The Rwanda Myth

By Tom ZoellnerApril 3, 2021

The Rwanda Myth

Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad by Michela Wrong

IN THE VIEW OF MOST historians, the original sin of Rwanda came from the colonial policy of making artificial ethnic distinctions through a caste-like system. Belgian administrators deemed those who were taller and herded cattle, the Tutsis, to be smarter than the Hutu, who were generally shorter and raised crops. So one group got all the privileges of helping the Belgians extract coffee and animal hides and were treated as sub-royals, while their countrymen were deemed slow and stupid. The story was fixed; the Goods and Bads had been preselected, and the inevitable resentments would explode in the 1994 genocide.

Today Rwanda is held up as a shining example of African progress, with a kitchen-clean capital, a booming economy, and a firm lid on internal violence. But in her explosive and devastatingly convincing new book, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, Michela Wrong contends that this is a result of the original sin coming home to roost once more. Western journalists and governments have selected their good guy in dictator Paul Kagame while ignoring his appalling human rights abuses, targeted assassinations, exported violence, and offenses against the rule of law that would be condemned anyplace else.

I need to disclose a bias prominently in this review: my former co-writer is now sitting in one of Kagame’s jails and is facing a sham trial that would have pleased a Stalin-era judge. Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of the film Hotel Rwanda and the primary author of the nonfiction book An Ordinary Man (which I helped him write) was lured onto a private jet under false pretenses and kidnapped back to Rwanda last August. He is officially charged with “terrorism,” but the charges appear bogus. His real crime was criticizing Kagame’s regime.

Wrong’s myth-busting book does three things. It provides a lucid readout of one of the swampiest geopolitical stories on the African continent: Rwanda’s political realignment after an invading Tutsi army took over the country from a genocidal Hutu junta in 1994 amid a high stack of innocent victims killed by both sides. It’s also a murder mystery — except it is no mystery — about the state-sponsored killing of Rwanda’s former spy chief in a South African luxury hotel in 2014. And it is the first clear-eyed biography of the enigmatic man at the center of both: Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who comes across in these pages not as the investor-friendly savior of his country but as a cold-blooded authoritarian with a fatal streak of insecurity, willing to take any measure to stay in power.

At the age of two, Kagame was walked into neighboring Uganda on his mother’s back after the Belgians switched their favor to a Hutu-led government, sparking mass killings of Tutsis. It was 1959. He grew up speaking English in exile, haunted by family stories of torment and emerging as a vigilant rules-keeper in his primary school. “When we were shouting in class he’d take down our names and give them to the teacher to make sure we were punished,” remembered a schoolmate. Kagame took this penchant with him to the rebel military unit called the National Resistance Army; he enforced discipline with an iron fist, earning the nickname “Pilato” after Pontius Pilate and sentencing miscreants of even minor offenses to death by a sharp blow to the spinal cord with the edge of a hoe.

Wrong has credibility. She has covered Africa for 20 years for Reuters and Financial Times, among other outlets, and has written four other full-immersion books about the continent. Her opinions and literary temperament are the opposite of hotheaded; her considered demeanor lends weight to her devastating verdict on the Rwanda myth. This volume was four years in the making, and she seems to have talked to just about anyone available, in and out of East Africa, to unearth details of Kagame’s formative years never told in more hagiographic accounts.

Those sections of Ugandan intrigue travel down into the weeds of African revolutionary politics, but they’re rendered in an accessible fashion that doesn’t require prior knowledge of the region to follow along nor a chart to keep the characters straight. Vivid descriptions — the new roof on an elementary school, the blooming trees of Kampala looking like a salad bowl, molten plastic used as a torture tool — separate this from a dry historical tale. After helping install a new Ugandan president, exiled Tutsi eyes turned toward the mother country. “Utopianism is the man-trap of diasporas,” Wrong writes, explaining how the longshot group of combatants known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) formed under Fred Rwigyema’s magnetic leadership, with Kagame as his consigliore.

They fought a steadily advancing border war until the night of April 6, 1994, when two shoulder-launched missiles brought down the private plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana. Roadblocks went up instantly, and Hutus across the nation were instructed to kill their neighbors with machetes, hoes, and clubs. The slaughter lasted months until the RPF successfully took over the capital of Kigali and formed a provisional government in a nation that had been stripped to the bone. Kagame was by this time the uncontested leader of the invading force — though his battlefield experience was paltry — and he steadily purged most of the Hutus who had been installed in ministry posts as symbolic gestures. He also put an information lid on the reprisal killings made by the RPF, which likely numbered in the tens of thousands. The scope of this “double genocide” is one of the most sensitive subjects in Rwanda today; to bring it up is to ensure permanent scorn and marginalization. Wrong lays out convincing evidence that these war crimes, inconvenient to the good guys narrative, happened on a broad scale.

Then came staggering abuses. The new Rwandan government launched two wars inside its gigantic neighbor to the west: they first deposed its longtime thief-in-chief Mobutu Sese Seko from what was then called Zaire. Then they attempted to upend the replacement regime of Laurent Kabila in the newly named Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both moves, not inconveniently, fattened the Rwandan treasury with proceeds from seized mineral resources. These adventures were met with little protest from Western nations who felt collective guilt over their inaction during the genocide and badly wanted Rwanda to emerge as a development success story.

Suffering cannot be reduced to body counts, and numbers do not settle competing claims of righteousness or guilt. Yet statistics reveal a terrible irony. Kagame’s twin incursions into Congo caused at least six million deaths through violence, starvation, and disease — a figure that far outdistances the official estimated number of 800,000 dead in the 1994 slaughter that his army is widely credited with halting. Had Western charities, corporations, and governments done more to pressure Rwanda instead of continuing to dump money and development aid into it, they might have saved far more lives than they would have with more timely intervention in the genocide.

Even so, by the year 2000, Kagame had successfully turned himself into an enlightened despot in the eyes of the world, befriended by Bill Clinton and Howard Buffett and invited to speak at conferences around the world. With his thin frame, mild public demeanor, and professorial eyeglasses, he did not fit a preconceived image as a regional strongman. One of Wrong’s major points in the book is that a peculiar kind of racism may be in play when the West looks at Kagame. He stopped the murders and created a humming economy, went the reasoning. The low expectations made the human rights abuses a trifling afterthought, “the result of prejudice on the part of people who do not expect anything in Africa to be done right,” as an outlawed political party put it in one report. “Rwanda’s story had the international community so thoroughly by the emotional and intellectual throat, it could not, now, wrest free,” writes Wrong. The scars of inaction during the genocide left a deep sense of guilt that is exploited for gain to this day. Moreover, the RPF was extremely good at image management, and its members presented a smooth facade: literate, sophisticated, well read, and — crucially — English-speaking, a legacy of their long exile in the former British colony of Uganda. Development officials who took guided tours through spotless streets could not help but fall in love with these good guys who could quote philosophy.

Wrong’s narrative of presidential impunity is frequently chilling, but her section on the 1995 massacre in the town of Kibeho may be the most heartbreaking example. Government troops opened fire on unarmed Hutu refugees who scrambled for cover. More than 4,000 died, and the regime promptly lied about it. This marked the end of the fragile unity government that Kagame had assembled for cosmetic reasons, as ministers realized they could no longer maintain the fiction of a benign republic or even remain in the country. Many of them, as the local sardonic expression goes, “took the subway” into another country and never returned.

Kagame’s long arm can find them, though. One of the government’s most capable intellectuals, Seth Sendashonga, went down in a hail of AK-47 bullets in Nairobi in 1998. And then there’s the officially unsolved — but plain as day — murder that provides the framing device for the book: the death of Patrick Karegeya in a Johannesburg luxury hotel. He was lured into the room by somebody he thought was his friend, a customary regime method for getting a critic, and also a technique learned from the Mossad intelligence service of Israel, perhaps Rwanda’s closest ally.

Wrong deals with the plight of Rusesabagina in a few brief paragraphs, and it feels like an addition necessarily squeezed in at the last moment before the manuscript went into production. The classic pattern fits: Rusesabagina was invited to speak at a few churches in the neighboring nation of Burundi by the pastor Constantin Niyomwungere. He flew from his home in San Antonio, Texas, to Dubai, where he would catch a flight to Bujumbura. But he woke up at dawn to discover he’d been flown to Kigali instead. He was arrested on the tarmac. Niyomwungere had betrayed him. The pastor had been secretly accused of crimes himself and agreed to work as a tool of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau. Nobody who gets on the wrong side of Kagame should ever trust a friendly approach from a stranger, which is not the only way this government resembles an organized crime outfit. “This was basically a mafia and its members had taken the oath of Omertà,” said one Canadian official in a UN report detailing Rwanda’s looting of the Congo.

The overseas assassinations, the military adventurism, the lack of civil rights, and the strange silence about it all from allied nations has created a society of informants, a “spying machine” where any subject of conversation might be potentially taboo. “Now even the most mischief-free comment — pointing out failings in Rwanda’s health-care system, for example, or mentioning that electricity supplies did not meet the population’s needs — meant you risked being branded ‘an enemy of the state,’” writes Wrong, who compares Kagame to Lavrentiy Beria, the Stalin-era enforcer who famously said, “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” Such vague charges as “minimizing” the 1994 genocide carry a 10-year prison sentence. Anyone found begging on the streets is taken away for “reeducation” that includes beatings. The author concludes: “The ultimate control freak, the class geek has created a state in his own image: introverted, suspicious, unaccountable, and a prey to sudden violence.”

The book is an extended mea culpa of sorts for Wrong who, like many Western journalists in Africa, bought “the Rwanda story” for many years. I have to confess to being in that number myself. I have not spoken with Paul Rusesabagina for at least 10 years, and, in part, I drifted away for what I had thought was his irrational rhetoric toward Kagame. In his many speeches at US colleges and universities, my former co-writer rarely passed up a chance to trash Rwanda’s president for a variety of misdeeds.

“Don’t you think you should rein it in?” I asked him one evening at dinner. “Steer toward middle ground?”

“Do you have any idea what this man does?” he asked me, and my eyes began to glaze over as he went down a list.

I listened, of course, but I didn’t really want to hear it. I thought Kagame heavy-handed, but basically the right man for the job in a difficult period of transition. Now of course, I wish I had really been listening. Wrong’s book is an eloquent and entirely convincing plea for that same glaze not to come over the world’s eyes when uncomfortable truths are told.


Tom Zoellner is the politics editor of LARB.

LARB Contributor

Tom Zoellner is an editor-at-large at LARB and a professor of English at Chapman University. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Uranium, The National Road, Rim to River, and Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize in history.


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