Ian Kagame, the third born of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, was recently – at least formally – initiated into the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF).
The lanky military officer had just completed a military course at the admired Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, sparking off comparisons with Rwanda’s northern neighbour, Uganda, where there’s an ongoing debate on who will succeed President Museveni – who has been in power since 1986 – with his son Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba being a central character in this argument.
The comparisons between Ian and Gen Muhoozi, who was weeks ago fired by his father as the Commander Land Forces, but in the same go promoted to the rank of four-star General, are quite stark.
Just like Ian, Muhoozi is a graduate of Western military academies, having done two military courses at Sandhurst and the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
Though Uganda and Rwandan relations have gone through lots of lows to the point of closing the border for a number of years, Kigali for a number of years has tended to copy what goes on in Kampala.
“The NRA,” says Mr Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a senior lecturer at Makerere University, alluding to the National Resistance Army rebel outfit that Museveni led into the Luweero jungles before they conquered power in 1986, “Is the father of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), so Rwanda will seem to imitate what’s done here, at least at a political level.”
Though RPF under the stewardship of Kagame has been in charge of Rwanda since 1994 when it shot its way to power and ended a brutal genocide in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days of slaughter, it traces its roots in the Front for National Salvation (Fronasa), rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni that operated in Tanzania in a bid to oust Idi Amin in the 1970s.
Tutsi refugees Fred Rwigyema and Kagame were key cogs of the Fronasa outfit and they would later join Museveni’s NRA in the Luweero jungles. Kagame, a Tanzanian-trained spy, was among the 33 people who convened at Mathew Rukikaire’s residence in Kampala on February 3, 1981, that planned NRA’s first attack on Kabamba Barracks.
During the war, it said Museveni trusted fighters of Rwandan origin more and this was showcased when the rebel chief appointed Kagame his personal counterintelligence chief and Rwigyema remained the head of his protection unit for many years.
Though NRA attributed most of the deaths that occurred during the five-year war to the government forces, it later emerged that the rebels actually played a major role in the killings.
“They would dig a shallow grave,” Maj John Kazoora, a Luweero Bush War veteran, wrote in his memoir Betrayed by my leader. “Tie you [up] and lie you facing the ground and crack your skull using an old hoe called kafuni.”
Kafuni is a short-handled hoe used to dig holes and loosen soil, but British journalist and author Michela Wrong says it was a method used by NRA to execute suspected informants.
In theory, accountability was one of NRA’s central tenets, and when justice was dispensed in rebel-held territory, the process was open, hence the testimony collected by intelligence officers like Kagame and the sentence carried out in public.
“In reality, former NRM rebels will tell you, kafuni was often used not so much with fighters who had become a problem — although that did happen— but with members of Obote’s youth squads, villagers suspected of collaboration, or those who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the bodies quickly buried in shallow graves in the dark of the Forest,” Ms Wrong writes in her book Please don’t disturb.
When the Tutsi refugees decided to wage their own guerrilla war with the intention of dislodging the Juvénal Habyarimana government that was dominated by the Hutus, the Kafuni method came in handy.
“But when it came to training combatants, the RPF—just like its Ugandan predecessor—was paranoid about infiltration, on the lookout for spies who might relay information back to Habyarimana’s intelligence services. Arriving youngsters were rigorously screened, and volunteers deemed to have failed the test were rewarded for their enthusiasm with a shallow grave. Kafuni, the farmer’s home, was once more put to use,” Wrong writes.
After taking over power in Kigali, Kagame decided to strike an alliance of convenience with the Hutus, who form the majority in Rwanda, thus allowing Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, to be president.
“After the genocide, RPF was anxious to reassure what remained of a terrified Hutu population that the power-sharing principles of Arusha still held good. While RPF gave itself the ministries originally earmarked for Habyarimana’s party, 16 of the 22 dockets went to the opposition. But all was not quite as it seemed: the RPF vetted candidates put forward by the parties,” Wrong writes.
“RPF gave the top job to Bizimungu, a haughty Hutu politician, former director of Rwanda’s national electricity company, who had enjoyed close ties with Habyarimana. The appointment was justified on the grounds that Bizimungu also came from Rwanda’s northwest, an area needing reassurance.”
It seemed that kind RPF was copying and pasting what NRA, which was dominated by fighters from south-western Uganda had done in Uganda when it forged an alliance of convenience with the Baganda who are the majority in Uganda.
Museveni’s charm offensive saw him reach out to Yusuf Lule, a muganda who had been ousted as president in 1980 after serving for 68 days and went ahead to form a rebel outfit he named Uganda Freedom Fighters (UFF).
Lule agreed to join Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). The deal saw Lule become chairman of NRM, albeit without powers, while Museveni became its vice chairman and chairman of the High Command of the NRA, NRM’s armed wing.
It’s not clear how this deal would have played out once NRA captured power in 1986 since Lule had died a year earlier, but indicators show it would have ended in acrimony since Buganda monarchists have accused Museveni of using Lule’s name to galvanise his rebel movement and mobilise both support and manpower to launch a successful guerrilla campaign.
The group has increasingly accused Museveni of riding on Buganda’s back to get to power but later deserting its interests like giving Buganda Kingdom the much sought-after federal status.
“The people of Buganda did not contract with NRM in the bush for the restoration of a traditional leader as restored, a cultural leader, an Aga Khan, a paramount chief, a traditional chief or village chief. And the 1993 Constitutional Amendment Statute is considered to have been merely a dress rehearsal for greater things to come. We have never sought for a constitutional cultural head whose existence does not require constitutional recognition. That’s all I can say for now,” Wasswa Lule, son of Yusuf Lule, would later tell the Independent magazine.
NRA, upon marching on the streets of Kampala, had formed what it called a broad-based government which saw Opposition figures get dockets in the first Cabinet.
One of the those who got Cabinet seats was Andrew Lutakome Kayiira, who had merged his rebel outfit Freedom Movement /Army (UFM/A) with NRA in April 1986 and a few months after he was made minister of Energy in the first NRM Cabinet in January 1986.
A few months after his ministerial appointment, Kayiira was arrested on October 5, 1986, and jailed in Luzira on treason charges. Kayiira, who also had links to the Democratic Party (DP), was released on February 24, 1987, and a few weeks later he met his death at the home of his friend Henry Gombya in Makindye Division, Kampala, when unknown people sprayed the house with bullets, killing him instantly.
For RPF the alliance with the Hutus turned bloody. Seth Sendashonga, who had been appointed interior minister, became increasingly disenchanted with RPF and fled to Kenya before he was killed in by unknown gunmen in 1998. Faustin Twagiramungu, who had been appointed prime minster, fled to exile and Bizimungu who was appointed president but after a number of disagreements with vice president Kagame, he tendered in his resignation, finally ending the pretence that Kagame was sharing power with the Hutus.
“I was a very good friend of Kagame, a godfather to his son,” former chief of staff of the Rwandan army, Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa who is now exiled in South Africa, told Ms Wrong. “Pasteur Bizimungu and I also had a very good relationship, so I was mediating between the two. There were many angry exchanges, with Bizimungu telling Kagame he had no right to take the lead in cabinet meetings and Kagame telling Bizimungu he had no say over what was decided in RPF get-togethers.”
Following his resignation, Bizimungu founded a political party he called Democratic Renewal but the response by Kagame’s new government was to ban it. In 2004, Bizimungu was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to form a militia, inciting violence, and embezzlement, but was pardoned three years later by Kagame after showing the required degree of abnegation.
“Kagame had silenced any dissenting voices in Rwanda’s civilian government, parliament, judiciary, and human rights movement. He had also, in his critics’ eyes, divided RPF into two opposing factions,” Wrong writes.
Upon taking power both NRA – which was renamed Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) – and RPF started intervening directly in the regional affairs as they combined efforts to oust Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko and installed their stooge, Laurent-Désiré Kabila.
“There are not many people who thought that Mobutu was very weak. They thought of Mobutu as a big monster who wouldn’t be defeated, with his big hat and his big stick. They thought little of Rwanda and big Zaire,” Kagame, who was the minister of defence and vice president of Rwanda, was quoted by Washington Post in 1997. “Only when we started did they look at the map and see the possibilities.”
In installing Kabila, Kigali and Kampala thought he did their bidding but once he refused to do as Museveni and Kagame ordered, military historian James Stejskal says the two agreed in 1998 to “cut Kabila loose.”
The military operation that would have seen Kabila lose power was, however, muted by the intervention of both the Angolan and Zimbabwean troops upon a request by the desperate Kabila.
Once they failed to oust Kabila, Uganda and Rwanda resorted to, adds Stejskal, supporting rival rebel groups and militias in the DR Congo. This ultimately resulted in the 2000 six-day war between Rwandan and Ugandan forces in Kisangani, the DR Congo’s second-largest city. Rwanda claimed victory.
“Slowly, the Rwandans closed in on their former friends. Whenever RPA captured a Ugandan position, its soldiers would continue firing in the direction of their own Rwandan forces, thereby concealing just how much ground they had captured. The flanking tactic ensured that Ugandan troops controlling the bridgehead failed to register just how disastrously they had been encircled until they were overrun,” Wrong writes.
What was nicknamed ‘Congo’s Six-Day War’, because it coincided with the anniversary of the 1967 Israeli-Arab conflict, left 600 dead. Most were Congolese civilians, but a few days later, shocked Ugandan officers took delivery of the bodies of at least 140 of their own soldiers. Many of them appeared to have been blindfolded with elephant grass and shot in the back of the head.
In 2004, following the clashes in the Congo, Museveni’s NRM moved to remove the two-term presidential limits that had been put in the 1995 Constitution and if followed would have ensured that Museveni’s reign would have ended in 2006.
Museveni entrenched himself in power further in 2017 after his party edited presidential age limits out of the Constitution that had the cap at 75. Had the law remained, Museveni wouldn’t have stood in 2021 general election.
In Rwanda, RPF supremo Kagame was supposed to end his reign in 2017 because the Rwandan constitution limits a president to two terms, but Rwandans approved by 98 percent in a referendum that allowed Kagame to be able to run for an additional seven-year term and then two-five year terms, which meant he could possibly stay in power until 2034.
When he attended Muhoozi’s 48 birthday party hosted at State House Entebbe in March, Kagame is said to have told Museveni that since his son had gone out of his way to solve a problem that had put the two countries on a collision course, he is “ready for bigger things”. But it’s no clear whether he thinks Ian, his own son, is also “ready for bigger things.”