Death of Maj. Gen. Rwigyema

Foreign journalists interview Maj Kagame shortly after the death of Maj-Gen Fred Rwigyema in 1990.

What you need to know:

According to President Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, just before Museveni flew to New York for the UN summit in 1990, Rwigyema went to State House Entebbe to bid farewell to him. As would be expected, they conversed for several hours.


With the RPF war underway, the early 1990s were to see the escalation of violence on a scale and covering a geographical span never seen before in East and Central Africa.

One of the first casualties of the RPF invasion was Major-General Emmanuel Gisa, better known as Fred Rwigyema, the commander of the invading force. By the second day of the invasion, Rwigyema was dead, allegedly shot by a sniper in the Rwandan Army from across one of the hills overlooking the RPF camp.

Many people were shocked, some into disbelief, about the manner of Rwigyema’s death, so soon after the start of the war, and felled by a sniper’s bullet while others around him survived. The circumstances of Rwigyema’s death remained shrouded in mystery. Later, it also emerged that Major Peter Bayingana, Major Chris Bunyenyezi and Major Frank Munyaneza, three other RPA commanders, had also died.

Power struggle claims
The deaths of Bayingana, Munyaneza and Bunyenyezi so soon after Rwigyema’s death added to the rumours of a power struggle and threatened to derail the RPF invasion that was only getting underway.
The Uganda Government newspaper, the New Vision, reported about the rumours and suspicions around Rwigyema’s death in a front page story on November 5, 1990: “There appears no truth in the widespread rumour that Rwigyema was killed by Bayingana in a power struggle and that Bayingana was subsequently executed.

Bayingana was not in Kagitumba when Rwigyema was killed…Rwigyema’s death was kept secret for a month by the people who were with him at the time. They feared it would demoralise the RPF forces.”
In the tumultuous period after Rwigyema’s death, some demoralised RPF men and officers fled back into Uganda.

Reports of the power struggle and an alleged purge of some fighters have never been proven officially, despite claims of bodies of fighters appearing around that time in the Kagera River.
However, to this day, it also remains unclear whether the bodies were as a result of the alleged purge or of the fight between the rebels and the government forces, and whether they were of RPF fighters or government soldiers. It was the first story of bodies floating down the Kagera (Akagera) River.

The Ugandan newspaper, The Citizen, reported on January 3, 1991: “Again people residing along River Kagera are reported to be scared by floating bodies. The bodies are believed to be from the Rwanda side of Akagera National Park.”

Violence in Rwanda and Uganda
Soon after Rwigyema’s death, Major (later Lt. Col.) Paul Kagame took up the command of the RPA. He had been attending a military course in the United States at the time of the invasion in October and was rushed to the frontline by his former NRA colleague, Major-General Salim Saleh. It was a daring journey in which he needed luck and cunning to avoid intelligence operatives in Addis Ababa and Nairobi airports. The RPA now started implementing their war plan, with experience drawn from their 1981-1985 guerrilla war in Luweero Triangle in Uganda as part of the NRA.

At a summit meeting between President Museveni and Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana on November 26, 1990, at Cyanika in Gikongoro, Rwanda, to discuss a resolution of the civil war, Habyarimana put it to Museveni that the RPA, whom Kigali maintained was being supported by Kampala, had acquired official Rwandan Army uniforms and was using some of its guerrillas to pose as Rwandan government soldiers.

The government in Kigali alleged that the RPA guerrillas, posing as Rwandan government troops, were harassing civilians along the border area and alleged that on December 28, 1990, the RPA soldiers abducted four Ugandans at Mugali near the Katuna border area.

A statement issued by the Rwandan embassy in Kampala on December 31, 1990 condemned the RPF’s use of its guerrillas dressed as government soldiers, who were harassing Ugandans along the border area in order to create tension between the two countries.

The RPA denied the allegations.
Reports by the Rwandan government of this tactic of dressing up its guerrillas as government soldiers and getting them to commit atrocities that would then be blamed on the government, had previously been made against the NRA by the Obote government in Luweero during the Bush War. As in that conflict and the new conflict in Rwanda, the claims were difficult to independently corroborate.

What was not in doubt was the influence of the NRA on the RPA. In his 2009 book, A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the man who Dreamed it, American journalist Stephen Kinzer described the influence of the NRA war on Kagame: “[Luweero] is a good place to wage guerrilla war… The way the NRA fought made a deep impression on Kagame. It decisively shaped his idea of what a guerrilla force should be and do. The lessons he learned proved invaluable to him when he began to forge, and later emerged to lead, the force that would liberate his homeland.”

Obote’s analysis of the crisis
The first person to study and write in expert detail about this new kind of warfare taking place in Uganda and the Great Lakes region since 1981, marked by a large-scale displacement of and atrocities against civilians was the most unlikely man -- the former Ugandan president Milton Obote.

From his exile home in Lusaka, Zambia, 65-year-old Milton Obote who, although he wrote a few pamphlets and political working papers in the 1960s, had never really bothered much with intellectual life, now became one of the most astute and in-depth analysts in Africa.

The searching, investigative, broadly historical reports and papers Obote wrote in the 1990s from Zambia on the situation in Uganda under the NRM are among the most important ever written on Ugandan history.
Seasoned academicians like Prof. Mahmood Mamdani and Prof. Ali Mazrui, in their assessment of the conflicts breaking out in Uganda and Rwanda missed the root cause by a wide margin. Even the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in its analysis of the eruption of conflict in the Great Lakes region in the 1990s, clearly showed it was explaining the surface but not the root cause.

Obote’s mind, on the other hand, seemed to work like that of a highly-trained counterintelligence officer. His dancing and merry-making with Cabinet ministers at UPC party events and rallies of the 1980s was gone and in came a brilliantly analytical mind. He would later make fairly strong reflections on the war in Luweero Triangle, the RPF war and the counterinsurgency operations by the Ugandan Army in northern Uganda in the 1990s.