President Paul Kagame – long feted by leaders in the west – is accused of serial human rights abuses in expansive new book
Published by The Guardian on March 19, 2021.
Paul Kagame (AFP)
A devastating new book will accuse Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame – long feted by his prominent international supporters as the model of visionary new African leadership – of being a serial human rights abuser, including for his role in a sustained campaign of assassinating his rivals in exile.
Written by Michela Wrong, the author who covered the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when more than 800,000 people – largely ethnic Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus – were killed by Hutu militias over 100 days, Do Not Disturb represents one of the most far-reaching historical revisions of Kagame and his regime.
Meticulously researched, with substantial new material and interviews, Wrong is careful to set competing claims next to each other where there are unresolved questions, including the suspicions – thus far uncorroborated – of Rwandan involvement in the 2001 assassination of Congolese president Laurent Kabila.
While Kagame has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, not least over the high-profile murder of his former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in South Africa in 2014 by Rwandan agents, Do Not Disturb alleges Kagame’s involvement in multiple rights abuses from his earliest days in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
Beginning with his role as a dour rebel intelligence officer behind the grisly executions of suspected infiltrators, Do Not Disturb chronicles Kagame’s rise as well as his part in the overthrow of two Congolese presidents and the looting of that country’s mineral resources, relying on numerous interviews with former members of his inner circle.
With Rwanda heavily reliant on international aid for almost two-thirds of its budget, Wrong’s examination of Kagame and Rwanda’s role in destabilising its neighbours in the Great Lakes raises embarrassing questions for his prominent supporters – who have included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Gates and Clare Short – and for international aid donors including the UK accused of long turning a blind eye.
The book is being published just months before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is due to be held in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, this summer, an event that will once again put Kagame at the centre of an international stage.
Far from the charismatic, driven and progressive leader he is perceived as by his international supporters, Kagame emerges from Wrong’s account as a murderously authoritarian figure; a cold, petty and vindictive individual. She compares him to Stalin’s notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, always able “to find the crime to fit the man”.
In an interview with the Guardian, Wrong described how her view of Kagame had changed radically over the years since she first encountered his RPF forces as a young reporter covering the genocide, when – like so many others – she embraced the RPF’s narrative.
Wrong has already been accused on social media of becoming a “genocide denier”, the standard accusation levelled at critics of Kagame. She has no doubt that genocide occurred, only that it hid a far more complex picture, including the subsequent murders of Hutus by Tutsi forces after the RPF took power.
“Going from village to village with the French troops you were confronted by mass graves where people had been hurriedly buried, seeing women scrubbing the floors of the church naves trying to get the blood stains out.
“Then you’d meet members of the RPF who were reserved and disciplined and spoke excellent English, who didn’t seem to speak in forked tongues like the departing government of Juvénal Habyarimana [the Hutu president who was killed when his plane was shot down, sparking the genocide].
“I was completely won over by them and completely willing to accept that their takeover was a very good thing because it spelled the end of the horror. That’s how I viewed the RPF for many years and that’s how the world saw it.”
Wrong talks of an encounter with a French diplomat who described the later pursuit and murder of Hutus fleeing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by RPF’s forces and remembers thinking: “This is nonsense! It was so at odds with what I believed the RPF stood for. Now I look back, that was a briefing we should have paid more attention to.”
At the centre of Wrong’s revisiting is her detailed depiction of the circumstances of the gruesome strangling of Patrick Karegeya in a South African hotel room in 2014. Kagame’s charming if deeply implicated former intelligence chief was murdered in Johannesburg by, she says, Rwandan agents after he, having fallen out of favour, had fled Rwanda, setting up an opposition organisation in exile. A “do not disturb” sign was hung outside the room by his killer as they left.
It was a murder that Kagame’s ministers publicly celebrated. Defence minister James Kabarebe told journalists at the time: “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash so that it does not stink for them.”
Kagame denied involvement. “Rwanda did not kill this person – and it’s a big ‘no’,” he answered when asked by a western reporter. Yet he could not resist: “But I add that, I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish it.”
Kagame’s message to Rwanda’s domestic audience was different. He delivered it at a prayer breakfast in Kigali: “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” he told a small crowd of dignitaries.
“Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price,” Kagame said. “Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.”
Wrong claims it has not been an isolated incident, with opposition figures and critics – including in the UK – receiving warnings that their lives may be in danger, raising a question over why the UK is so supportive of a regime that Scotland Yard has had to provide protection against.
But even long before Karegeya’s murder, Wrong admits she was harbouring doubts about Kagame.
It was the assassination in Kenya of Seth Sendashonga, a Hutu former interior minister in the government of national unity in Rwanda who had fallen out with the regime in Kigali, that was the first crack in her perception.
She recalls it as the day “when with a near-audible mental ping, I realised I no longer believed most of the key ‘truths’ upon which [Kagame’s RPF] built its account.”
“That was 1998. Early on. There were two attempts on his life and that made it impossible to pretend it was just random crime.
“It’s not what I expected the RPF to be doing. I remember the behind the scenes RPF counter-narrative to journalists and diplomats with friends in the movement was: ‘No! You have to understand, he’d gone abroad and he was mustering these former genocidaires. They were going to attack Rwanda. He’d gone over to the dark side.’”
But as Wrong points out, many, such as Karegeya and Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, the exiled former Rwandan chief of staff (who also survived an attempt on his life in South Africa), were far from former genocidaires camped out in the forests of the neighbouring DRC, but among those once in Kagame’s most trusted inner circle.
“The people that Kagame really fears, the people he is reaching out across the globe to silence, intimidate, harass and kill are more often than not members of his own Tutsi elite.”
After four years researching and writing Do Not Disturb, what shocks Wrong is how, in the light of the public outcry over the attempted and successful assassinations carried out abroad by Russia and Saudi Arabia, criticism of Kagame has been at best tepid.
“It feels like it has been consequence-free. There’s been a very tactful diplomatic cover-up by Rwanda’s allies abroad.
“At the most there have been a very few court cases, with Patrick Karegeya’s inquest being the most prominent, with testimony showing the South Africans wanted to bury the story completely because it was the Rwandan government behind it.
“There have been massive consequences for the Russian targeting of [Sergei] Skripal and [Alexander] Litvenenko abroad yet Rwanda is just given a little scolding. There’s a double standard because Rwanda is seen as the good guys. Our friends. And they’re people we give an awful lot of aid to.”
All of which raises the question: why?
Wrong sees a mixture of vanity and lazy thinking, compounded by the west’s post-colonial habit of seeking to anoint favoured African leaders.
“It’s an old story. We always pick sides. Leaders are embraced and a blind eye turned to the atrocities. There’s a temptation to personalise and simplify, to choose good guys and bad guys.
“The other argument of Rwanda’s international supporters is that it’s a stabilising force, but the destabilising force in the Great Lakes for decades has been Rwanda, including the systematic pillaging of Congo’s minerals.”
Wrong is highly critical of the role played by the aid and development sector, including that of the UK.
“There’s a development paradigm playing out in Rwanda which goes quite deep and it’s sinister. It’s this idea that the west can deliver development irrespective of what the local government is like and that you can strip the politics out of the development agenda by focusing on education, health, mosquito nets, vaccination rates.
“But the local politics are the only thing that matters. There’s something profoundly uncomfortable about insisting that a government which has a deteriorating human rights record and has committed egregious war crimes is a worthy recipient of aid because it performs well on aid metrics yet is busy killing journalists and rounding up and disappearing critics.”
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