RPF: Political and cultural awakening

On 26 January 1986, Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) took Kampala with the support of thousands of refugee combatants and battle-hardened Rwandan commanders. Rwandan refugees made up about a third of the forces: 3,000 men out of a total of 14.000 rebels.
RPF supporters at a past campaign rally. (File)
RPF supporters at a past campaign rally. (File)

This is the fourth part of a 6-article series extracted from one chapter of Jean-Paul Kimonyo’s forthcoming book on Rwanda after the Genocide.

On 26 January 1986, Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) took Kampala with the support of thousands of refugee combatants and battle-hardened Rwandan commanders.


Rwandan refugees made up about a third of the forces: 3,000 men out of a total of 14.000 rebels.


Museveni recognised the contribution of Rwandan refugees to NRA’s struggle: In 1987 Fred Rwigema was appointed deputy Commander-in-chief of Uganda’s armed forces, while Major Paul Kagame became the head of Military Intelligence. Other refugees also occupied senior positions in the NRA.


Many Rwandan refugees were appointed to important positions within the NRA because they had joined the movement during its earliest years, which allowed them to accumulate experience. Besides these positions in the army, President Museveni had decreed, at the beginning of 1987, that those Banyarwanda who had resided in Uganda for ten years or longer would automatically become Ugandan citizens.  

Very quickly, however, the trend was reversed, for during the same year, Rwigema was appointed to rather ceremonial position of deputy minister for defense, before being sent out for further studies.

Paradoxically, the victory to which the Rwandan refugee community in Uganda had contributed so much was to strengthen even more their resolve to return to Rwanda. Soon after the fall of Kampala, Rwandan combatants, including those who had obtained high-profile positions in the Ugandan army, were made to remember their origin and sidelined.

Museveni’s victory was followed by a veritable and wide-ranging anti-Rwandan backlash, both in the army and among the political elites in Uganda. The breaking point was a parliamentary debate which took place in August 1990 on the subject of the ranches in Mawogola County, in the Southwest of the country, where an armed dispute had opposed absentee landlords and squatter pastoralists, among whom were many Rwandan refugees.

At the end of the debate, President Museveni revisited the spirit of the decision he had taken three years earlier, endorsing the clause of a law reserving the right to own ranching land to Ugandan citizens only, thereby denying once again Ugandan citizenship for Rwandan refugees and their Uganda-born children.

Besides these particularly striking events, other equally significant and convergent sociological developments led the refugee communities to seek a solution to their statelessness.

Twenty years after the beginning of their exile, ever more numerous cohorts of young Rwandan refugees, born or grown up outside Rwanda, had completed their secondary education, or were being admitted to institutions of higher learning. This was a consequence of the determination of Rwandan refugees to invest in their children’s education, taking advantage of a window opened for them in most host countries during the 1970s and 1980s.

This higher level of education made for higher expectations as regards personal development, different from those of the elder generation: they wanted to leave the rural area or the informal sector, whereas the host country could not adequately absorb them. In addition to the difference in socio-cultural profile, second-generation refugees were also more numerous, maybe the double, than the older generation as a result of natural demographic increase during the twenty-year exile.

Moreover, political crises and lack of security in the region during the 1990s had exacerbated existing socio-economic anxieties: ethnic tensions had resurfaced in Burundi during the latter years of President Bagaza’s term of office, speaking in August 1988 with Ntega and Marangara massacres, and during the civil war which followed the assassination of Burundi’s President Ndadaye in 1993, while in Congo, a spate of bloody looting in Kinshasa in 1993 affected the Rwandan community.  

Meanwhile, among the more dynamic sections of the refugee communities in Uganda and Burundi - Tanzania and Zaire, and even Kenya, offered better opportunities for integration - especially among the second-generation refugees, there existed a diffuse but strong feeling that the status quo was not viable.

However, while lack of prospects, deteriorating conditions of life and insecurity played a major role in the refugees’ political awakening, culture-based motivations were equally important.

Besides the more politically aware groups, the majority of refugees became politically conscious in the wake of a cultural renaissance movement within the Rwandan refugee communities scattered here and there throughout the world.

After attempting integration strategies involving in some cases a denial of one’s identity, the second generation of refugees came to maturity with an identity quest which would lead to a cultural revival movement destined to spread throughout the world. Cultural groups made up mostly of young dancers mushroomed in major towns in the region and beyond inspired by a new crop of composers, singers and play writers.

Associations and publications of a social or political character also appeared during the 1980s, and served as incubators to the process of political awareness and mobilisation.  

There were several such activities in Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, Canada, Senegal, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, etc… Publications included the Alliancer, a RANU paper edited in Nairobi from 1980; Intego, a short-lived paper produced in Paris in 1982, and Impuruza (rallying call drum) founded in the early 1980s in the USA by a group of Rwandan academics including Professor Alexandre Kimenyi.

Impuruza’s extensive world-wide distribution system and broad readership demonstrates the extent of political awareness among the refugee communities.  

The paper began as a cultural magazine dedicated to the promotion of Rwanda traditional oral literature, but it very quickly began to tackle political issues, also as a response to readers and contributors’ questions, who demanded to know how the community could afford the luxury of a sedate enjoyment of cultural productions without also seeking solutions to the community’s concerns about the future.

The Ideological Shift

During the early colonial period, and as a corollary of the above-mentioned mythical vision of ancient Rwanda, there was a sentiment of cultural superiority among traditional aristocratic circles. And as discussed above, this sentiment was expressed not only towards the Hutu but also towards Tutsi of modest class. By the end of the colonial period, this traditional elitism had been so contaminated by colonial racial ideology that it produced in the more conservative circles a neo-tradition of cultural superiority with racist overtones.

During the process of political mobilisation which later led to the formation of RPF, a section of the more politicised refugee groups distanced themselves from this traditional elitist ideology. This development was stronger among those of the refugee intelligentsia who has grown up in Uganda, but it was also to be found among some other groups, such as certain groups of Rwandan students in Moscow, Belgium (though to a much lesser extent) or even in Burundi. More often than not, the common denominator in this evolution was a preference for revolutionary ideas which were current in the 1970s. The political quest of RANU – the group which was to create RPF – provides a good illustration for this evolution.

RANU was created in December 1979 in Nairobi by some young Rwandan refugee intellectuals, most of whom had grown up in Uganda. These young people had left Uganda in the last days of the Idi Amin regime or following Milton Obote’s return to power in April 1979, an event which represented a  special threat to the Rwandan community.

During Obote I period (1962-1971), Rwandan refugees had tended to support the Democratic Party opposed to Obote and some of them had compromised themselves with the Idi Amin regime when he took power in January 1971.

The young RANU founders’ political education had taken place in an intellectual environment far removed from the intellectual isolation and low level of progressive political culture then prevalent in the 1970s, not only in Rwanda, but also, to a lesser but significant degree, in Burundi and Zaïre.

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