Rwanda goes to elections on August 9. President Paul Kagame is billed as favourite to win, although sections of the opposition have called for a boycott, saying that it will not be fair.
Today, because Kagame is settled in power and his ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) is deeply entrenched, it is easy to forget that in many ways, he is an accidental president.
When the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) struck out from Uganda on October 1, 1990, Kagame was one among many soldiers behind the scenes.
The star of the Rwanda refugee and exile community was a dashing officer, Fred Rwigyema, who was a Major General in President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, which he joined when it was in the bush fighting a guerrilla war.
Rwigyema was killed on the second day of the attack.
To this day, it remains unclear how he was killed. One version has it that dissent broke out the day the rebels crossed into Rwanda, and a faction led by Dr Peter Baingana killed Rwigyema.
Another goes that he was standing on a hilltop when he was shot in the head by a Rwanda army sniper.
In any event, these events, and the fact that the RPA rebels, in a fatal bout of hubris, had underestimated the Rwanda Armed Forces, left the insurgents on the ropes.
In late October 1990, I was in a group of three journalists who witnessed as the Rwanda Army finished off the holdouts of the RPA at the Kagitumba border point.
The government soldiers later paused for photographers to record their moment of triumph.
They probably did not imagine that those moments would not last forever.
In nearby Mirama Hills lay the demoralised and wounded mass of RPA survivors.
Shortly afterwards Kagame, who was then on a military course at Fort Leavenworth in the USA, returned to take over the leadership.
In his grim no-drama fashion, Kagame took the RPA rump up the peaks of the inhospitable misty mountains of Muhabura to regroup and plan the future.
Muhabura was hell. Many RPA soldiers died from disease, and quite a number simply froze to death.
It was usual to find rebels posted on guard duty frozen in their sitting positions clutching their rifles in the morning.
Stories are told of how, sometimes, axes had to be used to cut the guns out of their dead fingers.
The advantage of Muhabura was that once the rebels sneaked through and went up, it was all but impossible for the government troops to get to them without being wiped out.
When the hardened surviving rebels eventually came down the mountain after almost a year, nothing could stop them.
In early 1994, I was travelling in a rickety mini van that used to ferry journalists around in rebel-controlled areas with Maj Gen Frank Mugambagye, now Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Uganda, back then RPA Political Commissar, to a forward base where Kagame was.
We came up a very steep hill and the mini van failed to make the climb.
Mugambagye ordered his bodyguards to disembark.
With a lighter load, the van slowly went up the hill. As it struggled, a group of RPA rebels who looked barely 14 years of age, came running up the hill and overtook the van.
They were carrying huge metal boxes of ammunition on their heads! “These boys are mean and tough,” Mugambagye turned and told me proudly.
That is what the Muhabura mountain had done.
At that point, the RPF would long have been in Kigali.
In February 1993, claiming that the Kigali government was violating the peace accord the two sides had signed in Arusha, the RPA resumed its military advance and was closing in on Kigali.
The French, then close allies of Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana, sent word out that they would not let the RPA overrun Kigali, and that they would help the government forces fight back the rebels.
In Uganda, President Museveni came under international pressure to lean on the RPA to back off and return to the negotiation table.
Museveni was concerned that if France got more directly involved in the war than it already was, the RPA risked suffering the debacle of October 1990.
When he asked the RPA to stop their advance, they refused.
So Museveni upped the stakes, and Uganda seized a large consignment of weapons that was on its way from Eastern Europe to the rebels, and threatened to squeeze the RPA supply lines.
The RPA could not take Kigali without the arms and supplies.
It stopped the advance, gave up the territory it had captured, which was then declared a demilitarised zone under the control of the UN Force in Rwanda (UNAMIR).
If the war had ended in 1993, the story of Rwanda might have been different.
The RPF might have felt less self-righteous than it did when it eventually took power in July 1994 after the genocide in which nearly a million people were killed.
It would also have been forced to share more power than it eventually did.
But mostly, because the genocide would not have happened, opinion would be less radicalised on both the (Tutsi-dominated) RPF side, and the (Hutu-led) opposition.
The genocide of 1994, and the fact that the RPF and some in the international community saw France as complicit, took away any moral justification for a large-scale military intervention by Paris to stop the rebels.
Shortly after the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had taken power in July 1994, I interviewed Kagame in a remote place outside the city.
I asked him what, beside the killings and the destruction, had surprised him most about the Rwanda they had conquered.
He told me that little had surprised him, because for many years while he was a refugee in Uganda, he would cross into Rwanda and travel around the country mostly by bus.
He was not detected, because he was a little skinny innocuous boy who didn’t attract attention. He was in his teens.
If this says anything, it testifies to the fierce nationalism that drives Rwandans and people like Kagame.
It explains why they can be so motivated to succeed, but also why they can be driven to murderous passion.
And, therefore, it also raises questions about whether a Rwandan leader can really ever step down from office.
The added view of Kagame by his critics as a strongman who brooks no opposition, has fuelled suspicion that like many of his African peers, he will cling to power after his second seven-year term expires in 2017 ( assuming that he will win the August election).
So when during the conversation at his Muhazi country home last month, I asked him whether he will leave power when his time is up. He replied promptly that he would.
“But there is no obvious succession plan,” I said, “and your critics say you are leaving it to the last minute so you can say there is no one who qualifies to lead and thus give you an excuse to continue.”
His answer was surprising. He acknowledged that not much is being publicly done toward the succession, and it was probably a mistake not to be doing so.
Too many demons
Despite what Kagame says my sense is that whether he retires, and the person who succeeds him turns Rwanda into a true multiparty democracy, will depend on how much Rwanda puts to rest its demons.
There is an unspoken Hutu-Tutsi pact that is one of the things holding Rwanda together.
The Tutsi undertook not to pursue revenge for the genocide, and the Hutu accepted to stop violence and to reach political accommodation with the RPF.
If this holds, and the country eventually outgrows it, Rwanda has a prayer. But will it?
There is a faint glimmer of hope. In the political bitterness and the political heavy-handedness that still mar public life in Rwanda, one of the untold stories is how politics has moved to the moderate centre.
This is mirrored in many things. In the first few years, the words “amnesty for genocide suspects” were a career killer in Rwanda.
In 1997, Rwanda was still in the grip of anger.
The demand for retributive justice was high.
In May 1997, 23 people who had been found guilty of genocide were executed by firing squad.
The executions didn’t bring any closure. Instead a deep gloom enveloped the country.
They were to be the last executions. In 2007, Rwanda abolished the death penalty.
One man for whom that had profound meaning must have been Gerald Gahima, who is currently a judge with the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the 1959 “revolution” by downtrodden Hutu that overthrew the Tutsi aristocracy, both Gahima and Kagame were about two years old.
Gahima’s parents died a gruesome death.
They were impaled. Gahima, who became the RPF’s first chief prosecutor and later deputy minister of Justice, however, believed that the death penalty was wrong.
It did not win him many friends in the RPF, and even his allies said Gahima was ahead of his time.
When he was dismissed amidst accusations that he had misused his office, his supporters said the RPF hardliners had just seized on an opportunity to hound him out.
The abolition of the death penalty in 2007, and the economic reforms suggest that the pragmatist and moderate tendency inside the RPF that Gahima was part of, was never defeated.
There are also those who claim to be able to read the Rwanda tea leaves, and who say that the patterns of hiring and firing by Kagame in recent years give a clue to his succession plan.
The most perilous ministerial and public jobs in East Africa must be in Rwanda.
There are no “untouchables” in Rwanda who are assured of being ministers, parastatal bosses, or security chiefs for even five years. Kagame is always shuffling his pack.
However, just like he will drop you today, Kagame can also bring you back to the spotlight tomorrow.
Those who know him say he uses the sackings to test political character.
The people who are dropped from big jobs who continue to be “good RPF cadres” and don’t complain about being marginalised, are almost always re-appointed to bigger positions.
Those who grumble, are banished to the hills forever.
Among those who have been on this political seesaw and survived are people like the diminutive and soft-spoken Dr. Richard Ssezibera.
He was a military spokesman; then rewarded with an ambassadorship to the US; brought back home where he sat around for a while, then was appointed special envoy to the Great Lakes (basically to manage Rwanda’s messy affairs in the DR Congo); then put in charge of negotiating Rwanda’s entry into the East African Community (EAC).
He delivered the goods on the EAC, and was made minister for Health.
Another figure who has survived on Rwanda’s political tarpaulin is Maj Gen Mugambagye, Rwanda’s High Commissioner to Uganda.
Mugambagye has held many small and a few top security jobs, including Police chief, and minister for Security in the President’s Office.
And then there is Dr Donald Kaberuka, presently the president of the African Development Bank, which is now based in Tunis.
Kaberuka is credited with edging Kagame into a reformist direction on the economy, and international financial organisations spoke of him as the “best African Finance minister” when he held that position in Kigali.
In common, most of these are moderate elements.
If they are the future of Rwanda leadership, then the country will almost definitely evolve into a more relaxed and politically liberal place.
Until that future comes, people like Kagame who were shaped by fire like hot iron will design Rwanda’s politics.
So my mind went back to that late October 1990 day when the RPA was routed.
Uganda, was then backing the RPA, and had moved large numbers of troops to the border with Rwanda, to “prevent the conflict from spilling into Uganda.”
The general in command of the Ugandan operations was a jocular chap called Reuben Ikondore.
We sat with him under a shade as he filled us in on what was happening on the Rwanda side.
He then asked us to walk with him into the military camp for breakfast. We did. Then something I will never forget happened.
Sitting in the middle of the camp were four soldiers with their shirts off.
All of a sudden Ikondere plucked a bundle of thorny brushes and started lashing them.
Dozens of soldiers joined in the frenzy, and after a few minutes the men were all covered in bloody lacerations.
We took our places at a makeshift table, and Ikondere, now again a total picture of calm, explained what had happened.
The soldiers, he said, had sneaked off from the camp in the night, gone to a nearby village to drink, and slept out with local women.
“You cannot do that. You can endanger the mission. You can get all your colleagues killed if you fall into enemy hands and are forced to give up information,” Ikondere said.
Ikondere’s mindset is that of many generals. They are terrified of not being totally in charge of the show. They fear the worst from the smallest of transgressions.
And they don’t take too kindly to any one who doesn’t toe the line.
African generals like Kagame, can build prosperous economies, roads, hospitals, and fight Aids. What they cannot do is build liberal democracies.