Agathe Uwilingiyimana, one of the most influential women in Rwandan history, was born in 1953 in the village of Nyaruhengeri, some 140 km southeast of Kigali, Rwanda's capital city, to farming parents. Shortly after she was born the family emigrated from Butare to work in the Belgian Congo. Her father moved the family back to Butare when Uwilingiyimana was four. After success in public examinations she was educated at Notre Dame des Cîteaux Secondary School, and obtained the certificate to teach humanities at 20.
In 1976 she received a secondary school diploma in mathematics and chemistry. She became a mathematics teacher in Butare. In the same year she married Ignace Barahira, a fellow student from her village. Their first child was born later in the year; they would go on to have five children.
In 1983 she taught chemistry at the National University of Rwanda. This was financially possible because her husband obtained a post at the university laboratory at twice the salary of a math teacher. She received a B.Sc. in 1985, and taught chemistry for four years in Butare academic schools. Rwandan media was later critical of her scientific education, as it was thought that girls should not study science.
In 1986 she created a Soriority and Credit Cooperative Society among the staff of the Butare academic school, and her high-profile role in the self-help organization brought her to the attention of the Kigali authorities, who wanted to appoint decision makers from the discontented south of the country. In 1989 she became a director in the Ministry of Commerce.
She joined the Republican Democratic Movement (MDR), an opposition party, in 1992, and four months later was appointed Minister of Education by Dismas Nsengiyaremye, the first opposition prime minister under a power-sharing scheme negotiated between President Juvénal Habyarimana and five major opposition parties. As education minister she abolished the academic ethnic quota system, awarding public school places and scholarships by open merit ranking. This decision earned her the enmity of the Hutu extremist parties.
On 17 July 1993, after a meeting between President Habyarimana and all five parties, Agathe Uwilingiyimana became the first woman prime minister of Rwanda, replacing Dr. Nsengiyaremye, the man who had appointed her Minister of Education, and whose exoneration of the president was unpopular with the other parties. Since Uwilingiyimana didn't have the power base of the other candidates, and was not wanted by Habyarimana, most observers believe that her appointment as prime minister was based on the political calculation by the President that she would divide the opposition, and by the opposition that she would be controllable. On the day of her appointment, Nsengiyareme suspended Uwilingiyimana's MDR membership. (The MDR had opposed the formation of any interim government excluding the rebel RPF.)
The Habyarimana–Uwilingiyimana government was still Hutu dominated, and had the daunting task of successfully negotiating a peace accord with the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-dominated guerilla movement. An agreement between Habyarimana, the five opposition parties (led ostensibly by Uwilingiyimana), and the RPF, was finally reached on 4 August 1993. Under the "Arusha Accords", Habyarimana's ruling MRND would take the transitional presidency, and the Prime Minister would come from the MDR. Since the MDR had suspended Uwilingiyimana they chose Faustin Twagiramungu (who had been instrumental in suspending her) to replace her.
President Habyarimana officially dismissed her as Prime Minister eighteen days after her appointment to the office, but she stayed on in a caretaker capacity for eight months, until her death in April 1994. This was despite being excoriated by all the Hutu-dominated parties, including her own MDR, and President Habyrimana's ruling party, which held a press conference in January 1994 attacking Uwilingiyimana for being a "political trickster".
The swearing in of the "Broad Based Transitional Government", or BBTG, was to have taken place on 25 March 1994. At that point, Uwilingiyimana was to have stepped down in favor of Faustin Twagiramungu, having been guaranteed a lower level ministerial post in the new government. However, the RPF did not appear at the ceremony, postponing the establishment of the new regime. She reached agreement with them that the new government would be sworn in on the following day.
The talks between President Habyarimana, Uwilingiyimana, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front were never concluded, and the president's plane was shot down by rockets at around 8:30 pm on 6 April 1994. From Habyarimana's death until her assassination the following morning (approximately 14 hours), Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana was Rwanda's constitutional head of government.
In an interview with Radio France on the night of President Habyarimana's assassination, Uwilingiyimana said that there would be an immediate investigation. She also said, in her last recorded words:
There is shooting, people are being terrorized, people are inside their homes lying on the floor. We are suffering the consequences of the death of the head of state, I believe. We, the civilians, are in no way responsible for the death of our head of state.
The U.N. peacekeeping force sent an escort of ten Belgian peacekeepers to her home before 3 am the following morning; they intended to take her to Radio Rwanda, from where she planned to make a dawn broadcast appealing for national calm. Uwilingiyimana's house was further guarded by five Ghanaian U.N. troops, who were stationed outside. Inside the house, the family was protected by the Rwandan presidential guard, but between 6:55 and 7:15 am the presidential guard surrounded the U.N. troops and told them to lay down their arms. Fatally, the blue berets ultimately complied, handing over their weapons just before 9 am.
Seeing the stand-off outside her home, Uwilingiyimana and her family took refuge in the Kigali U.N. volunteer compound around 8 am. Eyewitnesses to the inquiry on U.N. actions say that Rwandan soldiers entered the compound at 10 am and searched it for Uwilingiyimana. Fearing for the lives of her children, Uwilingiyimana and her husband emerged; both were shot and killed by the presidential guard on the morning of 7 April 1994. Her children escaped and eventually took refuge in Switzerland. In his book, Me Against My Brother, Scott Peterson writes that the U.N. troops sent to protect Uwilingiyimana were castrated, gagged with their own genitalia, and then murdered.
In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, U.N. commander Roméo Dallaire writes that Uwilingiyimana and her husband surrendered themselves to the genocidaires to save their children, who stayed successfully hidden in the adjoining housing compound for employees of the United Nations Development Programme. The children survived and were picked up by Captain Mbaye Diagne, a UNAMIR military observer, who smuggled them into the Hôtel des Mille Collines. They were eventually resettled in Switzerland.
Major Bernard Ntuyahaga was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for the murder of Uwilingiyimana and the U.N. peacekeepers, but the charges were dropped. He was eventually convicted of murder of the peacekeepers. On December 18, 2008, the ICTR found Colonel Théoneste Bagosora guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment, in part due to his involvement in the murders of Uwilingiyimana and the Belgian peacekeepers.
Though short, her political career was precedent-setting as one of the few female political figures in Africa. She was contemporaneous with Sylvie Kinigi, Prime Minister of Burundi. As a memorial to the late Rwandan Prime Minister, the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) established The Agathe Innovative Award Competition. The award funds educational and income generating projects aimed at improving the prospects of African girls. One of FAWE's founding members was Agathe Uwilingiyimana.