Thirty two years ago, Maj Gen Fred Gisa Rwigyema was shot dead in the heat of battle at Nyabwenshogozi Hill, just six miles inside Rwanda from Kagitumba border with Uganda.
On the fateful day, It is believed that the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) encountered heavy fire and Rwigyema was sending a radio message for reinforcement when a sniper shot him dead, according to an RPF statement issued to the media.
His death was kept a secret for a month for fear that the fighters would lose morale and desert the war.
The decorated soldier from two countries became the first casuality in a battle for power that lasted for four years and ended with the overthrow of Juvenal Habyarimana’s government by the RPA, a rebel outfit founded by Rwandan exiles in Uganda.
Rwigyema, like many brave warriors in history died in the blaze of battle felled by an enemy bullet on the second day of a protracted guerilla battle by Rwandan exiles who were fighting to return home since the 1959 revolution that relegated many Tutsi to refugee status in neighbouring countries.
Background and military exploits
Rwigema was born in Gitarama, in the south of Rwanda on April 10, 1957. His family fled to Uganda and settled in a refugee camp in Nshungerezi, Ankole following the Hutu Revolution of 1959 and the ouster of King Kigeri V.
After completing high school in 1976, he went to Tanzania and joined the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), a rebel group headed by Yoweri Museveni, the brother of his friend Salim Saleh.
Later that year, he travelled to Mozambique and joined the FRELIMO rebels who were fighting for the liberation of Mozambique from Portuguese colonial rule.
In 1979, he joined the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), which together with Tanzanian armed forces overthrew the government of Idi Amin Dada in April 1979.
He later joined Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA), which fought a guerrilla war against the government of Milton Obote between 1981 and 1986.
Rwigyema, like Saleh, was as valiant as they come and never feared to take risks. In one of his several heroic acts, the Rwandan warrior rescued President Museveni, his wife Janet and son Muhoozi Kainerugaba from an ambush staged by the UNLA fighters in Kireka, a Kampala surburb.
Ryigyema in the company of Salim Saleh and several other young fighters reportedly stormed the road block where Museveni’s family had been held hostage and the rescue operation was over in just a few minutes, leaving the soldiers at the road block bewildered.
Muhoozi would later confess that Rwigyema’s military exploits inspired him to become a soldier.
“I interacted with him a lot as a child because he formed part of my father’s body guard unit,” Muhoozi said.
Rwigyema was one of the 27 NRA soldiers who launched an attack on Kabamba Military Barracks, sparking off the war that was to last five years. During the bush war, he served in several capacities, including deputy commander of the First Mobile Force, the most elite fighting unit of the NRA.
But despite the battles and sieges the battle-hardened soldier was involved in, he was only human and could also be carried away by emotion.
On February 21, 1983 for example, NRA’s Mobile Brigade commander, Salim Saleh, was wounded in fierce fighting between the NRA and government forces led by the late Col. John Ogole at Bukalabi.
Maj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa, while narrating this incident in his book, Uganda’s Revolution 1979-1986 – How I saw It, recalls how Rwigyema broke down and cried when he saw an injured Saleh being carried away to the rebel headquarters.
The two were too close that after Rwigyema’s death, Saleh took charge of his friend’s family.
The Bukalabi battle demoralised the NRA because not only was the top rebel fighter injured, but about 10 senior NRA fighters, including Mwebaze Rwamurinda and Hanington Mugabi Kanunda, were killed.
But this did not deter Rwigyema from fighting on. In March 1985 when the NRA opened up a second front popularly known as the Western Axis, Museveni appointed Rwigyema its commander and after the NRA captured power in 1986, Rwigyema became deputy minister of defence and actively participated in eliminating remnants of the UNLA who were still operating in northern Uganda.
But despite all his exploits in war, sections of Ugandans continued looking at Rwigyema and his ilk, including current Rwandan president Paul Kagame, as foreigners as President Museveni notes in his book; ‘Sowing the Mustard Seed.’
“We won total victory in 1986. This time, on account of the progressive forces being in control of the situation, the fighters from among the Banyarwanda refugee community that had been with us in the struggle could not be purged from the new Ugandan army, NRA,” President Museveni writes.
“ Rwigyema kept telling me about their homeland Rwanda — from which they were excluded by the sectarian regime that was in charge,” the President added.
Attack on Rwanda
Rwigyema’s favours and ranks that he enjoyed while serving in the NRA did not make him forget the battle that awaited him, and that was the struggle to liberate his home land and because of his close relationship with top NRA top leaders, including President Museveni, Rwigyema was never let down by his friends.
“…I decided that for the future of the Rwandan struggle, these officers could benefit from further training to add to the NRA guerilla training and experience. I nominated Fred Rwigyema to go for the Senior Command and Staff course in the US, an opportunity Rwigyema passed on to Kagame because he feared that the Rwandans would have decided on an unguided assault of Rwanda if he did not watch over them,” President Museveni writes.
Sources say that a couple of weeks before the attack on Rwanda on October 1, there was an unprecedented disappearance of soldiers of Rwandan origin from different military barracks in the country.
Death too soon
Ryigyema’s death remains one of the most unresolved mysteries on the African continent. There are several schools of thought explaining the death of one of Africa’s most gallant sons.
While it is indisputable that Rwigyema was shot dead in the morning of the second day of the war, who pulled the trigger, however, has since remained contestable.
While the official version from the RPF is that he was killed by the enemy bullet while on the front line, there is a contrary allegation that Rwigyema was assassinated and that the conspiracy to eliminate him was instigated by a fellow RPF senior commander Maj Peter Bayingana who conspired with Maj Chris Bunyenyezi.
It is alleged that Rwigyema called a staff meeting with three close associates – Bayingana, Bunyenyezi and Stephen Ndugute. During the meeting, a fierce argument over strategy developed. Rwigyema wanted to advance slowly in order to politicise the Hutu peasantry and get them to join the RPF while Bayingana and Bunyenyezi wanted to seize power quickly, regardless of the Tutsi-Hutu divide.
In the middle of the dispute, one of the sub-commanders reportedly drew his pistol and shot Rwigyema in the head. In the resultant chaos, Ndugute escaped and returned to Uganda to inform President Museveni of the unfortunate events.
Museveni in turn sent Salim Saleh to Rwanda, where he found Rwigyema’s body in a swamp and gave it a proper burial. Rwigyema’s remains stayed in Kagitumba until the end of the war when they were reburied in the Remera Heroes Cemetery.
Following Rwigyema’s death, his youthful friend and fellow combatant in Uganda during the Luweero bush war, Maj Paul Kagame (now General and President of Rwanda) was recalled from a military course in America to take over the devastated RPA command that was disarray and on the verge of surrender.
Bayingana, Bunyenyezi’s fate
From the RPF press statement, Bayingana and Bunyenyezi died in an ambush staged by the government forces as the two were headed for a meeting with the Rwandan forces delegation to start the cessation of hostilities between the two fighting groups which would lead to peace talks. As such, it can be said that Bayingana and Bunyenyezi were betrayed by the Rwanda government, especially if it is true that the said plan to have peace talks was going on.
But President Kagame in a past interview with the defunct Weekly Topic vehemently dismissed speculation that the death of the three RPA officers was caused by internal conflicts. He asserted that the death of the three officers should be viewed as merely bad luck.
A Ugandan veteran of the RPF war, retired Major Okwir Rabwoni also concurs with President Kagame on the death of the two majors. “They were killed in an ambush laid by the Rwanda forces commanded by Col Deogratius Nsabimana . They laid a kilometre long ambush. From where we were [RPA], we had huge bumps followed by heavy shootings. And we knew they had been hit,” Rabwoni said.
Rwaboni was a sergeant when he and others deserted the NRA in 1990 to fight in the RPF war – but he returned as a Major in the Rwanda Defence Forces after the war.
To support Kagame’s assertion that the death of Bayingana and Bunyenyezi could have been a result of bad luck, Ugandan journalist Ogen Kevin Aliro interviewed the RPF chairman Col Alex Kanyarengwe in presence of RPF High-Command chairman, Major Paul Kagame in late June 1991 inside Rwanda and asked him what mistakes RPF/A had made during the war, Kanyarengwe answered: “I cannot say we made any serious errors. Rather we met bad luck at the very beginning. We lost our charismatic chairman, Maj Gen Fred Rwigyema and his two deputies. That affected us.”
Analysts contend that psychologically, if the two had indeed murdered their commander, they would have been seen as enemies of the RPF/A and as such, RPF/A would not mention their names as Kanyarengwe did in the interview with the Weekly Topic of July 5, 1991.
Rwigyema’s death, like that of many generals in history has created a web of intrigue yet to be resolved 32 years later. Was he killed by the FAR sniper or was he shot in the back?’ Rwigyema’s remains are interred at Remera Heroes cemetery in Kigali and the brave warrior still reigns as Rwanda’s most revered hero.