Policing a post-Genocide society: The Police ‘Communale’

Toward the end of the 1990s, the leadership saw the old model of policing as outdated, opting for the approach of involving the community in policing as a more sustainable way to ensure security. 
Communal Police recruits training at PTS Gishari in 1997. (Source: RNP archives)
Communal Police recruits training at PTS Gishari in 1997. (Source: RNP archives)

This is the seventh part of a nine-part series extracted from chapter four 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). 

Toward the end of the 1990s, the leadership saw the old model of policing as outdated, opting for the approach of involving the community in policing as a more sustainable way to ensure security. 

These ideas gained much traction in post-genocide Rwanda where the new government was determined to police society differently from the way it had been done before, whereby both society and the police were detached from each other.

It was felt at the highest levels of government that a professional police force needed the confidence of the people in whose name it carried out its duties. Furthermore, the leadership saw the need for a police force that worked for the people in ways that would encourage people to work for it and to see it as their police.

In that way, they would be incentivised to facilitate its work, such as providing it with the information it needed to perform its functions effectively. This would contrast sharply with the pre-genocide policing model in which, according to an officer who had served in the pre-war gendarmerie, “there was too much of a military element”.

However, the military element was one thing; that the Force remained too small to cover the whole country was quite another. In December 1994, one month after passing out the first batch of gendarmes, the then vice president, Paul Kagame, initiated the creation of the communal police.

While this might suggest a recreation of the pre-Genocide order in which the gendarmerie and communal Police were key actors in policing, this was not the case. As early as 1995, Lt. Col. Cees de Rover could point out that “both the Gendarmerie and the Communal Police have ceased to exist in their original form.”

A long serving veteran provided some insight into the thinking behind the changes: “There’s always a strong link between the political ideology of those in power and the conduct of the institutions such as the police.”

In practice, therefore, the decision to narrow the physical gap between the police and the community was both about turning the policing function into a societal function and, ultimately, differentiating the new Rwanda from the old one.

The story of the founding of the communal police is emblematic of the story of post-genocide Rwanda. First, there were no financial resources in the government’s coffers to fund the exercise. Secondly, within the returnee community there was not much experience with starting such a force.

Nonetheless, the responsibility was assigned and the necessary political backing from the government guaranteed. According to a source close to the events, the vice president’s instructions to those tasked with the assignment were: “Tell me what support you need, but I want you to do it.”

However, resources remained a major constraint on governmental action. De Rover’s 1995 assessment of both the gendarmerie and communal police revealed the nature of the context in which efforts were being made to build law and order institutions:

“As is the case of the gendarmerie, the Rwandan Government is not in a position, at this moment, to fund the provision of even basic material resources which would allow the communal police to function adequately.”

That, however, was far from being the only problem facing the government. Many potential recruits had to be vetted from among a population, a significant part of which had participated in the genocide in some form. 

Care also had to be exercised in trying to re-integrate officers from the pre-genocide communal police, for many had blood on their hands.

However, when the announcement was made that recruitment for the communal police was underway and the recruitment drive covered all 140 communes of the country, all sorts of people responded to the call to join up. 

The gacaca process had not yet been set in motion, and so many killers remained at large and unidentified. At the time, the priority was to recruit a critical number of individuals to get the Force off the ground.

In the process, large numbers of genocide suspects joined and then the force had to deal with ejecting them each time members of the public identified them. One outcome of these circumstances was that they rendered the creation of a stable and strong force whose service would be bound by bonds of trust extremely difficult.

Several challenges emerged during the early days. First, a suitable location for training had to be identified. Eventually a former isolation centre for tuberculosis sufferers was identified in Gishari, eastern Province, currently one of the RNP’s training schools. Next was the issue of resources. There was no dedicated budget for recruiting and training communal police.

Eventually a donor conference was convened to discuss how they could assist the country. By this time the UNDP had shown a keenness to support the establishment of a civilian police force. The conference managed to raise some money for the purpose.

Thereafter, other donors came on board. Through their liaison office, which preceded the opening of the British High Commission, the UK government offered support. Next were the Japanese. With the question of accommodation remained outstanding until the Netherlands government offered to build accommodation in all 140 communes.

The support made it possible, among other things, to erect buildings roofed with the most economical iron sheets available on the local market. Thereafter, training for the recruits could start. While instructors from the military could conduct field tactics and drills, assistance had to be sought for the policing component of the training.

For this, the government looked to other African countries, including its neighbours. One of the first African countries to provide training support was Uganda, which sent police instructors. 

The UK came up with the resources to take care of the instructors’ allowances. In mid-1995, Kagame who had initiated the process launched the Gishari Training School, opening the way for the initial six-month training.

Command and control

Once the requisite structures, including for command and control had been put in place, some army officers were selected to join the police. In 1995, some were sent to Kibuli Police Training School in Uganda for a six-month training. 

In 1998, another group headed for Zimbabwe. These officers went on to become department heads and commanders in the new leadership structures of the communal police force.

Under the new system the local police commander reported to the Prefecture Police Commander (PPC). The posting of soldiers to lead the police sought to inject some of the values for which the military was known, including discipline, and also to provide the new force with a particular sense of direction, away from the bad practices of the past, such as discrimination on grounds of regionalism and ethnicity.

With the Force in place, questions arose about the tools and equipment it would need to perform its functions. For example, commanders needed means of transport to facilitate monitoring of operations.

It is important to recall that under the old, pre-genocide system, the communal police ‘belonged’ to the burgomaster who could assign them responsibilities, some of a personal nature, as he saw fit.

Even within the new system some burgomasters continued to conduct themselves in line with that mentality of looking at the police as their force. However, the times had changed; the Force belonged to the communities it was meant to serve.

In all this, efforts were needed to change the mindset of both the leaders and the people they led. For ordinary people especially, it was crucial that they don’t transpose the image of the previous communal police to the new police force. In shifting mindset, symbols matter.

A decision was, thus ,made that the new Force would wear blue uniforms, not the green won by its predecessor. In addition, it was important that the new Force was not seen to support or promote impunity. Consequently, if any officer conducted themselves in ways that broke the law, punishment was swift.

However, the size of the Police Communale, at only 500 men and a few women, posed problems. First, the posting of four officers to a commune left huge policing gaps, as the minimum number required was 10 per commune. To compound the problem, the influx of returnees effectively increased the need for a more sizeable force.

During deployment, it emerged that some officers resisted going to their home communes for reasons that were initially not well understood. It then emerged that those resisting attempts to post them to their home communes were usually participants in the genocide who feared being identified, arrested, and charged.

Also, given funding constraints, salaries came irregularly. For some months, police officers earned no salary. Indeed, for some time the salary issue was a major constraint on the government’s ability to recruit police officers to meet the rapidly increasing demand for law enforcement.