RPF - The political and military mobilisation

During its founding congress in Kampala in December 1987, in an effort to avoid ideological squabbles, RPF defined itself as a "front" founded on a minimal eight-point programme. It emphasized the promotion of national unity and reconciliation, the instauration of a genuine democracy, the establishment an integrated and self-sufficient economy, the eradication of all forms of corruption and, quite significantly, relegating the question of repatriation of the refugees to sixth position.
RPF members at a past party event. (File)
RPF members at a past party event. (File)

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

During its founding congress in Kampala in December 1987, in an effort to avoid ideological squabbles, RPF defined itself as a “front” founded on a minimal eight-point programme. It emphasized the promotion of national unity and reconciliation, the instauration of a genuine democracy, the establishment an integrated and self-sufficient economy, the eradication of all forms of corruption and, quite significantly, relegating the question of repatriation of the refugees to sixth position.


This somewhat curt programme was quite similar to NRM’s eight-point programme, with some revealing nuances.


Thus, whereas the NRM text has democracy in the first position, the RPF document begins with national unity and reconciliation; as regards foreign policy, NRM stresses cooperation with other African countries in its defense of human and democratic rights, RPF places more emphasis on promoting equality between nations.


The greatest ideological challenge was posed by the less educated and little politicised portions of the refugee population who were “naturally’’ inclined – given their particular historical context - to harbor anti-Hutu sentiments. On this particular point, the communities in Burundi were especially worrisome.

A significant part of that community originally hailed from Southern Rwanda, mainly from Butare and Gikongoro, where the 1959 revolution had been the most murderous. But most importantly, the host country had meanwhile entered a cycle of Hutu-Tutsi genocidal violence.

The 1965 killings, the genocidal massacres of 1972, the resurgence of ethnic violence in Burundi, beginning from the Ntega and Marangara crisis in 1988, and reaching an unprecedented paroxysm with the resumption of civil war following the assassination of Hutu President Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993, had had repercussions on the Rwandan communities in this country.

Thus, the mass return to Rwanda immediately following the genocide was in part impelled by a search for refuge from an ethnic civil war-related insecurity then raging in Burundi.

RPF strove to eliminate ethnic sectarianism, notably by means of its political schools for cadres and political activists. One of the ideas that underpinned RPF’s political project was Rwanda’s sociopolitical transformation.

For many African progressive movements, this ambitious of fundamental sociopolitical transformation was by then a mere ritual formula, but in RPF’s case, it evoked a special resonance. It provided a coherent link between the rather prosaic realities of Rwanda at the time, and the lofty idea that RPF held of its mission.

RPF’s political ambition was not only to preside over the destiny of Rwanda, but also to transform it to such an extent that it should recover its ‘proper’ status. More concretely, these sizable banished refugees communities could not expect returning in Rwanda and recover their full citizens’ rights without a profound political, social and military change.  

This transformation idea was the foundation of RPF’s political optimism and pioneering spirit, and the hallmark of its work; it explains this party’s often insistent rejection of political expediency and determination to search for sustainable solutions to difficult situations.

In its earlier days, RPF combined national ambition with political and cultural populism, considering itself as a mass party actively integrating all section of the Rwandan nation.

Immediately after his designation as President of RPF, in September 1989, Fred Rwigema demanded that the movement begin actively to recruit Hutu into its membership, stressing that he would never launch an armed struggle without Hutu allies at his side.

Hutus from Rwanda, or of Rwanda ancestry living outside Rwanda, were therefore systematically contacted and a number of them recruited as RPF members, including descendants of colonial-era economic migrants who had fled from forced labour and settled in Uganda; descendants miners deported from Rwanda by colonial authorities into the Shaba region of Belgian Congo during the 1940s; economic migrants of more recent date scattered throughout the region; or monarchists/nationalists Hutu families who had fled the country with their socio-political associates during the sixties, although these had generally merged with other refugees.

Lastly, from 1986 onwards, during the days of RANU effort had been made to recruit certain individuals, politicians or former senior army officers who had fallen out with the Habyarimana regime, and were therefore also refugees.

The recruitment of Hutus within Rwanda itself before the commencement of the war in 1990 was almost impossible, given the political context, the security conditions and the ultra-clandestine character of the few cells which the movement had succeeded in setting up within the country.

Lastly, when RPF had succeeded in controlling a portion of the country’s territory, some progressive Hutu intellectuals living within or around that locality were able to join the movement.

Politico-military mobilisation

At the end of the NRA war in January 1986, there was hardly any coordination between RANU and Rwandan military leadership within NRA, and RANU was unaware of their position on the specific issue of the future of Rwandan communities abroad or on the question of political change in Rwanda.

Those Rwandans who had joined NRA had done so on an individual basis and not as envoys of RANU. Some of these combatants, such as Fred Rwigema, had become members of RANU, but again as individuals, and the organisation had no control over the group as such.

Indeed, when these Rwandans had first joined Museveni, they rarely gave any indications of their intentions as regards the fate of the refugees and political change in Rwanda.

In 1983, RANU held its congress in Nairobi in order to inject more dynamism into its activities. Written contributions had been requested from delegates. From France, Tito Rutaremara sent a document entitled Dukore iki? echoing Lenin’s “What is to be done?” Rutaremara, following his Russian inspirer, emphasised the need to create a vanguard movement composed of people who devoted themselves fulltime to the struggle for the liberation of Rwanda.

In 1986, RANU decided to abandon its profile of a club of intellectuals and broaden its political base in order to transform itself into a mass movement led by professional political cadres. Beginning from 1984, encouraged by Paul Kagame, a number of Rwandan intellectuals from Nairobi had joined Museveni’s guerrila movement, along with thousands of other refugees, with the relatively diffuse objective of acquiring military expertise in view of an eventual armed return to Rwanda.

In December 1987 in Kampala, nearly two years after the victory of Museveni’s NRA, RPF was created, taking over RANU (Rwandese Alliance for National Unity) which had meanwhile moved to Kampala.

The passage from RANU to RPF in December 1987 marked a formal junction between RANU members and the leadership of Rwandans serving within NRA. The latter soon took the front stage within the movement, especially with the nomination of General Fred Rwigema as president.

Preparations for war in Rwanda by Rwandan officers within NRA were highly confidential. The aim was first to continue to recruit Rwanda refugees for military training in the NRA. It was also to organise access to weapons, ammunition and military equipment stores by Rwandan officers so that they may carry them away at the right moment.

At the same time, it was necessary to organise the desertion and transfer en masse of Rwandan combatants to their country of origin. There were no large preparatory or concertation meetings, and information sharing was limited to the strict minimum necessary for action, and often in covert terms.

The issue of an armed return was not really debated among Rwandans within NRA, and instructions for preparation were issued from Rwandan commanders and executed with no further ado. This was rendered necessary by the atmosphere of latent anti-Rwandan tension in which the conspirators had to operate within a “foreign” national army.

Had the conspiracy been discovered, an enormous crisis would have ensued which would have definitely torpedoed the initiative. The Ugandan military leadership suspected that the Rwandan officers and men within NRA ranks harbored intentions to launch a military campaign against the Kigali regime.

However, due to various reason, including Ugandan forces being in a state of war in the North, failure to connect the dots of intelligence systems, no real action was taken and hence preparations continued, albeit discretely.

The fact that this process was able to proceed with such extreme discretion was due to the natural matter-of-fact understanding between the Rwandan military within NRA, both officers and men of the ranks, as regards the project of an armed return to Rwanda: this seemed to go without saying.

The strictest secrecy was also required vis-a-vis the regime in Kigali, which had observed the fall of Kampala with the participation of thousands of Rwandan combatants, and was under no illusion as to the likely outcome of the situation. Indeed, the regime had been sending numerous spies into Uganda, especially women.

After its first congress in December 1987 in Kampala, RPF structures clandestinely spread in every Rwandan community all over the world. The process of mobilising refugee communities for an armed return to Rwanda was rapid.

The same decisive drive provided by Rwandan combatants within NRA was also at play within the refugee community at large. The idea that this return would take the form of an armed struggle was determined by the prevailing circumstances and by an accumulation of factors over a long period.

The last part will be published on Monday.

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