10 minute read

Paul Kagame Biography

A Refugee's Childhood, Uganda and the National Resistance Movement


President, military commander

Paul Kagame emerged as an internationally renowned figure during his leadership of the military resistance that cut short the Rwandan genocide in July 1994. The genocide had marked the horrifying culmination of decades of ethnically framed massacres in post-independence Rwanda between the majority ethnic group of Hutu, who totalled roughly 85 percent of the population, and the minority ethnic Tutsi, who constituted around 15 percent. Upon successfully leading the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) to victory, Kagame became vice-president of Rwanda, a formidable reponsibility after over 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu had been systematically massacred during a three-month span in one of the world's poorest countries. In 2000 he was appointed president but had since been the subject of intensifying criticism regarding his government's record in terms of human rights abuses and profiteering among the elite. Nonetheless, to some degree Kagame represented an important element of the "African Renaissance" of forward looking politicians and had institutionalized a set of economic reforms that received the stamp of approval of the international financial institutions.

Born in Gitarama Prefecture, Rwanda, in October 1957, Kagame was the youngest of a Tutsi family of four sisters and one other brother. His father was from a privileged Tutsi background drawing on familial relations with King Rudahigwa of Rwanda, and his mother was intimately related to the King's wife. Despite these elite connections the Kagame family was forced to flee Rwanda two years after Paul's birth in the face of ethnically framed violence by Hutu extremists. This very early experience of life on the move would go on to typify much of Kagame's life until mid-1994. The chaos of displacement also meant that Kagame was separated from his siblings for most of his early life as two of his sisters left the country to eventually settle in Italy, while his brother died in a car accident. After spending some time in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) and Burundi, the family's attempt to settle in Rwanda was stifled by the vagaries of political sectarianism and violence. In search of security and a semblance of normality, Kagame's parents took him in 1960 to Uganda, where they made their long-term home in the Toro district of the Nshungerezi refugee camp.

A Refugee's Childhood

The Kagame family's initial displacement was in response to the rise of political consciousness among the Hutu majority in the 1959 "peasant revolution"—a movement that was fuelled by Tutsi and Belgian oppression and abuses of power—that resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Tutsi. The revolution came to define an entire swath of Tutsi refugees like Kagame who, in the face of violence and the Hutu monopolization of power, had consequently fled to Uganda where they became known as the "'59ers." In Uganda Kagame went to school to learn English, and then continued his education at a local state school in Ntare where he excelled. But as a Rwandan "'59er" he was not granted Ugandan citizenship and as such did not qualify for a scholarship to enter secondary school. Instead he benefited from financial assistance via a family friend based in Belgium that enabled him to continue his schooling. This sense of alienation in Ugandan society was later summarized in an interview with Kagame: "Professional advancement was restricted for Rwandans in Uganda. There were limitations on our progress," as quoted in Colin M. Waugh's biography, Paul Kagame and Rwanda. But Kagame also stressed, according to Waugh, that he "would never have accepted Ugandan citizenship.… I wanted to be a Rwandan."

Kagame's contact with the land of his birth was reignited in his early twenties when he bravely and forthrightly organized two exploratory trips to Rwanda in 1977 and 1978. Even though the 1973 military coup d'etat by Juvenal Habyarimana had led to a period of relative calm in Rwanda's ethnic tension, Kagame knew that his trips were dangerous in the context of the previous massacres and oppression of Tutsi, especially considering his parental connections to the exiled Tutsi monarchy. Reflecting upon these trips in later years he intonated that he was searching for his identity as a Rwandan: "I wasn't sure what I was doing, I wanted to know something and perhaps build on that," as quoted by Waugh.

Uganda and the National Resistance

Through his connection to Ntare School, Kagame met his fellow graduate and local Ugandan activist Yoweri Museveni, who would eventually become president of Uganda in 1986. This chance meeting proved to be formative in Kagame's political awareness and professional military development. Museveni had convinced Kagame of the injustices of the Ugandan government and in the late 1970s recruited him to the struggle against the regime from their base in Tanzania. In early 1981, Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) made its first military strike against the Ugandan state; Kagame was among this tiny band of 27 guerrillas along with one other Rwandan, Fred Rwigyema, who was an old acquaintance from refugee camps. For a number of years Kagame was an intelligence officer in the NRA and gathered information in rural areas—a pivotal role in a guerrilla war with a relatively small number of troops.

Upon seizure of power in 1986, Kagame and Rwigyema held senior positions in the NRA and in 1987 Rwigyema became deputy minister of defence in Kampala, while Kagame was appointed acting chief of military intelligence to the NRA. Kagame and Rwigyema's military and political experiences in the NRA and its political wing, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), cannot be underestimated. As one RPF leader put it: "If the NRM could liberate Uganda, the RPF began to ask why it could not do the same in Rwanda," as quoted in Mahmood Mamdani's When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Museveni subsequently selected Kagame for a nine-month training stint in Cuba and in 1989 he was again sent abroad for training, this time in the Joint Combined Exchange Training course by the U.S. military in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

At a Glance …

Born Paul Kagame in October, 1957, in Gitarama Prefecture, Rwanda; married Jeanette Nyiramongi, 1989; children: four. Education: Open University of London, diploma, professional management and business studies.


National Resistance Army, intelligence officer, c.1980-1986; National Resistance Army, acting chief of military intelligence, 1987-1989; Rwandan Patriotic Army, major, 1988-1990; Rwandan Patriotic Army, major-general, 1990-1994; Government of Rwanda, vice-president, 1994-2000; Government of Rwanda, president, 2000–.


Rwandan Patriotic Front, Chairperson; name of org, position.

Selected awards:

Vellore Institute of Technology, India, Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy, 2002; Young Presidents Organisation, Global Leadership Award, 2003.


Office—Office of the President, Government of Rwanda, Village Urugwiro, P.O. Box 15, Kigali, Rwanda.

Genocide The Rwandan Patriotic Front and Its Aftermath

Using his organizational base in the Ugandan NRA where several thousand other "'59ers" served, Kagame was one of the leading figures in the 1987 formation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was loosely modelled on the NRM. Led by the respected and energetic Fred Rwigyema, the RPF was a political movement that campaigned for the repatriation to Rwanda of 480,000 Tutsi refugees and vehemently opposed Habyarimana's Hutu-dominated one-party state, which was simultaneously losing support due to corruption, increased repression and a general economic decline—mainly because of the sharp drop in international coffee prices, the landlocked country's main export. The RPF saw their chance and its military wing, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), made their first attack from Uganda in late 1990, initiating what was to be a four-year civil war.

Rwigyema died leading the RPA's first flawed attack in October 1990, leaving the force in disarray. Kagame quickly returned from the United States to lead the RPF/RPA, assuming the title of major-general. His role was central to the future success of the rebellion as he rapidly rebuilt the RPA to a force of 15,000 men and led a series of military victories against the far more numerous forces of the government army, which—following the example of the NRM—was combined with a program of political education among local citizens. However, many Rwandans were not enthusiastic about being "liberated" and by the time of a major RPA offensive in February 1993 almost a million Rwandan citizens were displaced, moreover, Hutu militants exercised a brutal policy of revenge killings against Tutsi civilians. Nevertheless, despite appearing "more like a stern college professor than a rebel army commander," according to Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Kagame's campaign was a strategic success and the RPA managed to take control of an increasing swathe of territory, against the odds of substantial military backing for Habyarimana's corrupt regime by the French who sent paratroopers, military advisers, and financial support for a mass inflow of arms. It is this execution of intelligent military strategy that earned Kagame the plaudit of the "Napoleon of Africa."

However, on April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana's plane was shot down by unknown assailants upon his return from flawed peace talks with the RPF and other groups, there were no survivors. Roadblocks were immediately set up by Hutu militiamen (assisted by the military) who then began to systematically murder all Tutsi and moderate Hutu, including several members of Kagame's family. Many sources report that an average of 10,000 people—mainly Tutsi—were killed daily over the following three months, a rate of killing five times faster than the Nazi holocaust. The genocide had begun.

Kagame and the RPF decided to resume the civil war without delay and embarked on a make-or-break campaign to take state power. However, Kagame was faced with a trying moral dilemma: should he try to save as many lives as possible and take the risk of over-extending his forces and face defeat or maintain a tactically sound campaign that would ensure victory. Despite obvious personal tensions he decided to focus on victory, which the RPF achieved and on July 19, 1994, the Hutu Pasteur Bizimungu was sworn-in as president of the new Government of National Unity and Kagame became vice-president, commander in chief of the RPA and minister of defence.

Kagame and Post-Genocide Rwanda

Kagame and the new government faced a range of vast obstacles from mid-1994, including how to reduce Hutu-Tutsi tensions, how to rebuild an already under-developed economy, and how to bring the many thousands of Hutu involved in the genocide to justice. Not only have around 3.5 million refugees have been successfully repatriated, Unity and Reconciliation and Human Rights Commissions were established and Kagame undertook a policy of inter-ethnic goodwill when he re-integrated 15,000 former Hutu soldiers into the army, while his wife Jeanette pursued a prominent campaign against HIV/AIDS. His government also applied a sweeping program of free market reforms to the economy under the direction of the World Bank, which was such a broad success that Rwanda benefited from substantial cancellation of its debt in 2005. However, attempts at applying justice to genocide suspects has been marred by numerous revenge killings and a huge backlog of suspects overloading Rwanda's prisons. In addition, Kagame's regime was subject to serious criticism by a U.N. report that claimed that his forces had illegally extracted hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable minerals from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo during their involvement in 'Africa's First World War' between 1998-2001. In fact, members of Kagame's presidential entourage were personally implicated in this theft, although Kagame himself denied involvement.

Kagame's style of leadership is certainly forthright and his RPF remained in firm political control despite the appointment of several Hutu ministers. And while significant social and economic progress has been achieved, the RPFs behind the scenes hold on power contributed to the resignation of President Pasteur Bizimungu and the succession of Kagame to the presidency in 2000, which was subsequently reinforced in flawed presidential elections on August 25, 2003. Allegations of politically motivated assassinations and corruption have been levied against Kagame's regime, while a significant domestic and foreign-based opposition was growing, including defectors from the RPF. Despite this Kagame has battled against the odds and managed to lead a period of relative peace, stability and reconstruction in post-genocide Rwanda. Whether or not he can maintain this positive trend depends upon his willingness to genuinely share the reigns of power in this desperately poor country.



Dallaire, Lt. Gen. Roméo, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Arrow Books, 2004.

Destexhe, Alain, Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century, A. Marschner, trans., Pluto, 1995.

Eltringham, Nigel, Accounting for Horror: Post-Genocide Debates in Rwanda, Pluto, 2004.

Mamdani, Mahmood, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, James Currey, 2001.

Newbury, Catherine, The Cohesion of Oppression: Clientship and Ethnicity in Rwanda 1860-1960, Columbia University Press, 1988.

Prunier, Gérard, "The Rwandan Patriotic Front," in African Guerrillas, Christopher Clapham, ed., James Currey, 1998.

United Nations Security Council, Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations S/2001/357, 2001.

Waugh, Colin M., Paul Kagame and Rwanda: Power, Genocide and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, McFarland & Co., 2004.


West Africa, May 21-27, 2001.


"H.E. Paul Kagame: President of the Republic of Rwanda," Government of Rwanda, www.gov.rw/government/president (August 18, 2005).

"Panorama," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/default.stm (August 31, 2005).

—Liam Campling

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal