The theme of the latest Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (it was meant to take place in June but has been postponed because of Covid-19) is ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’. It is to be held in Kigali, hosted by Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president for the last two decades: proof enough of his continued good standing in the West. In Britain and beyond, he is credited with ending the genocide of 1994 – ‘one of the fastest killing sprees in human history’, as Michela Wrong describes it – and leading Rwanda to peace and prosperity. This sterling reputation has ensured that questions are rarely asked about his government’s involvement in the killings and disappearance of a long series of political opponents. Ten years ago the Metropolitan Police received ‘reliable intelligence’ that two London-based Rwandan dissidents had been targeted for assassination. The men were warned that they faced an ‘imminent threat’ that could come ‘in any form’. The UK government, Rwanda’s second biggest bilateral donor, suspended aid payments – until Kagame assured Andrew Mitchell, then the secretary of state for international development, that he had no knowledge of any such threat. Mitchell was ‘inclined to believe him’. A report by Human Rights Watch three years later documented ten cases of Rwandan exiles assassinated, kidnapped or attacked in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and the UK.
The most notorious assassination – the ‘political murder’ of Wrong’s subtitle – was that of Patrick Karegeya, Kagame’s former childhood friend, comrade-in-arms and security chief. In 2006 Kagame had him jailed for ‘insubordination’ – his second stint in prison. On his release he fled to South Africa and formed an opposition party in exile. At the end of 2013 he was lured to a Johannesburg hotel room by a business partner of Kagame’s wife. There he was set on and strangled to death by three army commandos who had flown in the previous day. The operation seems to have been modelled on the assassination of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhou by Mossad agents in a hotel room in Dubai. Karegeya would have known what to expect. When he was still Kagame’s eyes and ears – ‘the one he talks to in the bedroom’, as his colleagues put it – he was responsible for killing the president’s enemies wherever they were found. He made no attempt to deny it: a tiny, mountainous, landlocked country like Rwanda, the most densely populated in the continent, had ‘no space for another war’ – so it was vital to ‘pre-empt the threat’ from the many disaffected exiles gathered at its borders. In this regard, Karegeya argued, Rwanda resembled Israel, where ‘what you call “murder” is not a crime, it’s an act of war by other means, and if it took place in any other circumstances, we would be congratulated, praised for it.’
The reference to Israel wasn’t accidental. Despite accounting for only 15 per cent of the population, the cattle-owning Tutsis had ruled the kingdom from the mid-18th century, asserting their control by enacting discriminatory policies against the Hutus. This state of affairs continued under colonial rule, until in 1959 Belgium unexpectedly transferred power to the Hutu majority – described by Karegeya’s nephew as ‘dirty, dark, small and a bit slow’. Once they were in charge of the arsenal, the Hutus set about killing their former Tutsi overlords; by the time of formal independence in 1962, more than a hundred thousand Tutsis had fled into exile. Among them was the two-year-old Kagame, who crossed into neighbouring Uganda with his embittered father, a coffee broker who refused to get his hands dirty: ‘If I dig, I will die. If I don’t dig, I will also die. So let me die.’ A chosen people, in other words, encircled by enemies. ‘Never again will we allow a mass killing of our people,’ Karegeya said when Wrong interviewed him in 2003. ‘Never again will we allow anyone to lay a finger on a Tutsi head.’
Over the next three decades, a steady stream of persecuted Tutsis joined the exiles. But events were beginning to work in their favour. A guerrilla movement emerged in Uganda under Yoweri Museveni and restless young men like Kagame and Karegeya were instrumental in securing his elevation to the presidency in 1986. They then turned their attention to their own country. In 1987 the Rwandan Popular Front was formed in Kampala; three years later it launched an invasion of Rwanda. The RPF forces were pushed back but regrouped in a remote, mountainous area of Uganda, where Museveni supplied them with arms. They invaded again in 1992, this time securing enough territory to bring the ruling Hutu party to the negotiating table. In April 1994, Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was travelling back from another round of talks in Tanzania when his plane was shot down. All hell broke loose. In the space of a hundred days 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus suspected of sympathy with the RPF were slaughtered, mostly with machetes and hoes. Ten per cent of Rwanda’s population was wiped out. As an American journalist wrote in the immediate aftermath, the two million people murdered over four years in Cambodia in the 1970s made Pol Pot look ‘amateurish’ by comparison. The killers were urged on by broadcasts from state-owned media. Shock jocks on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines told listeners exactly what to do if they came across an RPF ‘accomplice’ (ibyitso): ‘Crush him and make sure he does not get out. Do not let him get out alive.’
Every Western journalist who covered the aftermath of the genocide can describe the moment when they realised the scale and horror of the massacre. For Wrong, it was on a Sunday in late 1994. She was visiting a church at ‘a spot of picture-postcard beauty overlooking the waters of Lake Kivu’ where 11,000 people had been murdered. As the parishioners left the service, she noticed that they avoided looking at a mound of earth to one side, from which part of a human leg protruded ‘ludicrously, comically’. ‘Well, he’s got one foot in the grave,’ a French legionnaire remarked. (He was part of a unit belatedly sent to Rwanda by a chastened Mitterrand.)
The genocide ended when the RPF captured Kigali in July 1994. Now it was the Hutus who fled en masse: nearly two million went to Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. The RPF controlled the government, and the country, but as a conciliatory measure a Hutu, Pasteur Bizimungu, was installed as president. Kagame took the vice presidency and the defence ministry, allowing him to exercise a considerable amount of power. Four years later, he assumed the chairmanship of the RPF in what party colleagues called ‘a very opaque way’. He proceeded to manipulate parliament to oust troublesome lawmakers and replaced five of the six Supreme Court judges. He ensured the support of enough ministers and members of parliament to become president in 2000 after Bizimungu’s (presumably forced) resignation. In Rwanda’s first direct presidential election, in 2003, following a new constitution that allowed for seven-year terms, Kagame won more than 90 per cent of the vote. He won by a similar margin in 2010, and again in 2017 – this time after securing a constitutional amendment that allows him to rule until 2034. None of this would have surprised Karegeya, or his friend Kayumba Nyamwasa, known as the General, a former Rwandan army commander who has so far survived two assassination attempts.
Kagame, who has honorary doctorates from universities across Africa and the United States, finished school with poor grades. He joined the countless young Rwandan men hustling on the streets of Kampala until a boyhood friend turned mentor, Fred Rwigyema, introduced him to Uganda’s guerrilla movement. He was sent on a seven-month espionage and information-gathering course. Rwigyema, who was killed during the RPF’s first incursion into Rwanda, saw Kagame’s potential. ‘A puritanical teetotaller,’ Wrong writes, Kagame ‘never seemed to let his guard down, keeping himself at arm’s length from the men, who came to feel he was constantly totting up their personal failings’. On guerrilla operations in Uganda, he would demand the death penalty for offences as slight as dropping something when on the move or sneaking off for a beer. He ‘would read out the names of those who were to die, and then he’d send parties on missions to their units to carry the sentence out’, earning the nickname Pilato, after Pontius Pilate. And he was inventive. Once, when the guerrillas found it necessary to dispose of a troublesome sub-county chief (he was trying to put a stop to their recruitment drive), Kagame had a letter written thanking the man for his invaluable support. He got some of his young fellow fighters to dress up as schoolboys, cycle to the nearest Ugandan army checkpoint and drop the incriminating letter in the road. The man was executed a few days later.
Nobody seems to have warmed to Kagame. ‘This one, I cannot call him and he comes. I cannot control him,’ his mother said of him. Or as Kagame himself put it: ‘God created me in a very strange way.’ In the four-year interval between Museveni’s accession to power in Uganda and the launch of their own guerrilla war, Rwigyema, Nyamwasa, Karegeya and Kagame – Museveni’s ‘boys’ – held important positions in Kampala as a reward for their service. Karegeya, ‘who relished the murmur of voices and the clink of glasses’, would host them in his modest bungalow overlooking the city. Kagame wasn’t always welcome. ‘Don’t bring him tonight,’ someone or other would say. ‘We don’t need that stress. He spoils the atmosphere.’ According to Karegeya’s wife, her husband was ‘the only one who could tolerate him’, the only one who was permitted to ‘tell dirty jokes’, the only one with whom Kagame would ‘drop his guard’. She loathed him: ‘You saw Kagame’s true character come out even then … He would order all these Uganda businessmen arrested just because they had made money, calling them “thieves”, and when a beautiful woman walked by he’d call her a “whore”.’
Kagame seems to have been badly affected by his experiences as a refugee in Uganda. ‘You were always reminded, in one way or another, that you didn’t belong here, that you were not supposed to be here,’ he recalled. ‘You have no place that you can call yours.’ Later, when he came to power in Rwanda, he would stand behind the door of the cabinet office and kick ministers who arrived late, sending them sprawling. Soldiers fared worse. On one occasion, he arrived at a barracks under military escort and proceeded to whip the senior commanders. ‘It took the entire afternoon,’ an eyewitness recalled. ‘Officers beaten in front of their own subordinates … It went against every principle of leadership.’ Karegeya, who had been head of foreign intelligence since the RPF takeover, was increasingly troubled by Kagame’s behaviour and his hunger for power. The president was always quick to suspect disloyalty, and sensitive to the whispers around him. When a rumour reached him that their old comrade Nyamwasa was involved in a plot to bring down the government, Karegeya told him it was nonsense – a response that only fuelled Kagame’s paranoia. Karegeya was punished with his first stint in prison.
The circumstances surrounding Rwigyema’s death are less clear. A ‘slim, smooth-skinned, self-deprecating Hector’, he was admired by his men for his ‘almost suicidal courage’ and his kindness – he would argue for mercy when Kagame was out for blood. A friend who went with him to a football match in Kampala remembers the reception when he arrived: ‘It was incredible. The stadium just erupted. People were standing in the aisles, shouting his name. He was our guy, our hero. The reaction was so overwhelming kickoff had to be delayed for five minutes.’ In short, he was the antithesis of Kagame: ‘Fred had a totally different personality,’ Karegeya said. ‘He was inclusive. He embraced everyone, he didn’t push them away.’ Many Rwandans still believe that Rwigyema’s death on the battlefield was actually an assassination carried out on Kagame’s orders. What is certain is that Kagame resented anyone who was popular. ‘Who do you think you are?’ he said to Karegeya after he was released from prison. ‘Everywhere I go, people are asking about you.’ The first lady, Jeannette Kagame, told Karegeya’s wife that he had only himself to blame. ‘We tried to warn you about Fred Rwigyema and you didn’t listen to us. If my husband wasn’t a tolerant man, you could be dead by now.’
He soon was. An inquest in South Africa determined that Karegeya’s death was ‘consistent with features of ligature strangulation’, and was carried out by people known to the investigators. The South African authorities issued arrest warrants against two of the men on the basis of ‘overwhelming’ evidence. (South Africa is still seeking their extradition from Rwanda.) How many others have been killed on Kagame’s orders? Karegeya, who knew better than anyone where the bodies are buried, claimed that it was Kagame who ordered the attack on President Habyarimana’s plane, provoking the conflict he was confident would follow. In 2006 a French anti-terrorism judge examining a claim filed by the families of the dead pilots and the flight engineer issued arrest warrants against nine of Kagame’s closest associates, but not against Kagame himself. As head of state he enjoys immunity.
In 2018 armed rebels carried out a series of raids near Rwanda’s border with Burundi. Nine people were killed. The rebels are believed to be members of the National Liberation Front, the armed wing of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a group of exiles committed to toppling Kagame. Last August, in response to the attacks, the Rwandan authorities detained Paul Rusesabagina, the MRCD’s president and inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda – during the genocide, as manager of the hotel, he saved more than a thousand lives. According to Andrew Mitchell, now senior adviser to a Kigali-based investment bank, Rusesabagina was complicit in the rebel attacks. Mitchell didn’t seem concerned that the arrest violated international law: the flight he was on from Dubai to Burundi was diverted to Kigali, where he was taken into custody. Rusesabagina, whom Kagame considers a ‘manufactured’ hero ‘made in Europe or America’, has been a vociferous critic of the Rwandan government. In 2007 he reported Kagame to an international tribunal on war crimes, saying that the RPF had committed ‘revenge’ killings during the genocide (a claim backed up by a UN mission to Rwanda). From his prison cell in Kigali he said he was merely arguing for maximum diplomatic pressure to be exerted on the regime. That’s not a distinction that means much to Kagame. ‘You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it,’ he once said.
The kidnapping of Rusesabagina shows how little Kagame cares about what the world thinks. As he has said, ‘those wazungus [white people] make noise but over time they forget it.’ He has successfully deflected criticism, partly thanks to Western guilt over the genocide (a recent report commissioned by Macron said that France bears an ‘overwhelming responsibility’) and partly by implying that criticism is a vestige of colonial condescension. But Western opinion may be starting to turn against him, at least if Wrong’s book – and the favourable reception it has received – is anything to go by. And Kagame’s standing isn’t helped by his economic record. The supposed miracle he has worked over the last twenty years has turned out to be a sham. Officially, the Rwandan economy has been growing at a rate of 7 per cent a year, but according to an anonymous statistician in the Review of African Political Economy only South Sudan has experienced ‘a faster increase in poverty’. Two-thirds of the population now lives below the poverty line, an increase of 15 per cent in a decade.
Wrong’s book is a record of exhaustive research into ‘a small, tight-knit elite … whose vaunting Shakespearean ambitions happened to shape the destiny of Africa’s Great Lakes region’. But we barely glimpse the huge numbers of Rwandans swept up in the tumult as one conflict succeeds another. This is partly because Wrong relies on so many Western voices: the ‘veteran editor of the authoritative Africa Confidential newsletter’, the ‘veteran human rights investigator’ whose reports ‘had been a thorn in the regime’s side over the years’, the (presumably veteran) US diplomat who considers Kagame ‘without doubt the most ruthless politician operating in Africa today’. Where are the African newsletters, human rights reports and outspoken diplomats? Like Wrong, I was in Gisenyi in November 1996 when an estimated 800,000 Hutus crossed back into Rwanda from Congo-DRC in ten days, having fled two years earlier, because of renewed interethnic violence in the area. Kagame was content for them to return: he preferred to keep them under the watchful eye of his ‘hardline, one-party, secretive police state’, as Wrong describes it, than to have them plotting on the other side of the border.
I was struck by the degree of Western interest. In years reporting across Africa I had rubbed shoulders with the BBC, CNN and Reuters, but never with journalists from the Baltimore Sun or the Philadelphia Inquirer. I had never seen 29 aid agencies gathered together in one otherwise insignificant border town. The plight of the returnees, after two terrible years in the Congolese bush, was desperate. There were children separated from their parents but too young to know their names (aid workers posted photographs of them and hoped for the best). I saw an elderly couple holding hands, a man pushing his friend in a wheelbarrow and a woman cradling a day-old baby as people entered Gisenyi in their thousands. Early one evening I approached a group of a dozen people as they paused in the shade of a tree. I wanted to give them money but my hand was barely out of my pocket before one of them snatched it and I hurried away. It no longer occurred to them that they might be offered help.
The genocide was still fresh in everyone’s minds, yet not a single African media organisation was present. There were no members of the national press from Kenya, the regional powerhouse, or from Nigeria, the African ‘giant’, or from newly liberated South Africa. This was largely the West talking to itself about what it should or shouldn’t do. An aid worker briefed reporters: ‘There were five deaths yesterday. It isn’t a large number. Three of them were under five.’ In crises of this kind we remain invisible to ourselves because we have failed to bear witness to our own continent and our own histories. We are complicit in our ghostly condition.
The version of this piece that appeared in the print edition of the LRB incorrectly stated that the Rwandan justice department – not, as correctly stated here, the South African authorities – issued arrest warrants against two of the men suspected of killing Patrick Karegeya.