Former Rwandan Official Worries That Kagame’s Adminis­tration Is Back­sliding Into Mass Murder

This story was updated on 9/30/2014 at 11:17 a.m. When Burundian fishermen first discovered bodies in Lake Wreru on the border of Rwanda this July, the Rwandan government quickly denied involvement in the apparent murders. Months later, up to 40 bodies remain unidentified, and more have turned up, prompting the State Department on Thursday to ...

Ben Gabbe/Getty Images Entertainment
Ben Gabbe/Getty Images Entertainment

This story was updated on 9/30/2014 at 11:17 a.m.

When Burundian fishermen first discovered bodies in Lake Wreru on the border of Rwanda this July, the Rwandan government quickly denied involvement in the apparent murders.

Months later, up to 40 bodies remain unidentified, and more have turned up, prompting the State Department on Thursday to call on the two African governments to launch a thorough investigation into where the bodies came from and who they are.

Rwandan officials insisted that since the bodies were found in Burundi, they are Burundi’s responsibility. But some Burundian officials argue that the mainly decomposed bodies, some of which were wrapped in plastic bags, likely traveled through the Akagera River downstream from Rwanda to the border lake where they were discovered.

Despite claims by the Rwandan government that there are no reports of missing people in Rwanda, David Himbara, a former top aide to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, said Kagame’s harsh crackdown on political dissent has scared Rwandans into keeping quiet about missing family members and friends.

"The population of Rwanda are prisoners of Kagame," Himbara told Foreign Policy while on a trip to Washington. "You have 11 million prisoners. You can’t say anything. Wife, husband in the bedroom, you don’t talk."

Himbara, who worked from 2000 to 2002 as Kagame’s personal secretary and from 2006 to 2010 as his head of strategy and policy, said the Lake Wreru bodies could be Kagame administration victims.

In late August, four Rwandan nationals were found guilty of attempting to kill former Rwandan army general Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who was living in exile in South Africa in 2010.*

Last January, Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan intelligence chief who was stripped of his title of colonel and living in exile in South Africa, was murdered in his hotel room in Johannesburg.

Himbara, who was also living in South Africa until last January, was informed by the South African police that he was the target of an assassination attempt earlier that year and should fear for his safety. Himbara, who was visiting Canada at the time of Karegeya’s murder, decided to stay there. Himbara, like Kagame, was a Tutsi refugee from the first Rwandan genocide in 1959. Kagame spent 30 years as a refugee in Uganda before returning to Rwanda in 1990, but Himbara spent only 10 years in Uganda before his family relocated to Canada. He didn’t move to Rwanda until he joined Kagame’s administration in 2000. Now the Canadian citizen has been living in Toronto since Karegeya’s death. And in the past few months, three of Himbara’s family members who stayed in Rwanda have been arrested amid accusations they spread rumors against the state.

In March, South Africa expelled four Rwandan diplomats amid claims they had ties to the Nyamwasa and Karegeya murders.

But other than the South African murder trial, the international community is ignoring the  claims that Kagame’s is a murderous and corrupt administration. In fact, Kagame has even been honored by the Clinton Global Initiative and UNICEF for his reconciliation efforts in the two decades after the genocide of the 1990s. Last week he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York, saying Rwanda has "focused on building accountable governance institutions, and renewing our dignity as a nation."

Hailed by some as the savior of Rwanda, Kagame led the rebel group that ended one of the world’s most brutal genocide that decimated close to a million Tutsis, members of his ethnic group, in 1994. Kagame later served as vice president and minister of defense until 2000, when his predecessor, President Pasteur Bizimungu, stepped down. Kagame was elected to a seven-year term in 2003 and re-elected with 93 percent of the vote in 2010. Though he faced some international criticism in 2012 over Rwandan funding of Congolese rebel group M23, Kagame’s domestic policies have mostly flown under the radar. This spring, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) suggested cutting aid to Rwanda over the string of assassinations in South Africa, but didn’t garner enough support from his colleagues to carry out his proposal.

"There’s a lot of guilt over having not acted during the genocide, and people like the fact that Rwanda appears to have made social and economic progress since the genocide," said Rona Peligal, deputy director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "There’s been surprisingly little criticism or outrage at Rwanda’s domestic practices."

To the outside world, Kagame’s first presidential term was a tenure worthy of celebrating. The capital city of Kigali appears, from the outside at least, to be a hub of urban development. The streets are clean and safe; women compose more than 60 percent of Parliament; and Kagame ran on a campaign of national unity. In modern-day Kigali, many Rwandans refuse to identify themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, which could signal a push away from the ethnic divide that kicked off the genocides.

But according to Himbara, Kigali’s physical appearance is a metaphor for Kagame’s time in office.

"Kigali is beautiful, pro-environment, no plastic bags, but Kigali is a city of 1 million with no sewage system," Hiramba said. "You see a building but you don’t see what’s underneath."

"He knows the game so well. Go in Parliament and 62 percent are women. But women of what kind of Parliament? It’s a dead Parliament."

And, Himbara said, Rwandans refuse to identify their ethnic group not out of hope for reconciliation but out of fear of retaliation from the government.

"It’s one thing to talk about reconciliation but people cannot even talk about the issue, because if you try to talk about Hutu or Tutsi in Rwanda, they say you are inciting genocide ideology," Himbara said. "There’s no room for debate."

From 2006 to 2010, Himbara worked side-by-side with Kagame, revamping the country’s weak economy and working to improve Rwanda’s marketability to outside investors. However, as the economy strengthened and plans for sustainable development began taking hold, newspapers and non-governmental organizations were shut down, free speech was suffocated, and Kigali was wiped clean of outward political dissent.

But it wasn’t until Himbara witnessed Kagame brutally beat two of his own staff members over a small dispute about his office curtains that he decided it was time to leave the administration altogether.

"I decided right then that I would never, ever, ever have anything to do with him again," Himbara said. "We used to hear these things, but it’s the first time I saw with my own eyes."

According to the Rwandan constitution, Kagame should not seek a third term in 2017. But having experienced the brutality of Kagame’s administration, Himbara is inclined to believe the bodies in Burundi could be yet another signal that Kagame thugs are murdering activists to stifle political resistance and pave the way for Kagame to remain in power.  

With no one inside Rwanda calling for transparency and accountability, Himbara said Rwanda needs the rest of the world to demand it. The United States speaking up and calling for a more thorough investigation is one of the first steps toward accountability, he said.

"We need more voices; we are hoping for more voices," he said. "The U.S. can make a difference."

But even the State Department’s call for an investigation resisted pointing fingers directly at Kagame or even Rwanda, calling instead "on the Burundian and Rwandan governments to conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial and concerted investigation of these deaths."

*This has been corrected.  A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that former Rwandan army general  Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa was killed in the attack. 

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