Policing the Rwandan colony

The Belgian colonial administration introduced European models of policing to Rwanda. Under Colonial Law of April 21, 1925, the territory of Rwanda-Urundi would henceforth be administratively appended to, and subject to, the laws governing Belgian Congo. 
FP’s special unit of Maintien et Retablissement de l’Odre Public. Source: Imvaho Nshya archives.
FP’s special unit of Maintien et Retablissement de l’Odre Public. Source: Imvaho Nshya archives.

For the next four and a half weeks, every Monday and Thursday, The New Times will be publishing, in nine series, excerpts from 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) chronicling the history of policing in Rwanda from the colonial times to the present. Excerpts will cover the various policing organs that have performed the policing function in Rwanda: Force Publique, Police Territoriale, Police Nationale, Police Communale, Gendarmerie, and the emergence of the RNP in 2000. This first instalment, extracted from chapter two, discusses the policing function during the colonial period. 

The Belgian colonial administration introduced European models of policing to Rwanda. Under Colonial Law of April 21, 1925, the territory of Rwanda-Urundi would henceforth be administratively appended to, and subject to, the laws governing Belgian Congo. The political head of Rwanda-Urundi would carry the title of vice-governor general. 

The same law also provided that the Congolese armed force known as Force Publique (FP) du Congo Belge, would take over the functions of policing in the newly incorporated territories.

The FP’s mission was to maintain public order, defend the territory, and restore public tranquillity in crisis situations. The mission provides an insight into what policing was about at the time: Territorial defence and enforcement of public order. 

The dual mandate of the FP meant that it was simultaneously an army and a police force, which cast it in the mould of gendarmerie paramilitary forces. 

Whereas the law establishing the FP in Rwanda-Urundi allowed for the enlistment of the natives of the two territories, in practice things worked differently. 

The FP recruited policemen (no women) along racial and class lines. The Officer corps was reserved solely for the Belgians. Congolese soldiers were allowed in the second category of Non-Commissioned Officers, which also included Belgians who did not qualify for the first category. 

Then there was the class for les hommes de troupe, which was wholly made up of Congolese soldiers. As for the natives of Rwanda-Urundi, they could enlist only fraudulently, and even then, in the third and lowest category of policemen. 

Underlying the establishment of an alien force for public order policing was the belief that the natives could revolt against the colonial administration. Preoccupation with crisis prevention therefore dictated the building of a force intended for controlling and suppressing the population. Nonetheless, useful though it was to the colonial administration, this approach to policing alienated the natives. 

High levels of indiscipline and gross misconduct defined the character of the Force Publique. Congolese troops acquired a reputation for theft, looting, and rape. Occasionally, they would be found destroying crops belonging to the locals on the basis that the natives did not abide by the requirements to plant certain crops as determined by the authorities.  

Language barrier

Then there was the issue of communication. There was little mutual comprehension between the Congolese troops who spoke Lingala and Kiswahili, and locals in Rwanda-Urundi who spoke Kinyarwanda and Kirundi. 

Locals who felt victimised could not run to the FP for protection. First, the forces were the main source of the victimisation. Secondly, even if that had not been the case, mutual comprehension was necessary for victims to convey the nature of the injustice. For the population of Rwanda-Urundi, this was double jeopardy. 

Writing in the prominent newspaper of the time, Kinyamateka of April 1, 1958, a Rwandan native Mparabanyi John Nicolas, who had gained experience as a miner in the Congo, spoke for many locals: 

“I wonder if Rwanda cannot have its own armed forces, as do other countries. It is sad for me to be prevented from joining the FP because I am a Rwandan. They used to reject our applications saying that no Rwandan or Burundian could become fit and we did not have force (physical strength). Yet we are taken to work in mines where more energy is needed.”

In justifying the exclusion of Rwandans from the armed forces, the colonial authorities were acting on the advice of missionaries. Monsignor Classe argued that Rwandans, raised on milk, were too frail to make good soldiers. These views were grounded in colonial myths about ethnic groups, with some said to belong to the martial races or tribes and others not.

That they had arrived in Rwanda much earlier than the Belgian colonial administration, the missionaries had long been considered as close to the population. For that reason the colonial administration sought their collaboration in general and in the selection of recruits for the territorial police, in particular. 

Rigours of joining Force

They were decisive in determining who got what privileges and who to be denied. 

Those joining the Force Publique were sent by the missionaries who conducted entry exams and, in seconding someone, provided backing buttressed by the weight of the church. 

Whoever ended up on the wrong side of the missionaries would have the Force Publique to contend with. So extensive was their power backed up by an imposing alien force. 

The missionaries had occupied the void created by the destruction of traditional authority. Where ordinary people could seek employment from traditional authorities such as chiefs, colonialism removed this authority to grant favours from, first the Mwami, and then his subordinates, the chiefs. 

This clientship system was interrupted by the colonial regime competing with traditional authorities for the loyalty of the population. 

Recalcitrant chiefs were fired and replaced with those who were willing to pledge allegiance to the new order. Chiefs who remained lukewarm towards the colonial authorities would be harassed and intimidated by the police: “We could use the excuse that they were not collecting the required taxes to arrest them.”

The introduction of wage labour further eroded the traditional clientship system where a client had depended on their patron for survival.

Many people sought employment as a result to enable them to pay the various taxes imposed on them such as the body and property taxes. Those owning cows needed money for the elephant grass to feed their cows; yet others were overwhelmed by the colonial demands and fled to colonies not ruled by the Belgians, mainly to Uganda and Tanzania. 

With the chiefs and sub-chiefs tasked with the soft elements of implementing the colonial edits, it was the Force Publique that enforced these demands on the population. 

‘La Police Territoriale’

In response to widespread dissatisfaction with the Force Publique, on February 12, 1949, the colonial administration decreed, through ordinance number 21-22, the establishment of a new police force: La Police Territoriale. In style and substance, the new force would be different from its predecessor in at least two respects. 
First, the Force Publique’s dual mandate was replaced with a single mission of law enforcement: maintaining law and order and enforcing laws. The new force therefore assumed the traditional roles of policing. 
No longer tasked with policing duties, the Force Publique retained its mission of territorial defence. However, they could be called upon during moments of crisis when suppression was deemed necessary, as was the case during the violence of the transition to independence. 
Second, the new force symbolised and signalled a change in disposition. For one thing, an indigenous force comprising natives of Rwanda-Urundi replaced an alien one of Congolese. 
Also, while allowing for mutual assistance and collaboration in emergency situations, the emergence of the Police Territoriale marked the first official separation of the police from the army, with the former having its own independent command and control structure.
According to the list of chefferies and sous-chefferies of Rwanda-Urundi released by the Belgian Ministry of Colonies on December 31, 1956, it appears that the size of the population in a territory determined the number of chefs and sous-chefs assigned to work there. 
Save for Kibuye, with seven chefferies, the remaining nine territories had local leadership assigned in proportion to population size. 
Nyanza with the largest population at 83,260 adult males, had eight chefferies; Astrida with 71,849 adult males, had seven chefferies. At the other end with four chefferies each were Shangugu and Kibungu, with populations of 33,672 and 34,879, respectively. The remaining territories of Rwanda were Ruhengeri, Biumba, Kibuye, Gitarama, Kigali, and Kisenyi.