History of the military in Rwanda, by an insider

Saturday June 28 2014

By Gilbert Mwijuke Special Correspondent

When Rwandan and Congolese national armies recently engaged in two days of border clashes that left five Congolese soldiers dead, it was a case of history repeating itself.

Such clashes are not new, according to Brig-Gen (rtd) Frank Rusagara’s new book, Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda, which discusses a long history of clashes between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that dates back in the 16th Century.

During King Kigeri II’s reign, Rwanda invaded and conquered Masis and Rucuro — in today’s eastern DRC — in a bid to expand its kingdom. The progress of King Kigeri’s troops was only halted by the thick forests of the DRC because, at the time, Rwandans believed that the forests were the end of the inhabited world.

Another incident took place in 1896, when a military contingent from the Congo Free State, with the help of the Belgian African army Force Publique, invaded Rwanda and established themselves at Shangi by installing military stations at Nyamasheke and Musaho in present-day Karongi District. King Mibambwe IV responded by dispatching the army to dislodge the intruders but the Rwandan forces were overrun by the superior Force Publique.

Covers almost 1,000 years

As Brig-Gen (rtd) Rusagara writes, “The history of Rwanda to date covers almost 1,000 years, and all through it the military has had a hand in influencing the sociopolitical life of its people, whether positively or negatively.”


With a humbled army, it is little wonder that when in 1897 captain Ramsay, from Germany, handed Mpamarugamba, a trusted courtier who often represented the king, with the German flag and a letter containing the “Protection Accord,” the royal court accepted the offer that made Rwanda a German protectorate without hesitation.

Resilience of a Nation discusses in detail Rwanda’s history — from the pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence periods to the present.

The book tells of how the word Inkotanyi (Kinyarwanda for fierce warrior), which was adopted by the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) during the 1990-1994 guerilla war, was first used in the 19th Century to describe King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri because of his daring military expeditions.

The Monarch “was not a king to trifle with” and would take on his enemies at the slightest provocation, writes Brig-Gen (rtd) Rusagara.

For instance, when the German Lieutenant Gustav Adolf von Goetzen, the first official colonialist in Rwanda, met King Kigeri at Kageyo in May 1894, the latter took on the German for slapping his chief of protocol. The palace staffer had barred Lt Goetzen from seeing the king after the foreigner attempted to bypass protocol.

Even though the military was traditionally charged with protecting and ensuring unity of Rwandans, things took a nasty turn during the post-colonial times when a succession of military forces took it upon themselves to brutalise the country’s own, leading to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

In the colonial period, the king’s military formations were meant for the security of his people and, at some point, the expansion of the kingdom. The king was the caretaker of justice among all his people and was easily accessible to all Rwandans. He regularly travelled across the country to meet his subjects.

In the post-independence period, however, the system of military recruitment favoured the short and stocky Hutu and segregated the taller and slender Tutsi, underscoring the segregation and persecution in the wider society, which forced many Tutsis into exile.

It was exile that gave rise to guerilla movements such as the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/A) in the late 1980s, leading to the revolution in 1994 that sent the Habyarimana regime packing and gave rise to a democratic republic.