A glance at the legacy of Maj Gen Fred Gisa Rwigema

On 2 October 2023 at 12:48

On Tuesday, October 2, 1990, thirty-three years ago, Major General Fred Gisa Rwigema, leading the valiant forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), fell on the battlefield of Nyabwishongezi, in what was then Umutara Prefecture, now a part of the Nyagatare District, located just ten kilometers from the border between Rwanda and Uganda.

Fred Gisa Rwigema is in the category of "Imanzi" heroes.

His tragic demise occurred during the daring incursion of the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), into Rwandan territory.

Comprising over three thousand individuals, mainly young Rwandans in exile, this force aimed to challenge the entrenched regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana. At the time, Habyarimana’s government stubbornly refused to allow Rwandan exiles to return to their homeland.

Rwigema’s loss struck a severe blow to the leadership of the FPR, both within the RPF and its army. The leadership, out of concern that revealing his death would demoralize their troops and endanger their mission, initially classified it as top secret. Rwigema had been the linchpin of the invasion, and his absence weighed heavily on their efforts.

This military campaign was a bold move against Habyarimana’s government, which had declared a state of national saturation, denying the rights of Rwandans in exile to return home. Tragically, Rwigema’s fate was followed by the loss of two other top commanders, Major Peter Bayingana and Major Chris Bunyenyezi, who were killed by Habyarimana’s forces in Ryabega. This further intensified the gravity of their sacrifice.

For a month, the RPF maintained a strategic silence about these critical losses before officially announcing them at a press conference in Brussels.

The reaction from the Habyarimana regime was swift. In Rwanda, supporters of the genocidal regime greeted the news with jubilation, while the RPF, though wounded, regrouped and continued their struggle.

In an exclusive interview with IGIHE, Tito Rutaremara, a key figure in the RPF who currently serves as the Chairperson of Rwanda Elders’ Advisory Forum, reflected on this tumultuous period.

He explained that the media silence was a deliberate effort to preserve troop morale and external support, stating, "Announcing such a loss on the first day would have sown doubt and confusion."

The post-Rwigema era witnessed the ascent of Major General Paul Kagame, who, at the time, was undergoing military training in the United States. He answered the call of duty and assumed command of the RPA, returning to Rwanda on October 8, 1990, just days after the tragic loss of Maj Gen Fred Rwigema.

In later years, rumors circulated, partly fueled by Major Michael Mupende, who was in exile in the United States, suggesting internal dissent within the RPA as the cause of the "assassinations" of these honorable sons of Rwanda.

General (retired) James Kabarebe, currently the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in charge of Regional Affairs, vehemently refuted this theory, asserting that the deaths occurred in combat, in the face of the enemy. There was no more to it than that.

The memory of Maj Gen Rwigema and his comrades who fell in battle remains etched in the annals of national history. Rwigema was laid to rest on October 1, 1995, with full military honors at the Heroes’ Square in Remera.

Today, the names of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of a free Rwanda serve as enduring symbols of a struggle that, even in the darkest hours, aimed to restore Rwanda to its unified and sovereign essence.

Major Peter Bayingana was shot dead in Ryabega.
The memory of Maj Gen Rwigema and his comrades who fell in battle remains etched in the annals of national history.
Rwigema was laid to rest on October 1, 1995, with full military honors at the Heroes' Square in Remera.
Major Chris Bunyenyezi is among commanders killed in the early days of the Liberation Struggle.