- Interview by
- Rasna Warah
It is widely believed that following 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 neighboring Uganda—to oust a murderous regime and usher in an era of peace and stability in Rwanda. In fact, this small landlocked nation in Eastern Africa is today often held up as a model developmental state and a poster child for Western aid.
However, in her recently released book, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, British writer and journalist Michela Wrong debunks the myth that Kagame’s Rwanda is an island of peace and stability in a conflict-prone region. The book, 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.
This is the fourth in a series of books on Africa by Wrong. Her debut book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, describes the final days of Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. It’s Our Turn to Eat, her book on a major corruption scandal in Kenya and the whistleblower who exposed it, is a critical examination of a post-colonial state driven by ethnic politics and myopic interests.
Wrong started her journalistic career as an Africa correspondent for Reuters and the Financial Times. Her books have been praised for their unflinching honesty and clarity about a continent that is often painted in broad brush strokes by Western journalists, with little nuance or context. Wrong talks to Rasna Warah about what motivated her to write Do Not Disturb, and why she believes this story needed to be told.
What drove you to write a book about the dark side of Rwanda, considering that it is the darling of Western donors and is held up as a model African country that rose out of the ashes of a genocide?
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 to which he had been lured by a Rwandan businessman friend—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 from a distance, and I’d certainly been intrigued by the growing signs of disquiet and unhappiness in the RPF’s ruling elite, with a remarkable number of President Paul Kagame’s trusted aides and military men ending up in exile, being hunted down by the regime’s agents. But Patrick’s murder made me sit up and 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 modern 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.
While the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul led to global outrage, 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 sitting back and letting the genocide occur in 1994 is one ingredient. Former regime insiders I interviewed remarked on how successfully 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, IMF, DfID, and USAID are desperate for success stories to justify their foreign aid programs, and that’s what Rwanda has come to represent. But ultimately, I would suggest there’s a certain patronizing element at play, which verges on racism. The Great Lakes is a rough neighborhood, the argument goes, with a horrific recent history, and its citizens have gone through so much that they 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 that your books on countries like Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya focus on the fault lines in African countries and that perhaps you are too cynical about the continent. Any comments?
I’ve been covering events on the African continent now since the early 1990s. If you take a step back, yes, one can identify all sorts of massive improvements: the way Africa is now hooked up to the rest of the world, thanks to the internet, mobile phones and cheap travel, impressive education levels, better health care. 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 [in DRC, then known as Zaire], Bongo [in Gabon], Biya [in Cameroon] and 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 in their own right: 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 about Africa, because the continent is just too diverse. I find it more helpful to look at the specific countries I’ve focused upon in my books and know best: DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Eritrea. And when I do that, my heart does not lift with cheerful optimism. The key point is that it doesn’t really matter what a white Western writer thinks about what the last few decades have achieved in those various African nation states; what matters are the views of the citizens of those countries. And there’s plenty of dissatisfaction and restlessness there, which I’m echoing in my writing. 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 non-fiction writer, you’re always going to be more interested in what goes awry. That’s true of any society, whether I was 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, any criticism is regarded as utterly unacceptable. And 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 African 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. Freedom House recently listed Rwanda alongside Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Turkey and China as one of the world’s most egregious practitioners of “transnational repression”—countries which “stand out due to the extent and violence of their campaigns.”
But what I find most sinister about the regime’s approach—because of the echoes it has with Germany under the Nazis or Eastern Europe in Communist times—is the way Kagame’s regime seems to practise a policy of collective punishment. So if you just 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 in any way. No matter, you are tarred, too. And so you get these humiliating
“To whom it may concern” letters, in which Rwandans will publicly distance themselves from old friends or members of their family in order to try and escape state punishment. That’s so sinister.
Do you have fears that the Rwandan government might also target you?
You can’t spend nearly five years interviewing individuals who have been tracked, threatened, detained without charge, shot at, persecuted even once in exile and warned by foreign police forces that their lives are in active danger without coming to share some of their nervousness. The fear that permeates the Rwandan diaspora is tangible, and infectious. But as a Western foreigner, I obviously 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 an hourly torrent of abuse on Twitter, much of it coming from anonymous sites, 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: the books I wrote about the Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo and Eritrea both triggered similar accusations. You just have to shrug and move on. The world would be a much healthier, saner, nicer place if Twitter made it impossible to open anonymous accounts. If Twitter only took that simple step, we’d suddenly be able to see clearly the dictatorships that actually loom behind all these supposedly heart-felt personal accounts.