/ 4 February 2021

The Africans in exile who live in fear of transnational repression

The Texture of Shadows is a moving and memorable novel that explores the life of ANC soldiers in exile and their return to SA shortly before Mandela’s release.
Governments across sub-Saharan Africa violently pursue exiles abroad. Democracies must push back. (John McCann/M&G)

Just over six years ago headlines were filled with reports about the murder of Patrick Karegeya, former head of Rwandan intelligence, in a Johannesburg hotel room. Almost immediately, suspicion turned to Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

Since then, Rwandans around the world have been abducted, targeted with spyware, detained, assaulted, and seen their loved ones harmed. While high-profile attacks such as the one against Karegeya, the multiple assassination attempts against Lieutenant General Kayumba Nyamwasa, and the recent abduction of Paul Rusesabagina in the United Arab Emirates garner significant attention, the broader pattern has often gone overlooked.

Rwanda’s campaign against exiles abroad is not the only one in sub-Saharan Africa; what may appear to be isolated incidents are actually part of a growing global trend of “transnational repression”. This phenomenon refers to governments targeting nationals of their countries even after they have fled to safety abroad. 

In a new report, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, Freedom House catalogued 608 incidents of physical, direct transnational repression since 2014. Of 31 perpetrator governments, six are in sub-Saharan Africa: Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Sudan. The governments of Eritrea and Djibouti have also engaged in transnational repression, though not in the time period or meeting the other criteria for inclusion in Freedom House’s report.

This compilation of physical incidents – detentions, assaults, physical intimidation, unlawful deportation, renditions, and suspected assassinations – is surely an undercount; many incidents go unreported. Beyond these physical attacks, most of the responsible governments also use nonphysical, “everyday” tactics of transnational repression, including digital threats, spyware and coercion by proxy, which is the practice of harassing or harming an exile’s family or loved ones. Besides South Sudan, all sub-Saharan African countries that engage in physical forms of transnational repression are also known to use coercion by proxy.

Burundi’s government has carried out an intense campaign against exiles in recent years, with many attacks coinciding with the wave of repression and displacement in 2015 and 2016 that followed President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for an unconstitutional third term. The Imbonerakure, a government-controlled youth militia, reportedly operate in Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and South Sudan. In July and August 2020, Tanzanian and Burundian security forces appear to have collaborated to detain and render at least eight Burundian refugees and asylum seekers – all of whom were imprisoned upon arrival in Burundi. 

The Burundian government’s reach stretches all the way to Europe: human rights defender Pierre Claver Mbonimpa fled Burundi after an assassination attempt in 2015 and, while he recuperated in Europe, his son and son-in-law were both killed by Burundian security forces in apparent retribution.

In 2016 and 2017, four South Sudanese exiles were rendered from Kenya. Equatorial Guinea’s government has targeted opposition figures whom they accused of plotting a coup, rendering several from Togo and South Sudan, and having Chad’s government detain another at their request. Many dissidents and members of the diaspora claim that a 2019 armed assault on exiled opposition member Salomon Abeso in London was an assassination attempt.

The Ethiopian and Sudanese transnational repression campaigns are largely linked to previous governments but bear mention because each incident of transnational repression has a significant and lasting effect on the communities targeted. Besides direct physical harm to an individual, transnational repression creates distrust and trauma in entire communities, and dissuades many from engaging in diaspora politics. As one Rwandan exile told Freedom House, “There is no unity anymore, we don’t trust each other anymore.”

What makes Rwanda’s case unique

Among all of the extraterritorial campaigns in the region, the Rwandan case remains unique: Kagame’s regime is among the most prolific perpetrators of transnational repression in the world. It has engaged in transnational repression since the 1990s, targeting those who challenge it through criticism or active resistance, or who question its version of Rwandan history, particularly details of Kagame’s rise to power or his potential role in atrocities. The regime often labels targeted individuals as terrorists to justify its actions and deploys an expansive set of tactics against them: spyware, digital threats, coercion by proxy, mobility controls, Interpol abuse, detention, rendition, assassination, assault and physical intimidation.

Since 2014, Kagame’s regime has physically targeted Rwandans in at least seven countries, including in the DRC and Kenya, as well as farther afield in South Africa and Germany. Its activities in the DRC include mass renditions of refugees, opposition members, and alleged insurgents, in apparent cooperation with Congolese security forces. Rwandans as far-flung as the United States, Canada and Australia report intense fears of surveillance and retribution – and with good reason: there is evidence of Rwandan diplomatic entities seeking loyalty pledges from Rwandans residing in Australia and the United Kingdom. The result is that essentially all Rwandans abroad are at risk of transnational repression.

Wider implications – and South Africa’s role

The implication of the dozens of transnational attacks carried out by these governments is that transnational repression risks becoming “normal”. If that happens, it would harm diasporas around the world and erode rule of law in the countries where they live – even democracies. Accountability for perpetrators and building resilience within democracies should be prioritised in response to this threat.

Democracies have many tools to accomplish this. They can use targeted sanctions against responsible individuals and regulate trade in censorship and surveillance technology to ensure their use is in line with human rights standards. 

Reinforcing protections for vulnerable communities and training law enforcement officers to respond appropriately to claims of transnational repression can also help protect would-be targets.

As a country with a large refugee population and as a leader on human rights, the South African government is in a strong position to reinforce norms against extraterritorial violence and hold perpetrators accountable. 

The government’s decision to recall its ambassador to Rwanda in 2010 and later expel several Rwandan diplomats in response to attacks against Nyamwasa, as well as its pursuit of Karegeya’s murderers, are important steps towards holding perpetrator governments accountable. Continuing to take such actions is crucial, as only a renewed and sustained commitment to protecting human rights at home and abroad will halt the dangerous trend of transnational repression.