The long reach of Rwandan repression
Rwanda’s trial and imprisonment of Paul Rusesabagina, who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, was enabled by the kidnapping and forced return to Rwanda of the exiled opposition leader. Other Rwandan dissidents in exile have been targeted for assassination by a state with an extensive international secret service network. Rwanda’s global pursuit of people who have fled the country’s ruthless repression increasingly makes it an international rule-breaker. It’s time for other states, including western donors and Commonwealth members, to stop giving authoritarian President Paul Kagame an easy ride.
For activists in many countries, exile is often the only safe response to state repression. Around the world, people who stand up to authoritarian rulers risk harassment, threats and violence, to the point that many fear for their lives. No one decides to flee their country lightly, but for many it is the only route to survival. But authoritarian states are increasingly confident about crossing borders to go after their dissidents. And Rwanda has become a world leader in this field.
Rwanda’s international reach
Rwanda is one of Africa’s smallest countries, but it has an international spy agency of a size and sophistication more commonly associated with superpowers. The purpose of this secretive force is to track critics of President Paul Kagame, who has concentrated power on himself since taking office, first as vice president in 1994, and then as president in 2000. Under a constitutional amendment passed in 2015, he can continue as president until 2034. Under his rule, dissent is repressed and independent civil society is not tolerated.
With so many of those who have stood up to Kagame jailed, it’s not surprising that many dissidents have fled. But abroad does not mean out of reach. Rwandan exiles can encounter harassment, threats – both to themselves and their families back home – and surveillance. Greater distance doesn’t help: activists living in Europe and North America have reported threats. Rwandan intelligence services are known to be active in Belgium, where many exiles live, and its spy network stretches as far as Australia.
For Kagame’s biggest enemies, the threat of death is real. Several exiles have been assassinated. In 2021 alone, Revocant Karemangingo was shot dead and Cassien Ntamuhanga mysteriously disappeared in Mozambique, and Seif Bamporiki was shot dead in South Africa. This has been going on for years: two exiles were killed in Kenya in 1996. People risk assassination even when they have become citizens of their host countries or have been granted asylum.
For Kagame’s biggest enemies, the threat of death is real.
It is of course not always easy to trace attacks back to Rwanda, and the government naturally denies culpability. Many of the killings look like robberies gone wrong and it is rare for anyone to be convicted. Kagame would have us think that Rwandan exiles are just really unlucky.
So many Rwandans have been killed or faced assassination attempts in South Africa that it led to strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. Former Kagame ally Patrick Karegeya was strangled to death in Johannesburg in 2013 while Kayumba Nyamwasa, another former close ally of Kagame, has survived multiple assassination attempts, including an attack in the same city in 2014.
Security service agent Alex Ruta, seeking asylum in South Africa, reported that he had been sent from Rwanda to befriend and assassinate exiled opposition politicians. Following Karegeya’s death, the prosecutor requested the extradition of two Rwandan suspects, and after the 2014 attack on Nyamwasa the government expelled several Rwandan diplomats. There is, however, little hope of justice as Rwanda simply refuses to cooperate.
Fame is no defence
Many of those targeted are former allies of Kagame. It seems that special ire is reserved for those seen as defectors. Kagame also seems to have a problem with those who compete with him for international attention.
Paul Rusesabagina became known around the world when the story of how he helped protect people from genocide was turned into the hit film Hotel Rwanda, released in 2004. In general, international recognition often helps protect activists around the world from state repression, because the reputational costs for states are high if they are seen to attack or harass a public figure. But for some authoritarians, a high profile just makes an opponent more of a target, someone who must be taken down at all costs. See, for example, Vladimir Putin’s determination to silence well-known anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, and the way Belarus’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko has turned on sporting figures who criticise his repressive regime. It seems clear that Kagame can’t stand any Rwandan having a higher profile than him – particularly when they criticise him or challenge his narrative on his role in ending the genocide.
Rusesabagina has been smeared so much it’s now impossible to distinguish fact from fabrication. But what can’t be doubted is that he has received numerous international awards for his humanitarian efforts, and that he also vocally opposes the Kagame regime. Rusesabagina is a leader of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, a coalition of exile groups that seeks to oust Kagame. The coalition has an associated armed wing, the National Liberation Front, which has been accused of carrying out attacks in Rwanda.
Given the evident danger he would face, Rusesabagina, who is also a Belgian citizen, had no intention of returning to Rwanda with Kagame still in charge. How he ended up there isn’t entirely clear, but it seems that in August Rusesabagina boarded a plane from Dubai that he believed was headed to Burundi. Instead he landed in Rwanda.
This was not the first such kidnapping – there are multiple reports of illegal renditions to Rwanda, with people kidnapped and often never heard of again. Rusesabagina’s case also carries eery echoes of Lukashenko’s diversion of a plane to Belarus to capture exiled activist Roman Protasevich in May. It suggests that authoritarian leaders are growing bolder about crossing borders to eliminate opposition – and doing so blatantly – confident that their relationships with key allies – Russia for Belarus, western donor states for Rwanda – will buffer them from criticism. The message is that no Rwandan is too famous to escape Kagame’s reach.
Rusesabagina was handed a 25-year sentence in September after being found guilty of terrorism. During the trial he was denied access to his international lawyers, legal documents were intercepted and prosecution evidence went unchallenged. This was hardly a fair trial that could establish the nature of any involvement by Rusesabagina in the National Liberation Front or its culpability in attacks. Rusesabagina can expect to spend the rest of his life in jail – but still the state prosecutor is appealing for a life sentence, underlining the vindictiveness of the prosecution.
The publication of the Pegasus Papers also revealed that Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, was under extensive illicit surveillance when making calls to politicians and diplomats in the wake of her father’s kidnapping. She is not alone: at least six Rwandan exiles have had similar treatment, and overall some 3,500 people are said to have been targeted by the government with Pegasus spyware, among them activists, journalists, opposition politicians, diplomats and foreign leaders – including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Burundi’s Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, offering further indication of the international reach of Kagame’s tyranny.
No wonder people live in fear even when they are far from Rwanda – but of course that is the point: to instil fear, make people never feel safe regardless of how high profile they are, and thereby encourage self-censorship.
States who go after their exiles normally have to put up with criticism from other states. But despite the evidence, Kagame has long enjoyed a positive international reputation and extensive support from development agencies. This rests in part on his role in restoring order following the horrific 1994 genocide, and the guilt western powers rightly feel at their complicity in standing idle as the slaughter took place. Rwanda has developed a ‘donor darling’ reputation: it received around US$1.2 billion in development aid in 2019. Kagame’s international standing is also underpinned by reports of strong economic growth under his regime.
But recent years have seen indications that Rwanda’s so-called economic miracle may be something of a mirage: there is evidence that the government has manipulated economic data and that poverty has actually increased, given cost of living rises. The authoritarian state stands accused of pressuring officials to come up with the numbers that support its narrative and threatening those who call attention to discrepancies, while institutions like the World Bank are accused of choosing to overlook the evidence.
When donors decide to ignore human rights abuses in the name of development performance, what arguments do they have left if development success is at least partly a myth? And if donors accept Rwanda’s authoritarianism in the name of stability, what are the implications when Rwanda undermines the rule of law in multiple foreign countries?
Despite all this, Rwanda is, ludicrously, set to host the next summit of Commonwealth leaders, currently awaiting rescheduling due to the pandemic. Its hosting of this meeting of presidents and prime ministers is undoubtedly prestigious and will enable Rwanda to further position itself as both an economic power and a functioning democracy. But the meeting will make a mockery of the commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Charter. The civil society events that are normally an important part of the Commonwealth summit will surely be a charade.
If the Commonwealth is serious about human rights, it should not allow its peak summit to take place in Rwanda. If donors care about the Sustainable Development Goals, they should hold the government to the human rights standards that are inseparable from those goals.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Rwanda should be stripped of its role as host of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
Donors should hold the Rwandan government to account on its human rights violations.
Donors and host governments should assure the security of Rwandan activists living in exile.
Cover photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images