Policing a post-genocide society: Towards further reform

By the late 1990s, the communal police force had grown in numbers. However, by this time, the creation of a national police force managed and paid centrally and operating nationally rather than simply at the level of the commune, was being considered.

This is the eighth part of a nine-part series extracted from four of the recently published book, Policing a Rapidly Transforming Post-Genocide Society: Making Rwandans Feel Safe, Involved, and Reassured, authored by the Rwanda National Police (RNP).

By the late 1990s, the communal police force had grown in numbers. However, by this time, the creation of a national police force managed and paid centrally and operating nationally rather than simply at the level of the commune, was being considered.


These considerations gave rise to another set of issues for resolution. For one thing, there were already other organs doing police work at the national level.


Under the Ministry of Defence and responsible for crime investigation, case-file preparation and ensuring general law and order in urban areas, was the gendarmerie.


Alongside it, operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice was the judicial police, responsible for criminal investigations.

Meanwhile the communal police by then based at the Ministry of Internal Affairs ensured community-level presence and visibility of law enforcement agents as a strategy for crime prevention.

The creation of another outfit would lead to duplication of roles and effort. Already between the gendarmerie and judicial police there were elements of duplication and a scattering of energies that needed to be addressed.

Perhaps most significant were the different chains of command, with each policing organ reporting and accounting to different ministries.

The meagre resources available were not being used optimally, and all three outfits were competing for financial support from the same sources.

The potential for wasteful competition and interference in each other’s work was ever present. Moreover, each organ had its own uniform.

An officer serving in one of the three organs portrayed the situation as a little chaotic, rendering it difficult to uphold the law given the absence of common standards and approaches to which all law enforcement agencies had to adhere.

A former communal police officer recalls not being aware that he and his colleagues did similar work to that of the gendarmes until he met some of his friends in the gendarmerie: “when we spoke to each other, I found out that what we were doing was what they were also doing”.

The leadership realised that rationalising the law and order sector through a merger of the different organs would be more viable. At the very least, it would allow for common training, unified command and control; and the consolidation of resources and equipment.

Also, it would help reinforce discipline and, more importantly, the monitoring necessary to observe the adherence to the rule of law.

Further, it would render easier the analysis of training needs and the laying of strategies to identify inefficiencies and rectify them. Furthermore, a single entity would be cheaper to run and therefore lessen the dependence on donors.

Altogether, five broad objectives guided the merger: appropriate utilisation of human and material resources; harmonisation of administrative and operational procedures; uniformity in training; harmonisation of crime fighting approaches; and enhancement of efficiency and productivity in the provision of policing services to the community.

In 1998, the Vice President set in motion a process to merge the three organs and create a single policing entity. A committee was established to study the issue and come up with specific proposals for building the new entity. A decision was made to open up the deliberations to include key stakeholders.

A source close to these deliberations and part of the team that traversed the country over a period of three months for consultations with local leaders and ordinary people about their views on the new police recalled asking questions such as: How do you want the police to look? What uniform would you want them to wear? Where (how far) should the police be stationed? What should be their role in managing conflicts?

Authorities at the provincial and commune levels were also asked for their views. Focus groups of ordinary people were consulted in all the provinces. People generally wanted a friendly police and argued for a uniform with a ‘friendly colour’, one that would not scare them, such as the army’s olive green, which often caused fear.

Donor resistance

Soon enough disagreement broke out between the government and its development partners who had hitherto been providing much-needed support, with the former favouring a policing approach that it believed would best fit the context of Rwanda. Some donors threatened to withhold support if the proposed organ was going to be armed. Their preference was for an unarmed civilian entity similar to the police in their own countries.

The irony of this stance was not lost on the government. All the different countries that had until then been providing assistance, had different approaches to policing. However, in Rwanda they were acting as if there was a single model of policing to which the government had to subscribe.

For example, the British who station armed police at important installations such as airports were insistent that the police in Rwanda should not be armed. Once seen as facilitators, they had now become a major impediment. Unable to make headway in trying to impose models, donors began to retreat from cooperating with the government on matters related to policing.

On the other hand, according to government sources, as far as conditions on the ground went, they necessitated an armed police force. First, the general environment in which forces of law and order operated was hostile, with acts of sabotage and armed attacks on the population and law enforcement officers as well as killings still prevalent across the country.

During the same period five police officers had been killed when the motorbikes they were travelling on were knocked down in what appeared to be systematic and deliberate acts of violence.

The government was, therefore, not inclined to accede to donor demands for unarmed police, let alone their interference in matters of command and control, such as trying to decide where road blocks should be placed and where they should not: “We do not want a road block here,” some would be heard to say to the police.

If donors had believed that in withholding assistance they would disable the government into acceding to their demands, it turned out to have been a miscalculation based on a lack of appreciation of the new government’s determination to shape in line with local circumstances, not diktat from outsiders.

The last part of this series will be published on Monday.

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