U.S. Africa Policy Needs a Reset
Trump Didn’t Tear Up the Playbook, but It Still Needs to Be Rewritten
On New Year’s Day 2014, Patrick Karegeya, once a top Rwandan intelligence official, was found dead in Room 905 of the up-market Michelangelo Towers hotel, in Johannesburg, South Africa. According to the police report, Karegeya’s neck was swollen, and a rope and a bloody towel were found in the hotel room’s safe, indicating that he had been strangled. As news of his murder spread, fingers pointed immediately to his childhood friend and former boss Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Karegeya had fallen out with Kagame and fled to South Africa, where he had helped start an opposition party in exile. Kagame denied any involvement in Karegeya’s killing, but several days later, at a national prayer breakfast in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, he hinted that he wasn’t bothered by the assassination. “Whoever is against our country will not escape our wrath,” he said. “The person will face consequences. Even those who are still alive—they will face them.”
Who did it? In 2019, South African investigators declared that Karegeya’s murder was “directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government.” In Do Not Disturb, the British journalist Michela Wrong describes in chilling detail the buildup to Karegeya’s killing and leaves the reader little reason to doubt this conclusion. But her book is about much more than one man’s murder. Wrong situates Karegeya’s death in the longer history of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi-dominated rebel movement that invaded Rwanda in 1990 and defeated the genocidal regime of Juvénal Habyarimana in 1994. In power, the rebels turned politicians built Rwanda into one of Africa’s most dynamic states, achieving impressive rates of economic growth and poverty reduction. Yet alongside those successes, the RPF has also forced numerous senior members into exile and been accused of killing dissidents at home and abroad, raising questions about the state of human rights in and the long-term stability of Rwanda.
Among Wrong’s principal audiences are the Western policymakers who have supported the RPF for the past three decades because it halted the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis and, from the ashes, built a peaceful and prosperous state. She draws parallels between Karegeya’s murder and Russia’s poisoning of the double agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia’s murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, arguing that when states cozy up to authoritarian regimes, they shouldn’t be surprised when those regimes commit crimes on their territory. Wrong believes that international donors have ignored ample evidence of Rwanda’s growing authoritarianism. What she hopes will now rouse global attention—and lead to criminal sanctions and a reduction in foreign aid—are Rwanda’s extraterritorial, extrajudicial activities in the back streets and hotel rooms of London, Brussels, and Johannesburg. But in making this case, Wrong dismisses Rwanda’s substantial socioeconomic gains since the genocide. Those, too, are part of the Rwandan story, and as outsiders grapple with how to deal with Kagame, they must consider the country’s tangible progress, as well as these worrying cases of violence.
At the heart of Wrong’s story are the complex entanglements of Karegeya, Kagame, and another former high-ranking member of the RPF, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. After decades of Belgian colonial favoritism toward Tutsis, in the early 1960s, Hutu parties rose to power in independent Rwanda, sparking mass violence and a Tutsi exodus. Karegeya, Kagame, and Kayumba grew up together in exile in Uganda, where many Tutsi families such as theirs had fled. The three men all became senior figures in Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army as it fought its way to power in Uganda and, later, leaders of the RPF as it came to rule Rwanda (with Kayumba becoming chief of staff of the Rwandan army). Whether fighting together or falling out, these comrades irrevocably shaped the politics of the Great Lakes region.
A former Africa correspondent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times, Wrong first traveled to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. In Do Not Disturb, she makes good use of her long list of contacts, built up over decades in the region, as she crisscrosses central Africa interviewing those who knew the trio at every stage of their tumultuous journey. Switching constantly from the personal to the geopolitical, Wrong makes her intentions clear: to challenge the perception of Kagame and the RPF as the architects of a model postconflict state worthy of substantial foreign aid. “Kagame’s regime, whose deplorable record on human rights abuses at home is beyond debate, has also been caught red-handed attempting the most lurid of assassinations on the soil of foreign allies, not once but many times,” she writes. “Western funding for his aid-dependent country has not suffered, the admiring articles by foreign journalists have not ceased, sanctions have not been applied, and the invitations to Davos have not dried up.”
The RPF, she argues, may have started with a laudable vision of building a Rwandan society in which Hutus and Tutsis (and members of another ethnic group, the Twas) would share equally in the country’s development. Wrong ascribes this aspiration to the RPF’s first leader, the handsome, charismatic Fred Rwigyema, who was killed days into the invasion of Rwanda. She counts him among a group of African nationalists who were killed in their 30s, including Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Steve Biko of South Africa, and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso—men who will be “forever bathed in a James Dean glow of What Might Have Been.” It was Kagame who succeeded Rwigyema as the head of the RPF and, Wrong contends, turned Rwanda into a dictatorship. First, his regime eradicated any form of Hutu political opposition, and then it turned on its internal Tutsi critics, such as Karegeya, pursuing them at home and abroad.
As outsiders grapple with how to deal with Kagame, they must consider Rwanda’s tangible progress.
Close observers of central Africa will find little new in Wrong’s historical sweep through the RPF's lifespan. What she adds, however, is the intimate biographical dimension of this volatile period, which helps explain Karegeya’s murder and its significance. Wrong knew Karegeya before and after his exile and spoke to him regularly. He describes growing up in southwestern Uganda, caught between his strong Ugandan identity and the lure of the Rwandan homeland, where the Hutu government repeatedly blocked the return of the Tutsi refugees. Even once he had reached the top of the Rwandan security apparatus, Karegeya continued to visit his home village in Uganda. “Patrick adored Biharwe,” Wrong writes, “sneaking away whenever he could find the time from his stressful job in Kigali, a four-hour drive across the border with Rwanda.” Karegeya’s younger brother Ernest Mugabo tells her, “You wouldn’t even know he’d arrived. He’d put on his Wellington boots and go and milk the cows. He loved that.”
Wrong captures the refugees’ restlessness and burning sense of injustice, which drove the RPF's invasion in 1990 but also its subsequent alienation from the Hutu majority in Rwanda, among whom the Tutsi leaders of the RPF had never lived. She superbly dissects the lasting bonds that enabled the RPF to build a formidable post-genocide state, with Kagame, Kayumba, and Karegeya at its heart. Through Karegeya’s eyes, she also documents the fraying of those relations as RPF elites routinely fell out with one another. Sometimes they clashed over the movement’s political strategy, at other times over the atrocities it committed (such as the reprisal killings, after the genocide, of Hutu civilians in Rwanda and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and often over personal grievances.
As the head of Rwandan external military intelligence after the genocide, Karegeya helped orchestrate the government’s military campaigns in Congo—including the Rwandan-led toppling of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997—and the suppression of Rwandan dissidents across the Great Lakes region. He and Kayumba were central to the RPF's projection of military power within and beyond Rwanda. But they increasingly criticized Kagame over his tightening grip on power within the RPF. Karegeya was imprisoned, and Kayumba was removed from his military post and sent to India as Rwanda’s ambassador. Both eventually went into exile in South Africa.
Kayumba’s arrival in Johannesburg in 2010 proved pivotal. That year, he survived an assassination attempt in the driveway of his home, an act that South African investigators have also attributed to the Rwandan government. This galvanized him and Karegeya, and the two soon joined forces with two high-ranking RPF exiles based in the United States to start an opposition group, the Rwanda National Congress. The RNC called for the RPF to jettison Kagame as president and to regain its lost ethos of democracy, reconciliation, and equal development.
Wrong locates the exile of Karegeya and Kayumba in the long line of defections from the RPF since the early days of its rule, several of which have resulted in unsolved murders on foreign soil. But this pair of defections was different: because they themselves had once occupied senior military and security posts, Karegeya and Kayumba knew how to protect their multinational opposition movement from Rwanda’s efforts to destroy it. They had well-founded fears of infiltration and assassination, having for decades practiced these same dark arts against the RPF's opponents, and the two turned their knowledge of the RPF's methods to their advantage. Karegeya and Kayumba learned quickly that the RPF was recruiting RNC members from the large Rwandan diaspora in South Africa. The two exiles recorded phone calls from senior RPF officials offering recruits vast sums and coaching them in an array of assassination techniques, including strangulation, forced heroin overdose, and poisoning a target’s soup.
The RNC's release of these recordings in 2011 caused a huge controversy, especially in the Rwandan diaspora. Although this was a propaganda coup for the RPF's opponents, Karegeya tells Wrong that he won’t be able to outsmart the group forever. Against the advice of his RNC colleagues, he continued to meet old and new acquaintances out in the open in Johannesburg and would often give his security detail the slip, providing an air of inevitability to the grisly events in the Michelangelo.
As Wrong shows, meanwhile, the RPF's violent attacks on its opponents weren’t limited to the RNC in South Africa. She links the Rwandan government to the assassinations of several dissidents in Uganda, including the exiled journalist Charles Ingabire, who was shot outside a Kampala bar in 2011. Similar figures have received death threats in Belgium, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Wrong details the case of Jean Bosco Gasasira, the editor of an antigovernment online newspaper, who sought asylum in Sweden in 2010. Three years later, a member of a Rwandan hit squad sent to murder him was convicted by a Swedish court of spying on exiles—the first foreign prosecution of such a plot by a Rwandan citizen.
Do Not Disturb is a disturbing book, showing the reach of the Rwandan state into its opponents’ lives around the globe. Wrong highlights the difficulties in mobilizing effective political opposition to the RPF both inside Rwanda and in the diaspora. Like most of the other former rebel movements that became governments in the region, the RPF has shown a marked, sometimes violent intolerance of dissent in its own ranks and from opposition parties, seeking to retain the rigid discipline that brought it to power.
One of the book’s main strengths, however—its proximity to the RNC and to Karegeya in particular—is also its greatest weakness. In discussing the lauding of the RPF as Rwanda’s liberators after the genocide, Wrong warns that “the storyteller’s need to identify good guys and bad guys, culprit and victims, makes fools of us all.” Yet she falls into the same trap, mythologizing Karegeya and the RNC as inherently virtuous by dint of their opposition to Kagame and the RPF.
Karegeya clearly made an impression on his interviewer: “His face was alive with a questing intelligence. His heavy-lidded eyes were disconcertingly light, the amber irises flecked with brown, while his skin was a smooth honey.” Later, Wrong tells readers that Karegeya would routinely ply journalists visiting Rwanda with drinks. “With the women, suggestive hints would occasionally be dropped over those beers,” she writes. “Patrick had the keys to a government flat located conveniently nearby. The encounter, already so pleasant, could be taken up a notch.” Here, she extends an unfortunate Orientalist strand that runs through the book: “Tutsi culture has always recognized sex as one of the most effective of political tools, cutting usefully across the bureaucratic hierarchy and social barriers.” At another point, she refers to “the Tutsi knack for secrecy,” and her introductory chapter describes “a culture that glories in its impenetrability, that sees virtue in misleading.”
The RPF has shown a marked, sometimes violent intolerance of dissent.
Wrong’s denigration of the supposedly secretive Tutsi ceases only when she engages with Karegeya. When he isn’t escaping to milk cows in Uganda, he’s nebulously telling a photographer Wrong talked to that he’s “full of regrets” about the RPF's actions during his time in power. He never details what he regrets, and Wrong, incredibly, never says that she asked. The closest she comes is when she discusses the assassination in Kenya in 1998 of Seth Sendashonga, the RPF's first minister of the interior. “Suspicion of personal responsibility for Sendashonga’s murder was to hover over Patrick for the rest of his life,” Wrong writes. But she admits to never confronting him about it. “I didn’t pursue the matter,” she writes. “I didn’t know how to. How does anyone lightly broach the issue of someone’s role in a murder over dinner?”
This lack of scrutiny continues as Wrong readily accepts Karegeya’s and Kayumba’s depictions of Kagame, whom she says has exhibited a “natural dourness” since childhood (in contrast to their innate sociability) and was a hapless leader during the 1990–94 civil war (Kayumba claims to have twice saved Kagame’s life and to have led the RPF to victory). Wrong’s desire to humanize Karegeya and Kayumba and to demonize Kagame is clear from the way she uses their names. Karegeya throughout the book is “Patrick,” and Kayumba is “the General.” Kagame is almost always “Kagame.”
Wrong wants readers to differentiate categorically among these former comrades. She describes Karegeya and Kayumba as central to the RPF's military successes, then suddenly absent when the RPF is accused of mass crimes, such as the killing of Hutu refugees in eastern Congo after the genocide. It strains credulity to suggest that Karegeya, first as the head of external military intelligence and later as director of the RPF's Congo desk, and Kayumba, first as a lieutenant general on the frontlines in Congo and later as army chief of staff, were not implicated in the crimes that Wrong attributes to Kagame and the rest of the RPF. It also contradicts the accounts of long-standing scholars of eastern Congo, such as René Lemarchand, Gérard Prunier, Filip Reyntjens, and Jason Stearns, all of whom depict Karegeya and Kayumba as central to all of the RPF's military activities in Congo. The only source for the claim that Karegeya had “opposed Rwanda’s meddling in its giant neighbor’s affairs since 1998” is Karegeya himself.
Wrong’s account of Karegeya and Kayumba as the good guys extends to the RNC as an opposition movement. She recalls the founding of the organization: “Pledging to push for democratic change by peaceful means, the signatories unveiled a ten-point program aimed at stopping human rights abuses, ending impunity, and nurturing the rule of law.” Wrong seems surprised, then, that the RNC hasn’t had a greater impact, but she chalks this up to the difficulty of trying to “mobilize an organization scattered across three continents.” The international community, she argues, has been curiously uninterested in what the RNC has to say, worried about treading on the dreams of a prosperous, ethnically inclusive Rwanda under the RPF. Wrong ignores a more obvious explanation for the RNC's lack of traction: few people outside the organization share her virtuous view of Karegeya and Kayumba. The RNC's numerous attempts to build cross-ethnic alliances in Europe and North America have fallen flat because most Hutus in the diaspora see them, fundamentally, as members of the RPF, with blood on their hands.
Wrong’s romanticization of the RNC also causes her to overlook its increasingly militaristic tendencies. She skims over the fact that the other two founders of the group—the former RPF general secretary Theogene Rudasingwa and his brother, the former Rwandan attorney general Gerald Gahima, both of whom are based in the United States—left the organization in 2016 over Kayumba’s agitation for an armed overthrow in Kigali. Wrong never discusses Gahima’s departure, and about Rudasingwa, she writes, “While his critics accused him of not wanting to contest overdue internal elections, he presented the split as a principled stand against a militaristic drift he blamed on General Kayumba.” She doesn’t state which of these versions she believes, and she dedicates just two sentences to a 2018 United Nations report accusing the RNC, under Kayumba’s leadership, of building a rebel alliance in eastern Congo. Wrong’s casualness toward the RNC leaders’ historical crimes and their threat of further violence weakens the moral case she tries to build against the RPF.
Throughout its existence, the RPF has confronted violent opposition groups that have enjoyed international support. In the early 1990s, when the RPF was fighting for control of Rwanda, an international push for multiparty democracy in the country spawned an array of Hutu parties that used violence against rival Hutu politicians and Tutsi civilians. More recently, the RPF has faced off against the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, an opposition group based in eastern Congo and co-founded by Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier featured in the movie Hotel Rwanda and celebrated for sheltering Tutsi civilians during the genocide. Rusesabagina is currently on trial in Kigali on terrorism charges stemming from alleged massacres committed by his group’s armed wing, the National Liberation Front. (Rusesabagina denies the charges and is challenging the legality of his arrest.) Like the RNC, Rusesabagina has enjoyed favorable foreign media coverage as a vocal critic of Kagame’s government, with little scrutiny of the National Liberation Front, which is accused of crossing from Congo to kill civilians in southern Rwanda. Although it is right to criticize the RPF's treatment of its domestic and international opponents, it is naive to portray all these opponents as inherently peaceful and democratic.
When Wrong, near the end of her book, finally ventures beyond the RNC and the Rwandan diaspora and into Rwanda itself, the results are not illuminating. She concluded that she “would not be able to conduct any useful interviews inside Rwanda” (perhaps having decided beforehand that its culture of secrecy and duplicity would limit her endeavors). Concerned for her safety, she didn’t visit Rwanda for this book, but in one chapter, she recounts her last visit to the country, several years earlier. Even as she accuses international donors of not getting out to the “dirt-poor” countryside, Wrong herself sticks to Kigali, citing only conversations with a U.S. adviser to the Rwandan Foreign Ministry and a Western journalist. Had she visited rural Rwanda, she would undoubtedly have seen widespread poverty, but she also would have seen tangible development since her first visits decades ago—including signs of the country’s halving of its child mortality rate between 2000, when Kagame became president, and 2015. What keeps foreign donors engaged with Rwanda is the recognition of these advances under the RPF, which include the region’s most extensive welfare program.
The mistake many foreign commentators make is to equate elite ruptures and fractious diaspora politics with the situation for most Rwandans living in the country today. In a region riven by cyclical conflicts, Rwanda is alone in not having experienced any large-scale violence within its borders since the time of the genocide—which is all the more remarkable considering that hundreds of thousands of convicted génocidaires live side by side with survivors on Rwanda’s densely populated hills.
Having conducted research in rural Rwanda every year since 2003, I have seen the sustained improvement in people’s socioeconomic circumstances and in communal relations. Many of the Hutus I have interviewed remain suspicious of the RPF but continue to express surprise that unlike previous Rwandan regimes, it has pursued welfare and development equally across the ethnic divide. When numerous foreign donors temporarily froze their aid programs in Rwanda in 2013—in protest over Rwanda’s military and logistical support for a rebellion in eastern Congo—development projects suffered markedly, especially in rural Rwanda. Once they saw this impact up close, those same donors reinstated all their aid provision within a year.
The RPF's flagship welfare program of compulsory universal health insurance, heavily subsidized for the poorest citizens and buttressed by clinics and highly trained staff across the country, has vastly improved Rwandans’ quality of life. Thanks largely to this health-care system, which extends to every village in the country, Rwanda has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic well. Within days of the first detection of the virus in Rwanda, the government began a scheme of household testing and geographic mapping of coronavirus cases across the country. In March, I observed the vaccination of local health-care workers, teachers, and market traders in a far-flung clinic in southern Rwanda, 24 hours after the vaccine arrived at the Kigali airport. Whereas neighboring countries, such as Burundi and Tanzania, have struggled to control the spread of COVID-19, Rwanda has recorded only 18,000 cases and 260 deaths, leading the think tank the Lowy Institute to rank Rwanda first in Africa and sixth globally for its management of the pandemic.
Donors should never consider themselves the principal actors in other people’s societies.
Only a fraction of the multifaceted situation in Rwanda today features in Wrong’s narrative. As an account of Karegeya’s murder and the need for accountability for the RPF's extraterritorial violence, Do Not Disturb is a vital intervention. The South African investigation into Karegeya’s death seems to have stalled and should be reinvigorated. Yet by refusing to denounce the RNC's threats of an armed overthrow of Kagame’s government, failing to engage deeply with present realities inside Rwanda, and making damaging calls for donor disengagement from the country, the book loses much of its analytic and moral potency. To ensure that Rwanda’s substantial post-genocide gains remain, Rwanda needs agile leadership and an effective political opposition. The exiled leaders Wrong thinks can fill that role, however, are not the answer.
Several years ago, a seasoned international development official based in Kigali told me that Rwanda gave him headaches as no other country had before. “What do you do with a state that brooks so little dissent but uses foreign aid to benefit so many of its citizens?” he asked. My response was that donors should never consider themselves the principal actors in other people’s societies. The primary work of building a Rwanda that delivers for all its citizens is being done by Rwandans, especially those living in the country. The neocolonial impulse to use aid as leverage over foreign countries is at once ethically dubious, routinely ignored by the governments being sanctioned, and in danger of undercutting vital welfare and development programs for everyday people.
Donors must consult the many energetic, critically minded Rwandans who are working for the betterment of their society. Some of those Rwandans may want outside support, and others may prefer to be left alone, worried about the actual or perceived loss of independence that might result from becoming too wedded to external interests. As Wrong shows, Karegeya’s assassination stemmed from complicated historical and interpersonal factors, none of which will disappear simply because donors exert pressure through aid or other means. Ultimately, it is up to Rwandans themselves to hold their government to account and chart the country’s future—with or without help from abroad.
Trump Didn’t Tear Up the Playbook, but It Still Needs to Be Rewritten