RPF: The roots of change

On July 26, 1986, the central committee of the MRND, Rwanda’s ruling party, issued a statement denying Rwandan refugees the right to return, claiming the country was “over-populated.”
RPF combatants in the early days of the liberation struggle. (Courtesy)
RPF combatants in the early days of the liberation struggle. (Courtesy)

For the next three weeks, every Monday and Thursday, The New Times will be publishing, in six pieces, a summary of one chapter of Jean-Paul Kimonyo’s forthcoming book on Rwanda after the Genocide. The chapter retraces the origins of change brought about by RPF and its political partners, including the Muslim community, which kept alive the ideal of political moderation in the country in the years leading up to the Genocide and during the Genocide. The summary herein focuses on the RPF origins and early evolution.

On July 26, 1986, the central committee of the MRND, Rwanda’s ruling party, issued a statement denying Rwandan refugees the right to return, claiming the country was “over-populated.”


The message to refugees was clear: Your exile is permanent; there is nothing further to discuss. It was a fatal error.


The announcement came abruptly, after a long period of silence from Kigali. But the timing was no coincidence. Yoweri Museveni had seized power in Uganda six months earlier, with help from thousands of fighters of Rwandan origin. Kigali was also aware of the cultural renaissance underway in refugee communities, and the growing signs of political mobilisation.


Momentous changes had already been set in motion. A new generation was taking stock of their situation, unburdened by the fatalistic resignation of their elders. The principal agent of change, then as now, was the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).

In the process of formation of the RPF, one issue stands out clearly: the deep engagement with Rwandan historical memory. Indeed, perhaps no other factor better explains the organisation’s consistency and resilience.

Then as now, the RPF’s ideological orientation and programme of action are built on two cardinal principles: the quest for sovereignty and the affirmation of national self-worth. Both have their origin in the history and culture of Rwanda.

How were Rwanda’s sovereignty and dignity lost? How was the RPF able to lead to process of recovering them?

Any account of pre-colonial Rwanda, no matter how sober, cannot free itself completely from elements of myth. 

But when the sources are traced to their origin, the mythical images of Rwanda — “a peculiar and inaccessible country” — that were popularised in missionary and colonialist writings originate from our immediate neighbours, through the legends they told early explorers such as John Hanning Speke and Henry Morton Stanley in the 19th century.

The neighbouring kingdom of Karagwe was a prolific source of speculation. King Rumanyika told Speke of the tree-dwelling dwarves and horrible ogres that supposedly existed in Rwanda. Rumanyika also had an explanation for Rwanda’s isolationism: 

“They never allowed any foreigner into their country, as shown by the fact that, following a visit by some Arabs a few years previously, Ruanda had suffered a great drought and famine, which had been attributed to the malignant influences of these foreigners. Ruandans, thus, expelled these people, and vowed never to allow any of their kin and kith to re-enter their land.” 


While in Karagwe searching for information on the Akagera River, Stanley spent a few days with Hamed Ibrahim, an Arab trader who recounted his fruitless attempts at establishing commercial relations with the rulers of those distant hills:

“The people of that country are no cowards. Machallah! The Waganda measured their strength with them, and were obliged to retreat. The Wanya-Ruanda are a great people, but they are covetous, malignant, treacherous, and utterly untrustworthy.

“They have never yet allowed any Arab to trade in their country, which proves them to be a bad lot. Even Rumanyika’s people are not allowed to penetrate far, though he permits everybody to come into his country, and he is a man of their own blood and  race, and speaks with little difference their own language.”

When the Europeans came into contact with Rwanda, this kingdom was at the height of its power under the long reign of an exceptional warrior-king, Kigeri Rwabugiri. 

Rwabugiri had added to Rwanda’s territory through conquest, and centralised its administrative structures. But these were new developments. 

The Rwandan kingdom, though of ancient origin, had always been small in size. But the writings of Speke, Stanley, and others, filtered through myths and gossip from Rumanyika and others, made certain images seem eternal and unchanging.

In March 1891, a German expedition led by Emin Pasha and Franz Stuhlmann arrived in Karagwe, hoping to continue to Rwanda. A few Rwandans were staying there, but as Stuhlmann wrote, they were of little help:

“Emin Pasha made all efforts to encourage these people to take gifts to their king and announce our arrival. The eldest of these men insisted that he could not take back any gifts, since his king had not directed him to do so. That people should refuse gifts, was the most explicit proof of the tight control which this king exercised over his subjects.” 

Meanwhile, Rumanyika succeeded in warning Rwabugiri about the Europeans and their invincible weapons and “diviner powers.” He also told Rwabugiri that the Europeans were offering friendship, and advised him not to fight them. Mwami Rwabugiri ordered his people to welcome any European who would present himself at the border, and inform the court. Rwanda’s self-imposed isolation was over.

Bringing visitors

Gustav Adolf von Götzen’s caravan entered Rwanda two years later, on May 4, 1894, and was met by the Mwami’s son, Sharangabo. He brought the visitors to the north of the country, where the court was then staying. 

Von Götzen recorded his first impressions:

“We had travelled through a magnificently ordered country, passing through deep and dark banana groves which appeared to be interminable, then walking through verdant pastures. The density of the population, the well-tended crops of beans with tall sticks supporting the bean stalks, then more fields sown with sorghum, with scarecrows installed in them, all this had excited our admiration.”

There was interest on both sides: Rwabugiri was keen to acquire European weapons.

The meeting between Mwami Rwabugiri and Count von Götzen was friendly, but not without incident. Tired of awaiting the good pleasure of the king, at one point he forced his way into the royal enclosure, going so far as to whip a court official who tried to stop him.

The German aristocrat was keen to impress the superiority of his civilisation upon his hosts. At one point von Götzen set off two flares to intimidate the king, but without effect, later affirming that Rwabugiri “showed authority and the absence of submissiveness”.

In the end, it was von Götzen himself who were left astounded:

“Luabugiri and his close aides are without doubt some of the greatest men under the sun and, if they were transported to Europe, they would not fail to make a great impact. The features of Luabugiri were incomparably handsome. He wore around his neck a crown of green leaves, and his penetrating gaze, combined with the terrible expression of his mouth, immediately brought to mind the heads of some of the Roman Caesars.”

His enthusiasm was not reciprocated. The German historian Gudrun Honke, who studied this encounter, explains: 

“The king of Rwanda had expected a man of equal rank with whom he could entertain relations of partnership. And since both the Rwandans and Europeans were each persuaded of the superiority of their own civilisation, the king could not imagine that the Europeans would entertain the thought of being masters in his country.”

What Rwabugiri did not know was that von Götzen was not really on a private visit. He was acting unofficially as the representative of the German Empire, which had theoretically gained sovereignty over Rwanda a decade earlier.

The new reality was made clear two years later, in July 1896, following a military confrontation with Belgian-Congolese troops at Shangi. The Belgians had established military posts at Nyamasheke in Cyangugu and a second at Rubengera in Kibuye. The local population attempted to fight them off, but they were defeated by superior firepower. 

Rwabugiri had died shortly before, succeeded by his adopted son Mibambwe Rutarindwa. He had advised his son not to fight the Europeans, but the new king felt he had no choice but to answer the provocation. Without having fully assessed the threat, he dispatched ten of his best military units.

The Rwandan army was beaten back with extensive losses, and the survivors deserted. The mwami’s representatives in Kinyaga fled to the royal court and the king lost all influence there. It was the first and last time the Rwandan court attempted to oppose European encroachment by force of arms.

The myth of invincible Rwanda–the kingdom that “attacks and is never attacked”–was shattered. Nearly a century would pass before Rwandan sovereignty could be fully reaffirmed.

Dr Jean-Paul Kimonyo is the author of another book, the English version, Rwanda’s Popular Genocide: A Perfect Storm, is to also to be published soon.

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