Gendarmerie: Policing Rwanda during the pre-Genocide period

In the early 1970s, the then Minister of Defence Juvenal Habyarimana, initiated the disbandment of the Police Nationale. Some officers were, however, retained and absorbed into the Garde Nationale. Majority were retrenched.
An illustration of FAR soldiers torturing suspected rebel sympathisers.  Source: Imvaho newspaper
An illustration of FAR soldiers torturing suspected rebel sympathisers. Source: Imvaho newspaper

This is the third part of a nine-part series extracted from Chapter Three 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). 

In the early 1970s, the then Minister of Defence Juvenal Habyarimana, initiated the disbandment of the Police Nationale. Some officers were, however, retained and absorbed into the Garde Nationale. Majority were retrenched.


On July 5 1973, the same minister carried out a coup d’état. After the coup, the security sector underwent further changes. Less than a year later, President Habyarimana also abolished the Garde Nationale and created the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR).


The FAR consisted of the Rwandan army and the National Gendarmerie, established on January 23, 1974. The new forces were placed under the Ministry of Defence (Minadef).


 Speculation abounds as to the reasons for the drastic changes. The first is that the banning of the National Police was part of the manoeuvres Habyarimana carried out in preparation for the coup.

The argument goes that Habyarimana anticipated resistance from officers of the National Police, at the time dominated by southerners (abanyenduga). With them out of the picture, according to the story, Habyarimana would have total control over all the armed forces.

Sure that the army was on his side because it was dominated  by northerners (abakiga), the removal of the police force set the stage for him to make his move.

Among other drastic changes, the coup also marked the end of Belgian influence in the security organs. Because Belgium identified with former President Gregoire Kayibanda’s regime, Habyarimana had started to reduce Belgian influence while still Minister of Defence.

Upon assuming power, he turned and started looking to the French for tutelage. The National Gendarmerie became fully operational in 1976, two years after its establishment, with President Habyarimana as its Chief of Staff.

It had a paramilitary formation: a police force with military capacity, prepared for armed intervention when called upon; and an armed force with law enforcement responsibilities.

This was reflected in its dual mandate of maintaining law and order and defending the homeland. Articles 43 and 44 of the January 23 Decree (of 1974) creating the gendarmerie sets out other responsibilities of the force, including military intelligence, as well as mobilising the population.

The main difference between the army and the gendarmerie was that the army’s only mission was combat. The gendarmerie had the combat mission under which it could be called upon to reinforce the army during times of war, and another relating broadly to public order, to ensure security of persons and their property.

The public order mission of the gendarmerie can be categorised under three themes: public order policing, securing strategic installations, and judicial policing. It is its dual mission that made the gendarmerie a ‘paramilitary’ force.

Relations with the Public

For the most part, members of the gendarmerie were detached and aloof from the population, and no efforts were made to build relations with them. Lack of meaningful interaction bred a general fear of the gendarmes, so much so that to ordinary people found them frightening.

According to a former officer, people used to fear approaching gendarmes, for fear of being beaten. He added:  “and it was true because we used the baton to beat suspected criminals.”

The gendarmes’ aggressive conduct instilled such fear into the minds of ordinary people that, according to a Nyamirambo resident, people coming to downtown Kigali avoided looking at the Kigali military barracks (Camp Kigali) in Kiyovu: “You had to tilt your head towards the side of CHK,” the Kigali University Teaching Hospital that is opposite the barracks in question.

In addition to aggression, members of the gendarmerie were corrupt and discriminated against ordinary members of the public. Discrimination took two forms.

First was on the basis of one’s ethnicity. Secondly, one’s region of origin easily influenced how gendarmes behaved towards them. It is important to recall that gendarmes tended to be recruited from the northern region.

An example involving the traffic police provides a succinct illustration of discriminatory behaviour. In those days, vehicle plates were assigned according to one’s prefecture of origin, with each prefecture having its distinct letters of identification; the letters had important meaning and it was easier for a gendarme on the highway to identify the origin of a vehicle and, therefore, that of the driver.

A former trader who frequented the Gitarama-Kigali highway recalls how the ‘BB’ on his plate used to cause problems for him.

 “Because of the letters I used to have a problem with Gendarmes; they could see that I am from Gitarama and that I was a Tutsi because it was on my ID card”.

According to the trader, for vehicles with BB, CB, and DB, it was virtually impossible to go past gendarmes without the driver leaving behind some money, as “there was no negotiating with them”.

“As a solution, I got a number plate of Ruhengeri Prefecture” said the trader who was almost closing business because of paying bribes.

That he could get a number plate other than the one designated for his region of origin testifies to the corruption of the period.

“I bribed some gendarmes with a lot of money and I got a car plate of Ruhengeri Prefecture.  Cars with BB, CB and DB number plates couldn’t pass without parting with some money. I gave them money many times, “bayanciye incuro nyishi.”

And when they found a trader with smuggled goods, they would arrest the person, keep the goods, and share them with their commanders. The victim would have no recourse because of fear that they might be killed.

It was usually worse if the driver was a Tutsi. Sometime in 1991 two friends were arrested in two separate cars for illegal parking. They were taken to the criminal investigations department.

Once there, a senior gendarme ordered his subordinate: “Uyu Muhutu nimumureke, uyu tumugumane (let the Hutu go, but let’s hold on to this one)”.

For the man who was retained at the police he said; “It hurt me a lot because I felt that I was being treated unfairly based on something I don’t have any control over…that hurts a lot.”

Generally, it was easy to find oneself in detention over a personal conflict or misunderstanding with someone over some small matter.  They would brag about having a relative in a powerful position and would call them “to teach you a lesson (munyumvishirize)”, in what in some respects was a system of personalized justice (igitugu n’icyenewabo).

Misconduct by gendarmes thrived within this context of a fearful public. In general, Rwandans were afraid of anyone in an armed forces’ uniform, a fear borne out of public beatings and humiliations.

Chadrack who in 1991 was an 18-year old taxi conductor, demonstrates: “if you said something he (a gendarme) didn’t want to hear, you could end up with a slap.’ It seemed as if the authorities condoned the misconduct because “you wouldn’t know where to report him”.

In their area of authority, “when they stopped you, sometimes you would park the car and run away or the passengers would get out of the car and run”. For Chadrack, it is striking how people take rights for granted nowadays: “people being aware of their rights, is a very recent phenomenon (abanyarwanda bajijutse vuba cyane)”.

He illustrates: “Rwandans during those times feared anyone in a uniform. It was normal for a gendarme to beat you”.

Then there was what was popularly known as Umukwabo wa Mirindi (Mirindi’s patrols). Mirindi was a much-feared Sergeant-Major who used to conduct regular patrols in Kigali. He was known to rough up ordinary people.

Those who crossed paths with him during the patrols would have their heads shaved as some kind of humiliation, after which they were taken to prison.

One’s encounter with Mirindi usually ended with a beating or stint in jail or both. Some people fled Kigali for fear of Mirindi. Mirindi’s patrols were most notorious right before and after 1990.

The next part will be published on Thursday

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