by Ann Garrison
“With every war, kidnapping, and murder on foreign soil, Kagame’s critics ask if he’s finally gone too far, while the US continues as Rwanda’s top bilateral donor.”
Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan whose heroic story is told in the Hollywood Movie “Hotel Rwanda,” went on trial for terrorism last week in Rwanda. Then, on Sunday, February 21, a prominent member of Rwanda’s dissident diaspora was murdered in Capetown, South Africa. The next day, Italy’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was murdered while traveling to observe the World Food Program’s work at a school in Rutshuru Territory, on DRC’s Rwandan border. All three events warrant attention in the US, given US implication as the top bilateral donor to the government of Rwandan Pesident Paul Kagame, a longstanding US military partner and proxy in the region.
Paul Rusesabagina is probably the most famous Rwandan in the country’s diaspora, due to his portrayal by Don Cheadle in the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda,” which tells the story of how, as manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines, he sheltered more than 1000 Rwandan Tutsis from harm at the hands of genocidal militias during the final days of the 1990-1994 Rwandan Civil War. Rusesabagina is himself an ethnic Hutu married to an ethnic Tutsi who has advocated for ethnic reconciliation and democracy in Rwanda and against the totalitarian regime led by Kagame.
Last year Rusesabagina boarded a plane in Dubai, which he believed was bound for Burundi, a country neighboring Rwanda and sharing Rwanda’s ethnic composition. He soon found himself instead in handcuffs in Rwanda, where he was charged with terrorism, along with 20 co-defendants identified as members of a rebel militia. This week he appeared in court with his Rwandan lawyer Gatera Gashabana, who has also represented opposition leader Victoire Ingabire in Rwandan courts.
“I would like to insist on the fact that Rusesabagina is in Rwanda illegally,” Gashabana said. “He did not come as a result of an extradition. He didn’t even come of his own free will. He found himself in Rwanda against his will.”
The New York Times, Guardian, CNN, Voice of America, NPR, and the BBC have all published sympathetic reports of Rusesabagina’s case. A bipartisan coalition of 30 US Senators and Representatives wrote a letter urging President Kagame to release him and accusing Kagame of violating US deportation and extradition law by snatching him. Kitty Kurth of the Hotel Rwanda/Rusesabagina Foundation said, “We drafted the letter, and the offices crafted and added and massaged until it was language that everyone could agree on.”
“Thirty US Senators and Representatives wrote a letter urging President Kagame to release Rusesabagina.”
Does this mean that Rwandan President Paul Kagame is tumbling from Western grace in any real way? For nearly two decades after the outset of the 1990-1994 Rwandan Civil War , General, then President Kagame was a darling of Western media and officialdom, credited with stopping genocide, then guiding the country’s rise from its ashes. All that began to change in 2010, when Victoire Ingabire, Bernard Ntaganda, and Frank Habineza all attempted to run for president against Kagame but weren’t even able to register their opposition parties. By the end of that year Victoire Ingabire and Bernard Ntaganda were both in prison and Frank Habineza had fled to Europe after the vice president of his party was found dead with his head cut off. Rwandan journalist Jean-Léonard Rugambage and even Jwani Mwaikusa, a renowned International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda defense attorney and Tanzanian law professor, were shot dead. Rwandan operatives attempted to assassinate former Rwandan General Kayumba Nyamwasa in Johannesburg—“right in the middle of the World Cup ” in the words of former Rwandan Intelligence Chief Patrick Karegeya, who was also living in exile in Johannesburg. Four years later, on New Year’s Day, Karegeya himself was found dead by strangulation in a Johannesburg hotel.
In their most recent sympathetic reports of Rusesabagina, the New York Times, CNN, Guardian, and Voice of America all reported President Kagame’s history of assassinations, attempted assassinations, and threats to Rwandans in diaspora.
The New York Times wrote, “Now, Rwanda is also known as an authoritarian state where Mr. Kagame exerts total control, his troops are accused of plunder and massacres in neighboring Congo, and political rivals are imprisoned, subjected to sham trials or die in mysterious circumstances at home and abroad.” “Accused” is putting it mildly, given that “the plunder and massacres in neighboring Congo” have been evidenced in reports produced by the UN Group of Experts on DRC for more than 20 years, and by the UN Mapping Report on Human Rights Abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Times implied that it would not have been unreasonable for Paul Rusesabagina to have given up on political solutions in Rwanda. Who wouldn’t? It even acknowledged that “a quarter century on, the genocide still casts a long shadow inside Rwanda, where the truth about how it unfolded is bitterly contested.” Part of the “bitterly contested” truth includes abundant evidence that Kagame’s forces massacred Hutu people before, during, and after the final hundred days of the Rwandan Civil War that came to be known as the Rwandan Genocide. At no point in its article on Rusesabagina did the Times identify the genocide as “the genocide against the Tutsi,” the description that Kagame has managed to legally codify not only in Rwanda but also in Belgium.
They did report, “In 2014 Kizito Mihigo, a popular gospel singer, was accused of treason over a song that drew attention to the death of all Rwandans, including moderate Hutus, since 1994 — challenging an official narrative of a ‘Tutsi genocide.’”
In 2020, after four years in prison, Mihigo attempted to escape from Rwanda into Burundi, but Rwandan police apprehended him at the border, then reported that he had hung himself in a cell.
Kagame’s most powerful and longstanding defenders, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Tony Blair, and the Clintons have all remained silent, speaking out neither for Paul Rusesabagina nor for Kagame’s case against him.
The shooting death of Seif Bamporiki
On Sunday morning, February 21, unofficial reports that Rwandan agents had killed Seif Bamporiki, a Rwandan dissident living in exile in South Africa, began appearing on social media. The New York Times and South African outlets confirmed the story the next day. Kagame supporters scoffed that Bamporiki was killed in Capetown, a notoriously dangerous neighborhood, and South African police thus far say that they are operating on the assumption that he was killed during a robbery.
They don’t, however, discount the possibility of political motivation, saying only that they haven’t seen any evidence of that yet. Bamporiki’s Rwandan allies say the murder had all the markings of an assassination ordered by President Kagame. And the fact that former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was found strangled in Johannesburg and former Rwandan General Kayumba Nyamwasa survived three assassination attempts on South African soil was enough to inspire the New York Times headline “Rwanda Opposition Figure Is Killed in South Africa.”
The shooting death of an Italian Ambassador
On February 22, Luca Attanasio, Italy’s ambassador to the DRC since 2017, was shot dead along with an Italian soldier and a Congolese driver while traveling on a road just outside Goma, along DRC’s Rwandan border. They were on their way to visit a World Food Program distribution site at a school in Rutshuru Territory. The Congolese Interior Ministry immediately released a statement, without evidence and before an investigation could have been done, blaming it on the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), but the FDLR immediately released a statement in which they denied responsibility, as reported by the Associated Press :
“‘The FDLR declares that there is nothing to implicate it in the attack that resulted in the death of the Italian ambassador and asks Congolese authorities and MONUSCO to do all they can to shed light on those responsible for this ignoble assassination,’” rebel spokesman Cure Ngoma said in a statement.
“The rebel group noted the attack took place in the ‘three antennas’ area near Goma and the border of Rwanda and close to Congolese and Rwandan military positions. It blamed the killings on those forces.”
For the FDLR, murdering a European ambassador and his entourage would have been as stupid as dropping chemical weapons on its own people would have been for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. What more could one do to inspire the rage and retribution of the West? The allegation against Assad has been thoroughly discredited , and this allegation against the FDLR should be studied with equal skepticism and scrutiny.
ICTR defense attorney Christopher Black, who won the groundbreaking acquittal of General Augustin Ndindiliyimana in 2014, responded, “Yes, the rush to blame the FDLR makes me think this hit was done by Kagame or Kabila [the former Congolese President who still wields considerable influence] to justify calling for international help to crush the FDLR. The FDLR would never do something that stupid.”
For many years Rwanda has counted on the world believing that the FDLR are subhuman Hutu killers who committed genocide against the Tutsi and can’t be expected to behave rationally, much as those who fabricated Assad’s chemical weapons attacks have counted on the world believing the same about him.
“The FDLR would never do something that stupid.”
Rwanda has occupied this territory since 2009 when the CNDP, a Rwandan trained, armed, and commanded militia, was “integrated into the Congolese army” in a de facto concession of territory. In 2012-2013, these troops broke away from the Congolese army and rampaged through North Kivu Province, massacring civilians as they went, complaining that they had not been given all they’d been promised on March 23, 2009, and therefore calling themselves the M23 militia.
The great and beloved Congolese Colonel Mamadou Mustafa Ndala reportedly led Congolese forces to victory in the M23 war, driving the militia back into Rwanda and Uganda, but then, strangely, the international community required the victors to negotiate with the losers in a showy, much ballyhooed process in Uganda.
So far as I have ever been able to tell, I’m still the only reporter who studied the ensuing document and reported that the “Declaration’ would contract DRC to concede to M23 .” I’m still open-mouthed remembering, and I’m not saying it took a genius to figure this out, even from a great distance. All I did was follow the “negotiations” and read a PDF of the document they produced, the “Final Communique of the Kampala Dialogue,” which promised all members of M23 release, amnesty, and “the implementation of the conclusions of the review of the implementation of the M23 agreement of March 23, 2009.” There was no consequence whatsoever for President Paul Kagame, even though the final report of the UN experts investigation submitted in January 2014 demonstrated that M23 was trained and equipped by Rwanda, and directly commanded by the Rwandan Defense Minister, and that elements of M23 were also reporting to top Ugandan officials.
In my 12/11/2013 report, I quoted Paul Rusesabagina, whom I’d spoken to for Pacifica’s KPFA Radio:
“Uganda has been accused many times by the international community, including the United Nations and the Congolese government, as one of the perpetrators, with Rwanda, supporting M23.
“Today, Uganda positions itself as, now, a mediator. How can one, in history, be a perpetrator and a mediator at the same time? Can one be a perpetrator and a judge? It can’t be. So, you can see, this is why all that is taking place in Uganda, in Kampala today is just a kind of facade.”
Congo’s hero, Colonel Mamadou Ndala, died in an ambush during the first week of January 2014, which was blamed on the phantom—many say fake—Islamist militia, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
Is it finally time for a change?
Can we expect anything different in response to the latest rash of violence in Johannesburg and DRC territory occupied by Rwanda? Or in response to the hijacking of Paul Rusesabagina? With every war, kidnapping, and murder on foreign soil, Kagame’s critics ask if he’s finally gone too far, while the US continues as Rwanda’s top bilateral donor, with the UK not far behind. Multiple strategic and military alliances deploy Rwandan troops in service to US—or putatively UN—interests in Africa.
Renowned British journalist Ian Birrell wrote this week that “the show trial of the hero of Hotel Rwanda must be a wake-up call to the West,” and indeed it should, but the West has had so many “wake-up calls” for the 27 years since Kagame seized power in Rwanda that it’s hard to imagine this will be the last.
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for promoting peace through her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. Please help support her work on Patreon. She can be reached on Twitter @AnnGarrison and at ann(at)anngarrison(dot)com.