Rwanda’s Rendition of a Hollywood Hero Confirms the Country’s Descent Into Dictatorship
Paul Rusesabagina is the latest dissident to be caught in the Rwandan ruler’s authoritarian net. Western governments must stop portraying President Paul Kagame’s repressive regime as a development success story.
One evening last August, Paul Rusesabagina, the former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines, or “Hotel Rwanda,” boarded a private jet in Dubai allegedly commandeered by the Rwandan government. His family suddenly lost contact with him. Rusesabagina said he woke up in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, where officials confirmed his arrest.
Rusesabagina was acutely aware of the danger the Rwandan government posed to his safety. When I met him in Washington, D.C., in 2015, at a talk I gave for U.S. government officials about my book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, Rusesabagina told me that Rwandan President Paul Kagame closely monitored his movements and that Rwandan government operatives had physically threatened him after he had criticized Kagame’s repressive policies. Kagame’s government has imprisoned and assassinated a string of dissidents, journalists, and political activists. Rusesabagina said he was unsafe even in the United States, where he lived in exile, and that returning to Kigali would be akin to a death sentence.
Rusesabagina is now Kagame’s prisoner in Kigali, awaiting a show trial. Kagame is using Rusesabagina’s trial to demonstrate that he can toy with even an international celebrity whose friends include U.S. government officials and Hollywood luminaries. And Kagame thus sends an ominous message to all his critics. If Rusesabagina manages to stay alive—unlike many other Rwandan dissidents—it will be because his fame affords him some protection. It is unlikely, however, that he will now escape Rwanda.
Rusesabagina is the real-life hero of the acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda: As the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines, he risked his life to save hundreds of Tutsi people, the principal targets of Rwanda’s genocide. Nearly 1 million people are estimated to have been killed in that genocide, orchestrated by the then-majority Hutu government.
Kagame has carefully shaped the story of Rwanda’s genocide, keen to portray himself as the sole hero of that dark period. In Rwanda, he has projected himself as the man who militarily ended genocidal killing while the rest of the world looked away. His story has several gaps, but scholars and former comrades who have questioned this heroic narrative have been persecuted, imprisoned, and sometimes found dead.
Many lingering questions about Kagame’s alleged crimes during that period are nearly impossible to investigate in Rwanda today: Kagame’s government strictly controls who conducts research in the country, barring many of those it deems unsympathetic. It has destroyed data collected by researchers that would contradict Kagame’s propaganda. Academics and reporters who have pursued such research have had their families threatened in the United States and Canada and have required state-issued bodyguards. The counterterrorism departments of the New York Police Department and Scotland Yard provided me armed protection during my book tour for Bad News.
The most damaging allegations indicate that Kagame oversaw mass killings himself, during and after Rwanda’s genocide. It is an accusation backed up by U.N. investigators and journalists such as Judi Rever, who in her recent book, In Praise of Blood, painstakingly compiles witness testimonies of Kagame’s human rights violations. Kagame’s critics also include genocide survivors, who largely speak in private, for Kagame has taken over and silenced the survivors’ support groups in Rwanda.
Challenging Kagame’s heroism in Rwanda today is treated as an act of treason, a direct challenge to the president. And the consequences are swift, sometimes fatal. Prior to Rusesabagina, Kagame had been publicly challenged by a popular Rwandan gospel singer, Kizito Mihigo, an orphan of the genocide and until recently a darling of the government, prominent in Rwanda’s annual genocide commemorations. Last September, the Human Rights Foundation and its chairperson, the Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, posthumously awarded Mihigo the Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent; Mihigo had been found dead in a Rwandan police cell seven months earlier.
Mihigo’s song “The Meaning of Death” had called for empathy for all those who died during Rwanda’s genocide, including those killed in revenge. The allusion to revenge evoked the killings by Kagame’s forces and was sufficient to have had Mihigo arrested for conspiring against Kagame. He said he was beaten in prison. He then appeared before the public surrounded by police officers, looking beleaguered, and proceeded to incriminate himself for the serious crimes of which he was accused. This tragic farce extended into accounts of his final moments: Rwandan government officials said Mihigo had “strangled himself” to death—a chilling reminder of how South Africa’s apartheid regime once falsely reported the deaths of critics and dissidents in its custody.
Rusesabagina, as a critic, poses a unique threat to Kagame. He recently supported calls for regime change in Rwanda. Armed groups seeking to overthrow Kagame are attracted to Rusesabagina as a figurehead or supporter, for his international standing as well as his popularity inside Rwanda, despite his exile. Rusesabagina is popular among the majority Hutu ethnic group, to which he belongs, as well as among Tutsis, many of whom respect the courage he displayed in saving Tutsis during the genocide.
Kagame, sensing a political threat, has for years encouraged the tarnishing of Rusesabagina’s reputation. Kagame’s spokesperson and speechwriter, Alfred Ndahiro, a former lecturer at the University of Liverpool, told me that Rusesabagina invented stories about his own heroism for profit and fame. Ndahiro has written a book attacking Rusesabagina, accusing him of extorting money from his Tutsi hotel guests and betraying some of them to genocidal militias. Ndahiro and Kagame are also supported by a chorus of government-controlled institutions in Rwanda. Few dare contradict Kagame’s position, inside Rwanda or abroad, knowing well they could be tracked down and punished.
Rusesabagina’s trial already resembles a farce, for he has begun to incriminate himself. It is likely a bargain he is forced to accept if he doesn’t want to end up dead. For months the Rwandan government has denied Rusesabagina his basic judicial right to be represented by the international defense lawyers he and his family have appointed. One of those lawyers, Philippe Larochelle, wrote to me that in Rwanda, “the prison in a way extends to legal representation.”
Rwanda’s prosecutor general then claimed that Rusesabagina’s kidnapping—which human rights groups say is illegal under international law—was in fact legal and not an active issue in the trial because Rusesabagina’s government-appointed lawyer had not raised the issue in court. It is a plot twist Franz Kafka would have been proud to construct for the beleaguered protagonist of his novel, The Trial.
In Rwanda, such Kafkaesque farce is not fiction, however, and it governs the lives and freedoms of Kagame’s critics. But Rusesabagina can hope for little outside help. Kagame accuses him of terrorism, and as in Mihigo’s trial, his government will no doubt produce evidence that is unverifiable and incontestable in Rwanda without serious personal risk. Despite its lack of independence from Kagame, Rwanda’s justice system is deemed trustworthy by prosecutors in the United States, Canada, France, and Norway, who extradite genocide suspects to face trial in Kagame’s rigged courts.
Kagame is also regularly praised internationally and invited to give talks at universities such as Harvard and Yale about poverty reduction, human rights, and economic development. He is credited with bringing order to Rwanda, growing its economy, and building schools and hospitals. His authoritarian government is undoubtedly efficient at building infrastructure as well as at eliminating dissent. Kagame won Rwanda’s last presidential election, in 2017, with nearly 99 percent of the vote, turning his election into a national ritual of obedience.
The lack of dissent allows Kagame to exaggerate his achievements: Economic development researchers working in Rwanda recently posted field data proving that Kagame had manipulated economic growth and poverty reduction statistics. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, however, continue to publish the government’s figures without independently verifying them while defending Kagame’s credibility.
Foreign diplomats and aid officials in Rwanda have told me that they are afraid to criticize Kagame for fear of being expelled from Rwanda and having their extensive aid programs canceled; in other words, Rwanda’s manipulated statistics make Kagame and his financiers look good.
If international officials are afraid to contradict Kagame, Rwandans fear him more: They live in a police state under close surveillance. Disobedience of even mundane rules is punished by fines, the denial of services from government bureaucrats, and visits and physical attacks by the pervasive state security services. In the appendix of my book Bad News, I list over 70 journalists who were killed, imprisoned, or forced to flee Rwanda due to threats after they had criticized Kagame. My list does not include several recent cases, as well as the dozens of Rwandan politicians, judges, teachers, and activists who have tried to initiate political reform and check Kagame’s near-absolute power.
The Rwandan government is now changing its rules to block Rusesabagina’s access to his Canadian and Belgian lawyers. A previous Kagame critic, Victoire Ingabire, who languished in jail for years after also mentioning Kagame’s killings, had been allowed to have Dutch and British international lawyers at her trial, but Rwanda now insists that lawyers’ home countries must have formal reciprocity agreements with Rwanda and so insists that Rusesabagina may be represented only by lawyers from East African countries and Cameroon. Larochelle, Rusesabagina’s Canadian lawyer, wrote to me: “We continue to be blocked by the Rwandan authorities, and Paul is being deprived of his right to legal assistance of his choosing. The rules have been changed for Paul.” Rusesabagina seems guaranteed an unfair trial as a prisoner in a system where Kagame sets the rules and alters them on a whim.
Dissidents in exile like Rusesabagina also face pressure abroad, where ordinary Rwandan citizens take it upon themselves to serve as government informants. Recent footage has emerged of Rwandans taking oaths at Rwanda’s embassy in London, accepting to be hanged if they fail to defend Kagame’s political party. They vow to fight “enemies of Rwanda, wherever they may be.” Several critics of Kagame have been killed abroad.
Beyond the killings, Kagame exercises power in the paranoia and fear his supporters instill in dissidents. Rwandans forced to flee their country continue to live in fear, even in relatively safe Scandinavian and European countries, where they report verbal and physical threats. Gibson, one of the protagonists in my book Bad News who prefers not to use his full name, is a talented and intelligent Rwandan reporter who became terrified after the Rwandan government turned his friends and family members against him.
Kagame’s domination of the justice system, as well as other independent institutions, augurs poorly for Rwanda’s future. The country’s 1994 genocide was perpetrated by an authoritarian government that had also been praised for its efficiency and poverty reduction programs. Free speech in Rwanda is as constrained today as it was before the genocide, if not more. Most longtime academics working on Rwanda predict a violent transition of power if and when Kagame’s reign ends. It is tragic that Rwandans who experienced a genocide’s horrors a quarter of a century ago now confront the prospect of even more violence.
Kagame’s army is powerful and trained and equipped by the United States and Israel, among other nations. The government budget is financed by the United States, the World Bank, and the European Union, freeing up funds for Kagame to support armed rebellions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and enabling him to deploy well-equipped security services against dissidents. Rusesabagina, in opposing Kagame, faced a tricky task: There exist few manuals for activists seeking regime change and the restoration of democracy. Free speech in Rwanda is crushed, and many vocal opponents are dead. Rusesabagina is one of a few courageous activists who still dare battle Kagame, and such activists are more important than ever as illiberalism rises across the world.
If Rusesabagina survives his trial in Rwanda, he would write another chapter in his already singular story, as an ordinary man who defied not one but two successive dictatorial regimes in Rwanda.
Anjan Sundaram is the author of Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship and the forthcoming Breakup: Diary From a War Zone. He is currently a fellow in the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute. Twitter: @anjansun