Fred Rwigema – True father of the Rwandan Revolution

Where Kagame was/is grave and unforgiving, ‘Afande’ was charismatic and well liked. Had he lived and led, Rwanda would be very different today


By Kenyatta Otieno

On the 2nd of this month, Rwanda and the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front will mark 26 years since Fred Rwigema, aka Alfred Gisa, died. The world knows of Paul Kagame but very few people know of the man who inspired Kagame and the Tutsis; his comrades proudly called him ‘Afande’.

Gen Rwigema’s death was kept as a secret for one month so as not to demoralise the Rwanda Patriotic Army (now Rwanda Patriotic Front) inkotanyi (tough warriors), until Rwanda government radio in Kigali broke the news a month later. Meanwhile, Yoweri Museveni, the incubator of all this, wept in Kampala upon learning of Rwigema’s death.
Who was Fred Rwigema, and how would Rwanda have turned out had he led Rwanda Patriotic Army into Kigali?

For some time now, I have been a keen follower of Paul Kagame’s work in Rwanda. I admire his transformation of Rwanda from disintegration into a success story.

Stephen Kinzer, in his book “A Thousand Hills; Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man who Dreamed It”, says Kagame has inspired Rwanda to rebel against its destiny. My point of view began to change when I encountered the story of Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigema in that book. I started looking for information on him but no one seems to have taken time to delve beyond the little that comes out from Uganda’s National Resistance Army, of which he is a founding member.

Rwigema and Kagame met in a refugee camp in western Uganda in the sixties. They became bosom friends and, to people who did not know them, because of their profound Tutsi looks, thought that they were brothers. Then one day Rwigema dropped out of school and disappeared, leaving Kagame, a former top student in primary school whose anger had now grown to simmer below a serious looking face, struggle to complete secondary school.

Complimentary traits

Kagame was known for his seriousness and even adults would go quiet when he entered a room. On the contrary, Fred was charismatic with a ready grin and was liked by many.

These characteristics of Fred, combined with his courage, propelled him to the top of Ugandan army and later as the founding chairman of RPF. He was known as a consensus-builder while Kagame was meticulously ruthless.

These are the two complimenting characters, coupled with a true friendship, which birthed and carried the Tutsi emancipation vision. They were almost the same age and both were married to ladies called Jeanette. They both kept their wives in the dark the day they went to war in Rwanda. A day after Rwigema died, Kagame, who was in the US, started making calls to friends in Uganda –he was so disturbed and worried that something might have happened to Fred. His fears would be confirmed a few days later.

He had to cut short his course at the prestigious US Army Command and Staff College in Kansas. He headed back to Uganda and off to the frontline where he met demoralised troops on the verge of calling off the insurgency. Today, the Kagame regime is known for its high-handedness and ruthlessness in accomplishing tasks, both positive and negative. Dissenting voices are met with imprisonment or even assassination.

That is the mean side of Kagame at play. If Rwigema had survived to be president with Kagame as his wingman, I can bet the government would be more balanced in terms of handling dissents. The official version of Rwigema’s death is that a stray bullet from government troops killed him. On the contrary, three weeks after his death, two of his deputies, Maj. (Dr) Peter Baingana was killed while in the company of Maj. Chris Bunyenyezi in an ambush allegedly by Rwigema’s aide, Capt Kaitare, but which RPF claim was carried out by Rwanda government forces. Maj. Baingana and Maj. Bunyenyezi, both well educated, were suspected to be behind Rwigema’s killing because they believed Rwigema and Kagame, who they considered relatively unlearned, could not lead them.

The poor living conditions in refugee camps, coupled with the taunting by Ugandan peers and lack of opportunities from the Ugandan government, pushed the 19-year-old Rwigema to join the Yoweri Museveni-led Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) in 1976. Museveni claimed in a past interview that former Ugandan minister, Kahinda Otafire, recruited Rwigema into FRONASA. He met Museveni’s brother, Salim Saleh, in Tanzania during training and they became good friends.

In 1979, Rwigema was part of the Tanzania-backed rebel force, then called Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) that fought to topple Idi Amin. Later, in the push by NRA to oust Milton Obote that began in 1981, in the early days of the guerrilla war, he commanded the Mondlane Force, which operated in the Kalasa and Makulubita.

After toppling Amin, Rwigema managed to get Kagame into a group of 60 recruits to go for intelligence training in Tanzania. President Julius Nyerere then offered UNLA another 300 slots for military training. Rwigema tried to lobby for more Rwandese refugees to be given slots but failed to beat a scheme against it from Uganda Nationalist officers. When NRA began the push to topple Obote, Rwigema got a chance to bring in his fellow Tutsis into the rebel outfit. In the end, about four thousand Tutsis marched with Museveni into Kampala in 1986.

Like a prophet

The power of a disillusioned and restless teenage refugee who slipped into Tanzania but came back as a focused soldier inspired his fellow refugees to make the best out of their situation. Like Prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites while in captivity to pray for the prosperity of Babylon, Rwigema led his fellow young refugees to work for the good of Uganda, because if Uganda prospered they would also prosper, and in deed they did.

The rank and file in the Ugandan army was not happy with the Rwandese who, out of their dedication in the bush war, rose to top positions in the army. On February 6, 1988, Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana attended a function at Lubiri barracks in Kampala, where Rwigema was given the rank of major-general, and made the deputy army commander. Kagame was then head of military intelligence, while Patrick Karegyeya was the director of counterintelligence among others.

In October 1990, NRA Chief Political Commissar Lt. Col. Serwanga Lwanga said that the agreement during the bush war was that all refugees were to be screened out of the army upon capture of state power in 1986. What had delayed the exercise was the regrouping of UNLA in northern Uganda, in which Rwigema was actively involved in, in quelling the insurgency. According to one Rwandese army officer, after they “deserted” to join RPF, they still knew that some things, like nationality, could be bought even with blood. The Rwandese had known from the word go that they had to prepare for another war after Museveni took taken over Kampala.

According to Kevin Aliro who was in Gulu, Northern Uganda, in 1989 covering the NRA operation as a journalist then attached to the defunct Ugandan paper Weekly Topic, Rwigema was not in his element that day. The NRA had killed hundreds of Holy Spirit Movement attackers and everyone was happy except Rwigema. Upon some probing, Rwigema confided in Aliro that all he wanted was to go back to Kampala, leave the army and go back to Rwanda and may be write a book. Rwigema would die while trying to go home, and never got the chance to write his memoirs.

Then, in November 1989, Rwigema was demoted in the NRM government where his friend Salim Saleh was also relieved of his duties as army commander. He was dropped as Museveni’s deputy in the ministry of State for Defence. State House announced that Rwigema was to go for further military training; he conspired with his friend Kagame, who went in his place. All the while, Museveni was unaware of these developments. The duo’s plan was to have Rwigema plan for a Rwanda invasion without raising eyebrows in Kigali and Kampala. There was a rift in RPF, between the Rwigema-Kagame camp and the learned Baingana-Bunyenyezi side.

RPF, a horse among mules

Rwandese in exile formed several organisations. In 1986, John Karuranga formed the Rwanda National Liberation Movement (RLNM) in Belgium. Then there was the Rwandese Welfare Foundation in Kampala while RPF was formed in 1987 in Kampala after the Rwanda Alliance for National Unity (RANU) flickered and died out. Out of all these movements, RPF was the only one that had Rwigema and Kagame’s DNA of intent and action.

On the eve of RPF’s move into Rwanda on September 30, 1990, Rwigema went to watch his favourite football club Sports Club Villa lose 3-0 to Kampala KCC at Nakivubo Stadium in a Uganda Cup match, hours before he embarked on a journey he had prepared for ever since he knew who he was. He drove overnight to the Kagitumba border point, where he met his comrades.

The next day he removed his Ugandan army insignia from his jackets, stood facing Uganda, saluted and then walked across the border. He died the following day and was buried in 1994 after the war in Kigali. A widow, Jeannette, and two children, son Gisa Junior and daughter Teta, survive him.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here