BOOK REVIEW

New book shows a very different side to Rwanda’s Paul Kagame

Michela Wrong’s “Do Not Disturb” is a scathing critique of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s authoritarian rule and the international community’s failure to acknowledge it. © Handout PublicAffairs

By Nicolas GERMAIN

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is often portrayed as his nation’s savior. But in her new book “Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad”, former Financial Times journalist Michela Wrong presents him as a ruthless dictator.

Michela Wrong’s investigation is a public relations disaster for Paul Kagame. “Do Not Disturb”, published by PublicAffairs, is a contemporary history book that reads like an intricate thriller. Wrong seeks to dismantle Kagame’s image as the savior of Rwanda and the man who helped the small nation develop into the country it is today following the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis.

Her 500-page work is based mainly on interviews with those who have known Kagame all his life. From his youth growing up as a refugee in neighboring Uganda to his rise to power following the genocide and his more than two decades as president.

The book focuses on two Rwandans who were once very close to Kagame: Fred Rwigyema and Patrick Karegeya. Both have since been murdered.

“Men of whom one can honestly say, ‘I never heard a bad word said about him are rare, but Fred Rwigyema appears to have been one of them,” writes Wrong.

Throughout the book, he is described as a charismatic and humane leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in stark contrast to Kagame, who is portrayed as insecure and cruel. To this day the circumstances of Rwigyema’s 1990 death in northern Rwanda remain unclear – that same year the RPF first tried to overthrow president Habyarimana’s Hutu regime.

Wrong, who was a journalist for Reuters and the Financial Times in Africa for many years, knew Patrick Karegeya well. Karegeya served for a long time as Rwanda’s intelligence chief. But realising that Kagame was becoming increasingly authoritarian, he eventually fled to South Africa.

He was strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel in January 2014. Kigali denies any involvement. But a few days after his death, Kagame declared: “Whoever is against our country will not escape our wrath.”

Threats ‘dealt with preemptively, and extraterritorially’

Karegeya, the main character in the book, is portrayed as witty, intelligent, and likable. In contrast, Kagame is “introverted, suspicious, unaccountable, and a prey to sudden violence”.

It is Karageya who best explained the nature of the regime in 2003 when he was still close to Kagame.

A businessman in Wrong interviews asked Karegeya why Rwanda assassinated dissidents abroad.

“We have a higher population density than any other country in Africa,” he said. “So we have no space for another war (…) Because of that, every threat will be dealt with preemptively, and extraterritorially (…) There are two countries in the world that have this doctrine, us and Israel.”

The Uganda years

Some of the most riveting chapters in the book recount the years the RPF leaders spent in Uganda. Many fled there in 1959 and in the following years after anti-Tutsi violence erupted in Rwanda.

They joined the rebellion led by now-President Yoweri Museveni and helped him seize power in Kampala in 1986. As thanks, they were given high-ranking jobs in the Ugandan army. Gradually the RPF became an army within the army.

Museveni still says he was taken by surprise when it attacked Rwanda in 1990. “The mass departure was a major humiliation for the Ugandan government,” writes Wrong.

Over the years the relationship between Kagame and Museveni, his former mentor, would sour. The two countries later battled each other in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over access to the vast nation’s mineral resources, killing many Congolese civilians in the process.

The plane crash that triggered the genocide

The event that triggered the Rwandan genocide occurred in April 1994 when the plane carrying Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down.

Wrong devotes many pages to the question of who fired the missile, whether Hutu extremists or the RPF. Kagame’s former allies, including Karegeya, declared after fleeing Rwanda that it was the RPF. But French judges concluded in 2012 the most likely culprits were Hutu extremists.

Three months after the start of the genocide the RPF seized power. During those three months, writes Wrong, “despite RPF’s ubiquitous modern-day label as the ‘former rebel group that stopped the genocide’, the movement’s priority at this juncture was capturing power, not saving lives”.

She describes how, 10 days after Habyarimana’s assassination, the RPF vehemently objected to the UN sending more peacekeepers to Rwanda. She also cites UN expert Robert Gersony’s conclusion that around 30,000 people were killed by the RPF in the months after the genocide.

Rwanda invades DR Congo

In 1996 Rwanda invaded DRC – then known as Zaire – ostensibly to pursue those responsible for the genocide who had fled there.

But the UN would also accuse Kagame’s men of killing thousands of Hutu civilians, including women and children. UN experts also accused the Rwandans of remaining several years in eastern DRC to plunder the country’s natural resources.

So why has the West, which failed to intervene during the genocide, been so lenient with Kagame all of these years? For Wrong, “there was the amorphous sense of guilt felt by white liberals toward the entire history of colonial oppression: (…) shame-faced feelings that stretched back through the generations and were associated with any community that had been victimized or gone ignored as the pampered West turned its stony face away”.

Rwanda is regularly denounced today by organizations like Human Rights Watch for repressing the opposition and the lack of individual freedoms. Wrong believes that by choosing to ignore Kagame’s true nature, Western powers are effectively abandoning Rwandans a second time.

“Rwanda’s is a private grief,” she writes.

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