Few leaders have been as successful in shaping a historical narrative to suit their political needs as Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Ever since the 1994 genocide that killed more than half a million Rwandans, mainly from the Tutsi minority ethnic group, Kagame has been hailed around the world as the man who stopped the killing and forged a new nation that quickly became the darling of the international aid community. “One of the greatest leaders of our time,” opined Bill Clinton in 2009. “A visionary,” agreed former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Like most founding myths, there is an element of truth in the narrative so assiduously promoted by Kagame and his foreign supporters. Visitors to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, are invariably impressed by the cleanliness of the streets, the shining new hotels, the absence of petty crime, the bustling malls and street markets, the sense of order and prosperity. If the first duty of a government is to ensure public security and economic stability, then modern-day Rwanda has surely passed the test.
Unfortunately, there is another side to the story, as Michela Wrong’s devastating new book, “Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad,” makes clear. Her argument in a nutshell: Kagame may have played a role in starting the genocide that his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel movement was lauded for ending; his troops have pillaged and destabilized neighboring Congo; he has ruthlessly hunted down and killed political enemies; there is no freedom of speech in Rwanda; elections are a farce; far from being a model for the rest of Africa, the country is an ethnic tinderbox waiting to explode.
The title of Wrong’s book comes from the “Do not disturb” sign that was left on the Johannesburg hotel room door of a former Kagame ally, Patrick Karegeya, after he was strangled on his bed in 2013, almost certainly by Rwandan government agents. (A Tutsi like Kagame, the charismatic and gregarious Karegeya had served as the regime’s spy chief but, like many others, fell out with his boss over his dictatorial ways.) But in a deeper sense, the title refers to the historical mythmaking that has formed the basis of the Tutsi-led government’s political legitimacy, obscuring the fact that Tutsis account for only about 14 percent of Rwanda’s estimated population of 13 million.
A British-based journalist with more than two decades of experience covering Africa, Wrong acknowledges that she, along with other Western commentators and historians, contributed to the mythmaking. The mass killings of Tutsi that followed the April 6, 1994, shoot-down of a plane bringing Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana, from peace talks in Tanzania were so horrific that few reporters had any appetite for examining the lesser, but still significant, crimes of the “liberators” against the Hutu majority. In Wrong’s words, “the storyteller’s need to identify Good Guys and Bad Guys, culprit and victim,” made “fools of us all.”
While responsibility for the Habyarimana assassination remains one of the great mysteries of 20th-century politics, Wrong mistrusts official Rwandan investigations blaming “extremist Hutus” allied with Habyarimana’s wife. She points out that no Hutus have ever admitted responsibility for the murder, in contrast to at least half a dozen RPF defectors who have claimed firsthand knowledge or involvement of some sort. Furthermore, the surface-to-air missiles that brought down the president’s plane can be traced to a stock of Russian-made weapons delivered to Ugandan forces backing Kagame after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to Wrong, Kagame and his allies have been adept at exploiting a deep sense of remorse among Western leaders like Clinton and Blair over their failure to take action to stop the genocide. Western governments and aid organizations have been loath to challenge Kagame’s black-and-white version of history. “The Americans, the Brits, they become cowed by guilt,” a former Rwandan ambassador to Washington tells Wrong. “It’s really a very cynical ploy.”
Three decades after using neighboring Uganda as a base to invade Rwanda, Kagame and his allies continue to treat scholarly and journalistic debate about the origins of the genocide as a mortal threat. Anybody who questions the official version of events is routinely dubbed a “genocide denier,” even though most of these critics explicitly acknowledge the horror of the organized 1994 killings of Tutsi and moderate Hutu at the hands of extremist Hutu militias. The controversy is not over whether the genocide happened, but the before and after.
Wrong is hardly the first person to offer a mea culpa for her earlier lack of skepticism toward the RPF and Kagame. Over the last decade in particular, historians, journalists and, perhaps most important, former regime insiders have been shedding light on previously taboo matters such as the Habyarimana assassination and the killings of Kagame critics, both abroad and at home. Nevertheless, “Do Not Disturb” knits all these critiques together in a way that is comprehensive and compelling — built around the Cain and Abel tale of two soul brothers who achieve political power only to be torn apart by jealousy and pride.
Far from being a narrow academic dispute, history can be a matter of life and death and sheer political survival in places like Rwanda. Reading this book, I was reminded repeatedly of Big Brother’s dictum in Orwell’s “1984”: “He who controls the past, controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past.” Kagame still has an iron grip over the political and historical debate inside Rwanda, but he is losing the ability to shape the international debate, which in turn explains why his government devotes so much energy to hunting down external critics. Superficially, Kagame’s Rwanda may appear to be a model of political stability — but the haunting concern raised by “Do Not Disturb” is that he who no longer controls the past will not be able to control the future.
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