Editor’s note: Humanosphere has noted before that there are two Rwandas – one an African success story celebrated by the humanitarian sector for its stunning improvements in health and poverty reduction; the other a nation quietly suffering from oppression, authoritarianism and state-sanctioned violence. The recent murder of a former close colleague of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame supports the concerns raised by the latter camp.
This is a guest post by Judi Rever, a Montreal-based journalist who has reported extensively in Africa and is now working on a book about war crimes in Rwanda.
Rever recently wrote about her research for Foreign Policy Journal and, below for Humanosphere, makes the case for the West to adopt a more realistic – less simplistic and celebratory – view of Rwanda and Paul Kagame’s government.
It was New Year’s Day when the body of a Rwandan dissident was found at a luxury hotel in South Africa.
Patrick Karegeya, a former spy chief for President Paul Kagame, was apparently strangled. The chilling symbolism of his death – a critical voice forever gagged – sent another wave of terror among Rwandans that dare to speak out against a man whose political reach is nothing short of astonishing.
Rwanda’s opposition has cried foul, but skeptics have said it is premature to point to a culprit before South African police complete an investigation. Human Rights Watch cautiously concurred, yet conceded there has a been a pattern of attacks, assassinations and attempted assassinations against Rwandan dissidents abroad that is ‘extremely alarming.’
Only a handful of Western critics are willing to be blunt about the force behind the targeted killings of Rwandan dissidents.
“There is no place that Kagame would not strike. And he does it so bare-faced,” concludes Stephen Smith, a formerly journalist with the French newspapers Le Monde and Liberation, who now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina. Smith appears in the trailer of a new film called the Rwanda Gambit by Andre Vltchek.
“Any Mobutu or Idi Amin Dada looks like an apprentice in comparison,” Smith says of the former dictators of Zaire and Uganda. “Because at least they had sort of red lines they would not cross.”
“You would not try to kill someone once, miss him and try it again going through official embassy people. You would not kill an opposition figure in London, Paris or New York. You would just wait for them at the very minimum to be in Kinshasa,” Smith added.
Karegeya’s murder in Johannesburg has cast a long shadow over the legacy of Kagame — a hitherto poster boy for international development aid and a former rebel leader credited with halting the 1994 genocide by Hutu extremists against the country’s minority Tutsi.
The emotional and persuasive power of the Kagame narrative — that of a refugee fighting on behalf of Tutsi victims against Hutu oppressors — has transfixed the West for more than two decades. The narrative became all the more compelling and unshakeable in light of the West’s refusal during the genocide to intervene as extremists from the country’s former Hutu political and military establishment goaded peasants of their ethnic group to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent Tutsis and moderate Hutus that got in their way.
Long fascinated by violence, Westerners make sense of the world by believing in the notion of good versus evil. We believe history if we understand the narrative behind it. And a narrative is easier to understand if it’s simple or verging on myth: the hero that struggles against the villain, the protagonist that restores equilibrium against all odds, the winner who ascends to the throne and is tasked with continuing to keep the villain at bay.
For most of his admirers – among them former president Bill Clinton, former British prime minister Tony Blair, Howard Buffett, Bono and Ben Affleck — Kagame has cemented his heroic status by restoring economic and political stability in the aftermath of hell.
Philip Gourevitch, a writer for the prestigious New Yorker magazine and author of a book about the Rwandan genocide We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, has often resorted to exalting literary devices when discussing Rwanda.
In 2009, he described the country’s ‘rise and fall of the sweeping, vaguely Tuscan vistas…the farmhouses clinging to the slopes, and every so often an imposing red brick church on the summit, its bell tower cut against a hazy, cloud-splattered sky.” On Rwanda’s economic progress, Gourevitch wrote:
“On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa. Since 1994, per-capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, even as the population has increased by nearly twenty-five per cent, to more than ten million. There is national health insurance, and a steadily improving education system.
“Tourism is a boom industry and a strong draw for foreign capital investment.,” Gourevitch writes. “In Kigali, the capital, whisk-broom-wielding women in frocks and gloves sweep the streets at dawn. Plastic bags are outlawed, to keep litter under control and to protect the environment. Broadband Internet service is widespread in the cities, and networks are being extended into the countryside. Cell phones work nearly everywhere. Traffic police enforce speed limits and the mandatory use of seat belts and motorbike helmets. Government officials are required to be at their desks by seven in the morning. It is the only government on earth in which the majority of parliamentarians are women. Soldiers are almost nowhere to be seen.”
While particularly skilled at writing, Gourevitch is even better at replacing reality with image, and facts with discourse. He fails to “move away from the centre of society where knowledge on Rwanda is constructed,” according to Ingelaere Bert, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp.
Bert has argued that Gourevitch revealed insights during a trip to the Rwandan countryside, but was “unable or unwilling to start questioning the glittering surface appearances and the discourse of the new Rwandan elite.”
The researcher has cited a number of examples of how knowledge is constructed in Rwanda, in particular around its economic progress. In 2006, a famine struck villages in the southern Rwandan region of Bugesera and in northern Burundi. The Burundian government immediately acknowledged the problem and demanded assistance. But Rwandan officials refuted the claims, arguing the data from the UN’s World Food Programme was incorrect. Some villagers resorted to eating grass and weeds, according to Bert, who was doing research in southern Rwanda at the time.
In 2005, the World Bank embarked on a multi-country study on poverty, and Rwanda was chosen to participate.
One of the study’s aims was to explore how people were able to exercise their basic rights. After six months of research and hundreds of questionnaires collected, Rwandan security forces seized at least half the data on the grounds that the research design and study contained whiffs of genocide ideology. Meanwhile, Rwandan enumerators were interrogated by police, and foreign researchers were summoned by the Criminal Investigations Department.
“After a long period of negotiations between high-level World Bank representatives and several Rwandan ministries, ministers and other government officials, the decision was taken to destroy all data and abandon the research project altogether,” Bert wrote in his startling paper Do We Understand Life After Genocide?
Other development experts remain skeptical of Rwanda’s economic progress and have pointed to the government’s knack for information management.
“There is a problem where you have the riches of development not being equally distributed. In Rwanda, part of it is class-based, part of it is urban rural, some of it is ethnic,” Christina Clark-Kazak, who teaches international development policy at York University in Toronto, told me.
“The problem with a lot of the development figures is that they are an aggregate,” she added. “You have a GDP per capita, so there’s an assumption there that everybody is equally benefiting, because you’re dividing the total GDP by the number of inhabitants. When that obviously isn’t the case in Rwanda.”
“It’s very impressive when you land at the airport and arrive in Kigali. It feels like a modern, bustling city. But as soon as you start getting out into the periphery leaving Kigali, people are still engaged in subsistence farming and there is grinding poverty. There are still people living on less than a dollar per day.”
“I’m not saying there hasn’t been overall progress in the country but it’s not benefitting every individual.”
Beyond the façade of the capital and the reality of the countryside, ordinary Rwandans and outsiders paying close attention know that Kagame’s legacy is, in real terms, grim.
Families of Hutu victims and Kagame’s own former allies in the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) allege that soldiers under his direction engaged in mass killing of unarmed Hutu civilians during a three-year invasion war before the genocide. Tutsi officers in particular describe how the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) displaced upwards of a million Rwandan Hutu civilians, fired on displacement camps, assassinated political opponents, broke ceasefires, and carried out a brutal campaign to bring war to the population.
And while defectors of Kagame’s regime have publicly admitted that an elite squad of Kagame’s army shot down the plane carrying Rwanda’s then Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi’s Hutu president Cyprien Ntaryamira, — an incident that sparked the genocide – the international community has refused to investigate this blatant act of terrorism.
The hypocrisy is stunning.
A UN tribunal was set up to investigate the 2005 assassination of Rafic Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister. In 2010, the UN completed an inquiry into the assassination in 2007 of Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazhir Bhutto.
But there’s been little hope of a UN probe into the murder of two African heads of state, or any attempts by the United Nations to prosecute crimes committed against civilians by Kagame’s regime, which has benefitted from a kind of uniquely creepy immunity.
This singular status has shielded the president and allowed him to operate with impunity for more than two decades in Rwanda and in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where his troops first invaded in 1996. Ostensibly, Kagame’s army invaded to bust up sprawling Hutu refugee camps that harbored militia and former soldiers responsible for the genocide. But the RPA and its rebel allies then proceeded to chase, hack, shoot, and burn thousands of Hutu refugees, including women and children, across a country the size of western Europe, possibly committing genocide, according to a UN report released in 2010.
In the intervening years Rwanda claimed to be fighting Hutu insurgents in the DRC and boldly created and propped up militia that have raped and slaughtered untold numbers of innocent Congolese, effectively stoking a conflict while plundering the country of its copper, gold, tin, tungsten and coltan, among other minerals. Other countries and ethnic based militia have also feasted on Congo’s riches, but none of these criminal networks has continued to receive billions of dollars in international aid while stealing from and slaughtering its neighbor. The war in the DRC has been a never-ending nightmare that has left more than five million people dead.
So why has Kagame received a free pass for so long, some ask? In large part, because of guilt and political masquerade. The United States and Britain refused to intervene to save civilians during the genocide and know they are morally (if not legally) guilty of breaching obligations under the Geneva Convention for not stepping in. These two countries have long supported Kagame before, during and after the 1994 bloodletting, by providing political and military cover for his crimes in the misguided notion that he is the best guarantor of economic and political stability in an ethnically explosive region.
Yet the evidence against Kagame is damning and massive, not only in investigations commissioned by the United Nations but from testimony of Tutsis and Hutus.
His own former officers say that as soon as the genocide was unleashed in April 1994, RPA death squads began highly organized ‘sweeping’ operations in the northern and eastern prefectures of Byumba and Kibungo, hunting down Hutu men, women and children in their homes, in swamps and on plantations, killing them on the spot or calling them to meetings and slaughtering them there. Two of Kagame’s senior officers, now generals that have served as UN peacekeepers in high profile missions in Africa, allegedly commanded these gruesome operations, the objective of which was to exterminate as many Hutus as possible.
By refusing to imagine a third path that would have supported Hutu and Tutsi moderates, and by failing to prosecute the crimes committed by Rwanda and its leader, the United Nations and its principle sponsors have collectively repeated a tragic mistake, reminiscent of 1994. They’ve turned their backs on millions of people in Rwanda and the Congo who’ve suffered immeasurably because of Kagame’s stranglehold on regional power.
Judi Rever is a Montreal-based freelance journalist, formerly with Agence France-Presse and Radio France Internationale. She has reported from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and the Middle East. She specializes in human rights issues, and is currently doing research for a book that would explore war crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front and its army.