We have built an army for posterity, says Nyamvumba

On July 4, 1994, a battle hardened rebel force known as the Rwanda Patriotic Army took the capital Kigali and effectively put an end to a genocide that claimed the lives of a million plus citizens in 100 days.
Gen. Nyamvumba during the interview with The New Times on June 20. / John Mbanda.
Gen. Nyamvumba during the interview with The New Times on June 20. / John Mbanda.

On July 4, 1994, a battle hardened rebel force known as the Rwanda Patriotic Army took the capital Kigali and effectively put an end to a genocide that claimed the lives of a million plus citizens in 100 days. The RPA has since metamorphosed into the Rwanda Defence Forces, widely regarded as one of the most professional forces in the world today. On June 20, the RDF Chief of Defence Staff, GEN. PATRICK NYAMVUMBA, spoke to The New Times’ JAMES MUNYANEZA about a wide range of issues pertaining to the RDF’s history, the philosophy behind its character, its loyalty to the people, the Congo wars, current and future challenges, among others.

The New Times (TNT): On a scale of one to ten, where would you place the liberation journey?

Gen Patrick Nyamvumba (PN): Liberation has no time-frame. First, it was the armed struggle, which ended in 1994. But unfortunately that phase ended with the Genocide which killed a million Rwandans. Now we are in the phase of building a new Rwanda, a country that’s all inclusive, it’s always work in progress.

It must be recalled that in 1994 we found ourselves in circumstances that are unusual, particularly because we suffered a genocide. We did not have a textbook to refer to. What happened to the Jews in Europe after the Second World War is that they were moved to Israel. For us we’ve had to stay together, the perpetrators and the victims.  Post-Genocide management came with these kinds of challenges. But we had to rely on home-grown solutions and that has helped bring about the stability we see today.

Security is the foundation of all our aspirations as a country and I must state that we are up there in terms of security, thanks to the armed forces and the existing cooperation with the civilians. 

TNT: But today we have soldiers patrolling the streets, we still have the FDLR across our western border among other threats...

PN: Security is not a given, it takes great sacrifices. Since 2010, we started seeing strange security incidents in Rwanda, especially in the form of grenade attacks. These are terrorist activities by groups like FDLR and RNC which seek to intimidate the public, many lives have also been lost, at least 30 people, including children, have died in these attacks. We have a responsibility to prevent these acts and hold accountable those responsible; we will continue to do everything necessary to safeguard the people of Rwanda.

TNT: In the RDF, you have soldiers who previously fought on opposing sides; the RPA and FAR. What does that communicate?

PN: After 1994 former FAR were integrated in the national army, partly that’s the essence of our liberation struggle. Many FDLR combatants have equally been integrated into the army. 

The defence forces must reflect the entire society of Rwanda. That we fought on opposing sides does not mean that we can’t live and belong together. Maybe that helped establish a strong foundation for national reconciliation. If former enemies on the battlefield are serving in the same defence force, maybe it should be an encouragement and possibly a little easier for others live together in harmony as well.

TNT: Where does the RDF derive its character from, its determination, discipline, bravery...?

PN: Our leadership under (current) President Paul Kagame, who was the Chairman of the High Command of the RPA, did and continues to play a very big role in not only shaping the character of the army, but also to instil in the army a sense of responsibility as a people and as a force. That sense of responsibility has carried on, only that today it’s a bit different in a sense that we now are constitutionally mandated to contribute to the country’s wellbeing through participating in economic activities. The philosophy is simple; the army was never fighting for itself, it was fighting for the people.

In the immediate aftermath of the Genocide, the only surviving institution in this country was the army, the RPA, everything else had been decimated. I remember in 1994, the RPA provided communications to the then Ministers using our military communications, including walkie-talkies. That’s how bad it was.  There was nobody else, somebody had to be there to ensure that the little that had survived not only survives but is able to pick itself up, and the engine that one could rely on at the time was the army, in terms of provision of all services that you can imagine, from providing security to humanitarian assistance, to getting involved in opening of roads and supply lines. But, over and above, we had leadership. It fell on military’s shoulders to see to it that this country is not a failed state.

TNT: Rwanda has been to the Congo twice to pursue genocidaires that fled over the border and continued to carry out attacks against Rwandans. Today some genocidaires remain in the Congo. Looking back, any regrets?

PN: Whether Congo I or Congo II, I don’t think there should be any regrets for having done what we did. There weren’t so many options available to us then. For us to be where we are today it’s because that decision was made. In 1996, when the first Congo happened, we had in excess of two million Rwandans just across our border in the Congo. 

From a security perspective, that posed a major threat because the entire former government army and militia were living in the refugee camps. After being fed by the international community, they were able to reorganise and started incursions in Rwanda. They drew the legitimacy from having refugee status, which was an assurance of continued supplies. 

They had to be separated from genuine refugees. Indeed the refugees were separated from the militia and former forces, they came back to Rwanda and the fighters dispersed. But there is absolutely no way it was going to be successful without going an extra mile in dismantling the infrastructure that supported them which was the then Zairean government (of Mobutu Sese Seko).

TNT: But the FDLR threat remains albeit on a smaller scale...

PN: The biggest threat with the FDLR today is the genocide ideology, what they stand for. The fact that they still think that they can come and kill people is what distinguishes them from any other armed group that you can think of. For me that’s the biggest concern. About their military capability to do that, I’m sure if they had that capability they would be here. What do you think has made them fail to do so for the last 20 years?

TNT: But they did...

PN: Well they made incursions and were kicked out. Of course to carry out terrorist activities, you may not need a large number of people to blow themselves up or to throw a grenade here and there.

But they are not a force to take on the RDF. The threat is more of what they stand for and probably those who may want to support them. That put together is probably what I would say constitutes cause for concern.

TNT: How serious do you take the possibility that there are foreign actors willing to support the FDLR?  

PN: They already have them, you’ve heard statements particularly from the region. Some people have given themselves the responsibility to be their spokespersons and somehow that gives them false confidence, but whether anybody intends to preserve them, to sanitise them, to speak for them, certainly I don’t think it will change much; they still remain FDLR, they will not change the fact that they are genocidaires because that’s what they stand for, and that won’t change the fact that we remain ready to fight them regardless of who gives them support.

TNT: A recent survey commissioned by the Senate indicated that the RDF is the most trusted institution in the country (at 96 per cent), behind only the President. There is also high regard for the RDF wherever in peacekeeping circles. How important is that to you?

PN: Well, that’s what Rwandans expect of us. It is our responsibility to serve our people the way we are expected to. There are minimum standards we must observe as the RDF, that’s what we fought for; otherwise we wouldn’t be any different from those we fought against. 

We have a pact with the people of Rwanda to protect them and serve them to the best of our ability, and it is the same case anywhere we serve as peacekeepers. That sense of responsibility has a background, it’s down to the leadership that we have but also the experience from the liberation struggle; we lost comrades and the country lost many people, all that has helped shape the values and character of the RDF.

TNT: There are former comrades who have since turned dissidents, people like Kayumba Nyamwasa... Do you feel that they betrayed the RDF and the values it stands for and do you regret that it happened?

PN: They did not only betray us as individuals and as the RDF, they also betrayed themselves and their country. But in society such people have and will always be there. 

Rwanda is a country of more than 11 million citizens, and therefore such people constitute a very small percentage of the population of Rwanda. If you are on a journey and somebody decides to jump out of the vehicle, it doesn’t mean that the vehicle stops; we’ve not only continued but we’ve continued well. We should not lose focus of what we set out to do and the journey we set out to embark on regardless of who decides to jump off the truck, they hurt themselves more than they hurt the rest of us. The fact that it happened and we are still where we are also says a lot.

TNT: Can we say that the RDF is a non-partisan institution?

PN: Yes I think we are. We are not looking at RDF in five or ten years to come. We look at RDF beyond ourselves, in 100 years and more. The people of Rwanda will always need security; the country will always need to be defended. The foundation has been laid and it’s a strong foundation.

TNT: Assuming there were elections today and the RPF loses power to an opposition party, would the RDF submit to the new government?

PN: What you should be asking is ‘what do Rwandans want’? The RDF cannot do something that is contrary to the will of the Rwandan society. We are there to serve the people. Any credible defence force should have the country’s interests at heart, and when I say that the foundation has been laid, I mean the foundation for good governance, for the survival of the Rwandan people and the nation, for posterity. We are part of that process.

We are conscious that individuals have a lifetime but nations live beyond individuals, what the RDF is doing today is to ensure that indeed the foundation for future generations is made much stronger and I haven’t seen ourselves wanting in that regard.

TNT: There are some suggestions that the RDF is what it is because of President Kagame as the Commander-in-Chief. Do you see the RDF retaining its current reputation after him?

PN: How do you find it yourself? It is true, there is the role of the leadership and this will remain. Every defence force the world over must have leadership but also loyalty. 

That loyalty is based on the recognition that you must all pull together in one direction; in the military, specifically, that’s the basis for cohesion, to have belief in your leaders and remain loyal to them and to the rest of the community. 

If we are unable to have that legacy, then we’ll have failed in our responsibilities. What we do today is not just for today but for many years to come, for 100 years ahead.

TNT: There is a perception that the RDF is led by Tutsi officers at the top, do you find that an unfair judgment considering that you have integrated many officers and men from the former government army, with some of them going on to occupy very senior positions?

PN: Perceptions will always be there no matter what and how illegitimate such perceptions are. But I think what is important for us is to be doing the right thing. Sometimes perceptions are based on previous experiences. For instance, how was this country before? We had a country where politics were sectarian and this cut across the board, including having quotas for a section of citizens, for instance the Tutsi, in job opportunities, education, etc.  Is that what is being practiced today? 

I think the answer is no. There are equal opportunities for everybody to compete. That’s what we should maintain and struggle for. Detractors have a right to come and say what they want, including nonsense. What can we do? But what matters is our policy and what we practice, and that is that the government creates equal opportunities for all its citizens, including in the military.

Nonetheless, you don’t run any professional organisation for the sake of pleasing people. In our case, anyone who qualifies find themselves in leadership positions. For instance, those who were integrated (in the RDF) were integrated with their ranks and it puts them in leadership positions.

That was unheard of before, such wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. Sceptics will always be there in society, it’s not surprising. We are not known for saying one thing and doing the other. This is who we are.

But if I may ask, supposing it was even true, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with having Tutsi officers? Is it a taboo that one cannot be one? Even the kind of thinking in itself if wrong. First of all, they should be looking at them, first and foremost, as Rwandans? But I know that such misplaced perceptions normally have a background.

TNT: But there have also been suggestions that the RDF’s policy of inclusiveness has sometimes been at the expense of justice. Some of the army genocidal government officers presumably committed crimes and there is a sense that probably not all have been held accountable for their actions...

PN: Management of society is not like Mathematics, where you know that one plus one is automatically two...This is a political issue but my view is that, what is it on the balance? You could choose to look at someone you’ve been fighting, and you say, ‘you know what, if you come out and be part of this then that will be fine with us’. 

It’s about what more do you need to invest and how much more do you need to lose before you realise that actually by having an adversary on board is better than a continuation of a conflict that’s going to cost you more in terms of lives, in terms of money, in terms of time...I think it’s about putting on the balance. 

I know there are emotions involved here but when it comes to these issues, boldness is required. As they say, peace  in itself has a cost, it is that cost that is never quantified because it’s not like buying a shirt and you know that it costs Rwf15,000. 

The cost could be indeed that sacrifice for the sake of peace. You may use the same argument to explain the decision to have a Genocide law that puts suspects under different categories. 

Do you really want one million people under key and lock? What does that mean for the labour market, how do you look after them...? you’ve got to think outside the box, whereby you say ‘you you are a mastermind, you can only be tried by the conventional courts, but you, yes you participated (in the Genocide) but because of the nature of participation we’ll put in place a ‘Gacaca’ court (community tribunal), they will try you, if you ask for forgiveness you’ll be asked to do some community work and after that you’ll be integrated into society’, also in the RDF its more or less the same thing. Is it the best approach? Maybe not. But under the circumstances we were in, I think that’s the best alternative that we could go for.

TNT: We have seen RDF bring to bear capabilities in many areas including in specialised areas like engineering and medical care during cases such as disasters and to help improve people’s lives. What is the philosophy behind this?

PN: We have assets and enablers in form of, say engineering companies, hospitals, communications...any good military force would be organised along these lines. We have capabilities that you cannot find with any other institution because we are a defence force. 

For instance, our engineers are primarily responsible for creating mobility for us, if they can create mobility for us it means they can also create it for everybody else.  

If we are to move we need roads, helipads, etc...That’s an inherent capability that we are supposed to have and which we share with the rest of the community when there is a need. Without those capabilities then we would risk being a militia force or something else. These are capabilities that we’ll continue to have, even better, the economy and means allowing.

Important also is that we are constitutionally mandated to give support particularly when we have disasters, but also in cases of fire, any natural disasters, anything that we can do. It is a thinking that’s partly rooted in our history as explained earlier on. It is our inherent responsibility.

TNT: What do you have to say about people who praise the RDF as a highly professional and disciplined force in peacekeeping missions out there but at the same time claim that it commits rights violations back home?

PN: You need to look at the level of trust Rwandans have in the RDF! Isn’t that what matters most? But there is also a clear contradiction. Are we two sets of people? As far as I’m concerned, we don’t have an RDF that’s trained to commit atrocities and an RDF that’s committed to do very good peacekeeping, its one RDF. 

When it’s time to send a unit to peacekeeping, we pick a unit the way it is, we send it, it goes does its tour of duty, comes back, another one goes.... it’s the same RDF and so the image of the RDF out there is and should be the same image as the RDF back home. But it could be that probably at times they use different units of measurements when it comes to home politics.

TNT: As a former Force Commander for UNAMID (African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur), what do you think makes our men and women in uniform stand out as exemplary peacekeepers in far flung areas?

PN: The reason is that we are consistent, whether here or abroad. In most situations, peacekeepers are known to preserve their lives before anything else. Doctrinally, it’s never been that way for the RDF. Even our approach to peacekeeping is different. 

The overriding principle is that you have to be a good soldier before you are a good peacekeeper. The emphasis is on the individual soldier, you have to be a good soldier, simple and straight  forward. Anything else is additional; it’s not the other way round. You cannot be a good peacekeeper if you are not a good soldier.

Traditional peacekeepers were such that if you have a blue helmet on your head, then it gives you immunity. For us, that’s not the case, you have to fight for your space. We have done just that.

Number two, RDF brings on board their experience, we have gone through conflicts before and have the experience not only in post-conflict management but also in nation building. There are lessons; there are things that we know that probably others do not. 

In most cases you find our peacekeepers sharing the experience they have had here, saying ‘hey, wait a minute, this one you don’t have to fight over, this one I think you can fix it like this because if it worked for us it could also probably work for you’. This comes from the background that we’ve. 

That is probably what makes them different from other peacekeepers. But our troops also have a lot to learn from other peacekeepers. This exposure has helped in the professional journey of the RDF.

TNT: Terrorism is a major threat to the world today, including around the region. How is RDF prepared to play a part in the fight against terrorism?

PN: Rwanda of course is not an island. We are part of the regional and global community. RDF is aware of the challenges posed by terrorist threats; ourselves we have had a few cases here. We work with other security organs to deal with these cases and we’ll continue to do so, some terrorist acts have successfully been averted, we are aware of these threats and remain vigilant.

TNT: Do you think our veterans receive the attention they deserve?

PN: There is still room for improvement. As RDF, we’ve been trying to put some structures in place, even at the ministerial level, to make sure that indeed due recognition is given to our veterans. I cannot elaborate more now until all the structures are in place.

Let me also mention that we have been maximising use of our Reserve Forces, who at the moment are all ex, but going forward, we are looking to broaden this pool to include people with specialised skills that we can outsource but they will have to undertake some military training. At the moment we are sorting out the legal issues involved and when that time comes, probably in the near future, more able-bodied Rwandans, who are interested, will be reservists.

TNT: Any challenges that you envision as you continue to build an even more professional defence force?

PN: The challenge is to sustain the level of confidence that Rwandans have in us and not to abuse it. We will try to do our best to increase that level of trust even further.

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