BORN: October 23, 1957 • Ntambwe, Rwanda
Rwandan president, military commander
Paul Kagame rose up to lead a tiny country in central Africa known as Rwanda following a horrific genocide of Tutsi Rwandans in the spring and early summer of 1994. Genocide is a planned, systematic attempt to eliminate a whole group of people by murdering all members of that group. Tutsi have long comprised approximately 14 percent of Rwanda's population. The majority people, the Hutu, account for 85 percent of the population. Beginning on April 6, 1994, and continuing through June 1994, Hutu murdered between 800,000 and 1 million of their Tutsi neighbors.
"We cannot turn the clock back nor can we undo the harm caused, but we have the power to determine the future and to ensure that what happened never happens again."
For centuries, the Tutsi and Hutu had lived peacefully side by side. However, arrival of European colonists, first from Germany in 1894 and later from Belgium in the early 1920s, led to prejudice and hatred between the two native groups. When the first Germans arrived in 1894 they quickly observed that the Tutsi and Hutu differed significantly in physical characteristics. The Hutu were generally short with thick bodies and big heads, wide noses, and prominent lips. Tutsi were tall and thin with fine facial features, thin noses and lips, and straight, white teeth. The Europeans figured through their racial prejudices that the fine-featured Tutsi were a superior race that were responsible for Rwanda's organized society. Further creating a myth of Tutsi superiority, the German colonizers described the Tutsi as gifted with intelligence, boundless energy, natural leadership abilities, refinement in speech manners, and capable of self-control and feelings of love and goodwill. The Hutu were considered an inferior race. Being favored by the colonists, the Tutsi were given all the positions of importance within Rwandan society. For sixty years, Hutu were deprived of all political and economic power.
Coffee plants were introduced to Rwandans by the German colonists in 1904. By the 1930s the country began to depend on coffee as its key export crop and Rwanda's main source of income.
In 1959, the Hutu revolted and took control of Rwanda's government. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi became refugees (people who flee in search of protection or shelter) escaping across Rwanda's borders to neighboring countries of Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo). Hutu remained in power until 1994 when overthrown by Tutsi Paul Kagame and an efficient military force of Rwandan Tutsi refugees calling themselves the Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF). Despite taking Kigali, the Rwandan capital, Kagame and his RPF were too small a force to stop the genocide of their fellow Tutsi throughout the Rwandan countryside.
Later in 2003, Kagame was elected president of Rwanda. He faced the daunting tasks of healing the rift between Tutsi and Hutu and putting an end to racial hatred, rebuilding the nation's devastated economy, and securing the country's borders.
Kagames become refugees
Paul Kagame was born into a Tutsi family in 1957 in the Ntambwe commune, located 40 miles west of Kigali. He was one of six children, two boys and four girls. Kagame's father, Deogratius, was a successful businessman and also had agricultural interests. Both Deogratius and Kagame's mother, Asteria, were closely related to the royal family of Rwanda. However, with his independent business successes, Deogratius was proud to have no need of reliance on the royals.
In 1959, as the Hutu revolution spread, two-year-old Kagame and his family fled their home with only the belongings they could carry. Groups of Hutu men systematically moved through village after village, looting houses belonging to Tutsi, killing the inhabitants, and burning the houses to the ground. The Kagame family escaped north to Kagame's mother's birthplace of Mutara, near the Ugandan border.
By 1961, Deogratius concluded that Rwanda was too dangerous a place for his family. With no hope of security, no chance to pursue his businesses, and no education opportunities for his children, Deogratius moved his family to a border town inside Uganda. The Kagames began a new life as Rwandan refugees. They soon moved further north in Uganda as refugee camps were established. In 1962, the family settled in a camp known as Nshungerezi, in the Tori District of Uganda. Kagame was five years old and he would grow up in Nshungerezi.
Prejudice against the refugees was severe. Although many had lived comfortable, even privileged, lives in Rwanda before the 1959 revolution, the refugees had few employment or educational opportunities in Uganda. Most became laborers for Ugandan farmers and earned very little.
An excellent student
With the other refugee children, Kagame attended school in the camp where he learned English. English was spoken in Uganda, while French was the language of Rwanda. A bright student, nine-year-old Kagame went to primary school in the nearby town of Ntare.
Kagame rose to the top of his class and put Ugandan school officials in a difficult position. The top three students at Ntare qualified for a grant to go onto secondary school (school equivalent to high school). However, since Kagame was Rwandan, prejudicial practice prevented him from advancing. Only after his father arranged for tuition assistance from a Rwandan refugee network in Europe was the boy able to go to secondary school.
Discrimination against Rwandan refugees
Kagame continued to excel academically, as did other Rwandan refugee students who managed to obtain an education. Some moved into Ugandan cities, substantially improved their economic situation, and began to return to lifestyles similar to those enjoyed in Rwanda before 1959. Ugandans resented the success of young Rwandans and harassed and taunted them for being refugees. Discrimination in education and employment was commonplace. Some Rwandans changed their names and tried to pass as Ugandans to attend school or find a job. Rwandans were not allowed citizenship in Uganda. The rejection young Rwandans experienced significantly impacted their thinking and attitudes, leaving them with a sense of not belonging and a desire to return to their homeland.
In 1977, at the age of twenty-one, Kagame's curiosity about his homeland led him to travel into Rwanda. He quickly located relatives still living there and contacted friends who had returned to Kigali to live. Kagame spent two months crisscrossing the country that he had only heard stories about. With a desire to learn further about the country of his ancestors and thoughts of someday returning permanently, Kagame visited Rwanda again in 1978.
Rwanda was quiet during those years. Juvenal Habyarimana (1937–1994) had taken leadership of the country in 1973, continuing the Hutu line of authority. Although there were many restrictions on Rwandans traveling away from their homes, Kagame assumed he was not suspicious, but was relatively safe as a student traveling alone. However, if Rwandan authorities had realized he was related to the former Tutsi royal family and a Rwandan refugee living in Uganda, his journey in Rwanda could have become perilous.
While in Rwanda, Kagame learned of Habyarimana's efforts to develop and improve the economy of the exceedingly poor nation. All Rwandans were expected to follow Habyarimana's direction without questioning. Habyarimana promised reforms and a better life. Kagame listened and learned. His trips in 1977 and 1978, although only a few months of time altogether, greatly influenced his thinking and expanded his knowledge of Rwanda's economic and political challenges. The idea of someday returning to Rwanda and being involved in the political process was firmly planted in Kagame's mind.
Forming political philosophies
Back in Uganda, Kagame's emerging political awareness moved him to action. He joined a movement under the leadership of Ugandan rebel leader Yoweri Museveni (1944–). Museveni's group, the National Resistance Army (NRA), seemed to Kagame the Ugandan faction most likely to lend support to the exiled Rwandan Tutsi.
The philosophy on which Museveni founded the NRA and its political wing, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), was different from the countless other African resistance movements that had formed in the twentieth century. Rather than becoming a small group intent on dominating the population in yet another round of oppression followed by resentment, Museveni's movement attempted to create a nationwide inclusive political community, one that included even those people in Uganda commonly discriminated against such as women, youth, and various minorities, including the Rwandan Tutsi exiles. Museveni believed in allowing people to vote for their leaders, but not in political parties, which he said soon would become tribal-like groups concerned with their own narrow interests. His movement also supported some capitalist-style an economic system in which production is privately owned, financed through private investments, and the demand for goods is established through an open market system largely free of government involvement) economic development. Kagame, by 1980 a young lieutenant in the NRA, absorbed Museveni's basic ideas and would incorporate them when he returned to Rwanda as a rebel leader and ultimately president of Rwanda. Understanding these basic NRA philosophies, along with training as a guerrilla resistance fighter, would guide Kagame and numerous other young Tutsi exiles in their attempt to retake Rwanda in 1990.
The NRA was victorious in 1986 when it overthrew the then-president of Uganda, Milton Obote (1924–2005). The NRA was fourteen thousand strong, and four thousand of its best fighters were Rwandan Tutsi refugees. Kagame, who rose to the rank of major, was chiefly involved in intelligence-gathering (obtaining information, sometimes secretly) throughout the Uganda countryside. With the 1986 victory, Museveni sent Kagame to Cuba for nine months to learn ways of building a permanent army, policies, and institutions from Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz's (1926–) administration.
Establishment of Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)
After Kagame's return and with the fighting Uganda over, the Rwandan fighters developed plans to retake their homeland. They organized into a more tightly functioning rebel movement determined to destabilize the Rwandan Hutu government and institute an entirely new rule in the country. The Rwandese Refugee Welfare Foundation (RANU) that had been founded in 1979 gained members and strength. In 1987, the RANU changed its name to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Fred Rwigyema (1957–1990), Kagame's friend and fellow NRA rebel fighter, became president of the RPF. At the same time in Uganda, both Kagame and Rwigyema were serving in important government positions under Museveni. Kagame was head of military intelligence for the NRA and Rwigyema advanced to Deputy Minister of Defense.
Kagame sent to Kansas
Despite Kagame and Rwigyema's rise to prominent positions within Uganda's government, Museveni knew that prejudice against Rwandan refugees was again growing within the country. The National Ruling Council, Uganda's legislature, began attempts to bar Rwandans from owning property and to remove them from the army.
By late 1989, feeling strong political pressure, Museveni removed Kagame and then Rwigyema from their posts. Museveni saw this as a way to distance himself from his Rwandan friends. In 1990, he sent Kagame for military training to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; it was Kagame's first visit to the United States. The assignment was, in reality, a way to get Kagame out of the country since Museveni knew Kagame and Rwigyema were quietly planning a military push into Rwanda that would be launched from inside Uganda. If Kagame was absent, Museveni hoped the plans for an invasion into northern Rwanda by the exiles would be halted.
Habyarimana's government faltering
Rwandan Tutsi exiles felt increasingly unwelcome in Uganda. The pressure mounted to return to Rwanda. The Rwandan exiles had continued to organize and arm the RPF. They had gained a great deal of experience fighting for Uganda's NRA. By 1990, Rwandan president Habyarimana was struggling to stay in power. Coffee prices that had sustained Rwanda's economy had fallen drastically in the 1980s due to competition from other coffee-growing countries. Most of Rwanda's population no longer had enough food since it had long been purchased from other countries with coffee profits. There was increasing infighting among Habyarimana's administration over what little money did come in, now chiefly aid from foreign countries. Habyarimana's government seemed on the verge of collapse. It was time for the RPF to make its move.
RPF invades Northern Rwanda
Led by Rwigyema, the RPF began a military push into Northern Rwanda in October 1990. Kagame, who was a leader of the RPF but still in Kansas, was kept informed of all the action. Kagame immediately began the process to leave Fort Leavenworth. He arrived at the frontlines in Northern Rwanda to take command as news of Rwigyema's death in battle reached him. From 1991 and through 1993, the RPF continued raids into Rwanda, then retreated back to the Ugandan border.
On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana's jet, which was returning to Kigali, was shot down. Everyone aboard, including Habyarimana, was killed. Within hours, Hutu extremists ordered the previously planned genocide of Tutsi to begin. The extremists had convinced Hutu peasants that killing all Tutsi would solve all of the country's woes.
Kagame ordered his RPF to march to Kigali and attempt to take the city. On April 8 Kagame led his RPF into Kigali, where they battled the Rwandan army, the Forces Armees Rwandaises (FAR), and Hutu militias for control of the city. By April 12, the FAR and militias began moving southward, giving up the city. By late May, the RPF controlled the airport and, through June, pushed south and west. The FAR and militias retreated westward. Despite successes of the RPF, the genocide of Tutsi continued throughout the countryside. The retreating FAR and Hutu militias murdered all Tutsi—men, women, and children—in their paths. The RPF, although a highly efficient army, was small and concentrated on Kigali and the airport. It had no way to also halt the Tutsi massacres occurring countrywide. As the FAR and militias fled, millions of Hutu fearing for their safety left their homes and fled with them, an act that created millions of Hutu refugees.
The Kagame Cup
Despite attempting the superhuman task of reviving a nation shattered by the 1994 genocide, President Paul Kagame also shows the world a very identifiable regular guy—that of a sportsman. He is an avid tennis player and, just like a large portion of the world's population, a great fan of soccer. His favorite team is, naturally, the Rwandan national team, Amavubi, mascot name the Wasps. When in 2002 the Confederation of East and Central African Football Associations (CECAFA) was out of money and its regional tournament seemed unlikely, Kagame donated $60,000 of his own money. He also donated money for a trophy. The tournament was saved. In appreciation, CECAFA officials named the tournament the Kagame Cup.
By July, Kagame's forces were in complete control of Kigali. On July 19, 1994, officials were sworn in for a new Tutsi government called the Government of National Unity. Although Pasteur Bezinungu, a Hutu who supported the Tutsi, was placed in the position of president, Kagame held the real power in Rwanda. His official titles were vice president and commander-in-chief of the army. He and his administration set about the overwhelming task of holding the peace and rebuilding the government. Kagame oversaw a country with little infrastructure (roads, buildings, airports, and other public facilities), destroyed roads, minimum access to air traffic, and little communication capabilities.
When Kagame and the RPF took power, they were determined to have a multi-ethnic government. Although Kagame was the real leader, prominent Hutus within the new government included President Pasteur Bizimungu, prime minister Pierre-Celestin Rwigyema, and the minister of interior Seth Sendashonga. Kagame stressed cohesive cooperation, political education, and responsible accountability. Kagame's approach closely mirrored Museveni's philosophy in Uganda. His goals were ambitious, since Rwandans were largely illiterate (unable to read and write) and had no knowledge of political processes. Political information was supplied at a grassroots (level of common village people) level to every village. Kagame flatly refused a U.S.-style of democracy with multiple political parties. In African societies, he believed competing parties only served to further divide an already divided people. He knew each side would battle the other and only end up in another war. Kagame stated that no one still advocating division would be tolerated within the government. Also certain rights, such as a free press, were curtailed for the same reason.
After only a few years, the multi-ethnic nature of Kagame's government seemed to fall apart. Sendashonga was assassinated in Nairobi; Rwigyema resigned in February 2000 on charges of misconduct in regard to the misuse of educational funds which he denied and he fled to Germany and the United States. Bizimungu resigned at the end of March 2000, saying other RPF parliamentarians (elected members of the legislature) falsely accused him of tax avoidance and suspicious construction deals. In 2004 he was convicted of illegally forming a militia and embezzlement and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Within a month of Bizimungu's resignation, Kagame was elected president of Rwanda with 81 of 86 parliamentary votes.
The Kagame government, despite its power, was a transitional (temporary) government. By the end of 2003, a permanent constitution, president, and legislative representatives were to be in place. The idea of having a constitution that defined the structure of government, rights of the people, and responsibilities of the elected officials was completely new to Rwandans. Before 1994, government was run at the whim and will of whoever was president. Nevertheless, the grassroots education campaigns and informational meetings instituted by Kagame paved the way for approval of the constitution on May 26, 2003. Approximately 95 percent of voters approved the constitution. In opposition to his advisor's wishes, Kagame insisted on universal suffrage, which meant all Rwandans eighteen years of age and older were allowed to vote. The constitution's acceptance set the stage for the presidential election in August.
By 2003, most Rwandans associated the relative stability of the past nine years with Kagame. Kagame and the highly organized RPF labeled his chief opponent, Faustin Twagiramungu, as a divisionist (one who creates disagreements among groups). Twagiramungu, living in exile in Belgium since 1995, was a moderate Hutu who had opposed the Habyarimana government and the genocide. When the genocide began, moderate Hutu were murdered along with Tutsi. Twagiramungu barely escaped by reaching the Zaire border. He returned to Rwanda in June 2003 to take on Kagame's well-oiled political machine (well-organized political party). He reasoned that since 85 percent of the population was Hutu, he surely would be elected. Instead, Kagame received a majority of Hutu votes in the August 2003 election. Strides in reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu were apparent in their cooperation with each other, and the Rwandan economy was starting a slow but seemingly sure recovery. Kagame received 95 percent of the vote. By democratic standards there were many irregularities, such as the RPF arresting Twagiramungu's campaign leaders two days before the election. But for a country struggling to overcome the effects of a genocide that occurred just nine years earlier, the vote clearly reflected who the Rwandans wanted to lead their nation. European election observers conceded the election had been peaceful and was a good start for the new Rwanda. On September 12, 2003, President Kagame was inaugurated (sworn in as president) before a massive crowd.
The legislative election was not completed at the end of September. The RPF candidates also won an overwhelming majority in the parliament. Surprisingly, 39 of the 80 newly elected parliamentary representatives were women.
Kagame is known as a extremely hard working president. He and his staff frequently keep long hours, sometimes working until 9 or 10 at night. His command of English, attributed to growing up in English-speaking Uganda, plays an important role in communication with two important international friends, the United States and Britain. U.S. and British officials refer to him as an excellent communicator, sincere and to the point. Kagame has visited U.S. president George W. Bush's (1946–; served 2001–) ranch and spoken in numerous U.S. cities before audiences of academic and government officials and before Rwandans living in the United States. He has close relations with former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who has taken a special interest in the well-being of Rwanda since leaving the White House. By the mid-2000s, Kagame remained confident about Rwanda's healing process and optimistic about its future.
For More Information
Berry, John A., and Carol Pott Berry, eds. Genocide in Rwanda: A Collective Memory. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1999.
Ilibagiza, Immaculee. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2006.
Melvern, Linda. A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide. New York: Zed Books, 2000.
Scherrer, Christian P. Genocide and Crisis in Central Africa: Conflict Roots, Mass Violence, and Regional War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
H. E. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda. http://www.gov.rw/government/president/index.html (accessed on December 11, 2006). PBS.
"Rwanda Today: The International Criminal Tribunal and the Prospects for Peace and Reconciliation. An Interview with Helena Cobban." Ghosts of Rwanda. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/today (accessed on December 11, 2006).
President, military commander
Paul Kagame emerged as an internationally renowned figure during his leadership of the military resistance that cut short the Rwandan genocide in July 1994. The genocide had marked the horrifying culmination of decades of ethnically framed massacres in post-independence Rwanda between the majority ethnic group of Hutu, who totalled roughly 85 percent of the population, and the minority ethnic Tutsi, who constituted around 15 percent. Upon successfully leading the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) to victory, Kagame became vice-president of Rwanda, a formidable reponsibility after over 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu had been systematically massacred during a three-month span in one of the world's poorest countries. In 2000 he was appointed president but had since been the subject of intensifying criticism regarding his government's record in terms of human rights abuses and profiteering among the elite. Nonetheless, to some degree Kagame represented an important element of the "African Renaissance" of forward looking politicians and had institutionalized a set of economic reforms that received the stamp of approval of the international financial institutions.
Born in Gitarama Prefecture, Rwanda, in October 1957, Kagame was the youngest of a Tutsi family of four sisters and one other brother. His father was from a privileged Tutsi background drawing on familial relations with King Rudahigwa of Rwanda, and his mother was intimately related to the King's wife. Despite these elite connections the Kagame family was forced to flee Rwanda two years after Paul's birth in the face of ethnically framed violence by Hutu extremists. This very early experience of life on the move would go on to typify much of Kagame's life until mid-1994. The chaos of displacement also meant that Kagame was separated from his siblings for most of his early life as two of his sisters left the country to eventually settle in Italy, while his brother died in a car accident. After spending some time in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) and Burundi, the family's attempt to settle in Rwanda was stifled by the vagaries of political sectarianism and violence. In search of security and a semblance of normality, Kagame's parents took him in 1960 to Uganda, where they made their long-term home in the Toro district of the Nshungerezi refugee camp.
A Refugee's Childhood
The Kagame family's initial displacement was in response to the rise of political consciousness among the Hutu majority in the 1959 "peasant revolution"—a movement that was fuelled by Tutsi and Belgian oppression and abuses of power—that resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Tutsi. The revolution came to define an entire swath of Tutsi refugees like Kagame who, in the face of violence and the Hutu monopolization of power, had consequently fled to Uganda where they became known as the "'59ers." In Uganda Kagame went to school to learn English, and then continued his education at a local state school in Ntare where he excelled. But as a Rwandan "'59er" he was not granted Ugandan citizenship and as such did not qualify for a scholarship to enter secondary school. Instead he benefited from financial assistance via a family friend based in Belgium that enabled him to continue his schooling. This sense of alienation in Ugandan society was later summarized in an interview with Kagame: "Professional advancement was restricted for Rwandans in Uganda. There were limitations on our progress," as quoted in Colin M. Waugh's biography, Paul Kagame and Rwanda. But Kagame also stressed, according to Waugh, that he "would never have accepted Ugandan citizenship.… I wanted to be a Rwandan."
Kagame's contact with the land of his birth was reignited in his early twenties when he bravely and forthrightly organized two exploratory trips to Rwanda in 1977 and 1978. Even though the 1973 military coup d'etat by Juvenal Habyarimana had led to a period of relative calm in Rwanda's ethnic tension, Kagame knew that his trips were dangerous in the context of the previous massacres and oppression of Tutsi, especially considering his parental connections to the exiled Tutsi monarchy. Reflecting upon these trips in later years he intonated that he was searching for his identity as a Rwandan: "I wasn't sure what I was doing, I wanted to know something and perhaps build on that," as quoted by Waugh.
Uganda and the National Resistance
Through his connection to Ntare School, Kagame met his fellow graduate and local Ugandan activist Yoweri Museveni, who would eventually become president of Uganda in 1986. This chance meeting proved to be formative in Kagame's political awareness and professional military development. Museveni had convinced Kagame of the injustices of the Ugandan government and in the late 1970s recruited him to the struggle against the regime from their base in Tanzania. In early 1981, Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) made its first military strike against the Ugandan state; Kagame was among this tiny band of 27 guerrillas along with one other Rwandan, Fred Rwigyema, who was an old acquaintance from refugee camps. For a number of years Kagame was an intelligence officer in the NRA and gathered information in rural areas—a pivotal role in a guerrilla war with a relatively small number of troops.
Upon seizure of power in 1986, Kagame and Rwigyema held senior positions in the NRA and in 1987 Rwigyema became deputy minister of defence in Kampala, while Kagame was appointed acting chief of military intelligence to the NRA. Kagame and Rwigyema's military and political experiences in the NRA and its political wing, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), cannot be underestimated. As one RPF leader put it: "If the NRM could liberate Uganda, the RPF began to ask why it could not do the same in Rwanda," as quoted in Mahmood Mamdani's When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Museveni subsequently selected Kagame for a nine-month training stint in Cuba and in 1989 he was again sent abroad for training, this time in the Joint Combined Exchange Training course by the U.S. military in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
At a Glance …
Born Paul Kagame in October, 1957, in Gitarama Prefecture, Rwanda; married Jeanette Nyiramongi, 1989; children: four. Education: Open University of London, diploma, professional management and business studies.
National Resistance Army, intelligence officer, c.1980-1986; National Resistance Army, acting chief of military intelligence, 1987-1989; Rwandan Patriotic Army, major, 1988-1990; Rwandan Patriotic Army, major-general, 1990-1994; Government of Rwanda, vice-president, 1994-2000; Government of Rwanda, president, 2000–.
Rwandan Patriotic Front, Chairperson; name of org, position.
Vellore Institute of Technology, India, Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy, 2002; Young Presidents Organisation, Global Leadership Award, 2003.
Office—Office of the President, Government of Rwanda, Village Urugwiro, P.O. Box 15, Kigali, Rwanda.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front, Genocide and Its Aftermath
Using his organizational base in the Ugandan NRA where several thousand other "'59ers" served, Kagame was one of the leading figures in the 1987 formation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was loosely modelled on the NRM. Led by the respected and energetic Fred Rwigyema, the RPF was a political movement that campaigned for the repatriation to Rwanda of 480,000 Tutsi refugees and vehemently opposed Habyarimana's Hutu-dominated one-party state, which was simultaneously losing support due to corruption, increased repression and a general economic decline—mainly because of the sharp drop in international coffee prices, the landlocked country's main export. The RPF saw their chance and its military wing, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), made their first attack from Uganda in late 1990, initiating what was to be a four-year civil war.
Rwigyema died leading the RPA's first flawed attack in October 1990, leaving the force in disarray. Kagame quickly returned from the United States to lead the RPF/RPA, assuming the title of major-general. His role was central to the future success of the rebellion as he rapidly rebuilt the RPA to a force of 15,000 men and led a series of military victories against the far more numerous forces of the government army, which—following the example of the NRM—was combined with a program of political education among local citizens. However, many Rwandans were not enthusiastic about being "liberated" and by the time of a major RPA offensive in February 1993 almost a million Rwandan citizens were displaced, moreover, Hutu militants exercised a brutal policy of revenge killings against Tutsi civilians. Nevertheless, despite appearing "more like a stern college professor than a rebel army commander," according to Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Kagame's campaign was a strategic success and the RPA managed to take control of an increasing swathe of territory, against the odds of substantial military backing for Habyarimana's corrupt regime by the French who sent paratroopers, military advisers, and financial support for a mass inflow of arms. It is this execution of intelligent military strategy that earned Kagame the plaudit of the "Napoleon of Africa."
However, on April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana's plane was shot down by unknown assailants upon his return from flawed peace talks with the RPF and other groups, there were no survivors. Roadblocks were immediately set up by Hutu militiamen (assisted by the military) who then began to systematically murder all Tutsi and moderate Hutu, including several members of Kagame's family. Many sources report that an average of 10,000 people—mainly Tutsi—were killed daily over the following three months, a rate of killing five times faster than the Nazi holocaust. The genocide had begun.
Kagame and the RPF decided to resume the civil war without delay and embarked on a make-or-break campaign to take state power. However, Kagame was faced with a trying moral dilemma: should he try to save as many lives as possible and take the risk of over-extending his forces and face defeat or maintain a tactically sound campaign that would ensure victory. Despite obvious personal tensions he decided to focus on victory, which the RPF achieved and on July 19, 1994, the Hutu Pasteur Bizimungu was sworn-in as president of the new Government of National Unity and Kagame became vice-president, commander in chief of the RPA and minister of defence.
Kagame and Post-Genocide Rwanda
Kagame and the new government faced a range of vast obstacles from mid-1994, including how to reduce Hutu-Tutsi tensions, how to rebuild an already under-developed economy, and how to bring the many thousands of Hutu involved in the genocide to justice. Not only have around 3.5 million refugees have been successfully repatriated, Unity and Reconciliation and Human Rights Commissions were established and Kagame undertook a policy of inter-ethnic goodwill when he re-integrated 15,000 former Hutu soldiers into the army, while his wife Jeanette pursued a prominent campaign against HIV/AIDS. His government also applied a sweeping program of free market reforms to the economy under the direction of the World Bank, which was such a broad success that Rwanda benefited from substantial cancellation of its debt in 2005. However, attempts at applying justice to genocide suspects has been marred by numerous revenge killings and a huge backlog of suspects overloading Rwanda's prisons. In addition, Kagame's regime was subject to serious criticism by a U.N. report that claimed that his forces had illegally extracted hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable minerals from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo during their involvement in 'Africa's First World War' between 1998-2001. In fact, members of Kagame's presidential entourage were personally implicated in this theft, although Kagame himself denied involvement.
Kagame's style of leadership is certainly forthright and his RPF remained in firm political control despite the appointment of several Hutu ministers. And while significant social and economic progress has been achieved, the RPFs behind the scenes hold on power contributed to the resignation of President Pasteur Bizimungu and the succession of Kagame to the presidency in 2000, which was subsequently reinforced in flawed presidential elections on August 25, 2003. Allegations of politically motivated assassinations and corruption have been levied against Kagame's regime, while a significant domestic and foreign-based opposition was growing, including defectors from the RPF. Despite this Kagame has battled against the odds and managed to lead a period of relative peace, stability and reconstruction in post-genocide Rwanda. Whether or not he can maintain this positive trend depends upon his willingness to genuinely share the reigns of power in this desperately poor country.
Dallaire, Lt. Gen. Roméo, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Arrow Books, 2004.
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