Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad (London: Fourth Estate, 2021)

The title of this substantial book is a double entendre. It uses the words of the notice hung on the hotel room door of the murdered Patrick Karegeya, a central figure in opposition to the regime of Paul Kagame and a former head of intelligence in Rwanda who was assassinated in Pretoria in January 2014. The identities of four suspects led straight back to the Rwandan president’s office, but the reaction of the South Africa authorities has been curiously lethargic.

Kareyega’s career was typical of members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who took power after the mid-1994 genocide. A Ugandan Tutsi (the Banyarwanda whose numbers swelled after the 1959 ethnic cleansing in Rwanda), he fought with Museveni’s National Resistance Army to rid the country of Milton Obote’s regime. Tutsis then played a major role in the Ugandan army until nationalist sentiment turned against them in the late 1980s. At this point the RPF emerged and in 1990 invaded its ancestral homeland. A number of its key leaders were killed in the attempt, but Karegeya survived and became one of the most influential operators in the Great Lakes region.

The title also alludes to the cover-up of Rwanda’s post-genocide history and the extent to which the Anglophone West has been unwilling to accept some of the hard realities about Rwanda. Wrong describes Kagame as a school drop-out ‘introverted, suspicious, unaccountable and a prey to sudden violence’ (p. 418). His role was in military intelligence, a toxic background for a future head of state, and his methods are ruthless. At the same time, he has been able to maintain a positive image in the West, not only evading sanction but continuing to attract aid.

Wrong uses the stories of significant individuals to write a revisionist history of Rwanda since the genocide of 1994. Clearly the RPF was involved in a power grab that soon shed any illusion of sharing with the Hutu majority. The Arusha Accords were torn up. But did it spark the genocide? The shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane in April 1994 has been pinned on mercenaries acting with the collusion of Francophone countries. But evidence, including testimony of former members, suggests that it was an RPF operation. As the potential for genocide was already common knowledge, this would amount to an act of unbelievable cynicism.

As the RPF took control of Rwanda a counter-genocide ensued. Ethnic cleansing of Hutus took place in the east to create a cordon sanitaire; followed by a massacre at Kibeho in the south-west. The reports of these events were suppressed. Then there was the invasion of the DRC, the First Congo War, ostensibly in pursuit of Hutu interahamwe. But there is plentiful evidence that mass killing took place and the Northern Insurgency that followed also produced many bodies from indiscriminate violence. With the installation of Laurent Kabila in Kinshasa, the DRC became a client state and Rwanda a major regional political and economic power in alliance with Uganda.

The Second Congo War was the outcome of a further invasion in 1998 after a fall-out with Kabila and Wrong suggests that Rwanda was responsible for his assassination. Rwanda was in the process of developing one of the toughest armies in Africa. There was growing animosity with Uganda over economic objectives in the DRC that resulted in the brutal battle of Kisangani in which former close allies killed each other. Four to five million Congolese died in these regional conflicts, but Rwanda has managed the remarkable feat of persuading influential international opinion that it is a bastion of regional security while pursuing aims that mark it as a macho state and architect of chaos. Rwanda asset strips the eastern DRC and has even worked with the Interahamwe. Punching above its weight seems a term specially designed for Rwanda.

This regional history brought to an end the myths surrounding a new, supposedly renaissance generation of African leaders. The West has largely embraced the concept of progressive Rwandan dictatorship and swallowed the argument that this situation is necessary to prevent a further genocide. The state of Rwanda cannot now be untangled from the personality of Kagame, the ‘gawky school dropout’ turned dictator notorious for the unpredictability of his violent rages and willingness to assault armed men. Wrong compares him to Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the Soviet secret police, for his employment of state terror. Whether or not he is insane is a valid question.

Consequently, politicians and officials tell Kagame what he wants to hear and obey unquestioningly. Memory of the past is carefully managed and centres on the genocide of the Tutsi. Dissenters are neutralised. The occasional election is fraudulent and voting figures are pre-arranged. Rwanda’s economic statistics are fictitious (guteknika in local terminology), notwithstanding the benefits of looting its western neighbour, and at odds with socio-economic conditions outside Kigali. Wrong compares Rwanda with a Potemkin village.

Significantly, there are no international human rights organisation offices in Rwanda. Kagame deals with his actual and potential rivals, internal and external, ruthlessly. The argument that Rwanda is a small precarious nation that cannot afford dissent is used as justification that sells well in many quarters. The consequence is an Orwellian state beset by spying and rumour employed to enforce compliance with collective punishment adding to the fear. There is no exit from the RPF and the reach of vengeance is bound by neither time nor geography in the fashion of Israel’s Mossad.

The current example is Paul Rusesabagina (of Hotel Rwanda fame) abducted to Kigali (he thought he was bound for Burundi) and recently sentenced to 25 years in jail on trumped-up charges. Other members of the opposition, like Karegeya, have been murdered.  Colonial boundaries and administration and population pressure and competing economic systems notwithstanding, Wrong points out that the state of Rwanda and the region is well rooted in history. Secrecy, dissembling and fratricidal violence, she suggests, are in the local DNA. This makes the work of researchers and writers especially challenging. Truth is hard to pin down and this suggests that any speculation about how things might have been had certain leaders survived is fruitless.