Policing pre-Genocide Rwanda: The period of 1990 to 1994

The period from 1990 to 1994 saw a serious decline and eventual collapse of institutions of justice, law and order. The context of war provided a convenient environment for the government to persecute its perceived enemies: the political opposition and the Tutsi community, both of which were judged to be guilty, respectively, of opposing the ruling party and being agents (ibyitso) of the Rwanda Patriotic Front rebels.
Relatives of former premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana lay a wreath on her tomb during a past Heroes Day. (John Mbanda)
Relatives of former premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana lay a wreath on her tomb during a past Heroes Day. (John Mbanda)

This is the fourth 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). 

The period from 1990 to 1994 saw a serious decline and eventual collapse of institutions of justice, law and order.

The context of war provided a convenient environment for the government to persecute its perceived enemies: the political opposition and the Tutsi community, both of which were judged to be guilty, respectively, of opposing the ruling party and being agents (ibyitso) of the Rwanda Patriotic Front rebels.

Following the RPF attack, some fusion occurred between the gendarmerie and the army. Soldiers started performing roles hitherto reserved for gendarmes. For instance, it became increasingly common for soldiers to go into people’s houses to search for guns.

Tutsi households were particularly targeted during such operations because they were suspected of either hiding guns intended to reach the RPF or its fighters. A respondent with personal experience recounts what happened to him after an event to celebrate the death of the RPF’s military commander, Major-General Fred Rwigema soon after the attack:

“At the event were prefecture, army and gendarmerie leaders. The official speech was about searching for all ‘traitors’ and ‘spies’ who ‘hide inyenzi and the knives that kill the Hutu.

“After the speech, they sent people to my house, along with the Burgomaster and six soldiers to check if I didn’t have guns. Because I was a prominent trader, they used to say that I had brought a lorry full of guns for the RPF. “They came and searched the whole house and even in the ceiling but they did not find anything. I continued undergoing that harassment until the genocide.”

Niyongira, a journalist, writes of a prominent case of collusion between the police and the gendarmerie.

He narrates how when the interahamwe militia set about physically assaulting her, the neighbours of Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the Prime Minister at the time and member of MDR, tried to come to her rescue by alerting the gendarmerie and military both of which had check points in the vicinity.

Both responded by emphasising that whatever was happening at her residence had nothing to do with them (dufite position zacu; ibindi ntibitureba).

In 1992, another journalist, Gaspard Gasasira, reported that the militia and the gendarmerie soldiers had beaten and wounded youth activists of the MDR political party along with other Tutsi youth, forcing them to flee into the Burundian embassy.

And when interahamwe attacked people, neither the police nor the gendarmerie would intervene. Moreover, the militias were equipped with military-issue weaponry, although it was illegal for civilians to carry assault weapons.

In terms of law enforcement, the authority of militias even supplanted that of Burgomasters. In the former Nyakabanda cell of Kicukiro commune, militias were harassing Tutsis and people with origins in the southern province, Abanyenduga.

The victims were being forcefully evicted from the cell and told to find somewhere else to live. This prompted the Burgomaster to call a cell security meeting to find a solution to this persecution. The meeting took place on October 12, 1992 and was reported in the December issue of the Kinyamateka, a Catholic Church owned newspaper.

A woman in attendance informed the Burgomaster of a systematic plan orchestrated by the militia to kill the Tutsi and Banyenduga (people from the south) living in that cell. In turn, the Burgomaster asked a member of the militia present in that same meeting if that allegation was indeed true.

His response was cold and contemptuous: “If we said so, then be it. Let them take the case to the courts.”

Not only did the militia operating with impunity suggest support from higher authorities beyond the Burgomaster, they also believed that the courts would be complicit in producing a favourable outcome.

Antoine Rwagahirima’s reports in the Kinyamateka strongly suggest that by January 1992 key institutions of the state which were responsible for the protection of citizens – the army, gendarmerie, local authorities, and the courts – had effectively either become overpowered by the militia or were conniving with them.

For the police, it was commonly understood that when the militia members were harassing members of opposition parties, the gendarmes remained indifferent. 

However, the gendarmes would intervene to protect militia members in situations where they were outnumbered and cornered by members of opposition parties. Here was a case of selective application of the principle of political neutrality by the police, the bedrock of police professionalism.

Indeed, the active participation of the security organs in the harassment and killings is similarly documented. When militia members attacked Tutsis in Bugesera in January 1992 they did so under the supervision of FAR soldiers.

Gasasira noted that when people saw the militia being accompanied by soldiers, some people were astonished to learn that the killings were official business “Can you imagine these things [killings] are official, even the soldiers are involved!”

The victims had been accused of being RPF spies; the survivors were bundled off to jail.

In 1991, gendarmerie officers were deployed across the country to man roadblocks to control the movement of people and ensure that inyenzi-inkontanyi were not infiltrating the country.

Imanirabaruta observed that these operations exhibited serious indiscipline, intimidation, and violence. Soldiers exploited the opportunity to loot shops and rape women.

In one case gendarmerie officers went to a shop at night and demanded that the shopkeeper give them money, “bring money or we kill you”. The officers ransacked the shop. In another incident, a gendarmerie officer raped a woman in front of her children, husband, and houseboy.

After the war started in 1990, every adult person seeking to go past a roadblock had to show their identity cards to gendarmerie officers manning it. This was especially enforced for travellers from one prefecture to another.

For those who had either forgotten or lost their identity cards and were yet to get a replacement, gendarmerie officers would solicit cash to allow them to go past.

According to the journalist Imanirabaruta, the gendarmes were often angry to find that all the people arriving at the roadblocks had carried their identity cards. One officer was heard expressing his frustration: “I’m saddened that they all have their IDs (birambabaje kubona bose bazifite)”.

The officer was in reality sad at the lack of an opportunity to extort money from the people. Angry at the conduct of the officers, ordinary people pleaded with higher authorities to do something: “We ask the leaders of the gendarmerie to control their officers at roadblocks.

If not, the roadblocks will only serve to harass passengers. The gendarmerie officers asking for money from passengers dishonour their work.” While gendarmes saw their deployment at roadblocks as an opportunity for making a quick buck, their conduct soured their relationship with the general public.

From the foregoing account, it is clear that the security organs in pre-genocide Rwanda were not only prone to being influenced in their decisions by political leaders and other influential people, they were also known to be corrupt and to practice discrimination in the way they responded to the needs or problems experienced by different sections of the general public.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that collectively and individually, they and their members played such significant roles in the execution of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and mass murder of opponents of the government and members of the Hutu community who would not participate in violating the rights of members of the Tutsi community.

Next part will be published on Monday.

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