The Dark Side of Rwanda’s Rebirth

A new book explores the historical roots and contemporary fallout of Paul Kagame’s aggressive foreign policy.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Paul Kagame reviews troops at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali during Liberation Day ceremonies marking the 16th anniversary of the end of the genocide on July 4, 2010. Adam Scotti/The Associated Press
Rwandan President Paul Kagame Rwandan President Paul Kagame

Rwandan President Paul Kagame reviews troops at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali during Liberation Day ceremonies marking the 16th anniversary of the end of the genocide on July 4, 2010. Adam Scotti/The Associated Press

Rwandan President Paul Kagame

Rwandan President Paul Kagame reviews troops at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali during Liberation Day ceremonies marking the 16th anniversary of the end of the genocide on July 4, 2010. Adam Scotti/The Associated Press

“The dead are only dead when the living forget them,” Jacquemain Shabani, a Congolese political figure close to President Félix Tshisekedi, recently said. “The victims of a massacre, of a genocide, are once again slaughtered whenever this evidence is denied.”

Shabani was reacting to the words of Rwandan President Paul Kagame who, during an interview with France 24, had denied that foreign troops—including Rwandans—had ever committed massacres of civilian populations on Congolese territory in the years following the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Book cover Do Not Disturb

Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad , Michela Wrong, PublicAffairs, 512 pp., $32, March 2021

The recent history of Africa’s Great Lakes region has in many ways been a dialogue between the living and the dead, and when the living fail in their obligations to honor the dead—and go so far as to deny the crimes that caused so many deaths—they perpetuate the cycle of conflict in the region.

Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb: The Story of Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad is the fascinating account of how Kagame and his regime have come to embody this macabre dialogue between the dead and the living, which continues to haunt the region.

Captivating, gripping, and depressing, Do Not Disturb takes readers through the twisted, bloody—and often unknown—chapters in the history of Africa’s Great Lakes region. It is a story of deceit, intrigue, lofty dreams, and broken promises.

Conflict in the region has killed millions of civilians over the years. The drivers, however, remain the same: exclusion and marginalization of citizens, power abuses, and disregard for human life—a situation that in the name of peace and stability the United Nations and Western powers have often been complicit in.

Rwanda’s long-standing denialism over crimes that Rwandan armed forces and their Congolese allies reportedly committed during the Congo wars between 1996 and 2003 is the main obstacle to the much-needed peace and economic integration between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kagame’s continued denial is particularly counterproductive considering that, for the first time since 1997, Congo has a president who has unequivocally declared his intention to make peace with Rwanda.

Whatever the nature of the personal relationship between the two leaders, peace and stability cannot be achieved so long as Congolese calls for justice for the victims go unheeded.

Ntarama Church In Rwanda

A wooden cross and human skeletal remains rest on a brick surface in the Ntarama Church, which was destroyed during the genocide in Rwanda, circa 1994.Lane Montgomery/Getty Images

Wrong’s book achieves the rare feat of being both a historical chronicle and a rigorous analysis of current events. She anchors the book around the killing of Col. Patrick Karegeya, the exiled former head of the Rwandan External Security Organization who was strangled in his Johannesburg hotel suite on Dec. 31, 2013. Wrong weaves a trail of failed attempts and assassinations of high-profile Rwandans at home and abroad who had fallen out with the regime in Kigali.

Over the years, the killings have increased the fear factor among Rwandan diaspora communities in Sweden, Belgium, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, where the police often issue advisories and extend protection to targeted dissidents. While the Rwandan government categorically denies responsibility, prominent officials have publicly welcomed some of these killings. The publication of Do Not Disturb in March was particularly significant as it coincided with the lead-up to the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide.

Twenty-seven years ago, starting on April 6, 1994, for 100 days, foreign viewers watched on live television as a genocide unfolded. Images of piles of bloated and decomposing corpses floating down the Nyabarongo and Kagera rivers into Lake Victoria are etched in the memories of those who were old enough to comprehend the news.

Uganda is at the center of this story—and it is crucial to understanding what later happened in Rwanda.

For nearly 1 million Rwandans, most of them Tutsis, it was the end of the world. To the survivors, it was hell. Fueling massive displacement and misery, the cataclysm affected the entire region, from Tanzania to Burundi to Uganda to Congo, and as far away as Gabon and Cameroon. Millions of Rwandan, Congolese, and Burundian refugees and internally displaced people continue to bear the consequences.

Like a detective who returns to the crime scene of a cold case for clues that she might have missed, Wrong, who had covered the crisis in 1994, reexamines facets of key historical developments.

Uganda is at the center of this story—and it is crucial to understanding what later happened in Rwanda. Wrong introduces her readers to Uganda’s turbulent political history through the power wrangling of the Milton Obote years from 1966 to 1971 and again from 1980 to 1985, the 1971 coup by Gen. Idi Amin Dada, and the travails of Gen. Tito Okello’s army of northerners from 1985 to 1986.

The Ugandan Bush War, waged by Gen. Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) from 1980 to 1986, offers lessons in guerrilla warfare reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s battle to topple Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. For a moment, the reader also gets a glimpse of a fleeting Pan-Africanism, which brought in support from Mozambique, Tanzania, and Libya.

National Resistance Army leader Yoweri Museveni

National Resistance Army leader Yoweri Museveni sits at his first cabinet meeting in Kampala, Uganda, after being sworn in as president of Uganda on Jan. 29, 1986. AFP via Getty Images

Along with Museveni’s political vision and ambitions, Wrong’s treatment of the NRA and the Bush War profiles an assortment of personalities, including Pecos Kutesa, Kizza Besigye, Jim Muhwezi, Kahinda Otafiire, Winnie Byanyima, and Salim Saleh. They made up the cast that emerged victorious from the struggle in 1986 and imposed the regime that has ruled Uganda for the past 35 years.

The NRA’s success, however, also depended on the critical contribution of Banyarwanda refugee youths who had joined the group in significant numbers from its inception. Composed of Tutsis, Hutus, and Twas, the Banyarwanda community originated from Rwanda and settled in Uganda in waves dating back to the turn of the 20th century.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, during the pogroms of the Hutus against the Tutsis that took place from 1959 to 1964, between 40 and 70 percent of Tutsis left Rwanda. Of those fleeing, 50,000 to 70,000 went to Uganda, where they joined a larger community of Banyarwanda who had migrated to the area in the early 1900s and considered themselves fully Ugandan. The rest scattered across the region to Burundi, Tanzania, and Congo.

By 1990, the Banyarwanda represented 7.2 percent of Uganda’s population of 18 million. Refugees or not, however, their status and standing within the country remained tenuous as other Ugandans treated them as Rwandans. (Even today, the Banyarwanda still fight for acceptance as citizens; in March, they initiated a campaign to rename themselves Abavandimwe, or “brethren,” to prevent confusion with Rwandan nationals.)

Refugees, regardless of their socioeconomic status, education, or generation, are vulnerable to the effects of populism, nationalism, and other forms of discrimination and abuses in host countries. Though they are fleeing conflict, their presence often sparks xenophobia and causes new conflicts with native populations.

Back in the 1970s, Museveni knew that the Banyarwanda saw themselves as perennial outcasts and that their youngsters would have little to lose in joining a rebellion promising to topple the Obote regime.

Among the early recruits was the teenager Emmanuel Gisa (nom de guerre Fred Rwigyema), who trained with Museveni in Tanzania and Mozambique. His family fled Rwanda in 1960 when he was 3 years old. One of Museveni’s original 27 fighters, Rwigyema participated in all the guerrilla war’s major and critical campaigns. The much-celebrated and decorated fighter would eventually become a major general and deputy commander of the NRA, the national army. Rwigyema recruited Kagame—who had arrived in Uganda at the age of 2—into the NRA, where he served in intelligence. As a major after the war, Kagame attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

A third-generation Ugandan, Karegeya was not a refugee. His maternal great-grandfather had settled around Mbarara in 1926 from what the Belgians then called Ruanda-Urundi. With a family deeply rooted in Ugandan society, as a boy Karegeya spoke Runyankole, the local language, before the dominant Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda. But his family suffered the full measure of the Banyarwanda ethnic cleansing campaign of the Obote years, which denied them the full benefits of citizenship.

When Museveni took power in 1986, he faced instant, mounting public discontent over his reliance on the Banyarwanda, having rewarded them with key, sensitive positions. The backlash placed the president in a precarious situation and threatened his legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

For the Banyarwanda, service in the NRA did not shield them from xenophobic abuses. And for the refugees, it was a constant reminder that Uganda was not home. As Kagame once summed it up for a biographer, “You were always reminded, in one way or another, that you didn’t belong here. You have no place that you can call yours.”

In Rwanda, the Hutu regime of Juvénal Habyarimana refused to consider the return of the Banyarwanda, claimed that the country was full, and stripped them of their citizenship. For the Tutsis, the specter of ethnic cleansing remained ever present.

But the sons and daughters of refugees and migrants had had enough of the abuses and second-class citizenship in Uganda and set out to reclaim their rights and home in Rwanda.

For Museveni, there was only one optimal choice: support the exodus and arm them.

Paul Kagame

Paul Kagame, leader of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front meets, with a United Nations representative, not pictured, in Byumba, Rwanda, on May 11, 1994. GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

Wrong details the rise of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the world’s first refugee insurgency, under the command of Rwigyema, who was killed on the second day of the invasion and later replaced by Kagame. Never had a group of African refugees taken up arms to blaze their way back home. It was a time of high hopes and dreams for new beginnings in a democratic Rwanda that would end the vicious cycles of mass killings.

For four years, the guerrillas suffered setbacks fighting the French- and Belgian-backed Rwandan Armed Forces and, earlier in the conflict, special forces from the Zairian Armed Forces. Through losses and wins on the battlefield, the RPF forced the Habyarimana regime into power-sharing negotiations, known as the Arusha Accords, that were to lay the foundation for a democratic Rwanda.

As offshoots of the NRA, both the RPF and Uganda’s National Resistance Movement are entrenched in an aggressive guerrilla mindset.

The shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 1994, triggered the genocide and ended that peace process. The RPF eventually won the costly war, but 27 years later, a democratic Rwanda has yet to materialize.

The insurgency, and later the army and its Congolese allies, left a trail of alleged revenge killings of Hutus in Rwanda and in Congo and other crimes documented in series of reports, including the Gersony Report, the United Nations Mapping Report, the Garretón Report, and Alison Des Forges’s book Leave None to Tell the Story. Today, as a ruling party, the RPF has a firm grip on the country. It is also prone to regional adventurism.

As offshoots of the NRA, both the RPF and Uganda’s National Resistance Movement are entrenched in an aggressive guerrilla mindset. For nearly three decades, they have antagonized their neighbors and each other for regional hegemony.

For instance, since assuming power, the Rwanda Defence Force and the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces have fought wars and supported rebellions in Congo whose impact still destabilizes the country today. Both Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of looting Congo’s mineral and natural resources, such as gold and coltan, which is a disincentive for peace.

Uganda and Congo are currently embroiled in a legal battle at the International Court of Justice, where Congo seeks $4.3 billion in reparations from Uganda for damage caused in Ituri province.

A Congolese man

A Congolese man looks at the destruction of the Tshopo neighborhood of Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Rwandan and Ugandan armies had battled for a week before the Rwandans succeeded in pushing the Ugandan soldiers out June 11, 2000. Hrvoje Hranjski/The Associated Press

At the height of the Second Congo War in 1999 and 2000, Rwandan and Ugandan forces, erstwhile allies, fought each other three times in Kisangani, a city of 600,000 people, and inflicted a heavy death toll and physical damage. Located at the bend in the Congo River, Kisangani is the gateway to an area rich in gold, diamond, timber, and other natural resources. Both armies sought exclusive control of the wealth. The relationship between the two countries has been bad since.

In 2013, the Southern African Development Community established the Force Intervention Brigade, composed of Malawian, Tanzanian, and South African troops, to fight the M23 militia in North Kivu, which was backed by Rwanda and Uganda.

Uganda’s military interventions stretch from Congo to South Sudan to the Central African Republic and Somalia. This would be an impressive and costly undertaking for any rich country. Like Rwanda, Uganda is poor and dependent on donor charity.

Having emerged from the shadows of the late Mobutu Sese Seko of then-Zaire and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, the two would-be regional hegemons of the Cold War era, Museveni sees himself as the main interlocutor of Western powers and the regional kingmaker. His former protégés in Rwanda, however, contest his claim and seek that role for themselves.

Patrick Karegeya

Col. Patrick Karegeya, the exiled former head of the Rwandan External Security Organization who was strangled in his Johannesburg hotel suite in 2013, is pictured in Kigali, Rwanda, in this undated photo. The Associated Press

For Karegeya, who was intelligence chief during the Congo wars, Rwandans invaded their big neighbor because they had chosen to externalize the battlefield and preempt the threat posed by the génocidaires and elements of the vanquished Rwandan Armed Forces who had regrouped across the border. “Externalizing the war zone is part of that policy and so is buffering,” he told Wrong at the time. “So, because of our relative sizes, we will never leave DRC, for example, until there is a government in Kinshasa we can trust. Never again will we allow a mass killing of our people, never again will we allow a war on Rwandan territory. Never again will we allow anyone to lay a finger on a Tutsi head.”

Assassination attempts and the killings of Rwandan dissidents in South Africa resulted in the expulsion of three Rwandan diplomats in 2014. Rwanda reciprocated and ordered six South African diplomats out of the country.

Long before he fled Rwanda in 2007, when he still helped set the country’s foreign policy as intelligence chief, Karegeya’s response to Wrong’s inquiry as to why Rwanda undertook assassinations of its citizens foreshadowed his own death.

“You have to understand. … We are a small and densely populated country,” he told Wrong. “We have a higher population density than any other country in Africa. So, we have no space for another war. We just don’t have the strategic geographical depth.” He expanded this thought and insisted that “every threat will be dealt with preemptively, and extraterritorially, because we do not have room for it to take place on our sovereign territory. So, what you call ‘murder’ is not a crime—it’s an act of war by other means, and if it took place in any other circumstances, we would be congratulated, praised for it.”

Further justifying his position, Karegeya took the reader into the RPF mindset and concluded: “There are two countries in the world that have this doctrine, us and Israel. This is how Israel sees things, how Mossad acts, and this is how we see it. We will never allow our enemy to land a blow on us and remain standing.”

In the end, Karegeya fell prey to a policy that he had promoted and defended.

The comparison with Israel is hyperbolic. The 1994 genocide was a culmination of cyclical mass killings among Rwandans that started in 1959 and have come to define the modern history of the country, with Hutus and Tutsis seeking to impose their supremacy over the others. Moreover, unlike Mossad assassination campaigns against foreigners, the targets of these assassinations are fellow Rwandans.

In the end, Karegeya fell prey to a policy that he had promoted and defended. For, as far as the RPF was concerned, he posed a threat to the regime. As an exiled former intelligence chief, he was among the few people who intimately knew the strengths and fault lines of Rwanda’s security and defense systems. As an opposition leader, his ambition to topple the Kigali regime made him an enemy of the state and a target of his former colleagues. The Rwanda National Congress, the opposition party that he co-founded, was said to maintain a militia in Congo, like the Hutu militias he once hunted down.

It was a far cry from his childhood in Uganda.

Reflecting on his assassination, Jane Keshoro, Karegeya’s mother, emphasized his identity. “I’m a Ugandan. Both my father and mother were Ugandan,” she said. She told Wrong how surprised she was that her son got so involved in Rwanda. “It was a mistake.”

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a lecturer in African Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.

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