I’ve known Rwanda since he 1960s when I covered for the Sunday Times the first of the three appalling massacres of Tutsis by Hutu, slipping back to see what became of the fugitives who had escaped the Hutu machetes and being tossed into the Kagera river tumbling from highland Rwanda into Lake Victoria.
I’ve known that swathe of Africa intimately since 1954, from the Ruwenzori Mountains – the Mountains of the Moon – some forty miles north of Rwanda, a massif shared by Congo on the west with Uganda on the east. That intimacy has been accorded no other outsider on earth. I was instrumental in the recognition in 2009 by Uganda of the Bantu “Kingdom of Rwenzururu” by which it was aligned with Buganda and three other long-lived tribal kingdoms forming the raison-d’être of the new colony of Uganda that Anglican missionaries and Lugard had dumped into Queen Victoria’s lap at the end of the 1880s.
The 1884 Treaty of Berlin gave Kenya and Uganda to us; Tanganyika and the highland twins west of the big lake, Rwanda and Burundi, to Germany; the Congo to Belgium. None of us European powers was awake to the fact that our arrival on the scene with vividly contrasting colonial regimes froze a deep-rooted demographic incursion from further north of one African race into the indigenous territory of another. That is, the Nilotic, or Hima, cattle-owners were pushing south into Bantu territory. It had surely been in train for centuries. And those pushing in were possessed of cultural superiority.
This was a black-on-black incursion of one African race – race not tribe – upon another. The indigenous folk intruded upon comprised a variety of tribes, each with its piece of territory, oral legend, and history and vernacular, all-agricultural Bantu who had themselves slowly migrated from Africa’s West during the previous couple of millennia (displacing forest-dwelling pygmies). From, say, 1889 we colonising Europeans, with our Christian bible, literacy, and Maxim gun to call on, froze the racial scene. Tutsis had command in Rwanda and its southerly neighbour Burundi; the Masai were firmly embedded beneath the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and a menace to the Arab slavers from Oman; and a Tutsi (aka Hima) Kingdom, Ankole, had ruled in south-west Uganda since the 15th century.
We imperial powers froze it, I guess, as Roman authority froze Celts from bullying Picts.
When Germany forfeited its empire in 1918, the League of Nations lobbed Tanganyika to us and a makeshift “Ruanda-Urundi” to the Belgians – or, more specifically, the Flemish component of Belgium’s acrimonious population who were scarcely yet redeemed from their notorious formal start in Congo in 1908.
The cattle-disciplined incomers were taller and darker than the incumbent Bantu. They drank the milk of their cows. Men actively led. They lacked the bombé foreheads of the resident Bantu and the everted lip. Theirs was no diet of yams, millet, manioc and non-sweet bananas, and whatever goats and chickens could provide (plus game from the forest their hunters got them).
So far so good . . . until 1957, and the menacing squall of Harold Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” of imminent, not to say precipitate, abandonment of empire right across sub-Saharan Africa. The British dominated and would be surely followed all the imperial powers less the Portuguese. Only we British, the most responsible colonial power, had been at work educating our charges, multiplying the population by medicine for all, pest control and skilled obstetrics, and opening the door to elective self-governance.
What would ensue? A brave new world?
For the Belgian territories, not so. Come 1960 for the Congo and 1962 for Rwanda and Burundi, readiness for coherent independence was nil. Congo fell apart on the instant, and I caught the first plane out to cover the catastrophe for my newspaper. But ever since 1954, my other life as a chronicler of remote communities and as novelist had spread word of my intimacy with the Bantu tribe occupying the astonishing massif of snow-peaked Ruwenzori bordering Congo and Uganda, with whom I had lived for months that year, guided and tutored by the sole northern member of his tribe to have qualified as a school teacher, now resigned in outrage at being obliged to teach his fellow tribal primary pupils solely in the language of the oppressive lowland tribe they’d been lumped with for administrative convenience
“My” people Uganda-side were demanding regional self-determination.
Eight years after my 1954 tramp the length of Ruwenzori’s countless habitable gully ridges, the tribe rebelled. Far more numerous than Kampala was aware, they raised their own flag of independent kingdomhood in the mountains just before Uganda itself was bustled into independence by us British in 1962. Uganda’s first High Commissioner to London knew of my intimacy with the highland tribe, and independent Uganda’s Prime Minister Obote invited me to enter the scene of conflict and bring peace and a settlement.
Peace I brought for a bit. For my former tutor and companion was heading the rebellion. But settlement – no.
Simultaneously, some forty miles southwards the highland territories of Rwanda and Burundi were unleashed into independent statehood from the colonial rule of Belgium. Disaster was in the offing. As with the Congo, sheer common sense was absent. Belgium resolved to launch the republic of Rwanda into the Valhalla of one-adult one-vote. How did the people vote? Race for race. Hutu for Hutu. Tutsi for Tutsi. Dear God.
Hutu had never known power before, knew not what Power was. They went collectively mad, at speed. Those they had deemed their ethnic superiors were re-cast as the enemy which would deprive them of this mythic Power. It dizzied them. A collective agoraphobia engulfed them. I was back in Rwanda to report on the macheted corpses of Tutsi cascading down the Kagera into Lake Victoria. Wherever they could, Tutsi fled for their lives.
Among the fugitives was six-year-old Paul Kagame and his family. They fled across the northern border to their kinsmen in Uganda, the people of Ankole, for they were Tutsis too, under the name of Hima, with their 600-year old kingdom. Mark the name. Today this Paul is President of Rwanda, outstandingly the most successful former colony in sub-Saharan Africa.
Our narrative has reached 1964. Obote was still in charge of Uganda, to which Ankole belonged, but weak and corrupt and the destroyer of the constitution bequeathed him on independence. He promoted the barely literate Idi Amin (whom as a Captain in Uganda’s army I’d befriended in Ruwenzori) to command his armed forces and to bombard the Kabaka of Buganda out of his palace. (Freddie Kabaka fled to Rwanda to catch a plane to London – where Obote’s emissary had him poisoned to death.)
In 1971, at a Commonwealth conference in gleaming Singapore, Obote was coup-d’état-ed by his Commander-in-Chief, Idi, who spectacularly mis-ruled his country until 1979, when an invading army from Tanzania made way for the return of Obote. Paul Kagame was in his teens. But a new figure of ambition and confidence was soon in evidence, Yoweri Museveni. a Tutsi from Ankole, had recruited a guerrilla army to take over Uganda Castro-style, piece by piece. The young Paul joined. By 1985, Uganda duly became Museveni’s. with the outstandingly able Paul Kagame, 27, in the key role of head of military intelligence, vitally active in the Rwanda Patriotic Front guerrillas at war with Rwanda’s chaotic, murderous Hutu regime.
At Rwanda’s third, and most appalling, massacre in which in 1994 some 800,000 Tutsi died, the international community intervened to reverse the ethnic authority and install the Tutsis in power. Paul Kagame was a natural vice-President. By 2000, at 42, he was President. He was a man with a vision: to make Rwanda, under benign implacable ethnic paternalism which unfailingly grew his citizens’ prosperity, as the Singapore of Africa.
Life tells us you can’t counter demographic differentiation where one culture is is sure of its superiority. Look no further than Belgium itself and ask a Walloon.
Today in his mid-60s, he runs country with no natural resources beyond coffee, whose economy has grown seven per cent annually for two decades, and GDP five percent annually. There has been a two-thirds drop in child mortality, and life expectancy has doubled. Women occupy 61 per cent of the seats in the national assembly. To combat corruption he has established the National Tender Board and the Office of the the Auditor General, the the role of transparent vigilance.
Rwanda has the backing of the World Bank and is a favourite recipient of investment from the UK’s generous aid structure (DFID), since it meets its targets and fulfils promises. Rwanda remains at peace, but a tough peace. Himself undeniably Tutsi, Kagame’s governance is cross-race and so, remarkably, is consent is manifest. Success and wealth has won Hutu allegiance.
Across the border in Uganda, a Tutsi (Hima) Museveni may hold power, yet tremulously. Having recognised my adopted Ruwenzori Bantu tribe’s right to their kingdom of Rwenzururu in 2009, Museveni took fright at a possible emergence of a cross-border Bantu tribal federation challenging his Tutsi hegemony. In 2016 he unforgivably let loose his Tutsi-officered army to burn the Rwenzururu palace, slaughtering by machete and bullet 87 loyalists who had taken refuge there, having already taken into custody the tribal king and his family. They have now been held without charge or trial for five and a half years.
Museveni’s one-time protégé in Rwanda is now his rival for dynastic authority destined for a post–colonial community comprising Rwanda, Burundi, Tutsi-governed Uganda and the mineral-rich Kivu province of Congo (where covert civil war is in train).
Meanwhile Rwanda soars away. Kagame will not let it go. His regime is becoming the exemplar of the new Africa. Priti Patel’s agreement will stay in operation for as long as any threat of illegal Chanel-crossings remain. The global psyche of the would-be economic migrant into welfarist Britain will have altered for ever, the smugglers’ terrible racket dissolved on the instant, at the alarming prospect of finishing up in mid-Africa. But indeed, they won’t finish there; they will be honourably processed, and either re-patriated or, as justified migrants, admitted.
Priti shall have her day. And I shall trumpet my Bantu Rwenzururu’s king and his family’s right to freedom and tribal authority if it is one of the last things I do.