History & Culture

Rwanda: I was about 19 or 20 that I actually started politics- Kagame

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda on  third term discussed his early life and the transformation of the east African country after the 1994 genocide. In a long interview with the british journal, the Financial Times, the man who approached the monumental task of the “rebirth of a nation”, reveals his involvement in politics at lower age.

His  greater goal is undertood by all Rwandans, as  ‘Now there is stability. A sense of security, hope’ .

The personal background of the epic character, made his childhood preparing him to deal with tough situation up to now. He says, “From childhood, my family fled this country in 1961 when I was four years old. I grew up in Uganda in a refugee camp, a couple of decades, and so it was when I was about 19 or 20 that I actually started getting involved with the . . . maybe I call it politics”.

He goes on detailing the history, from refugees life, joining Museveni’s army, and Rwanda liberation struggle. He adds, “Something to do with asking ourselves, what is this, what is this situation we are in, why and what can we do about it, and so the main activity started among the people in exile and different places, especially the region, whether it was Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and so on.

So that’s until we came to the mid-1980s when the Rwandan Patriotic Front was formed, but there had been other attempts before that trying to organise, but concealing it because of the problems they attracted. Then later on, we joined, a couple of us, [Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance] army in Uganda when there was this armed struggle in Uganda, and that’s how we prepared ourselves.

We were not getting involved because we believed we were Ugandans or because we thought we really needed to be made Ugandans, but we participated because,  we were being affected even as refugees.

In fact, there were people who were forced out of Uganda and thrown back into Rwanda who were refugees because of the politics in Uganda at the time. Some of them even when they came back they were killed, and others survived and became refugees twice. I’m just throwing a little bit of background where we originate from. It is not that we developed or grew up under normal conditions.

Some of it just happened, and we found ourselves under these conditions and yes, some of us didn’t accept that.

Of course, many succumbed or gave up, and in fact many lost their lives because they had also lost hope, but a number of people stood up to deal with these challenges, and that’s how . . . that’s the origin of the struggle for us.

Oct. 1990, Kagame left USA to Rwanda, found things in disarray

When the struggle started in October 1990, Kagame was at a military college in the states, in Kansas. It is a US Army Command and General Staff College, and he was there as a Ugandan, what confused the college staff on his departure to Rwanda. It was a real time to leave a Ugandan identity and be ”who I actually have been all along”.

He narrates to Financial Times, “When it came to the time when the invasion happened, October 1st, that is the right time we need to do whatever it was and whatever risks it carried, but we needed to do something.

We weren’t sure how it would turn out. And, of course, as I mentioned to you, things that followed, things that happened indeed would point to the unpredictability of that kind of situation.

So even when I went to the commanders of the college and told them I had to cut short my college stay, they got confused. They said, what does that have to do with you, what’s happening in Rwanda? You are a Ugandan. And I told him, I said, not exactly.

For the purpose of being here I was Ugandan, but something else has happened and that now brings me out to be who I actually have been all along. So that’s how I left. I came back.

Already the overall commander had been killed the next day. Fred Rwigyema was killed. So when I arrived, I found everything in disarray. I told him [the commander in Kansa] that something else has happened and that now brings me out to be who I actually have been all along I literally didn’t know where to start from.

Nothing had fully, if at all, prepared me for dealing with such a mess. I had no reference to anything to say this is how you do it, but we had to pick up the pieces and then find some way to start rebuilding.

I start to meet the commanders who were there, and gauge how prepared they are to deal with the next phase that was so challenging, and I remember a number of them saying, “I think we go back to Uganda and ask President Museveni . . .”.

Choosing the worst of two evils

Going back to Uganda should be annihilating Rwandan fighters like defeated, as  Kagame says, “ this was to give us another place where you can go and stay as refugees. So here the choices were clear. You go back and become refugees [or] continue the struggle, we chose the more difficult thing, which was face annihilation or be able to really reorganise and survive and then fight back.

For some of us, the alternative of going back to Uganda as a defeated group and asking for another opportunity to be refugees was unthinkable. So we had to deal with this difficult path, so we tried to organise.

That’s how we shifted the forces and moved them across the border, close with the border within Uganda up to the mountains. People used to die. We used to find some of our fighters frozen to death. Yes, we barely survived — freezing and under such conditions when you even have no food, or very little, but we survived it, but it also gave us an opportunity to reorganise.

I think there is a lot you learn from what has happened to you, what you have had to confront, not how many books you have read about leadership, not how peaceful the environment you have grown up in.

Those difficulties, that kind of a situation I think explains the conditions you are operating under or things you face, if you have made the choice to deal with it, because during this struggle there were probably as many people who gave up as those who stood up”.

From disarray to disciplined army

Therefore, Kagame had to restore discipline to an army, from absolute disarray, with possible improvisations. He says, “A lot of improvisation has had to happen, right from the time . . . in fact, that’s really the essence of starting my story that way. I fought these two wars, one in Uganda and another in Rwanda. In Uganda it was a small army that started. I was one of the 27 who actually invaded the barracks called Kabamba in Uganda and so on.

There were 40 but only 27 of us were armed. The Ugandan side was a small force, [but with] big political support. In our case, it was the reverse. The group that started the war was big, bigger than what started in Uganda, but with very small political support because Rwanda was organised in such a way that it has been in the past and on ethnic grouping, ethnic politics and then majority Hutus, minority Tutsis, the Twa and so on.

So we had this capacity, military capacity. There were already between 3,000 and 4,000, and all armed. But the political side was almost non-existent.

Not only were we referred to as a minority, and in fact later on the military arrested Tutsis in Kigali and some of them died, even at that time, but we were actually also called foreigners.

On the one hand, they would associate us with a minority here, who wanted to take power, but on the other, they would say, no, these are not even Rwandese, they are foreigners. So, what this leads to eventually is a number of things”.

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Jean Baptiste Karegeya

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