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Interview with Michela Wrong: The tool of power in Rwanda is fear

It is widely believed that after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which claimed nearly one million lives, Paul Kagame led a group of rebels known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) — based in Uganda — to oust a murderous regime and usher in an era of peace and stability. In fact, Rwanda is today often held up as a model developmental state and a poster child for Western aid.

However, in her latest book, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, British writer and journalist Michela Wrong debunks these myths. It is a searing indictment of Kagame’s 27-year rule, reveals the dark underbelly of a leadership that uses fear to hold on to power, and is highly intolerant of dissent. 

What drove you to write a book about the dark side of Rwanda, considering the way the country is perceived in the West?

I was prompted to write this book by one simple event: the murder of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence. Had Patrick not met his death in such lurid circumstances — strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room — there would have been no book. In fact, the title of the book comes from the sign that Karegeya’s killers hung on the door handle of his hotel room.

I had been following events in Rwanda, and I’d been intrigued by the growing signs of disquiet and unhappiness in the RPF’s ruling elite, with a remarkable number of Kagame’s trusted aides and military men ending up in exile and being hunted down by the regime’s agents. 

But Patrick’s murder made me think: “This is a story that isn’t being told, and really needs to be.” I’d known for years that the reality of life in Rwanda was a far cry from the glowing image the regime successfully broadcast abroad: it was uglier and darker. The disparity was crying out to be explored and exposed.

The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul led to global outrage, but the killing of Rwandan opposition figures in exile does not seem to elicit a similar response. Why do you think this is so?

That’s the key question: Why is Kagame allowed to get away with it? I think there are several elements to the answer. Western guilt over letting the genocide occur in 1994 is one ingredient. Former regime insiders I interviewed remarked on how they could always play the guilt card in Western capitals to silence criticism. 

The other is Rwanda’s role as a developmental poster child: officials at the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other agencies are desperate for success stories to justify their foreign aid programmes, and that’s what Rwanda has come to represent. 

But ultimately, I would suggest there’s a certain patronising element at play, which verges on racism. The Great Lakes is a rough neighbourhood, the argument goes, with a horrific recent history, and its citizens have to lower expectations of their governments and will put up with a level of repression others would not, as long as there’s food on the table. I would question that assumption.

Your critics might say your books on countries like Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya focus on the fault lines and that perhaps you are too cynical about the continent. Any comments?

I’ve been covering events in Africa since the early 1990s. If you take a step back, yes, one can identify many improvements: the way Africa is now hooked up to the rest of the world, thanks to the internet, cellphones and cheap travel, impressive education levels and better healthcare. 

But if you look at democracy, free speech, at human rights, it often feels like we’re pedalling backwards. 

In the 1990s we had Mobutu [Sese Seko, in the DRC, then known as Zaire], [Omar] Bongo [in Gabon], [Paul] Biya [in Cameroon] and [Daniel Arap] Moi [in Kenya]. We used to call them “dinosaur” leaders. 

Today the supposedly progressive Renaissance leaders — [Yoweri] Museveni [in Uganda], Kagame, Isaias [Afwerki in Eritrea] — have turned into dinosaurs themselves: impossible to shift, surrounded by sycophantic cronies, filling their bank accounts, clamping down on the opposition (and Biya, amazingly, is still in situ).

I get nervous making sweeping generalisations because Africa is just too diverse. I find it more helpful to look at the countries I’ve focused on in my books and know best: DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Eritrea. And when I do that, my heart does not lift with cheerful optimism. 

It doesn’t really matter what a white Western writer thinks about what the past few decades have achieved in those countries; what matters are the views of the citizens. And there’s plenty of dissatisfaction and restlessness. 

Having said all that, there’s the old saying, “happiness writes white”. If these were happy, well-run societies, there would be little to say. As a reporter, or a nonfiction writer, you’re always going to be more interested in what goes awry. That’s true of any society, whether I were writing about the UK, Italy or Rwanda.

What stood out the most for you in terms of the human rights record (or lack thereof) of Kagame’s regime?

No dictator tolerates criticism well, but what’s striking about Kagame’s regime is that it appears to have no baseline of acceptance at all: any challenge is regarded as utterly unacceptable. 

What’s really gob-smacking is how far Kagame reaches geographically to snuff dissent out, not just across his own borders but also in other countries, such as South Africa, and as far as the US, Canada, Belgium, France, the UK, even Australia and New Zealand. The level of energy and focus that goes into that intimidation and elimination operation is quite extraordinary. 

What I find most sinister about the regime’s approach is the way Kagame’s regime seems to practise a policy of collective punishment. If you happen to be the distant cousin or an in-law of someone who has been deemed an enemy of the state, you too are suspect, even if you haven’t had any contact for years and don’t share that person’s political views. And so you get these humiliating “To whom it may concern” letters, in which Rwandans will publicly distance themselves from old friends or family members to try to escape state punishment. 

Do you have fears that the Rwandan government might also target you?

You can’t spend years interviewing people who have been tracked, threatened, detained without charge, shot at, persecuted even in exile, and warned by foreign police forces that their lives are in danger without sharing some of their nervousness. 

The fear that permeates the Rwandan diaspora is tangible, and infectious. But as a Western foreigner, I have less to fear — my government might take less kindly to one of its citizens being treated in the same way. 

I’m expecting a counter-blast, but it will probably take reputational form. Kagame employs a small army of social media trolls and there’s already a torrent of abuse on Twitter, much of it from anonymous accounts, which I am pretty sure are run by Rwandan intelligence. I’m being accused of being a genocide denier, a racist, a colonialist, of having been the former concubine of Patrick Karegeya, and of having worked for the French military. 

It’s not pleasant, but I’ve been insulted like this for years: some of my previous books triggered similar accusations. You just have to shrug and move on. The world would be a much healthier, nicer place if Twitter made it impossible to open anonymous accounts. We’d be able to see the dictatorships that loom behind all these supposedly heartfelt personal accounts.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Africa is a Country. Michela Wrong started her career as an Africa correspondent for Reuters and the Financial Times

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Rasna Warah
Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia: War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012).

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