July 4, 2019

Songs Of Liberation: The Music That Kept RPA Rebels Warmed Up For Battle


Today the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF), the former RPA maintains a strong bond with song

On the early morning of October 1, 1990, news surfaced that columns and truckloads of soldiers that had been seen the previous evening travelling southwards towards the Rwandan border with Uganda, were actually an invading force.

Today we know that these were members of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) that liberated the country four years later, on July 4, 1994.

In their journey marked by bravery, suffering, resilience and triumph, RPA fighters and RPF cadres who mobilized for the struggle, were accompanied by songs of liberation that warmed their way to triumph.

A study: “Singing the Struggle: The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s ideology through its songs of liberation” by Benjamin Chemouni and Rwandan Assumpta Mugiraneza documents the role of song in the RPA/F led liberation.

As the country celebrates the 25th anniversary of liberation, The Chronicles shares insights on the power of these songs that kept men and women of RPA on the battle front motivated, and ideologically clearheaded while acting as a powerful motivating. They were also a major mobilizing tool for Rwandans in the diaspora.

The war front songs “were often circulated orally, which means that they were prone to change,” says the study, reason why none of the original songs maintained their original words.

However, there were many songs that routinely featured at Rwandan diaspora gatherings even before the actual war started in 1990.

“Even before the attack of the RPF in October 1990, songs were the means of identity expression and collective memory among its supporters in Rwanda and abroad. Audio tapes circulated covertly among families to foster nostalgia and the hope of the return of those who had fled Rwanda” was common, notes the study.

The songs played a pivotal role in various ways, and the messages were tactically designed – clearly to avoid certain ideas. For example, nearly all the songs preached unity, which was linked to the Rwandan God, “Imana”. The eternal sacred Rwanda of “Imana” is synonymous with harmony.

However, the study says there were no references to Christianity in RPF songs and spirituality is considered exclusively pagan and pre-colonial, which is unsurprising given the strong anti-imperialist ideology of the RPF.

“This is in stark contrast to the Hutu Power movement, which regularly used Christianity in its propaganda,” say authors Assumpta Mugiraneza and Benjamin Chemouni.

Unity appears as the most important goal of the RPF, before other aims such as military victory, liberation of Rwandans, or the development of the country. Unity, however, is not something to be created by the RPF, but merely reinstated through the struggle. It is an imminent characteristic of Rwanda, momentarily undermined since the advent of colonialism and waiting to be fully recovered and reinstated.

The liberation songs also reveal a deeply anti-imperialist ideology. The misfortune of Rwanda, and Africa more broadly, are presented ultimately as an evil brought by foreigners. This anti-imperialism is paralleled by both a pan-Africanist and nationalist ideology. One of the riveting songs is revealingly titled “Afrika warakubititse” (Africa, you suffered).

The same anti-outsiders stance continues today in Kagame’s speeches. However, he packages the messages to avoid sounding extremist like post-independence leaders – some of whom did not live long like Sankara in Burkina Faso.

The songs sampled bring back a utopian and imagined ideal of pre-colonial Rwanda.

Brig Gen (Rtd) Frank Rusagara, currently in the appeals courts fighting a long prison term for serious charges, has also written extensively on the role of music in the RPF war machine.

In 2009, he published a paper titled: “Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda.”

Rusagara writes that “the narrativisation of the past glory of Rwanda was passed around [in the RPF songs and political messages] in order to create a sense of belonging to a community and history that transcended the experience of conflict.”

Some of the songs also emphasised the unquestionable Rwandan character of the “Inkotanyi” by making them the heirs to a tradition of great fighters. The name “Inkotanyi” refers to a military formation in pre-colonial Rwanda under King Yuhi IV who ruled 1744-1802.

King Yui IV, a renowned military figure of the time

Songs aren’t however unique to the RPF alone. The former government of Juvenal Habyarimana promoted its messages vigorously through songs. Many of those songs became the rallying call to the masses to commit genocide.

Whereas the Habyarimana and Hutu extremists systematically degraded and dehumanised the RPF, and the Tutsi who were viewed as RPF natural supporters, the RPF and their followers did not resort to similar methods. RPF songs referred directly to Habyarimana and his entourage, telling the listener that everyone else was a victim by pointing to the poverty and other ills in Rwandan society at the time.

For example, the song “Iya Mbere Ukwakira” (October 1st) composed by RPF fighters goes: “Tell me Habyarimana, I find you already discouraged while we are just beginning, soon we will be in Kigali. The Rwanda of Rwandans that you debase We, the intrepid Inkotanyi, will cure it”.

Some of the RPF songs also portray it as a peaceful and reasonable movement, dealing with other parties on an equal footing. In addition, the songs convey the image of an educated RPF, composed of capable people.

The rebels’ music also evolved with the circumstances. One song composed in late 1993 after the start of peace talks between the government and the rebels in the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha, brings out the government as the bad guys. The song’s lyrics go as: “On August 4, we were in Arusha, The path of the RPF was recognised first, their poise, their courage and their great expertise, All parties accepted and signed for this, signed for this!”

The songs also portray the RPF as a multi-ethnic and inclusive organization in which some former Habyarimana’s senior officers and other high profile Hutus before 1994. Hutus who joined RPF before 1994 included politicians like Seth Sendashonga, and Pasteur Bizimungu, who became President of the Republic after the genocide.

There is also Major Lizinde, and Colonel Alexis Kanyarengwe, who were of high-profile Hutus from Habyarimana’s native region.

Colonel Kanyarengwe was instrumental in the coup that put Habyarimana in power in 1973 and later served as his minister of internal affairs before he fell out and fled to exile.

The songs show how Kanyarengwe himself became the President of the RPF as a Hutu from the North and former member of the Akazu (ruling group) of Habyarimana. 

“Habyarimana, not knowing what to do, Used the Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities as a pretext and Colonel Kanyarengwe quickly told him: ‘Stop all this intrigue, it is the source of the misery that has devastated Rwanda. When we parted, you were responsible for it. Get ready for the fight, we will defeat you, we are determined!’…” one song goes in part.

RPA fighters in Nyamata. The radio was for news, but also keep connected to the RPF broadcaster Radio Muhabura at the time for their songs.

The songs do also reveal a strong continuity between the ideology of the RPF as a rebel movement and its later ideology as a ruling party

The study explains that all pre-genocide themes identified in the songs are still present in the RPF’s current discourse – putting emphasis on unity, professional and inclusive organization fighting for the common good and destined to restore Rwanda to its once great status, and finally suspicion towards the external world.

The songs strongly reflect RPF’s original eight point-program penned after its formation in December 1987.

There are 20 highlighted songs by the study. They may not have been the most powerful, but are the ones that have stayed on. The songs are all in Kinyarwanda except one that is in Kiswahili called “Hatuwezi Kurudi Nyuma” and Kiswahili was also the language widely used to issue military orders during the struggle.

The composers of these liberation songs include single artists and groups like Indahemuka which was created in 1991 by RPF movement aiming at raising funds for the struggle for people in exile.

Other composers included: Immaculée Mukandoli, Fanny Gatera and Muyango, renowned singers Cécile Kayirebwa, and the late Annonciata Kamaliza – who died in a plane crash years later.

“Turatashye Inkotanyi z’Amarere” was very popular in mobilizing Rwandans in the diaspora and affirming inevitability of triumph.

In an interview with The Chronicles, Maria Yohana Mukankuranga popularly known by her song “Intsinzi”, said that the Indahemuka Group was composed by members coming from Tanzania, Burundi, Republic Democratic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Europe.

The group was composed of singers and dancers numbering 43, and they composed most of the RPF war songs. It was started mainly by civilians and supporters of RPF.

“We wanted to fundraise for our children [RPF fighters] and to preserve our culture so that it would never be lost,” she says.

“Our songs were to mobilise Rwandans everywhere that we have our country and we should come back home.”


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