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Liberation: How Rwanda’s Guerrilla Outfit (RPA) Transformed Into A Modern Army

Special Report

Liberation: How Rwanda’s Guerrilla Outfit (RPA) Transformed Into A Modern Army

Today is a day of celebration, reflection and continued commitment to ensure that efforts of the liberation struggle are sustained and more development is attained.

This line of thought can be seen from how the celebration was designed this year.

President Paul Kagame drove to Southern Province to inaugurate Horezo model Village built by the military in partnership with other ministries. This village is for low income families.

It has 25 houses, a 12 year basic education school, an Early Childhood Development center, a health post and a multipurpose center.

This project has a context.  It has a story behind it.  How does the military get involved? Why is the military involved in such a project?  The army has been active in many projects ranging from agriculture, infrastructure, health, housing, education and many others.

The question is why?

The journey from being a guerilla movement to a professional army is quite telling.  RDF has not only turned into a professional army, but also become a world renowned military.

Humanitarianism is one of its core values. International peacekeeping is now one of the major endeavors.  Twenty four years down the road, after the last bullet was shot to liberate Rwanda from a dictatorial regime,  we examine how RDF has evolved from RPA as a rebel group to RDF as professional army.

In 2012, I interviewed one of the commanders and fighters of RPA,  Rt. Lt. General Cesar Kayizari. I never published the whole interview until today.

In the exclusive, he candidly describes the ideals, values and traits that characterized the RPA, an army that was under equipped, untrained, and fighting on empty stomachs, to be able to attain a clandestine victory over a genocidal regime that was backed by international super powers like France.

The same ideals, values and traits, he says, have propelled the RDF to a professional, humanitarian, and highly disciplined army.

Where does our military get the spirit of humanitarianism and international peacekeeping?

It is in our mission statement, besides the classic strategic approach of dealing with national sovereignty protection; constitutionally we are required to participate in international humanitarian missions as well as regional peacekeeping endeavors.

Another reason is because Rwandans are informed by the nature of who we are, our background and our history. The history of Rwanda as a nation, leads it into certain values and virtues. One of them is care for others; something engraved in the history of Rwanda.

Although external forces, at one time, manipulated it during colonialism era, but if you look at the culture of Rwandans, there is caring for neighbours who are vulnerable. And good habits don’t hide easily, so when they were given the opportunity to resurface, they do resurface.

Two, in the past our suffering was a result of the negligence of those vital virtues or getting concerned about what happened to the people.

Remember Rwanda resurrection was made possible because people said we need to get concerned, we are victims, though others are victims too.  It wasn’t going to be easy, but we said we had to sacrifice, even if it meant death. It worked.

Everyone came against all odds, domestic and international, to surmount the most uphill task of removing the evil regime, which was supported internationally by super powers. But because there was a desire to help solve the problem, because the problems were real, it worked.  That is why we are where we are. We feel we have to share some of those acts with others especially since we had learnt a lesson.

How did you manage to instill the spirit of sacrifice into young Rwandans who had come from diverse cultures, to suddenly pick a trait they did not grow up with?

Humanity in a man is always there, it is the environment that may subdue it, but when we knew that patriotism is part of our culture, in our DNA, we mobilized them, encouraged them to exploit the oil.

You may have the oil underground but until you go and drill it, the oil will not come out. We drilled that oil that was in them, by sharing with them who they are or what they were supposed to be; a trait that had been killed.

Because Rwandans love who they are, taking pride of being the best they can be, so with education and practice, it became possible.

Did you have tools of instigating the spirit?

Very much so.

What were they?

One was leading by example, beginning from the highest leadership of the struggle; the commander in chief. He demonstrated the virtues, values, and integrity, which were emphasised over and over. We also had a political awareness education. We had political commissars in our formation. They were part and parcel of everyday life in the bush.

They discussed issues and tendencies that build a nation, an institution or an organisation. They also discussed negative tendencies that institutions and communities. Deviations were taken care of by the command and control. We had laws that governed the standards of behaviour.

A combination of all those became our signature, part of, one would say, our identity. That is where RDF borrows the intervention in any operational environment and in its area of interest, beyond the environment.

However, it is something that has taken time to build, but it has become possible because it is built on our historical personality, which goes before the 12th Century.

I am emphasising that while the rest of Africa, the majority part of Africa, which were shepherd, under the scourge of slave trade, Rwanda is among the few that never suffered.

Why was Rwanda not involved in slave trade?

It is our character. In the neighbouring countries, there was serious slave market. It was in Uvira, Karimi, Masaka area in Uganda and others, but it never took place in Rwanda because Rwandans believe in humanity.

This is a basis one can build on to say we are not a man-eating-man society, although later the manipulators made us to become one at one time of our history.

Lets go back to the struggle. The challenges were extreme.  RPA faced harsh conditions, it was underequipped and suffered serious setbacks. What kept you going? What motivated you? Did you have nothing to live for?

Those temptations came in somewhere among individuals, because we had deserters. There are a lot of conclusions here. One, an earlier realization was that, it was about the understanding of the dynamics of the war that mattered rather than the science of the fighting. And that was the leadership inclination into everybody’s mind.

The understanding of the nature of the war that we were going to fight, its consequences, its hardships, and then fighting came last. What happens in some armies, that fight and later give up or those struggles that fade away, mostly is that, the issue of character of the war is neglected.

Most of them just engage in the physical fighting. This can be by everybody and when they get setbacks, defeated on the battlefield, there is nothing to fall back to. So, throughout our struggle, the leadership took it upon themselves to explain why we were there, why we were having problems and how to overcome them.

Now, that is the other part of the actual fight. When you know why, you know the end step. And you know the consequence if you give up. We knew that when give up nobody was going to fight this war for us! It was ours. We did not see ourselves as individuals in the war. For us, it was a national war.

That material time, we were fighting from the wrong side, thinking that we were rebels, but we knew we were the ones with the solutions for the nation, because those in charge of the nation, were in charge of only themselves, not of the nation.

They did not have the nation at heart. So we were fighting for the survival of this nation, and the love of this nation. That is why I told you that when you are fighting, you must first understand. Understanding helped us surmount all difficulties.

We knew it was not about saving ourselves. We could not abandon the struggle; if we did then we would have abandoned the nation. In any struggle, when you internalise this philosophy, it gives you extra energy; power and resilience to fight come what may.

Anybody would remember that 1991 was a very difficult time, but soldiers used to sing “Hata kama tukonde kama misumali’, [even if we shrink to the size of a nail] we can not go back!

Who was behind the creation of such encouraging songs packaged to stimulate bravery and instilling the spirit of resistance to suffrage?

I wouldn’t say so and so invented this; I think there wasn’t any.

But all the way from the beginning, the relationship took upon itself, that ‘Vipindi vya utamaduni’, in camps of songs, and insisted on particular songs not other songs, you know it is easy to be tempted and sing songs like ‘Inyoni yaridunze iva mu giti’ which have no significance and no meaning at all.

Part of the tasks of the political commissary agenda, messages were passed through songs, and songs that were patriotic. These songs had to carry particular messages, either messages of ‘Siyasa,’ [conviction] or message of the mission, or the message of the science of the war and messages that encourage people.

I therefore would not say that so and so brought it, but it was a collective idea championed by the leadership of the RPA as the best way to pass on the message.

To be specific, you are saying the leadership of the RPA used to think of the nature of message and how to pass it on?

It was their responsibility. That is all about leadership; what to say, how to say it, what to sing and what message to tell the commanders. That was actually the greater mission of leadership.

Are you still using the same strategy in the current army, the RDF?

It is our practice that what has worked well for us in the past; we keep it, and even improve it.

You are not in the bush anymore. Is it efficient in this modern army? How is it working?

Ooh wonderfully! We are on track and we draw a lot of lessons from the past. We give a lot of examples from the past. We tell stories that worked for us from the past. We talk about where we went wrong and say we shouldn’t  repeat that. We even modernise what was working in the most rudimental manner.

Can you give me examples?

Well, let’s go to command and control; closeness to the troops.  This is a quick example that comes in. In the past, we were able to achieved a lot, because the most senior and the most junior were in the eye-to-eye contact. The most junior soldier, even of the lower ranks, knew what the top leader wanted from them.

This was possible because of periodic meeting, regular talking and entertaining questions and suggestions and other ideas. We still do the same. Commanders are encouraged always to be closer to their troops. We do not entertain bureaucratic leadership. It is working here, be it in foreign missions or peacekeeping missions.

For example, Gen Patrick Nyanvumba (then the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Darfur, Sudan, now CDS), because he touched on the real problem. Unfortunately, this trait is missing in many African armies.  But our Commander In-Chief, the Chief of the Defense staff, (CDS), the Defense Minister and other commanders get closer to the troops as possible.

Cause of Humanity Drives Rwanda Peacekeeping Interventions

Is there evidence of what you are saying?

Yes. The international community renewed Gen Patrick’s mandate in Sudan because of his exemplary performance as well as Rwanda, because he put on the jackets of Rwanda; he carried the heart of Rwanda. He and other officers portrayed the values of the institution as well as of nation of Rwanda. They carried with them an element of Umuco, [integrity], which we are trying to make it into Umurage [legacy].

How will RDF manage to saw the seed of integrity as a legacy, with modernity that is influencing cultural change; modernity that is influencing the minds and behaviour of mankind today, and hence moral decay?

I believe in change, change is a factor of life, but change is not an upheaval. You change what is there. You upgrade in fact. Change is carried in the best of human being. When you say modernity, you sound worried that modernity will take the real you, inside.

You can be modernised, use the latest gadgets of technology, drive the latest vehicles, but the personality behind the technology, is what will always be important. We are aware of this. We want to modernise, with a little resources, of course modernisation goes with resources, we want to keep the same pace with the rest of the world, of course with the positive world, not the negative world like some of our fellow African countries.

We don’t want to modernise and in the end find ourselves equipped with destructive technology and forget we are human beings. Many countries have sustained modernisation and have maintained their culture. Look at Japan for example. Japanese have the most modern technologies, but they have their human faces constantly.

These are the views that must always go together. Sometimes people get crazy and think modernity is insulting your grandmother; something that was one time a taboo.  Modernity is capturing what is positive in science and technology as well as social science, and using it to help mankind.

Mankind will always be there and science will always be there, how we marry the two is what becomes the challenge. There are those who come and want to corrupt modernisation, bring it into people and turn them upside down, but that is not our case.

We teach our troops the latest technology, be it in ICT, be it new weapon systems, but we tell them weapon systems alone don’t make a soldier. The soldier must have the virtue of selfless service, courage, duty, loyalty, and integrity to effectively use the modern gadgets that are part of their mission.

RPA struggled, ceased power, and created a professional army that has maintained peace and stability. What next?

The struggle continues. It is only that the battlefield that keeps changing. In fact that is what we have emphasised. And this is the challenge of many other liberation struggles. When they reach on power they think they have arrived.

They go into the mood that we liberated, we fought, and then they begin fighting for the national cake and lose the adage that ‘The Struggle Continues.’ We tell our troops not to settle for less, that there is more. Some have failed.

That is why you have some of dissidents, those people who thought the fight ended with capitalist state, power grabbing and said let’s eat and drink, not knowing that when your philosophy is ‘lets eat and drink’, yet the next saying is ‘tomorrow you die’.

For us our mission is to keep focused on the milestone and to create the next generation of focused leaders having the same vision or even better, but with the zeal, the energy and keep the nation going, and the nation does not mean the territorial boundaries, it’s the people.

The global threats today are terrorism, armed militias; nuclear bombs, etc, but they seem not much of a threat for Rwanda. What are Rwanda’s major threats?

If you ask me as an army officer, I will say we always have enemies. Threats are always constant. “Ngo igihugu gishira abanzi ntigishira abashinyaguzi’ [You may not have enemies, but always have mockers]. They will always be there and you must be ready to deal with them. By saying ‘you’ I mean the definition of you, the setting of you, the building of you.

If you like, change you to we. It’s a strategic threat to build ourselves.  Other things are ‘petit’.  Once you yourself come always ready, which is a continuous process. In is matter, keeping RDF sharp, being combat ready, being politically clear; above the confusion that emerges every other evening, and not being swung by every wind that comes, but taking them then take a lesson from them to shape the character of who we want to be, is always the biggest threat. The maintenance of what we select as what to do in a perfect order is our major threat.

An officer of the RDF sprays a garden of maize crops to prevent Army worms

Scholars argue that poverty is another major security threat, is it the case with RDF?

Of course it is. Those are the threats I said that will always remain constant, but you can only deal with poverty when you have seen it, when you know and agree it is a threat, and once you have the zeal to fight it. But if you are weak, and you have an attitude problem of how to fight poverty then poverty will finish you.

RDF wants to go beyond the poverty, disasters, FDLR and any other person raised in hate; we want to focus on the tools to fight all problems. Problems keep popping up and change like weather.

So if you want to go and deal with these threats, and not shape yourself to deal with the cause of the problems, then you will always have problems.

You only need to be well shaped and ready to change the formula to deal with any identified threat and once you are not, one threat comes and another comes, you get messed up with the confusion, you are finished.

We have seen it happen to various armies, but different armies, highly trained, professional, well paid, but when a problem emerges that is domestic and small, they are thrown off balance. The challenge is not the threat, but the way they are shaped to deal with the threat. When a problem arises in Rwanda, RDF is shaped to adapt very easily.

If it is a drought in the Eastern Province, as it was the case, we intervened in the most readily manner because our character is shaped to intervene. We were half trained for that, but character ready for that. When the floods in the North emerged, the speed with which we intervened, and the way we contained the problem, the flexibility of the institution, and not one individual, but everybody across, was remarkable yet it was our first exercise to deal with floods.

We were not trained engineers to deal with floods; it’s the character we brought on with us to deal with it.  There will be some forces against the idea of intervention, be it in the barracks, be it in the public, etcetera. And those are the temptations, we even find it in the media, but it is the refusal to be swallowed by such forces that has made us survive through many challenges that we have encountered.

Should we say RDF is ever ready to contain threats in the country even across the region?

One of the things I can say is you are never ready, you try as much as possible to be ready.  The moment you say you are 100% ready you will be shaken off balance. We always have some balance of pessimism.

We ask ourselves, have we done enough, have we gone the extra mile? However, in other aspects, there has been a lot of dynamics and changes in the region that were not expected today, ten years ago.

The level of coming together as regional armies, the level of understanding, and even the level of recognition of RDF as an actor and a key actor, an army you can learn from, a force you can envy and a force you can partner with on bilateral and joint military operations to have results, is something to appreciate.

We believe we must keep the pace of aspirations so that later we are not found wanting. We don’t want to be in a position where the RDF, that was the other day being admired, now has serious gaps. We must, as Rwanda, maintain the political and military leadership, that is a candle of hope.

Does the RDF share its experiences and skills with other armies on the continent? How?

Very much so. First by doing good to ourselves. When we do it to our domestic constituents, then those willing to learn will come and say, why can’t we do it the RDF way? People are not asleep, they keep watching over the borders to see what is happening.

For us we are no longer dealing with borders, we are in Sudan, Haiti and elsewhere. Certainly if you do good things somebody else will pick it up. We are mandated to do good, that’s what the leadership tells us to do. That is what we are challenged to do, to push us to the extra mile, of doing very good and that’s the departure point number one.

It is when people see you do it, and for you and in your own environment, then people to partner with you or learn from you. We share what we do in the military, maintain security and dealing with the civil society and what we do in our face; our discipline.

Two, we have done it in the level of our engagements.  We are highly engaged in defence cooperation in the East African community. We have done joint exercises here. Some times it becomes a bad temptation always to think we are holly than the rest yet we still have all sorts of gaps here and there.

It is good to listen and learn from others, of course you don’t simply go learning from everybody even when they have no lesson to offer, but we are diplomatic enough not cause human tensions because during this period exemplary performance becomes a major focus.

Of course we also have our military colleges and we invite foreigners to attend and they have been attending. Personally I would say we shouldn’t shout! Let our acts be the Eureka, not us to do the propaganda.  When you do, people may concentrate on one negative aspect or one wound or one scar that you may still be having and call it mountain on you, and then start endless arguments.

That’s why I was emphasising on the domestic acts and the domestic performance as the basic teacher for everybody to automatically copy. And it has taken place without any much shouting. The acts in Rwanda and not only in the military, have compelled others to say why don’t we do like Rwanda? But we have not gone out to say do it like us, it is how we do it!

What would RDF confidently say is good at? Combat? Leadership?

Laughs. Very tempting question I will have to avoid. I don’t want to shout a trumpet…I think it is you who should shout the trumpet for us. Of course there are many areas, but let me leave it for others to say.

Today, many years ago, RDF is cerebrating a successful liberation struggle. What are the reflections, memories of joy and triumphs and are there moments of sorrow? Was the struggle worth shedding blood and sacrificing oneself?

 I think so. I am sure, actually. We survived. We survived because when we did the act.  The forces that came up to destroy us, even in infants problems were many, but we survived and we are still in the struggle, is something to celebrate about.

We have built an image, a reputation; we surmounted numerous obstacles, domestic, regional and international. That alone gives us the cause to cerebrate. Of course we are still struggling, because internally and externally there are people who want to take us off the course by pointing a bad image of who we are, but we have survived them, and maintained the line.  Our leadership has kept us on the line, and we haven’t lost navigation.

So, there is a need to celebrate, cerebrating tangible achievements which I don’t need to enumerate. If there was a debate that there are zero achievements, then I would be forced to enumerate and say what about this and that?

Lastly, we are relevant to the national security in totality, relevant to the world by the demand of the forces, what started as RDF carrying it alone, of course with political leadership being the lead and director, we have got many partners that have come on board.

Our understanding of what nation building is all about has greatly improved, with our modest input.  We cerebrate, but keeping in mind the struggle continues.

His excellence President Kagame likes to say that while others are walking, we should be running, actually following Formula One vehicle.  We need to run fast to catch up with the rest of the world. It is always very important to keep that in mind!

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. David Dushime

    July 29, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    This is an inspiring lessons caught from our history and particularly, from the history of liberation struggle lead by RPF-RPA. Yes, the struggle continues; and I wish that such articles be spread-ed to wanainshi.


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