[ORBITUARY] A tribute to Jean Sayinzoga

I was extremely saddened on Sunday, April 16 to hear about the passing of Mr Jean Sayinzoga, the Chairman of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (RDRC).
Jean Sayinzoga.
Jean Sayinzoga.

I was extremely saddened on Sunday, April 16 to hear about the passing of Mr Jean Sayinzoga, the Chairman of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (RDRC).

I had been fortunate to meet with him in person less than one month ago, on the 24th March 2017, at Hotel Le Printemps in Kimironko, whilst I was in Rwanda carrying out a study on the subject of psychosocial and practical support for ex-combatants when transitioning and reintegrating into society.


I was extremely impressed with the real attention that is shown to such ex-combatants in Rwanda, facilitated through the RDRC, and having stemmed from the leadership shown by Mr Sayinzoga during his time as chairman.


For those who are unfamiliar with the RDRC, it was formed in January 1997 as an autonomous Government Commission, and was formally established in the year 2002 by a Presidential decree (No 37/01 of 09/04/2002).


The Commission has the vision to: Demobilise and reintegrate members of Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) and others from other armed groups who include children; Support reinsertion and reintegration of settled ex-Forces Armées Rwandaises (ex-FAR); Support the socio-economic reintegration of all stage II ex-combatants and vulnerable ex-combatants of stage I ex-combatants who remain socio-economically vulnerable; Facilitate reallocation of Government expenditure from defence to social an economic sectors; and finally to support the reinsertion of 5600 dependents of members of ex-Armed Group.

All of this leads to the RDRC overall mission, which is: to contribute to peace and stability in the Great Lakes Region (especially in Rwanda and DRC) through the completion of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process for the remaining Rwandan Armed Groups and the further reduction in size of the Rwandan Defence Forces.

Make no mistake about it. Successful demobilisation and reintegration of ex-combatants is no easy task. Many countries around the world have struggled with the issue, and often failed to develop effective DDR processes through thinking that corners could be cut, or that there were singular fixed ways of completing the job.

And it should be pointed out, that for most of these countries who don’t complete the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process effectively, they are dealing with much simpler groups of ex-combatants than Rwanda.

In those countries, often the only ex-combatants are from a singular armed force, or at the most a number of forces who were fighting from the same perspective.

In Rwanda, the issues faced by ex-combatants are so much more complex, with as noted already, individuals who were fighting on opposing sides often going through the DDR process together, eventually reintegrating into the same society to live side by side.

This togetherness, this living side by side, must not be something that only happens once the ex-combatants leave the DDR programme. In our discussions in late March, Mr Sayinzoga said that:

“In a conflict resolution, there are two issues that have to be addressed at the same time. We have punishment, and we have forgiveness. The question that is often asked is, do we start with the punishment or the forgiveness? In Rwanda, we prioritise both.

“We manage both punishment and forgiveness at the same time. We discuss the issues that ex-combatants might face when reintegrating into civilian life, and show them that rather than thinking of themselves as being different, together in common they should share the core values of the country.”

It was clear from Mr Sayinzoga’s discussion that finding these key common interests and common goals, whilst having a sense of purpose are key ways of ensuring successful reintegration of ex-combatants.

The sense of purpose and togetherness is something I was lucky enough to see with my own eyes in 2015 when, thanks to the access granted by Mr Sayinzoga, a group of scholars of whom I was a member of, were given access to Mutobo demobilization camp, where we were able to speak not only with a number of the professionals that work there, but also a cohort of ex-combatants who were going through the DDR process.

It was clear on speaking to many of those ex-combatants that they did not see themselves as people from different former forces, nor did they see the transition back to society as something to fear. Instead what we saw was a group of Rwandans who saw themselves with a bright future, playing their part in Rwanda’s positive growth and development.

Going back to the previous discussion though, this is not an easy process, nor is it something that should be taken lightly. The reason why these ex-combatants are helped to believe that positive future exists for them and their country is through the strategic direction that the RDRC have taken with Mr Sayinzoga at the helm.

For example, not all ex-combatants are or were adult ex-combatants. Some are children or adolescents, who require a different approach. For those young people, the RDRC adopt strategies including participatory rehabilitation, and testing community life.

In terms of participatory rehabilitation, young ex-combatants will be assigned a mentor, and may engage in social group activities. This includes entertaining guests at the graduation ceremonies for those adult ex-combatants who have completed a vocational training programme.

That entertainment might be through traditional Rwandan music or dance, allowing them to work together, whilst also allowing their family members to see them engaging in positive social activities.

An example of testing community life on the other hand, has been where a group of young ex-combatants put together a sporting team for a game such as football, and play friendly matches against young civilians that they might engage with once fully demobilized in the months to come.

The idea here is that by interacting together, any tensions that might potentially exist between civilian and ex-combatant youths are eased, with a gradual social reintegration put into practice.

As mentioned above, an issue for adult ex-combatants often might be that they have been in the armed forces for a long time, and have little by way of practical skills that would allow them to gain employment within a peaceful civil society. The RDRC tackles this by putting into place a Pre-Discharge Orientation Programme, which covers social, economic, and political realities in Rwanda.

The aim here is for ex-combatants to have the opportunity to discuss expectations, consider challenges that they might face, and think of what opportunities they could have on transitioning back into civilian life.

When opportunities are identified, ex-combatants then have the opportunity to register in an area of vocational training to develop skills that will make them a good candidate for employment, with areas of training able to be adapted and changed depending on the demand levels from ex-combatants on the programme.

The evidence shows that this training is successful, with large numbers of those who complete their vocational training finding employment once they have completed the DDR process.

And of course, not all ex-combatants are male; there are also a number of female ex-combatants. The RDRC recognises this and has strategies to deal with gender in reintegration challenges to women, including purpose built homes for vulnerable female ex-combatants. Then there are disabled ex-combatants, and those with significant life-changing conditions such as HIV. There are specific strategies for those people too.

What is particularly important, is that the RDRC does not simply look to practical issues that ex-combatants might face on being reintegrated, but also recognises those social issues, whilst providing psychological support to deal with any underlying trauma or counselling requirements an ex-combatant might have.

In fact, even on completing the DDR programme, follow-up family visits are made by social workers linked with the RDRC to ensure that the re-integrated ex-combatant has transitioned well back into society.

As can be seen then, the work carried out by the RDRC is not simple. It is a complex process to ensure that ex-combatants can reintegrate back into Rwanda society in a way that they can be useful, functioning, and just like any other hard-working Rwandan citizen.

This work has only been possible through the dedication and vision of the RDRC chairman, Jean Sayinzoga. As he explained just a few weeks ago during our short discussion:

“Demobilization and reintegration are very important to peacebuilding and reconciliation, and when it comes down to it, it is all about Rwandan’s coming ‘back’ to their country, whether simply leaving armed forces and coming back to a normal civilian life, or whether it is an ex-combatant physically coming back to Rwanda from neighbouring countries such as the DRC. At the end of the day though, we are all Rwandans, and during the demobilization process, this realization should be their first step toward reintegration.”

The RDRC is recognised throughout the Great Lakes region as being a massive success. The World Bank in their Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Project (MDRP), in 2010 specifically singled out Rwanda in terms of their great efforts with both women and child ex-combatants, and in terms of overall numbers acknowledged that Rwanda was one of the only countries in the region to successfully meet its target.

Mr Jean Sayinzoga should be recognized and remembered as a passionate, hard-working, and dedicated man, who is responsible for ensuring such success. The RDRC will continue to excel, and it will do so due to the strategies shaped and directed by its chairman. Rest in peace sir.

The writer is a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of the West of Scotland.

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