Agathe Uwiringiyimana: A heroine unfortunate to have lived in evil era

Back in the 40s and 50s, Juvénal Ntibashirakandi and Xaverine Nyirantibangwe from the then remote Gikore Sector and Nyaruhengeri Commune, now in Gisagara District, begot eight children.
Agathe Uwingiriyimana’s big vision for the country was cut shot just as she was about to take the mantle of leadership in government. File.
Agathe Uwingiriyimana’s big vision for the country was cut shot just as she was about to take the mantle of leadership in government. File.

Back in the 40s and 50s, Juvénal Ntibashirakandi and Xaverine Nyirantibangwe from the then remote Gikore Sector and Nyaruhengeri Commune, now in Gisagara District, begot eight children.

They never imagined that one of their two daughters, Agathe Uwiringiyimana, born in 1953, would one day be the most powerful woman in the land. 

Initially a high school teacher, Uwiringiyimana was propelled into the political limelight in the 1990s when the country embraced multi-party system.

She joined the then opposition party, Republican Democratic Movement (MDR).

According to Jean Marie Vianney Uwihanganye, a former close political ally to the lady turned national hero in the Ingenzi category, her political prowess was drawn from her fearlessness in expressing herself, even when speaking out could get her killed.

Humble beginning

Life was difficult for the family, whose head–her father–eked out a living as a shamba-boy at the home of a local leader.

According to family members, Ntibashirakandi’s work included digging and fermenting banana beer (urwagwa) to fend for his large family.

Gaspard Hangimana, Uwiringiyimana’s elder brother, said she always topped her class in academics.

Uwiringiyimana excelled in Primary Leaving Examinations and was sent to Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, a Catholic girls’ school in Kigali, where she obtained a certificate in Mathematics and Chemistry.

After high school, she briefly taught in Kibuye, Western Province, before she proceeded to the then National University of Rwanda, majoring in Chemistry.

Before her graduation in 1975, she had already married fellow student Ignace Barahira. The couple was later retained by the university as lecturers. 

Joining political landscape

During the resurrection of MDR in 1991, the party assigned three mobilisers in each of the then 10 prefectures.

In Butare prefecture, the party delegates included Jean Kambanda, who would later become prime minister of a government that exterminated the Tutsi in the 1994 Genocide.

The party was registered in 1991, with Uwiringiyimana joining a few months later. It is here that she met Jean Marie Vianney Uwihanganye and they started working closely.

“What motivated us were not political positions, rather, we wanted change, which was badly needed at the time,” Uwihanganye, who has since relocated to Burundi where he works as the country director of Engen, said by telephone.

Uwiringiyimana quickly gained popularity, and all teams going for mobilisation in the countryside started requesting her help

“She was a very eloquent public speaker and had a unique way of getting her point across, which endeared her to the masses,” said Uwihanganye.

Later on, MDR organised grassroots elections and at the onset, it was clear for Kambanda, who wanted the party leadership for the strategic Butare prefecture, that he would not compete with Uwiringiyimana.

She beat Kambanda, gaining 300 to the latter’s 50 votes.

“I am sure Kambanda’s disdain toward her took root from this humiliating defeat,” said Uwihanganye, who later succeeded Uwiringiyimana in MDR’s Butare leadership.

In 1992, Uwiringiyimana’s charisma became obvious even to the now under-pressure national government. She was appointed Minister for Primary and Secondary Education.

During her tenure in the ministry, she tried to abolish the ethnic quota system in public schools, which worsened the enmity the extremist Hutu had toward her.

Her brother recounts how one day, assailants surprised her at her Kabeza home and tried to kill her with a grenade.

They stormed her living room, but she escaped through the window, injuring her leg in the process.

Hostilities were aggravated after Kambanda and some party members created a radical faction of the party–MDR Power.

In July 1993, Uwiringiyimana became the first woman prime minister in the country.

The “Broad-based Transitional Government” that brought together MRND and the opposition, including the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) was scheduled to swear in late in March 1994.

Faustin Twagiramungu (MDR) was designated to become prime minister, and Uwiringiyimana was to return to cabinet as minister. But the swearing in did not take place.

How she was killed

Uwihanganye said on April 2, MDR had started an initiative to approach senior army officers for support, after it became clear that the broad-based government would never take oath.

All party representatives at prefecture level had a task to approach officers originating from their respective prefecture to sell to them the idea that would lead to force the government’s hand.

For instance, Uwihanganye said, on April 2, 17 officers met in Uwiringiyimana’s home in Kiyovu.

“They promised cooperation but a conclusive course of action was yet to be hammered out,” he said. “At first, she didn’t know about Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane crash because she had boycotted listening to radios, citing regime officials using the media to insult her person.

“I told her about the development and advised her to leave. She declined, saying she was not better off than the innocent people being killed across the city,” recalls Uwihanganye.

She then started to find out how she could reach the national radio to call for restraint, in her capacity as head of government. 

Uwihanganye lost contact with her at midnight.

Sources say Uwiringiyimana and her husband had managed to reach a UN compound on April 7, 1994, but after scuffles between the presidential guards and her security detail, she came out to avoid bloodshed.

She was killed together with her husband and the Belgian peacekeepers assigned to her security.

Sources say Uwiringiyimana’s five children fled to Switzerland.

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