detailed in the book, The Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda, the prime motivation and ideological impetus that drove the RPF “struggle”  can be traced to a socio-military tradition spanning nearly a thousand years. 

While the age of Rwanda as a nation remains in dispute among historians and scholars such as the late Alison des Forges, Bethwell Ogot and Jan Vansina, The Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda narrates the “thousand” year history of the country from a “Rwandan perspective”.

The book attempts to tell the pre-colonial history as handed down in Rwandan traditional oral poetry through the generations.

It dwells on this history drawing from other research, but largely from the poems, which describe every aspect of the traditional culture that was socially organized around the military.

Collected and transcribed in the 1940s from court poets of the time by Abbé Alexis Kagame, arguably the most important of Rwandan intellectuals, the poems narrate the history, major events and military exploits of the Rwandan kingdom in a tradition akin to that of the griots of West Africa.

The book also discusses the coming of the colonialists—first the Germans, then the Belgians—who, particularly the Belgians, went on to destroy the military as a way of life of a “united people”, thereby redefining their history.

Rwanda’s history as popularly known internationally derives from a colonial interpretation, thus presenting a “Eurocentric” perspective of Rwanda. This laid the foundation to, and abetted, the “racist ideology” that resulted in the Rwandan genocide.

Racist Ideology

At the root of the racist ideology was the initial colonial perception of the Tutsi as superior than the Hutu.
In early 20th century Governor General Ryckmans had observed that, “The Batutsi were destined to reign over their people. Their presence alone already insured them considerable prestige over the inferior races surrounding them.”

This was the colonial strategy for divide-and-rule, before the Belgians had a change of heart and decided to back the Hutu for political leadership just before independence in 1962.

Even with the exit of the Belgians it remained a “fact” that the Tutsi were “alien” to Rwanda and “racially” different from the Hutu.

This was the popular historical view right up to the 1994 genocide, of which the Hutu were supposedly cleansing the land off the “cockroaches” as the final solution.

The fact that Rwandan history text books taught the “racial” difference between the Hutu and Tutsi led to their being banned from schools.

This is in addition to the terms “Tutsi” and “Hutu” being outlawed from public discourse, with emphasis on Rwandans as a people drawing from their history.

The Military in Rwanda

The Resilience of a Nation distils the country’s history beginning with the pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence periods of the country to the present asserting that “The history of Rwanda is the history of its military”.

It is a story that encompasses exile, betrayal of both communities, rebellion, sacrifice, war and extreme violence, and now peace and reconstruction.

While the traditional military may have held together the nation during the pre-colonial times, a succession of military forces would brutalise the nation leading to the genocide.

In the colonial period, it was, first, the Congo-Belge Force Publique and the Garde Territoriale du Rwanda-Urundi. In the post-independence period, it was the sectarian and Hutu-nised Garde Nationale du Rwanda in the First Republic, and then the Forces Armées Rwandaises [FAR] in the Second Republic.

The “Hutu-nised” military in the First and Second Republics, under Grégoire Kayibanda and Juvénal Habyarimana, respectively, was constituted using the ingenious pignet system.

To qualify for the military one “had to score at least 5 or less points of pignet which worked on a formula that took the measurement of the height of the recruit in centimeters, less the sum of breadth of the chest in centimeters, plus the weight in kilogrammes.

The pignet system of recruitment favoured the short and stocky ‘Hutu’ constructs to the exclusion of the taller and slender ‘Tutsi’ constructs. In Hutu-nising the force, the key was that the shorter and stockier the better the military material.

This system of military recruitment underscored the segregation and persecution in the wider society, leading to recurring waves of exiles to neighbouring countries through the decades.

Exile gave rise to the inyenzi guerrilla movement in the 1960s, and then the Rwanda Patriotic Front and Army (RPF/A) in the late 1980s and early 90s, leading to the pragmatism of the current Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF) that has seen it gain international respect and recognition in peace support operations in conflict areas such as Darfur. 

The Rwanda Patriotic Front

Unlike with the previous regimes, inclusivity of all Rwandans and instilling a sense of patriotism was the guiding RPF principle since its formation in 1987 in Kampala.

As explained in The Resilience of a Nation, “culture...not only would it provide the way, but the basis for the struggle borrowing from the heroic history of Rwanda’s past.

This was drawing from a long-standing tradition of ‘narrativization’ through such as poetry (ibisigo) and the art of oratorical rhetoric (ibyivugo).

“Narrativization was used by the RPF to acquire its own legitimacy and vision. RPF outlined Rwandan history in a bid to cast it in what it considered a realistic perspective.
The narrativisation of the past glory of the Rwandan nation was passed around in order to create a sense of belonging to a community and history that transcended the experience of conflict.

It is this vision that continues to sustain the country through traditional institutions such as the gacaca, as well as the less known Ingando/Ingabo, which traditionally was a military encampment where the troops would be reminded of their patriotism and duty to the kingdom as a “united people”.

The acknowledgement is that the nation of Rwanda first existed in the military. And, in appreciating this, the concept of the Ingando was so successfully used to integrate the soldiers of the previous regime into what is now the Rwanda Defence Forces, that it was replicated in the civil sector with students, teachers, prisoners, etc.

Rwanda’s resilience as a nation is undergirded by its military and, as already observed, “The history of Rwanda is the history of it’s military.”

Rwanda suffered its lowest moments in the sectarian policies of the Hutu-nised military, but was able to demonstrate its integrative ability under the RDF, informing national development.

Appreciating the role of the military in the history of the Rwandan nation to the present and the positive role it must continue to play has ensured that both Rwanda and its citizens are winners. This is what continues to inform the RPF policy of inclusivity.

Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara (DA London), launching his book, Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda, at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) London- UK.


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