Tracing the History of the RPF

On a continent that has often been characterised by tragic failure, underachievement, ever falling short of great potential, Rwanda is a promise of what can be, when an African society takes its destiny into its own hands, and looks to itself on how best to take its place in the world.
The bamboo thicket gave the fighters cover to conduct their drills without being heard by the enemy.
The bamboo thicket gave the fighters cover to conduct their drills without being heard by the enemy. Courtesy.

On a continent that has often been characterised by tragic failure, underachievement, ever falling short of great potential, Rwanda is a promise of what can be, when an African society takes its destiny into its own hands, and looks to itself on how best to take its place in the world.

That such an assertion enrages the country's vocal detractors does not make it any less of a fact. The trail to this point has been blazed by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a movement that brings together Rwandans of every shade of opinion to strive for a common goal.

Thirty years since the movement's founding, how did it turn an improbable dream into today's reality.

There was once a dream that was Rwanda, betrayed to become a nightmare. But the dream would refuse to die, its apparent fragility belying the enduring hold it would have on the minds and hearts of its dreamers, from generation to generation.

And, so it would come to pass that 30 ago this year, a group of young Rwandans would awaken, and against the most unfavourable of odds, dare to restore the dream that had all but receded into forgotten memory.

The making of modern Rwanda would begin outside its borders, the nation builders having been barred from their homeland by its despoilers, the midwives to the nightmare. The yearning for home, a place to which one is native, is programmed in all human beings, and it was no different for Rwandans living in enforced exile, scattered in refugee camps, or settled in other places in host countries.

Doubtless this yearning to return home would have prevailed, irrespective of the circumstances, but, the hardship imposed upon the refugees played no small part in intensifying the desire for it.

"As Rwandans we were subjected to intermittent petty discrimination in our host countries", recalls Protais Musoni, the director of cadreship at the RPF Inkotanyi, and one of the movement's political thinkers. "And we were often harassed by governments, all of which made the future uncertain, and led to thoughts of a return home; but, how? You couldn't just pack a suitcase and go home"

"So people started study groups to analyse their situation. What was wrong, how had it come about? What could be done to change the situation? You questioned existing assumptions: you were a refugee because you were a Mututsi, but, you looked at the person next to you who was a Muhutu, and was also a refugee, so you had to look at other issues."

These discussions took place within a number of different groups, the main one of which was Rwanda Alliance for National Unity, or RANU. Headquartered in Nairobi Kenya, RANU was established in 1979, and was presented as a cultural organisation to unite Rwandans. This was largely true, but, not the whole truth.

RANU did genuinely work to bring Rwandans together through their shared culture. But, it was also a political organisation, which kept open a military option. A fact that would have severely compromised the safety of every Rwandan, had the authorities in their host countries caught wind of it. Political discussions were conducted clandestinely, under the cover of celebration of culture. And what could be better than culture to mobilise a people around a single identity.

But RANU had a number of obvious shortcomings. Most of its members were the young educated, the refugee community's intelligentsia, whose ideas were drawn from the prevailing liberation ideologies of the time.

The sense of injustice, that life could not continue as it was, that things had to change, was felt by every Rwandan, but, this intelligentsia was certainly in the vanguard, in looking for solutions. It was they who felt most strongly that something beyond mere discussion groups had to be done.

But how, given their intellectual influences, would they be able to mobilise effectively, among a majority most of whom had little formal education, were socially conservative, would not know Che Guevera, or Karl Max, from Adam, and were more than a little attached to what property they owned?

Luckily for the organisation, the young activists were more pragmatists than ideologues.

More results than ideologically driven. They set about debating what kind of organisation they would be, and how they would achieve it.

From the outset they had taken a maieutic approach in their discussions, or as they preferred to term it, "scientific thinking". They debated how to structure the organisation, if they wanted to be inclusive, and responsive to the needs and wishes of every Munyarwanda, or Rwandan. The answers to these questions would govern the shape and structure of the organisation.

Since its founding, RANU would hold a congress every couple of years. The sea change would come at the Congress of 1987. Nothing would be the same after that. What made this Congress such a pivotal moment? Circumstances in the region had altered dramatically.

In Uganda, where many, if not most Rwandans had taken refuge, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), won a war of liberation against the murderous forces of Milton Obote, and his clique. Among Rwandans who had fought under the command of Yoweri Museveni, now President Museveni, to liberate Uganda, was the late Gisa Rwigema, and Paul Kagame, both of whom would later be asked to take command of RPF forces.

Most of these victorious liberators had been members of RANU before joining that military struggle. Now they had returned, their thinking inevitably transformed by the experience of fighting a grueling five-year guerilla war, a war which had been embarked upon to fight against the very injustices that had been their lot, all their lives.

RANU may have considered a military option, but, realistically, up until then, it had been little more than a forum for discussion, and the important task of uniting and mobilising Rwandans. In truth, RANU's military option harked back to the 1960s, when valiant, but, often quixotic young men launched armed sorties into Rwanda, from refugee camps.

These tended to be a tragic waste of young lives, ending in heroic failure. In filmed interviews of these young men after they had been captured, they shrug off their inevitable end, nonchalantly declaring that everyone dies, so why be concerned about their impending executions.

The class of '87 was an altogether different kind of warrior. Although guerilla fighters, their military professionalism far exceeded the standing army they had just defeated. The romantic fatalism of their forebears would have been anathema to their steely discipline.

Now people could seriously consider a military option to back up peaceful overtures to Habyarimana's government in Rwanda.

But, a peaceful return remained the preferred option. Organisation and mobilisation would, however, change to reflect the new circumstances. It was more focused, with greater purpose. It was at discussions leading up to the '87 Congress, that RANU would morph into RPF.

By then, the headquarters had already moved from Nairobi in Kenya, to the Uganda capital of Kampala. The process leading up to the change of name tells us much about the organisation that would emerge.

The maieutic approach to analysing the way forward picked up in earnest, and was given greater urgency. By '81, it had already been decided that although there was a leadership structure, the organisaition would not be hierarchical.

All voices would have equal weight. When people went out to mobilise, they would go as ordinary members, they would not announce their positions. "Collectivism over individualism" is how Musoni puts it. Now the questions were, what kind of organisation is it, if it is an organisation for every Munyarwanda, how will it address their collective concerns, their wishes?

"If it is a Rwandan affair" recounts Musoni, "how do we form a political theory, an ideology that includes every Munyarwanda, whatever their ideology, so that no Munyarwanda, except perhaps those who were the cause of the injustices, would look at the organisation and feel excluded?

In fact, so that even those who were responsible for all our suffering would have to acknowledge that the organisation would be for them too, but for their actions that were inimical to the interests and wellbeing of the Rwandan people."

From 1986/7, RANU had stepped up its mobilising campaign to cover the entire region. The unintended consequences of this success were that it brought in other groups from across the region, some of them led by well-established thinkers, with their own ideas and approaches.

How would they be incorporated into the organisation? The challenge was to have a unified, inclusive struggle. One people, one struggle. By the time of the Congress, there had been exhaustive debates and discussions about the kind of organisation that would embrace everyone.

It would be an organisation for the emancipation of all Rwandans, it would necessarily be patriotic, and it would move together as a front. And so was born The Rwandan Patriotic Front.

With the change of name, came the political programme, and so came the famous eight-point programme, which continues to serve as a guideline for the RPF today. The only change to it has been the addition of a ninth programme, to fight genocide ideology, something that could not have been foreseen in 1987. Even at this late stage, the hope was that there could be a peaceful return home. Some however argued that Habyarimana would never be persuaded to do the just thing, and pushed for a military option. Not so argued older, cautious voices. In the end it was agreed that the military option would be termed option Z, to be considered when all other efforts failed.

Unbeknown to him, it was Habyarimana who swayed opinion towards military action. By 1989/90, it became clear that he would never be moved by peaceful, diplomatic pressure. He declared that Rwanda was full, and would consider opening the door, but, only to the wealthy and educated. Within the RPF, people pointed out that this could mean returning home, and leaving parents behind, unless they were wealthy, unlikely for the majority struggling for survival in refugee camps. His stance triggered option Z.

The most remarkable aspect of the RPF, is the young age of the individuals who were the movement's driving force. Elsewhere in the world, such individuals in their teens and early twenties, would have been in the youth wing of this or that political party, bursting with commitment, full of idealistic zeal, ideologically driven, naive, with an almost total absence of any state craft and wisdom. What made these particular young people different? What gave them the maturity to take disparate groups across national borders, each of which passionately believed in the efficacy of its own approach, and weave them into a single unified organisation?

Although most of them were the academically gifted, the best and brightest, they had little access to available sources of information. And yet, the ideas they thrashed out would go on to meet challenges of nation building, infinitely more intractable than those that today, continue to bedevil the continent, in spite of the combined efforts of multilateral organisations, including the UN.

"We grew up at an early age" offers Musoni, "Fred (Gisa Rwigema) entered the struggle aged sixteen, the Chairman (President Kagame) was twenty-two. At 25 I did not feel as though I was young." "We had to develop our own world view", he continues, "our parents had done all they could to educate us both formerly and culturally, but, we had to develop our own understanding of world affairs"

"The 1970s, 80s, were an interesting period, with many anti-colonial struggles still going on. We knew our age group in Angola, Southern Africa were in the struggle. Our ideas were researched from all over. There was the ANC (African National Congress), the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Uganda, of course, they had good ideas on uniting Ugandans. We looked at all of these, studied, discussed them, and decided what would be best for us"

Perhaps they didn't grow up early, perhaps we all grow up late. Either way, it remains an astonishing moment in history. These young people did not just answer the call, and sacrifice their youth to be led by wiser heads. The call they answered was made by them, and theirs were the wise heads. The movement they moulded has guided a people, a nation, out of the darkest of nightmares, to offer a real chance of a successful, sovereign, independent African nation. Not bad for 30-year-old. Happy anniversary RPF.