By Tafi Mhaka
“When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash so that it does not stink for them”. This is how Rwanda’s then-Minister of Defence General James Kabarebe publicly responded to the violent death of a dissident in South Africa. Colonel Patrick Karegeya’s lifeless body was discovered in an upmarket hotel room in Sandton, Johannesburg on January 2, 2014.
South African police suspected the former Rwandan spy chief was strangled to death after they had found a bloodied towel and a rope in the room. Colonel Karegeya had fallen out with the Rwandan government and found political asylum in South Africa in 2008.
The former soldier had co-founded the Rwandan National Congress, an opposition party, from exile, and this move had evidently infuriated Kigali and made Colonel Karegeya a marked man. In the chilling aftermath of this vengeful assassination perpetrated in a distant land, Rwandan President Paul Kagame warned, “You cannot betray Rwanda and get away with it.
There are consequences for betraying your country.” Silencing ‘enemies of the state’ Betraying Rwanda is undeniably diplomatic parlance for opposing the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party.
Kigali has long been accused of unleashing death squads on critics of the regime, opposition leaders and investigative journalists both at home and abroad. Former Home Affairs Minister Seth Sendashonga, former Member of Parliament Colonel Theoneste Lizinde and a businessman Augustine Bugilimfura were all assassinated in Nairobi, Kenya.
Jean Leonard Rugambage, acting editor of Rwanda’s Umuvugizi newspaper, died after two unknown assailants shot him in Kigali in 2010. And the beheaded body of the Vice President of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found in a wetland near Butare city in 2010.
This is simply a snapshot of a much wider and sadistic picture of brutal, state-sponsored repression and murder. Last November, a Johannesburg court accused Rwanda of plotting to kill RNC members based in South Africa. The court did so as it handed down an order to deport Alex Ruta, a Rwandan intelligence agent. Ruta allegedly had orders to befriend and kill RNC members. But he dissented and briefed South African police on the clandestine mission.
Rwanda, Saudi Arabia special cases Kagame, who is the current chair of the African Union, has hardly hidden his utter disdain for multiparty democracy and freedom of thought and expression, human rights and civil rights.
NGO Freedom House reports members of banned opposition groups are characteristically subjected to arbitrary arrests, beatings, politicised prosecutions and enforced disappearances. Critics and opposition activists like Diane Rwigara and Victoire Ingabire have been constantly harassed, barred from contesting presidential elections, and jailed on trumped up charges.
Unsurprisingly, Kagame won a farcical 2017 presidential election with 99% of the vote. Yet, despite all of the magnificently engineered and rigged elections, political assassinations and devastating subjugation, Rwanda has not faced widespread international condemnation and strong punitive actions from global political players.
Much like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Rwanda’s longtime leader has been feted in Western capitals and presented as a wise, thoughtful and progressive man among an obstinate group of unyielding traditionalists. Former British development secretary Clare Short reportedly claimed Kagame is “such a sweetie”.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has described Kagame as “a visionary leader” who wants the “best for his country”. And Former US President Bill Clinton has called Rwanda’s longtime president “one of the greatest leaders of our time”. Clinton has defended the lack of media freedom, human rights and liberal democracy in Rwanda as understandable and relative to Rwanda’s tragic history.
He said: “I think we have to be a little sensitive to the fact that if you are Rwandan, you don’t necessarily hear it that way because you remember that an alleged free press helped push Rwanda into a boiling cauldron of butchery”. Both Blair and Clinton claim that because of the 1994 genocide Kagame should be allowed a fair measure of political flexibility and diplomatic goodwill to crush dissent and forcefully withhold basic humanitarian liberties.
All lives matter
This is why the furore surrounding Saudi Arabia’s belated and still befuddling series of dodgy and dissatisfying explanations on how the late Washington Post columnist and exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in its Ankara consulate is quite an astounding revelation.
Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves and petrodollar wealth, and the mammoth geopolitical influence the latter buy in foreign capitals, have always allowed it ample space to threaten, harass, jail and murder Saudis who criticise the Saudi royal family, all without fear of international condemnation and substantive ramifications.
It is a common and terrifying tale of sick and unrestricted impunity that Africans living under a chokehold of systematic oppression in illiberal democracies like Uganda, Egypt, Burundi, and Rwanda can attest to.
And contrary to what Clinton and Blair might believe, Rwandans – or Egyptians, Ivorians, Zimbabweans, Congolese, or Africans in general – are neither somewhat naïve, or naturally averse to expressing basic constitutional rights responsibly and simply enjoying the unequivocal right to life all humanity aspires for.
Rwandans are neither delighted to suffer terrifying forms of torture by state security agents nor somehow shaped to bear the debilitating consequences of an absolute and merciless dictatorship.
Suffice it to say, nobody ever is. Which is why activists and opposition leaders like Rwigara remain determined to fight for progressive change. The activist, who is facing bogus charges of forgery and insurrection, recently said, “The fact that Kigali is clean and nice-looking does not mean that our government cares about its own people.
People are harassed, people disappear, people get killed, and all those things our government doesn’t want us to expose.” The world must condemn all the extrajudicial killings and tyrannical actions organised by state political actors from Rwanda – and act decisively.
It shouldn’t take the state-orchestrated death of yet another Rwandan journalist, exiled politician, or human rights activist, to galvanize the collective rage of world leaders against the mindless menace of tyranny overwhelming Rwanda today. Standing up for human rights must always be an unwaveringly indiscriminate and straightforward matter of adhering to democratic and progressive values.