BOOKS: Revealing the sinister state of post-genocide Rwanda

By Richard Bourne

“Do Not Disturb”, by Michaela Wrong an investigative journalist, is the book that every reporter should read who plans to cover the Commonwealth summit in Kigali. She has been writing about central Africa from Eritrea to the Congo for 20 years, for the Financial Times among others. She tears away the veils of propaganda which envelop Paul Kagame, and the often-admired regime he has created following the 1994 genocide, itself not even the latest in a series of massacres in Rwanda’s blood-bathed history.

The title is provided by the notice on the door of Room 905 at the Michelangelo Hotel, Johannesburg, where Kagame’s hitmen had assassinated another opponent, Patrick Karegeya, former head of Rwanda’s external intelligence. He died on New Year’s Day, 2014, neither the first nor the last of those to be eliminated in targeted killings. Karegeya, though a longtime contact of Wrong’s, was not a savoury character. He had been a key arms supplier for Kagame’s army when based in Kampala, with the tacit approval then of President Museveni.

Karegeya fled in 2007, after falling out with President Kagame, and became one of the four key players in a Rwanda National Council which wanted to overthrow the regime. But Wrong’s account, with detailed footnotes and the product of several years’ research, is much more than a thriller about this one murder. She takes apart the claims for ethnic reconciliation in Rwanda – this is really a Tutsi government. She challenges the claims for Chinese-style growth rates, of 11.2 per cent in 2008, and that poverty rates have fallen: a statistician who has been working on this for years estimates that poverty has risen to over 60 per cent now, up 15 per cent since 2011.

Above all she demolishes the character of Paul Kagame, pitched into leadership of the Tutsi rebel force, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, in October 1990. The RPF, led by a more skilled and amiable general, Fred Rwigyema, had just launched its initially unsuccessful invasion of Rwanda; thousands of Rwandan-speaking Ugandan troops, the backbone of Museveni’s bush army which had brought him to power, had defected and crossed the border when Museveni was in New York at the UN General Assembly.

“Profoundly disturbing”

Kagame, who had risen high in Museveni’s army, happened to be in Fort Leavenworth on a training course when Rwigyema died in circumstances that Wrong cannot quite disentangle. He came back and took charge, with an approval from Museveni that – after a Rwandan-Ugandan war in the Congo and periodic diplomatic breaches – he would now regret. But Wrong demonstrates beyond doubt that it was an RPF rocket that downed an aircraft, killing two presidents – Habyarimana of Rwanda and Ntaryamira of Burundi – in April 1994. This put paid to a coalition government stitched together in Arusha, and precipitated the Hutu youth militias, the interahamwe into the ruthless genocide which shamed the world.

Wrong records that, as the genocide continued, the RPF did not move to safeguard Tutsis and discouraged the UN from doing so, in fear that it would prop up a Hutu government which continued to have France’s support. Latterly Kagame and others have labelled it a “Tutsi genocide”, though in reality moderate Hutus, opposed to Habyarimana and the extremists, were murdered also. Genocide has become the creation myth for the regime, and the reason why western governments and foundations have been so slow to call out Kagame. Other African rulers, often weak on human rights and democracy themselves, elected him as president of the African Union and, with David Cameron and other Commonwealth leaders in Malta in 2015, were happy to see him chair the body in succession to the UK.

Not all Africans have been taken in by Kagame, whose personal qualities have something of Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe about him, allied to much greater skill in the international community. Kagame beats up underlings. Mugabe would have envied his 98 per cent success in a referendum in 2015 which guarantees his power until 2034. The Commonwealth has never observed any recent election in Rwanda, and even in 2003 might have wondered how he managed 95.1 per cent in favour.

Although the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa has rebuilt bridges with Kagame, after diplomatic breakdowns with South Africa caused by murders on South African soil, Desmond Tutu describes Wrong’s account as “profoundly disturbing.” Because the whole world wanted Rwanda to succeed, it ignored the silencing of opponents through imprisonment, kidnapping or torture. “To our shame,” Tutu adds, “our need for Rwanda to succeed far exceeded our desire or ability to see the cost at which that success was bought.”

This regime has no patience with dissenting journalists and independent human rights groups, and the slickness of its diplomatic and public relations reach is remarkable for a small, overpopulated central African state. In the UK, for example, it has recently placed an article by Kagame, on Africa’s need for Covid vaccines, in The Guardian, the paper most likely to criticise his dictatorship; it had a two page plug in the Evening Standard, after he gave a soft interview about wildlife conservation to its proprietor, Lord Lebedev.

For some 20 years, propelled by genocide guilt, key players in British political parties have become accessories. Tony Blair’s has placed people from his African governance institute in the Rwandan administration; pre-Covid, 80 Conservative Party volunteers were helping villagers each August with local development projects, in Project Umubano, which Andrew Mitchell, former International Development Secretary, saw as representing key Conservative values.

Any Commonwealth journalist who gets to CHOGM in June is unlikely to have time to travel round Rwanda, or the Kinyarwanda language which would enable an easy collection of information. But they can read “Do Not Disturb” before they fly to Kigali.