Michela Wrong

When will Britain wake up to the horror of Rwanda’s President?

From Spectator magazine issue: 18 September 2021

Idoubt that Paul Kagame would have me assassinated, but it became clear to me late on Sunday afternoon that, at the very least, I am in his sights.

As President of Rwanda, Kagame became the toast of the international aid community – and collected billions of dollars in aid. But is this money well spent? My book, Do Not Disturb, takes a closer look at how Kagame operates. He doesn’t appreciate the attention.

My book kicks off with the strangling of Patrick Karegeya, Kagame’s spy chief, in a Johannesburg hotel in late 2013 — almost certainly on the President’s orders. It then explores the campaign of harassment, intimidation and murder that Rwanda has waged against dissidents scattered from Africa to Europe and Scandinavia to North America. It’s fairly long on evidence, which is perhaps why Kagame has gone to the surprising lengths of denouncing me on Rwandan state TV.

A friend in Nairobi called while I was at the recycling centre to tell me. Back at home, I tuned in — and my jaw dropped. Kagame’s interviews tend to be long and meandering — no one dares interrupt, after all. This interview with the de facto leader of Rwanda since its 1994 genocide, and a president more feared than loved, went on for nearly three hours, but the bit about me came early on.

He was asked how he responded to criticism voiced abroad, in particular a book by a certain British author. ‘Oh,’ he said airily, ‘we know those who sponsored her to do it.’ This was a reference to Uganda, whose president was once Kagame’s boss but is now a loathed regional rival. Kagame cited players in ‘neighbouring countries’ along with ‘some from far away north’. It seemed I had written my book at the behest of not one but several hostile governments.

The account I’d given was too ‘personalised’, Kagame went on. I’d been ‘very close personal friends’ with the book’s protagonist, Rwanda’s assassinated head of external intelligence. Given the choice ‘between the person she loved’ and Rwanda, I had taken the person’s side. So not only a foreign agent, but sexually compromised to boot.

Ever since the publication of Do Not Disturb, Rwanda’s state-controlled social media have been portraying me as a cross between Mata Hari and Lady Macbeth. I’ve been denounced as a racist, a genocide-denier and a former French army spokeswoman (eh?). Heartbroken by my ex-lover’s murder, they say, I teamed up with Karegeya’s widow to wreak revenge. Ugandan intelligence paid me $300,000 to write my book. Not only was I Karegeya’s lover, I’m the current paramour of Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan President.

Since the book was published in April, the tweets have poured in relentlessly from troll accounts, many operated by Rwanda’s intelligence service, police force and presidential office. But while I never doubted who was behind the smears, I never expected the head of state himself to voice this misogynistic, paranoid nonsense on live TV. ‘I told you,’ chortled Robert Higiro, a former Rwandan army officer turned anti-government campaigner. ‘Your book has really got to him.’ For the record, I was never intimate with Karegeya and the only people who paid me to write Do Not Disturb were my publishers. So why would Kagame stoop so low?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the exasperation, tinged with panic and built on a bedrock of solid narcissism, that Kagame feels whenever his movement’s iron control over the Rwandan narrative threatens to slip out of his grasp.

Not much tennis

One of the distinguishing features of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fighterswho seized control of Rwanda in July 1994, after a genocide committed by Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s soldiers and militiamen, was their persuasiveness. Ironic-ally, Patrick Karegeya was one of their most effective spin doctors, their version of Alastair Campbell, until the day he stopped believing his own pitch.

Appalled by a vast bloodletting which the international community had done nothing to stop, guilt-ridden western diplomats, aid workers and journalists largely accepted Karegeya’s version of events in what had, until then, been a little-known country at the heart of central Africa.

The RPF’s brave warriors — many of them offspring of minority Tutsis expelled from Rwanda in the 1960s — had invaded a toxic dictatorship, so the story ran, ending the slaughter of innocent civilians. Inheriting a country devastated by ethnic hatred, they had done away with Hutu-Tutsi classification and rebuilt on the rubble to become an inspirational model of a progressive, development-oriented African state.Rwanda’s state-controlled social media portray me as a cross between Mata Hari and Lady Macbeth

In the years that followed, Kagame was hailed as a ‘visionary’ by the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, was befriended by Clare Short and Andrew Mitchell, who generously supported him with British aid and more, made regular appearances in Davos and sent competent, energised officials to galvanise the African Development Bank and African Union. It’s taken 27 years, but that account simply doesn’t enjoy the traction it once did.

Books like those of the former refugees Marie Béatrice Umutesi and Prosper Ishimwe and the Canadian journalist Judi Rever (an extreme account which nonetheless raises massively disquieting questions about the RPF’s record) have rolled off the presses, exposing the atrocities committed by the RPF as it advanced across Rwanda, crimes which fuelled the xenophobia that made the genocide possible.

There’s an 11-year-old UN Mapping Report into killings conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo accusing Kagame’s troops of slaughtering tens of thousands of Hutus on their soil, but it has never been followed up. As for being a model African state, that’s debatable. Kagame supposedly won 99 per cent of the vote in the last presidential election and the domestic press has been cowed into sycophancy. Few outsiders take Rwanda’s democratic credentials seriously. And a growing number of economists are starting to query whether Rwanda’s scores on a range of development indices are as miraculous as claimed.

Human rights groups keep a damning tally of operations targeting Rwandan dissidents, activists and journalists abroad. One of the most high-profile of Kagame’s critics, Paul Rusesabagina of Hollywood’s Hotel Rwanda fame, is due to be sentenced in Kigali on Monday on terrorism charges. His abduction from Dubai last year was hailed by Rwandan officials as a major coup. But with US senators and congressmen denouncing his trial as a farce, the episode may have cost Kagame more reputationally than he anticipated.

In Rwanda, the arbitrary arrests and disappearances continue. Recently it was the turn of Christopher Kayumba, a former university lecturer and newspaper founder, who dared set up an opposition party earlier this year. He has just been accused of rape. Now on hunger strike, he had predicted his own arrest: such is the political climate in Kigali.

‘If you’re Tutsi and the RPF is out to get you, you’ll be called corrupt, a sexual molester. If you’re a Hutu you’ll be accused of taking part in the genocide, or if you’re too young to have done that, of genocide ideology,’ says Ali Abdulkarim, a senior member of Karegeya’s Rwanda National Congress party. ‘And if you’re white, you’ll be accused of racism.’

The drip-drip-drip of grim news has had an inevitable impact on how outsiders view Rwanda, and no leader is more aware of the risk that poses for an aid-dependent state than Kagame. As a young would-be rebel sent to train in Dar es Salaam, Kagame learned the dark arts of intelligence–gathering and disinformation from Tanzanian military intelligence. Before the phrase ‘fake news’ had been invented, he understood the importance of winning the information war.

No African government puts more effort into monitoring what is said about it. Kagame may deny it, but there is convincing evidence that Rwanda was an enthusiastic client of NSO, the Israeli company selling Pegasus spyware that allowed it to eavesdrop on the conversations of 3,500 African politicians and military staff, along with journalists and activists in the diaspora.

And no African government works harder to control the message that goes out. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Rwanda has paid eye–watering amounts to public relations firms in the US and UK. This became embarrassingly obvious when Justice Minister Johnston Busingye was exposed on Al Jazeera being coached by Chelgate, a London firm specialising in ‘reputation management’. Busingye is due to become the next Rwandan high commissioner in the UK.

Hypersensitive to western perceptions, Kagame has certainly sensed a recent palling of enthusiasm in the UK and US, key sources of funding since the genocide. Despite Joe Biden’s promise to reach out to a continent his predecessor ignored, Kagame was not one of the African leaders the US President chose to call after his win, nor was he among the five African presidents invited to a Leaders’ Climate Summit earlier this year. As for Boris Johnson, his restructured Foreign Office has shown no intention of making Rwanda an exception to a planned across-the-board slashing of foreign aid.

Tellingly, Kagame’s television comments about Do Not Disturb cited supposed sponsors for my critique ‘from far away north’ — presumably either the US or UK — and the interview was remarkable for its repeated expressions of aggrieved resentment towards an international community and western media determined, in the President’s view, to humiliate Rwanda.

This summer may well have handed Rwanda a reprieve, however, allowing Kagame’s government to demonstrate just how well it can perform in an established area of expertise: the dispatch of disciplined, effective troops to African hotspots.

At the request of Filipe Nyusi, the President of Mozambique, Kigali in July sent 1,000 troops to the northern province of Cabo Delgado, where an Islamic insurgency had closed down operations at a massive natural-gas concession owned by France’s Total and the US’s ExxonMobil. The rebels promptly scattered into the bush.

The ‘Rwandan Twitter Army’, as it is locally dubbed, railed bitterly at how little coverage the military operation got in the West, detecting yet another example of racism at work. But it certainly won Kagame brownie points in the two capitals he suspects may be falling out of love with his regime.

‘The Mozambique deployment was timely, in that it reminded western governments of Kagame’s usefulness,’ said one European diplomat I spoke to. ‘In France, the UK, western states and organisations like the EU and Commonwealth, it was seen as very positive. Given a contest of general indifference towards Africa, it may have tipped perceptions back in Rwanda’s favour.

For the large Hutu community in Mozambique, however, the Rwandan deployment is bad news. Two of the Rwandan diplomats now serving at the high commission were expelled from South Africa in 2014 because of their suspected role in a series of violent attacks against the exiled opposition, including Karegeya’s murder.

Even before Rwanda’s troops were deployed in Cabo Delgado, there were signs Kigali was up to its usual tricks. In May, a Rwandan radio journalist, Cassien Ntamuhanga, who had moved to Mozambique after escaping from a Rwandan prison, was arrested and, according to local news outlets, handed over to the Rwandan high commission. He has not been seen since. Last month, two more Rwandans, including the secretary of the Association of Rwandan Refugees, were taken away by Mozambican police, but freed after protests from the association.

Just before this article went to press, prominent Hutu businessman Revocant Karemangingo, a former lieutenant in Habyarimana’s army, was gunned down outside his house in a suburb of the Mozambican capital, Maputo. The men who shot him were travelling in a three-car convoy, a deployment so high-profile it’s certain to raise questions about official complicity.

This, Rwandan dissidents will tell you, is how Kagame operates. He uses his network of embassies and friendships with foreign governments to pursue perceived enemies across the world, bartering his troops’ security potential for their compliance on the human rights front. But he can’t control the narrative for ever. As he knows, the truth is slowly beginning to come out.