Today: February 24, 2024

Why is Rwanda eating its own?

Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad is a glorious piece of journalism. It tells the story of Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence turned government critic, Patrick Karegeya, and his falling out with the Rwandan leadership.

Karegeya was murdered in an upscale Johannesburg hotel, his body found on 1 January 2014 by his frantic nephew, David, who had spent the day imploring staff to locate his uncle. They had initially refused to enter Karegeya’s hotel room, citing the Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the doorknob. When David finally gained access to the room, Karegeya was dead, found strangled in what was clearly an intimate murder, seemingly thanks to the machinations of a Rwandan government operative known as Apollo.

For Wrong, the murder of Karegeya provides a passage-way into broader conversations about how Rwanda has been ruled since the 1994 genocide. Why are members of the elite like the former intelligence chief leaving Rwanda? And what do these flights tell us about Rwanda’s political stability?

Wrong’s storytelling choices draw the reader into Rwanda’s complex post-colonial political culture while reminding us that the story of Karegeya’s murder is emblematic of how the revolution eats its own. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has long devoured regime critics in ways that have all but foreclosed room for dialogue or debate. It is a government designed for control rather than for governance.

President Paul Kagame, the face of Rwanda’s so-called remarkable recovery, barely features in Wrong’s book. Instead, his presence is woven into the story as a subsidiary actor who sets the tone of who lives and who dies, and why. Wrong does this through a clever framing device – since Rwandans are said to pride themselves on their ability to deceive, who can you trust? As Rwandan proverbs teach, it’s best to trust no one, particularly not authority figures such as the president.

In telling the life story of Karegeya – in all his human contradiction and imperfection – Wrong also reveals the contradictions of the Rwandan regime. For it too does not wish to be disturbed in implementing a singular vision of ethnic unity and economic development. She tells the story of a man who helped found the ruling RPF, ordered, and probably even committed, countless political murders, and whose own moral reckonings lead him to quit the government and eventually Rwanda.

Karegeya’s murder was clearly political, as the leadership of the RPF had tried to bully and intimidate him into submission. But the intelligence chief was not a product of Rwanda’s secretive and sterile elite political culture. Karegeya was a fun-loving, storytelling, good-time guy who loved people who loved him – an unusual set of characteristics for the head spy in any country. In reading about him in all his human complexity and political mastery – in Rwanda and the region – it is clear that Wrong was able to spend hours and hours with Karegeya and members of his inner circle.

Wrong’s storytelling choices, which are made vivid in her admiration for Karegeya as a husband, father, and friend, make Do Not Disturb one of the best books on Rwanda I’ve read in a long time. The detail of her writing, the extent of her research with Rwandans from across the globe, and the structure and style of the book make it a masterclass in investigative journalism. There is never a sense of voyeurism, only witnessing, as Wrong shares what she has learned from her Rwandan interviewees in ways that allow the reader to make sense of the material on their own terms. And critically, I think, Wrong does not make herself part of the story any more than is necessary to move it along, something few foreigners working on Rwanda can claim.

Respecting the reader allows the multiple and varied voices from Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa and elsewhere to shine through in their own words. A couple of examples in particular stand out. The first is the nature of the relationship between the young Kagame and his contemporary Fred Rwigyema, two men whose relationship animates parts of my 2018 book on Rwanda. Wrong, in her nuanced but accessible writing style, guides the reader through the complexity of the two men’s relationship, the foibles and strengths of each, and how their relationship affected not only the founding of the then-rebel RPF in the 1980s, but also Rwanda’s diplomatic relations with Uganda since. Fred died on day two of Rwanda’s civil war, making him a martyr to many. Wrong presents three different versions of how Fred died, leaving readers to decide for themselves before moving on to explain what his murder means for Rwanda, and the Great Lakes Region, today. This unassuming impartiality is a rare treat in a book about Rwanda, in which everything is hotly contested, and almost always presented in stark black-and-white, us-versus-them terms.

Wrong further earns the trust of her reader in treating other sharply contested political events with the same ethical acumen: Which party to Rwanda’s civil war (1990-1994) downed then-president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane in April 1994? And, what happened in Uganda’s Luwero Triangle in the early-1980s, the site of Yoweri Museveni’s then-rebel National Resistance Movement’s base as well as a scorched earth campaign of killing, pillage, and plunder. It was in the Ugandan resistance that many of the RPF’s founding members perfected tactics they would later use to take Kigali. Karegeya was there. So were Rwigyema and Kagame.

In recounting this history, Wrong rightly includes only as much of the violence these young Rwandan men perpetrated to serve the story. Throughout Do Not Disturb, violence is never gratuitous, never without context, and always advances the narrative without dwelling on the lurid details. Rwandans, as Karegeya’s story teaches us, have long been subject to gratuitous violence in the writing about their people and country.

This is the beauty of Wrong’s writing, and a perfect illustration of why Do Not Disturb is worth the reader’s time and effort. It is a book rooted in deep listening, reciprocal research relationships, and thoughtful writing. Patrick Karegeya is but one of many former allies who’ve died on foreign soil at the hands of Rwandan operatives. Let Michela Wrong show you why these deaths matter. – African Arguments