20 December 2012

Rwanda: President Paul Kagame Reminisces Liberation Journey

Photo: The East African
President Paul Kagame (file photo).

The RPF has evolved from the combative and coherent movement that stood up to all the odds, to a set up that is able to effect transformation. The party has made it possible for people of different backgrounds to be a significant part of the nation building process - H.E. Paul Kagame, December 2012.

On two separate occasions, Privat Rutazibwa and Prof. Paul Rutayisire, both historians, as well as journalist Emmanuel Rushingabigwi interviewed H.E. Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda and Chairman of the RPF-Inkotanyi, about the party's history, the liberation struggle, and Rwanda's on-going journey towards a developed and dignified nation.


Could you tell us how RANU was born as well as the relationship between RANU and the RPF?

Some of the people involved in the birth of RPF had earlier on created the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity ( RANU). It was a case of one thing transforming into another; with some new people joining others to form something different but related to the original one. The transformation has a somewhat long history because when we joined the war for the liberation of Uganda, we already had plans of our own for the years ahead. We did not join as RANU members; although we knew the organisation and were aware of our link to it. We went in as individuals with ideas of how to influence later events in our own country. It was like a continuation of RANU's way of thinking.

The difference between RANU and RPF was that the former lacked the clarity that characterised RPF and our struggle later. This clarity came gradually during the transformation from RANU to RPF.

Also, RANU was still in its infancy, it didn't have a clear vision and had not made the necessary reforms. RPF's contribution which is reflected in its present name was to bring together people with different ideas and ideologies to create a unified movement with a clear vision and mission. This was the origin of the very apt word "Umuryango"; the family that brings people together for the common good of Rwandans.

As the RPF took shape, it acquired an inclusive ideology, giving everyone equal opportunities and holding nobody back. This was a significant development, which is also the key differentiator between the RPF and RANU, although it is possible that RANU may eventually have developed in that direction. However, from the outset RPF took on this ideological approach in all aspects of its thinking and activities.

When war started in Uganda, there was the current President's party, the Uganda Patriotic Movement as well as other parties like the Uganda People's Congress and the Democratic Party which featured in the 1980-1981 elections. What we had in mind when we joined the war in Uganda was to eventually do something that would be purely Rwandan after building our own capacity. Such opportunities were born out of positive developments in Uganda.

Fred Rwigema took the lead in 1976 when he joined FRONASA in Tanzania, and I joined him at the beginning of 1979. Later, we both joined the National Resistance Movement [NRM] in their liberation war. While there, we deliberately took part in recruiting young Rwandans wanting to join the army. This took some time because of the nature of the war in Uganda.

What political lessons did Rwandans learn from the NRM/NRA during that time? What role did the officers and other soldiers play in the founding of the RPF and how did they interact with civilians in that task?

Both civilian and military institutions require organisation. The good thing is that the different struggles we went through taught us that there isn't much difference between military and civilian work.

Coordination of the two wings was easy because we had military and civilian leaders and the RPF was like an umbrella organization which brought the two together. When you examine other struggles to find out what made them succeed or fail, you will find it rooted in how that particular organisation succeeded in bringing together these two aspects, merging military and civilian elements under a common umbrella, informed by a common agenda. Because of the experience we all shared as refugees, bringing the two together was not difficult because we shared a common vision.

Clearly the pressure to return home was enormous. When were plans to launch the liberation struggle hatched? What kind of preliminary work was done?

It was difficult because every action was carried out in secrecy. Some were carried out by the military, others by civilians. There was communication even with people outside Uganda because there too, many activities were ongoing. We built networks extending to Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Belgium, Canada and the United States. They were everywhere, and they mainly concentrated on political mobilisation.

We made issues facing Rwandans known through various activities such as traditional dances, songs, and other efforts to raise awareness and prepare people to support RPF actions. This was done effectively and people were very active especially towards the end of 1988 and 1989, and the momentum was maintained. We did things very carefully.


Eventually time came and plans to launch the liberation struggle had to be finalised. How did this unfold?

At the time we were both monitoring the situation and trying to speed up our activities. We reached a stage where Fred Rwigema was scheduled to go to the US for a course; he was to attend the school to which I eventually went.

When they told Fred that he was going to the US for studies, on the last day before his departure, we talked and I made him understand that he should not go. Initially, he had problems understanding how we were going to justify the change. We agreed that he should stay and carry on with the organising, which was at a very advanced stage. The other leaders were aware of this. We had even stored some guns in various locations, and moved other weapons near the border, close to Rwempasha.

So, we agreed that I would leave for further studies instead and Fred stayed to continue organising. We were in close communication until D-day. When it started, I knew the time was right and that I would join later at whatever stage.


What informed your decision to abandon studies and join the struggle? Was it to fill the gap left behind by the unfortunate death of Gen. Fred Rwigema?

No, I left for the US with the full knowledge that I would come back immediately the war started. It had nothing to do with Fred being alive or dead. We were in constant contact, I was kept informed of every development up to the last minute and I had already decided to abandon my course and join them. Actually, I was informed about his death around the 5th or 6th of October but the news found me getting ready to leave; I had already packed my bags having informed the school about my departure on the 1st.

Could you briefly tell us about the analysis you made of the situation on the battlefield upon your arrival and the decisions that were taken?

I reached Kagitumba at dawn. The first thing that struck me was the large number of injured people and nobody there to provide a clear picture of the situation. I found a very desperate state of affairs; you could see it in people's eyes without being told. It was a desperate situation, like nothing I had experienced before.

Supplies were scattered on the tarmac in Kagitumba. Injured combatants were lying by the road-side; others had occupied all the houses in the area. When I arrived, some people had even started deserting. But I told myself that I was deeply involved and that something had to be done immediately. I did not think that the alternative was to stop there, or to tell each one of them to find their way home as some had already done.

What were your immediate plans?

The first thing was to clear the supplies from the road. We had to find a store, and then build a tent in a discreet location.

Next was to remove up to 500 wounded young men and women and take them to Uganda because there was a possibility of them getting killed or targeted if they remained there. Then I had to find people who were still fresh and a group was formed to send to Gatuna. This didn't happen as fast as we wished because they had been deceived that there was an army wanting to join forces with the RPF.

In the end, I tried to organise those who could move and we went to the Virunga Mountains.

People have tried to compare you with Fred Rwigema who they say had the charisma; and that your contribution was discipline and resilience in the army. Could you tell us the difficulties you encountered in instilling this spirit in people who had reached such a stage?

I was different from Fred but we were complementary on top of being friends. We grew up together and had a lot in common. It is true we were different in nature, but our growing up together contributed to our being complementary. I found it necessary to instil discipline and organisation and this remained of great concern to me. When you are in charge of people, you have to be aware that each one of them will be looking for the easy way out of any situation. When there is work to do, there is always someone who will choose to relax. But overall, people made big and excellent contributions; they fought all these wars and some were wounded.

All along, my permanent concern was maintaining discipline and remaining united.


What were your main concerns for example from the enemy side or from other countries? What were some of your successes? Besides the members and sympathisers who else, countries and individuals, supported the RPF struggle?

If we take the example of the NRA struggle in Uganda, it started with political support and a small armed wing. Then the military started growing, but this was due to the prevailing political mobilisation. Our main task was political; the task of converting people into a political force that did not exist before.

The concern was that of changing the mentality of the people. Wherever the soldiers went to fight, the people had been told we were "cockroaches" that must be destroyed and denounced. If we caught them and later released them, they would change their attitude towards us because they had expected to be killed.

Very many people helped us in this struggle, countries too, especially Uganda. There were individuals who understood the problem and gave us support. A person like President Museveni played a major role. If he had not helped us, others would not have done it. There were others like the late Julius Nyerere who used to tell people, with a lot of regret, that if he had been president at the time, he would have stopped the genocide. I have no doubt he would have fought it.

What impression of Rwandan politicians did you have when you met them during the talks?

Only a negative image. We met and talked with people like Mugenzi, Gafaranga and Twagiramungu. They were the sectarian type, full of themselves. This became clear at the meetings that political leaders like Tito, Bihozagara and Mazimpaka had in Burundi where Twagiramungu told the delegation that RPF are good fighters and the only ones capable of confronting Habyarimana. In other words, we were only needed for the purpose of removing Habyarimana to enable them to rule the country afterwards.

As the leader of RPF, didn't you see things going wrong with possibilities of a genocide happening?

We saw it and said it repeatedly. Besides the generalised killings when the war started on 1st October, there was the massacre of Bagogwe people in February 1993. Then Bagosora told people he was going to prepare the Apocalypse. Anyone who knows our history understood that language. What we did not know was the scale and how it would be carried out. Later, we would see the reports and even gave some of them to the UN. For example, we gave them a report on how they were profiling people. Preparations started long before. When they say genocide was caused by Habyarimana's death, it is lie; it all started before his death.

How did you combine fighting and rescuing people who were targeted during the genocide?

This brought confusion because in some places we had to reduce the fighting force to keep some fighting while others went to rescue people in danger of getting killed. At times we would move soldiers from the frontline and send them on rescue missions. Besides, our numbers were low compared to the government forces which were eight times bigger. Then add to that the militias who were over one hundred thousand, this greatly stretched our fighting capacity.


After you had taken over what problems did you encounter as the interim government?

It is not easy to govern a country with people whose minds you first needed to change. This stage was the longest and it could be felt even at meetings we went to. You would hear someone talk and fail to understand where they were coming from; outdated attitudes. The existing legislation seemed irrelevant. You understand that the same was happening in other sectors. The RPF had a major role to play in the country's governance and in drawing in more people to participate in the country's reconstruction.

We therefore had to go out and bring in other people from various political persuasions and to change people's mentality even while others were actively undermining these efforts.

We also had many cases of corruption and people fighting for positions.

There were also people who reached a stage where they had no energy to perform demanding duties. This sometimes required them to work at a lower level than they were accustomed. But I can say that the RPF was building itself up, and changes were taking place.


What were some of the achievements of the RPF at end of the interim period?

The first was bringing all Rwandans together, helping to impart self confidence and form a nation. Another was development whereby every person stands to benefit from the other. Also, improvements in health because before being a Rwandan one must actually be alive; and education to acquire knowledge as well how to benefit from it by contributing to development.

Then there was the creation of institutions which have now become examples for others. Today people come to Rwanda to see how these institutions function and how they yield concrete results. All these give you an example of the changes that were made.

We made progress on basic development activities and infrastructure, especially in the private sector; these were based on people's awareness that they could create wealth, that good living conditions are fundamental. I believe we have been able to effectively promote these principles and they have contributed directly to building our country and are the source of its development.

If you consider all that work, the setting up of a national identity, development, as well as the problems we had in the region, such as the Congo wars, and what is being said about us at the moment, couldn't these have hindered all those programmes and drawn us back?

What we went through, whether in the Congo or in other situations, were related to our own security. At one time insecurity covered northern and western Rwanda and the whole country was at war. All the insecurity was coming from outside the country; everybody could see it.

This was the case with insurgents who used to attack us and cross the border back to the DRC when we fired back, only for them to reorganise and attack us again. They acted like they were being sent by people across the border and thought we would not dare pursue them where they were.

We eventually went after them and it was all necessary if our country was to make progress. These were not acts of aggression; it was not because we wanted to interfere with another country's peace. We took those measures because we had to; they were not any different from development activities.

I feel that we played a major role in maintaining Rwanda's security, but because this was related to the security of other countries, we tried our level best to resolve Rwanda's and other countries' security problems, with the intention of establishing peace.

You seek to restore peace after resolving the security problems that hinder peace. I cannot recall any circumstances where we caused insecurity for the sake of it; war may sometimes result from efforts made to reach lasting peace.


What are some of the vital changes the RPF has brought to Rwanda to-date? What chances does the RPF have to lead the country after its second mandate?

If you look at RPF's history and its achievements, you see the response to the question of Rwanda's long-term development, and even to how Rwandans fit into this and where they find answers to challenges they face.

Personally, I have no doubt whatsoever that the RPF will be around for a long time. It has a very long future in Rwanda's governance even after this mandate. The RPF was founded on a way of thinking, working, and institutions established by Rwandans. My view and my wish are that RPF should avoid mistakes. What I find good with the RPF is that its functioning is collective, not individual. This collective action is vital. You cannot have a family which belongs to a few specific people; it is everybody's family. It is not a nuclear family; it is an extended, inclusive family.

This philosophy, the idea that nobody is kept away from the family, that anybody who meets the requirements is welcome, will remain for generations.

Most people agree that your role as leader of the liberation struggle and in building the country is tremendous. Are there areas you deem unsatisfactory that those who will come after you will have to put in more effort?

I will first seek the opinion of others about my achievements; and I will accept the verdict, whatever it is, even if it turns out to be a negative assessment. Personally, I feel I have tried my best to ensure everything goes smoothly. The RPF has done a lot, and I had a role to play in RPF as its leader. Much has been accomplished, even more than expected. But, although we have achieved a lot, as a member of RPF, I still see some weakness where some people see themselves as individuals rather than anchoring themselves on the collective interest.

When you are no longer in your present position, what would you like people to remember?

I want there to be continued stability. Rwanda's stability should not be taken for granted and people should feel that stability is vital to the country, that it is their right, something that should not be taken lightly. Ours should not be a country where people live in fear, or are uncertain about tomorrow. If that is possible, everything else will be on the right track. As for me, after leading this country, I will work for Rwanda in any capacity. There is no stage where you switch yourself off.

Copyright © 2012 The New Times. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.