Rwanda’s dark side

In 1994, more than 500,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were slaughtered in 100 bloody days after President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by guerrillas near Kigali Airport. A new book on the genocide by the British author Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, has kicked a hornet’s nest. The killing, done by the military and Hutu-extremist militias, was an organized operation “with a deliberate strategy,” Wrong writes, but she also questions the dominant storyline that the rebels led by President Paul Kagame were “the good guys.” Phillip Van Niekerk reviews the book.

On April 6, 1994, a Falcon jet carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile as it was landing at Kigali International Airport. This was the trigger for one of the most brutal episodes in African history, the Rwandan genocide, in which up to a million people – the overwhelming majority of them Tutsis – were slaughtered in just three months.

This story has been told in news reports (after the international press was initially caught flat-footed); in the accounts of survivors and witnesses; in almost 15 years of testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania; and in dozens of books and movies including Hotel Rwanda, for which Don Cheadle won an Oscar. And yet, surprisingly, much contention remains over what led to the events of 1994, what happened afterwards, and who we count as perpetrators.

A new book by the British author Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, has kicked a hornet’s nest. While it has won laudatory reviews, it has also exposed the profound and at times hateful discord over the Rwandan genocide and aftermath. Wrong is brave to venture into such a contentious field.

President Paul Kagame

President Paul Kagame

The central character in Do Not Disturb is Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a powerful figure in African politics. Wrong describes how he grew up as a Rwandan refugee in Uganda, where he chafed against his outsider status as a member of the “unwanted.” A former associate describes him as “a gawky school dropout one step away from being a street boy” who reinvented himself as a revolutionary leader. His watchwords are “discipline, focus, control.” Compared to more gregarious comrades he is dour and charmless, a man with “barely suppressed rage” who humiliates his subordinates, personally beating them in his office. While on the march with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the troops called him “Pilato” (Pontius Pilate) or “Kagome” – “the mean one.”

This is the man who, in Wrong’s telling, has rebuilt Rwanda into a militaristic surveillance state that earns praise from the World Bank for its clean efficiency. It comes top of the charts for ease of doing business in Africa, while denying an independent press or genuine democracy, and deploying hit squads to eliminate dissidents in foreign countries.

Many admire how Rwanda, with virtually no natural resources, has emerged as one of Africa’s great economic success stories. Anyone who visited in the nineties and returns today can only be struck by a remarkable transformation. One undisputed measure of state capacity, for instance, is that Rwanda has been a leader on the continent in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. People who spend time there will tell you that Rwanda works. It is a place where you can “get things done,” with minimal levels of corruption.

A vicious regime 

While Wrong puts Rwanda’s “development miracle” in inverted commas and quotes economists and former insiders who believe the economic recovery is a mirage, her beef is with those who look the other way and refuse to see the dark side of all this progress. “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.”

Wrong personalizes the story through two people that she spent a lot of time talking to – former spy chief Patrick Karegeya and former army chief of staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa, both leading figures in the Rwandan Patriotic Front who fell out with Kagame and went into exile in South Africa, helping found the opposition Rwanda National Congress. They were hunted by the regime, whose conspiracies and botched plans for assassinations were captured on tape. On January 1, 2014, Karegeya was strangled in a room in the Michelangelo Towers Hotel in Sandton, South Africa.

The official South African response was “cringe-inducing.” The investigation by the Hawks, organized-crime agency, was shut down once they established that the Rwandan state was behind the killing. The family, failing to get support from human-rights NGOs, turned to an unlikely source, AfriForum and its advocate Gerrie Nel, to push for investigation and prosecution.

That private action led to some redemption for the criminal justice system. In 2019 Randburg magistrate Mashiane Mathopa ordered the National Prosecuting Authority to act on information about the killers that it had been sitting on for five years. In August 2019, two out of four of Karegeya’s alleged murderers were flagged for arrest and red notices were sent out on Interpol. It was a small but significant victory for the rule of law.

Why did Kagame believe he could operate with such impunity? How did South Africa, with its economic muscle and the ANC’s moral standing as the premier liberation movement on the continent, allow itself to be pushed around by a regime that sent agents to murder a South African resident while the country’s elite was drinking cognac and smoking cigars downstairs? It is small comfort that the craven behavior of the Zuma administration is not the only international response found wanting.

Intertwining history 

No part of this story can be understood without an examination of the genocide and the deep history that preceded it. Wrong, who has previously written books on Eritrea, Kenya, and the Democratic Re-public of Congo, is the kind of reporter who never stops asking questions or visiting the scenes of crimes long after the rest of the pack has gone home.

The Belgian colonialists, who long favored the Tutsi elite, switched their support to the Hutus shortly before independence in 1962, setting off ethnic strife that has arguably never ended. What was to become the Rwandan Patriotic Front was largely made up of two groups of Rwandans that settled in Uganda – economic migrants from before independence and refugees from Hutu-inspired pogroms after 1959. Kagame left Rwanda as an infant, carried to Uganda, where his community was assimilated at one level, but never quite accepted.

The Ugandan Rwandans were drawn into Uganda’s volatile post-independence struggles through the eras of Milton Obote (twice), Idi Amin, and Yoweri Museveni. The Rwandans – including Karegeya, Kagame, and the charismatic Fred Rwigyema – provided a dependable support base for Museveni to launch his two guerilla wars but, after victory, found themselves rejected and discriminated against. From exile, they cast eyes homeward toward Rwanda.

Wrong weaves together the modern history of central Africa, the interconnected individuals and wars up to and beyond the ousting by the Rwandan military in 1997 of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire/DRC and his replacement by Laurent Kabila. “The revolutionary leaders of the Great Lakes resembled a set of wooden dolls,” She writes. “Inside Julius Nyerere had nestled Yoweri Museveni, inside Museveni lay Paul Kagame, inside Kagame nestled Laurent Kabila.” 

The genocide 

The genocide of 1994 is the heart of this story. The basics of how the military and interahamwe militia unleashed a ghastly slaughter are familiar. Spurred on by xenophobic propaganda on the radio, ordinary people armed with machetes hacked their neighbors to death. Eventually, in the face of the advancing RPF, the genocidaires fled, shepherding hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees into the DRC as Tutsis arrived back en masse from Uganda.

Flowers laid on top of a glass case containing the skulls of some of the people slaughtered in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Left: A wall at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial Centre, a former Catholic church in a rural area south of Kigali where 5,000 people were massacred on April 15, 1994, lists their names.

Flowers laid on top of a glass case containing the skulls of some of the people slaughtered in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Left: A wall at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial Centre, a former Catholic church in a rural area south of Kigali where 5,000 people were massacred on April 15, 1994, lists their names.

Less well-known, at least in the popular storyline, is that thousands of Hutus were killed by the RPF before and after the genocide. Contemporaneous research conducted by Robert Gersony for the UN concluded that tens of thousands of Hutus were killed in one area of Rwanda under RPF control in the months after the genocide.

Killings of civilians continued afterwards at the Kibeho camp for internally displaced people in southern Rwanda, and as the RPF raided interahamwe and ex-military who were launching attacks into Rwanda from the DRC. This culminated in the events of October and November 1996, when the RPF forced the return of refugees and destroyed their camps in eastern Congo. Thousands of interahamwe and civilians who ran towards Kisangani were hunted down and, the evidence suggests, massacred by the Rwandan army.

As Wrong unravels the complicity of the RPF in atrocities, crucial parts of the main narrative are thrown into doubt. Wrong, for instance, lays out evidence from former insiders that Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by the RPF. Other Rwandan experts dispute her conclusion and point to the speed with which the killing began in the aftermath of the crash, like a sinister and well-prepared operation that was just waiting for its starting shot. 

Wrong believes this dispute over basic facts is more than just the usual fog of war. She describes how, in the aftermath of the genocide, Karegeya and his colleagues in the RPF peddled their story to journalists, diplomats and ordinary Rwandans. “These were men supremely skilled at seduction, intellectual, emotional, or sexual. American diplomats weary of negotiating with sleazy Great Lakes politicians thrilled at the puritanism of these thin, driven young men in camouflage. NGO workers who were new to Africa’s Great Lakes listened to their tales, hearts pounding with sympathy or outrage – initially at least. Reporters, photographers, and filmmakers became lifelong friends or ended up jumping into bed with them.” 

The popular narrative in the West was shaped by sympathetic news accounts and books such as Samantha Powers’ A problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, which Wrong dismisses as too friendly to the RPF.

Wrong, who was herself in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide in 1994, reflects with some degree of mea culpa that “the storyteller’s need to identify good guys and bad guys, culprit and victim, makes fools of us all.”

The implication of this is extremely serious: That much of the world was duped into believing a narrative of the Rwandan genocide that was essentially made up. 

One has to immediately say that whatever spin was put on it, the genocide was not a fabrication, nor does Wrong claim that it was. More than 13% of the population was exterminated in 100 days in “an operation with a deliberate strategy, and a hierarchy of cooperative agents,” as Wrong reports. That was the crime of crimes, against which all else must be measured.

Comparisons of moral blame are especially odious when you are grappling with the murder of large numbers of people and want to hold onto the value of every life. There is little doubt that Kagame and the RPF have blood on their hands and, though Wrong never goes there, Hutu extremists and their academic allies in the West will find grist for their theory of a “double genocide” that has disturbing parallels with Holocaust denial. For these people the war has never ended, and, if anything, they keep alive the threat narrative that the RPF uses to justify its extraterritorial incursions.

Perhaps this is a weakness of the legal definition of genocide – the “deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation” – that has turned it into an increasingly commonplace charge in international law in place of the more precise war crimes or even crimes against humanity. But there is no equivalence between the events of April, May and June of 1994 and the excesses of the RPF.

The trade-off 

Rwanda’s terrible blood-soaked history, still fresh in the memories of those that survived, explains why many in the international development community approach the country with special caution and makes people so unwilling to belittle its revival.

Even after Wrong has presented all her evidence, much of which has been available for decades, there will still be those – including many Africans – who will see human security and the reduction of poverty as an acceptable trade-off for democratic rights. 

Rwanda, after all, is bordered by the DRC, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi – all countries in which authoritarianism and state violence are not uncommon. Who do you go to if you want partners in this part of the world?

Perhaps the deeper problem is that since the end of the Cold War, American and Western foreign policy has sought to divide the world into men in white hats and men in black hats. This defies Africa’s complex history and requires policymakers, once invested, to delude themselves while they wait for books like this to inform them that the emperor has no clothes.

Hopefully, Do Not Disturb will provide impetus to the notion that those who want to do good in Africa should identify primarily with ordinary Africans, with civil society, with the victims, and put their interests first, not just those of elites and leaders with feet of clay.

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