The Liberation Struggle and the making of Rwandan peacekeepers

Rwanda is the sixth largest troop contributing country in international peacekeeping missions. The country boasts more than 5,000 peacekeepers in various hotspots across the world, including in Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Rwanda Defence Forces peacekeepers patrol a street in Central African Republic early this year. (Courtesy)
Rwanda Defence Forces peacekeepers patrol a street in Central African Republic early this year. (Courtesy)

Rwanda is the sixth largest troop contributing country in international peacekeeping missions. The country boasts more than 5,000 peacekeepers in various hotspots across the world, including in Central African Republic and South Sudan.

It is now 10 years since the country first deployed troops to international peacekeeping missions. That was in August 2004 when the top brass of the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) saw off a contingent of 150 troops as it headed off to Darfur, where a marauding militia, the Janjaweed, were blamed for the death of thousands of unarmed civilians.

With Rwanda holding the July 2014 presidency for the UN Security Council, Kigali has announced it will seek to revitalise global action to make international peacekeeping more effective.

When Rwanda was plunged into one of the worst genocides ever recorded in human history, in 1994, the United Nations Security Council voted to pull out the overstretched, small and ill-equipped UN peacekeeping force in the country at the time – instead of reinforcing it to stop the massacres – leaving the targeted civilians at the mercy of a brutal militia group, the Interahamwe, and the genocidal government army, the FAR.

By the time the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) fought their way from their strongholds in the northern part of the country and seized power, effectively bringing to an end the Genocide against the Tutsi on July 4, 1994,  more than a million Rwandans had been slaughtered in a record 100 days.

Yet only ten years later Rwanda became the first country to respond to international calls for peacekeepers in Darfur. 

Since then, the country’s contribution to peacekeeping operations around the world has been on an upward trend, with world leaders, rights crusaders and host communities, increasingly acknowledging  the efforts by the Rwandan peacekeepers to restore peace, security and harmony.

Indeed the country has also held senior peacekeeping command positions, with the current RDF Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Patrick Nyamvumba, at one time serving as the Force Commander of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (Unamid).

‘Longstanding doctrine’

Speaking to The New Times ahead of tomorrow’s 20th Liberation Anniversary, Gen. Nyamvumba attributed the RDF officers and men’s distinguished service in international peacekeeping to the defence force’s longstanding doctrine.

“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. Our approach to peacekeeping is different,” Gen. Nyamvumba said.

He added: “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.”

The peacekeepers, Gen. Nyamvumba added, bring on board their experience of conflict as well as experience in post-conflict management and nation-building.  

“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,’” he said.

“This comes from the background that we’ve. That is probably what makes them different from other peacekeepers.”

In Darfur, besides peacekeeping operations, RDF servicemen and women have helped warring communities talk over their differences and find amicable solutions to their disputes, and helped build schools and make energy-saving stoves for vulnerable communities.

In Central African Republic, the peacekeepers are lauded for risking their lives by disarming bands of rampaging militiamen and opening a 700-kilometre route for humanitarian supplies and goods from Cameroon to the capital Bangui in January 2014.  

And, from Haiti to South Sudan, Rwandan military and Police peacekeepers have introduced Rwanda’s traditional Umuganda (community clean-up) exercise besides actions of bravery designed to safeguard civilians.

Unwritten pact with people 

Gen. Nyamvumba said RDF, whether serving home or in peacekeeping missions away from home, are keen to observe an unwritten pact with the people they serve.

“That sense of responsibility is down to the leadership that we have and 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.”

In a separate interview, Defence minister James Kabarebe echoed the same sentiments, pointing to the discipline and doctrine that have been inculcated into the RDF over the years.  

“It’s about how you grow the force, how you prepare your force, how you train them, how you administer, how you command...the character you inculcate into the individual within the force.”

“RDF is a force that, in war time, does its job perfectly; in peace time, it does its job perfectly well contributing to socio-economic development; in international peacekeeping missions it does its job perfectly well...

“It’s a force that is able to operate in different environments under difficult circumstances and a force that sustains itself with meagre logistical support.”

Sheik Omar Khalfan, professor of international relations at the College of Arts and Humanities, University of Rwanda, welcomed the government’s focus on international peacekeeping during Rwanda’s UN Security Council presidency for the month of July.

“Looking back at our experiences during the Genocide, how the UN abandoned us at the time by withdrawing peacekeepers, how Rwanda picked itself up and rebuilt and actually started to send peacekeepers for international missions, we’ve a great deal of experience to share,” Sheik Khalfan told The New Times yesterday.

“Our history has shaped our men and women in uniform into who they are today and I believe they are a true reflection of Rwanda of today,” he said.

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