Rwanda victor battles for hearts and minds

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The Independent Online
NO ONE doubts that although he is the Vice-President, Paul Kagame is the most powerful man in Rwanda. He was the mastermind behind the defeat of the government army, and now calls the political as well as military tune in Kigali.

One of the tunes is that the Rwandese Patriotic Front is not a Tutsi movement. To orchestrate it, a Hutu, Pasteur Bizimungu, was chosen as President. Kagame's official titles are Vice-President, Minister of Defence and Major-General, Commander of the Rwandese Patriotic Army, now renamed the Rwanda National Army - but he is not the military servant of a political master.

Anyone, a Rwandese or foreigner, who wants something done in Kigali these days knows that the best way is to make an appointment with Kagame. Kagame is a small bony man with bright hard eyes that look at you a little longer than is comfortable from behind pebble glasses. He rarely smiles and speaks directly and curtly, a manner that has won him a reputation for arrogance. Like all the Tutsi leaders of the RPF, he grew up in Uganda. His parents fled into exile in 1959, when he was two years old, to escape the pogroms. He grew up in refugee camps, did well at school and secured a place at Makerere University in Kampala.

The Rwandese refugees were persecuted by successive Ugandan governments. When Milton Obote tried to drive them out of the country in 1981, Kagame went to the bush to join the National Resistance Army, led by Yoweri Museveni. For five years the NRA fought a guerrilla war against Obote's army. It employed classic guerrilla tactics: extreme caution interspersed with sudden strikes and ambushes.

Museveni placed political education of the local people on a par with military success, and his army had a well-earned reputation for discipline. Its relentless pressure and ability to 'turn' captured government soldiers demoralised government troops.

Rwandese Tutsis formed a large proportion of the NRA's officer corps, and when the NRA finally took Kampala in 1986, a Tutsi, Fred Rwigema, became the Chief of Staff. Paul Kagame was head of military intelligence. He had a fearsome reputation, and was nicknamed 'Pilate', after the man who ordered the crucifiction.

'He never went in for anything unnecessary,' said one observer. 'He was very hard and effective. He used methods such as putting plastic bags over people's heads. That sort of thing, but nothing gross.

'People were very frightened of him, but there were never any reports of sadism or killing for its own sake. He was very hard on any indiscipline among the NRA troops.'

After their victory, the Tutsis in the NRA did not settle well into Kampala's life of ease. They never forgot their homeland and met in secret, plotting their return.

On the last night of September 1990, about 2,000 of them assembled in south-west Uganda, robbed several Ugandan army arms stores and advanced into Rwanda.

They were led by Fred Rwigema, whose plan was to drive straight to Kigali and seize the capital. But the Rwandan army, strengthened by French troops, was stronger than expected, and the invaders were repulsed. Rwigema was killed.

Kagame, still a Ugandan army officer, was on a military training course at Fort Levenworth in the United States when he heard about the invasion.

He flew to Uganda, crossed into Rwanda and took command of the RPF. He quickly imposed the strategy that had worked so well in Uganda, and the RPF returned to the guerrilla warfare for which northern Rwanda, with its densely forested hills, is admirably suited.

But there was a crucial difference between the NRA in Uganda and the RPF in Rwanda. Although Museveni's army had been led by western Ugandans and Tutsis, its foot soldiers were mostly Baganda, the largest group in the country, who live around Lake Victoria and the capital Kampala.

As his army advanced, it was welcomed as a liberating force. In Rwanda, however, the Tutsis, who comprise only about 15 per cent of the population, advanced into Hutu territory, and the Hutus fled.

Despite its discipline and its emphasis on political values, the RPF was considered to be an invading force by the population.

Kagame realised that he could not take over the country, and settled for trading the RPF's military power for a political stake. The deal, struck at Arusha in 1993, gave the RPF a share in government - but it was never implemented.

When President Juvenal Habyarimana was murdered on 6 April and the Hutu extremists began the massacres of Tutsis throughout the country, Kagame decided that the RPF would have to take over the whole country. It took him three bloody months in which about a seventh of the population died.

The question now is whether Kagame can turn the RPF's territorial conquest into a political conquest of the hearts and minds of the exiled Hutus.

(Photograph omitted)

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