Admitting lesser crimes to conceal major ones is called a “limited hangout”
In the intelligence community, a “Limited Hangout” occurs when the conspirators put out part of the truth in order to hide the whole truth. Conspirators only do limited hangouts when desperate, since doing so often will reveal that they were previously either lying or covering up bigger truths.
If Western neocolonialism in Africa can be seen as a conspiracy of sorts, then the new book by Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, fits the mold of a limited hangout perfectly. It presents the partial truth about Paul Kagame—that he has been running an international, decades-long, successful campaign of assassination all over the world, from Kenya to South Africa and beyond.
But in the process, it covers for bigger truths: that Kagame’s organization, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), has been committing genocidal violence for decades, both in Rwanda and in the DR Congo; that these murderous campaigns have been fully supported by the U.S., UK, and international institutions; and that journalists and academics have been supportive of Kagame and the RPF all through the decades of their worst crimes, showing callous indifference to mass murder, writing deceptions on behalf of the worst criminals, and encouraging the worst in their Western readers.
Why was Michela Wong’s book written?
To understand the purpose of Do Not Disturb, let me start with some notes on the role played by Western journalists in the system that governs Africa. The starting point is Africa’s place in the global economy, characterized by the depression of African economies and sovereignty.
Since European colonizers partitioned Africa into zones from which they would steal wealth and murder natives in the late 19th century, the whole continent has been subjected to an endless series of financial, political, and military assaults with a view to keeping its countries divided, weak, and exploited. Having put Africa into that desired state, there are careers to be made there: for mercenaries and traders; and, after independence in the 1960s, for aid workers and writers too.
The role of Western Africa experts (aka Africanists)—whether they are academics, journalists, aid industry professionals, or employees of non-governmental organizations—is to maintain the ideological mood in the West in the correct state, one that facilitates the continued plunder.
This mostly means keeping Africa off the news agenda: This is done by keeping the total amount of coverage to a minimum and emphasizing the fact that, despite the Western obsession with Africa and Africans in general (and the obsession of these experts in particular), Africa is an unimportant place, a backwater, eternally poor and in need of help.
I also have a hypothesis that deliberately bad writing by these high-profile Africanists—whether in academic or NGO jargon or the use of cliches that insult the reader—is also used to turn Westerners off of Africa, and that Do Not Disturb is an example.
When Africa does appear, it is important that Africans be presented as savage, sub-human caricatures. This is done by invoking the whole colonial imagery that has been drilled into Western audiences for generations, since they were children.
The only real knowledge and expertise on Africa comes from Western experts—who make sure they cite one another extensively and discredit African voices—through discrediting entire populations, as you’ll see, when they cannot be ignored.
For an Africanist, though, there is a challenge in doing all this during a “limited hangout” operation. It is not in convincing readers about Kagame’s assassination program, about which the facts are clear. The challenge is in doing so without undermining one’s own credibility. The challenge is answering the reader’s question: If Kagame is so bad, why did you tell us he was so good?
The solution arrived at in Michela Wrong’s book is remarkable. Wrong, and the other Westerners who once celebrated Kagame’s crimes, were dupes, fooled by the bedeviling complexity and stress of Africa itself. They were fooled because they believed Rwandans, and Rwandans lie. At various points in the book, Wrong literally says lying is a Rwandan national trait, a national pastime.
Now Kagame himself has condemned the book and right-thinking Western people in the small community that has some interest in Rwanda or DR Congo have lined up: Will you be taking Wrong’s side, or Kagame’s?
The fact that the book has polarized the debate this way—leaving the worst RPF crimes, most of the propaganda structure facilitating neocolonialism in the region, including the innocence of the West in the whole thing—is a master class of Africanist writing. Michela Wrong has shown how it is to be done.
But it has become nearly impossible to whitewash Kagame’s crimes any longer
On September 20, 2021, the last illusions for many about Kagame were dispelled when Paul Rusesabagina, who was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda,” was found guilty of supposedly forming and funding a group that carried out terrorist attacks in Rwanda and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Rusesabagina was once praised for sheltering more than 1,200 people in the hotel he managed during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that killed as many as one million people, but gradually became one of the most high-profile critics of Kagame, calling out the president for his increasingly repressive rule.
Rusesabagina’s case has been something of a turning point in the U.S. media, which for years depicted Kagame as Rwanda’s savior—a man who allegedly stopped genocide and then engineered an economic miracle.
Now, however, it seems he is to play the role of the archetypal African dictator whose persecution of Rusesabagina epitomized his tyrannical side.
Criticism of Kagame has its limits
While the romance with Kagame has ended, the U.S. media along with popular authors like Wrong have continued in many ways to treat Kagame with a soft touch.
Out of bounds is any dissection of the circumstances (as CAM reported) in which he had come to power in Rwanda—by invading Rwanda illegally from Uganda in 1990, sabotaging peace agreements and likely shooting down the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana’s aircraft.
Also out of bounds is any discussion of (a) how Kagame had distorted the truth surrounding what happened during the Rwandan genocide, (b) used U.S. and UK aid money to facilitate his invasions and plunder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and (c) the imposition of a quisling regime that favored Western-based multi-national corporations.
Establish yourself and your credentials
Above all, the first task of an Africanist writer is to establish that Africanists are the authority on the topic, not Africans. Acknowledging (some) African lived experience is acceptable, especially for (some) victims; accepting African intellectual authority over the issues is not. So you can search Wrong’s book in vain for African writers on the region like Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Olivier Nyirubugara, Abdul Ruzibiza (mentioned once), Marie Béatrice Umutesi, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, Amadou Deme, Paul Rusesabagina.
On the other hand, fellow Africanists Jason Stearns, Gérard Prunier, and Linda Melvern are everywhere in the book, as are unnamed Western spies, unnamed Western businessmen, unnamed Western journalists, unnamed Western aid workers—74 of Do Not Disturb’s footnotes are to “Author’s interview, anonymity requested.”
But the Africanist’s—and the journalist’s—authority is not established solely by omission of African intellects. It is also established by outright self-aggrandizement, witnessed whenever Wrong gets into its author’s adventures.
The protagonist of the book, ex-RPF spy chief Patrick Karegeya, driven into exile and then assassinated in 2014, supposedly was “a born iconoclast,” who “liked journalists’ combination of freewheeling lifestyles and moral seriousness, their ingrained irreverence toward the powers-that-be.”
Wrong discusses her subject, Patrick Karegeya, with humanity and sensitivity, emphasizing her own closeness to him and his charismatic effect on others—she sent him books, she had long discussions with him, they knew people in common.
Exonerate yourself first
Having established her credentials though, and set up a story of the RPF and Kagame having “gone bad,” the Africanist has a problem, for the entire Africanist community has spent three decades lionizing the very same men they are denouncing as murderers today. Were Africanists lying then? Are they lying now? Are they stupid?
The solution Wrong has come up with to this dilemma is simple and remarkable. Yes, Africanists were duped. Yes, they were unwitting tools of a murderous regime. But it isn’t their fault, and each of the reasons they were fooled are reasons to trust them now.
Rwandans lie. First, they were fooled because Rwandans lie. Wrong uses the Kinyarwanda word for lying, ubwenge, and claims that it’s impossible to translate (because it is so unique to Rwandan culture). She calls her subject, Patrick Karegeya, the “ultimate practitioner of the Rwandan art of ubwenge.” She says journalists had a hard time “working out where truth ended and spin began, for no one was a more shameless practitioner of Rwanda’s national trait—brass-faced dissembling—than Patrick.”
If Westerners were seduced (literally) into writing accounts favorable to the (almost entirely ethnically Tutsi) RPF, it was because “Tutsi culture has always recognized sex as one of the most effective of political tools, cutting usefully across the bureaucratic hierarchy and social barriers.”
Even when the seduction was not sexual, these Tutsis and their hospitality were hard to resist. A “warm welcome was extended to writers and researchers passing through. These included the New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch and academic Samantha Power, future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who both went on to write best-selling nonfiction books on Rwanda in which the RPF is portrayed in an overwhelmingly sympathetic light.”
Another Africanist, poor Jason Stearns, was, presumably against his fragile will, driven all over town by the intelligence chief of Rwanda, in what is not exactly a model of fair and balanced journalism: “He took me out on the town, to clubs and bars. Wherever you went everyone knew him, and everyone recognized he was king of that town.” But something about the whole approach jarred.
The power of story. Africanists were fooled because of the very power of story, going back to the (Western) classics. “Few narratives possess the seductive power of the RPF’s redemptive tale of humiliated-refugees-reborn-as-crusaders, righteous warriors returning to a lost motherland to save their brothers from the forces of Absolute Evil and then, on the toxic ruins of a racist society, building a spotless, disciplined, tech-friendly African Utopia.”
“There were echoes of antiquity in this classic Quest saga: the Exodus of the Bible and Torah, Virgil’s Aeneid, with Plato’s idealized Republic as its culmination.” The power of story connects to the psychological needs of the storyteller, Wrong explains. “I often think of that wasted briefing as an example of how the storyteller’s need to identify Good Guys and Bad Guys, culprit and victims, makes fools of us all [emphasis added].”
The power of affinity. They were fooled, Wrong admits, using quotes from a colleague, because it is easier for Western journalists to identify with their wealthy counterparts in poor countries than with the poor majority.
Poor Hranjski is the fall guy for many of Wrong’s—and other Africanists’—failures. “I totally believed what they were doing in the Congo was right,” recalls Hranjski. “I’d swallowed the line that the Congolese were useless, bickering, and that the Rwandans should be given a shot at running the country. They were colonizers, plain and simple, but we were sympathetic. The Congolese raped and looted, with the RPF there were never any reports of raping and looting, so the argument was, ‘Look, these guys are not your typical army, they can put your house in order, why don’t you let them?’ In retrospect, it’s amazing what you can rationalize.’”
Laziness. They were fooled because of their own sloth-like laziness. “Having broadly decided at one point that Kagame and the RPF were ‘the Good Guys’ in Rwanda, ‘Good Guys’ who had stopped what was self-evidently ‘A Very Bad Thing,’ many an academic, diplomat, development official, and businessman would cling with a sloth’s viselike grip to that view, pretty much irrespective of events on the ground or any suggestion that the RPF had, in fact, played a part in bringing that Very Bad Thing about.”
RPF victims—Hutus and Congolese—are not believable. Consider the way that Seth Sendashonga, an ex-RPF politician who was killed 16 years before Karegeya and whose assassination was if anything more momentous politically, is treated in Do Not Disturb.
I’ll come back to the work done by metaphors about silvery salamanders of shame and stories like jagged splinters.
Meanwhile, consider how Wrong discredits Sendashonga’s testimony of RPF massacres in the 1990s, the better to exonerate herself for suppressing the truth decades ago.
“I honestly don’t know what to think,” I told my editor. “But if anyone is in a position to know, it’s him.” “Well, there’s no point agonizing,” he said. “There’s no space for Africa in tomorrow’s edition in any case.” In those days newspaper websites were in their infancy, space finite and fiercely fought over. I’d been let off the hook.” The lack of self-awareness by Wrong, who is revising her own story in 2021, to ask “Whom was I to believe, the 1995 Sendashonga, or this 1996 version?” is beyond brazen.
Let’s continue. Wrong presents another Africanist’s (academic Gérard Prunier’s) view of Sendashonga, who claimed to have been Sendashonga’s friend but also endorsed the RPF view of why Sendashonga had to die—because he was organizing an armed struggle (against the RPF, which had taken power through … an armed struggle).
Wrong quotes Prunier: “[He] was fed up of always playing the good guy and always finishing last.… [I]t is probably then that some people in Kigali decided he had crossed the danger line.”
Westerners are afraid of Rwandans. Wrong also hints that the reason Africanists have lied about Rwanda for 30 years is because they fear the RPF. Big media ignored the assassination story.
All in all, Wrong deploys a remarkable array of excuses to make sure Africanists are not blamed for lying to their readers for two decades.
Introduce the characters
Once the narrator is positioned as both an innocent and an authority, she can get on with the job of revealing and interpreting Africa, presenting the story and its exotic characters. And characterization is indeed the first task: setting up the “good guys and bad guys” needed by the “storyteller,” using all the tools of nonfiction—and several from fiction. The range of colors and body sizes provides clues about the moral qualities of the African characters.
The subject of the story, the assassinated Patrick Karegeya, was “gap-toothed and medium in height, he could never be described as handsome. But 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.”
Fred Rwigyema, who was supposed to lead the RPF but who was killed in 1990 leaving Paul Kagame in charge, “was young, he was beautiful: even at the front, unwashed and unshaven, Fred somehow always managed to look impeccably groomed, parade-ground-ready. Contemporaries recall that no man looked better in uniform. A slim, smooth-skinned, self-deprecating Hector, he was admired by men for his almost suicidal courage in combat and adored by women for his compassion.”
Seth Sendashonga, the assassinated unreliable ex-RPF dissident who Wrong had chosen not to believe when it mattered, “was a sturdy, well-built man with an impressive mustache. The pajama-like white bou bou he was wearing instead of a suit seemed to underline his sudden joblessness. It said ‘gardening leave.’ … The words were reassuring, but the body language was not. He was not sweating, exactly, but his shiny skin hinted at suppressed tension, strong emotions surging below the surface. Every now and then his dark eyes slipped sideways, glancing beyond the compound wall toward the jeep.”
Sendashonga and his wife Cyrie “formed one of those well-salaried, multilingual, highly skilled African couples driven in and out of the metal-fenced compounds in chauffeured white 4WDs, IDs dangling from lanyards.”
The implication here is that Africans are supposed to be poor, perhaps, not being chauffeured around in fancy cars. When a fat African is encountered, it is always noted—perhaps a hangover from the colonial era when Africans who were not at the edge of starvation were signs of inefficient colonial revenue collection. Assassinated Congolese president Laurent Kabila, for example, was “tubby, well past his prime, and militarily irrelevant.”
One of the two best known RPF dissidents still living (the other being former General Kayumba Nyamwasa) is former RPF spokesman Theogene Rudasingwa, who is described as follows:
“Among the RPF stalwarts who ended up in opposition, no one can quite rival Theogene Rudasingwa for his combination of suavity and elegance. ‘Le beau Theogene,’ Francophone reporters dubbed him at the height of his powers, while their American counterparts preferred ‘the Gucci Guerrilla.’ Softly spoken, surprisingly pale skinned, and gently melancholic, he is a man with a track record of passionate affiliation often regretted and painfully renounced. A lapsed doctor who only recently rediscovered the joys of medicine, he is a dedicated Marxist who came to relish the perks of high office, a Christian who lost his faith but was Born Again, a man who swore off politics only to end up wading back into the fray.”
All of these characters are orchestrated, of course, with the villain of the story, Paul Kagame, whose character flaw (of murderousness) was present all along, but who is presented as having started off good but become corrupted by the trappings of power. A former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda says that Kagame when challenged “recoiled and then rebounded, in the way of a green mamba, lashing out to bite another snake.”
Kagame reads the Facebook posts of his political enemies, Wrong reports. He creates fake twitter accounts to troll dissidents. He physically beats his subordinates in working meetings. He is, in short, out of control. The West has cut this man and his regime altogether too much slack, and perhaps, the implication is, it is time to start thinking about reining him in.
But maintain the key elements of the narrative
The purpose of the book is to unveil the new story for Rwanda and the DR Congo: Kagame was the hero of a thousand hills, but he is now a villain. The heroes are the ex-RPF dissidents who Kagame has been killing off (especially Patrick Karegeya) and those who live in fear of assassination, such as Kayumba Nyamwasa and Theogene Rudasingwa.
But key elements of the old story must remain in place, lest readers believe that the solution could be for the West to leave Africa alone. And the key narrative element of the entire system of U.S. control over Central Africa is that the majority of Rwandans (former Hutus), and the occupied Congolese, are irredeemably evil. For if Kagame is the villain of the story, the Hutus are evil itself, a transcendentally evil force that must be suppressed and can only be suppressed by the West.
When Westerners think of evil, they think of the Nazis. Wrong is explicit that the Hutus are worse than the Nazis.
She writes: “If we are honest, many of us might admit to being capable of pressing a button consigning a disliked acquaintance to anonymous, distant oblivion. Hence the debate about just how much ordinary Germans really knew about the Holocaust, during which Jewish neighbors simply boarded trains, never to be seen again, and how much guilt those witnesses carry. Rwanda’s massacres, in contrast, were pre-agreed, public affairs, conducted using the most democratic of tools. There was no mystery, no ambiguity about what happened. Killing someone with a machete, sickle, or hoe is a messy, exhausting business; the process leaves no room for subsequent sugarcoating.”
Because it is the majority of Rwandans who are evil, it is democracy that is to be feared. Rwandans (Hutus) are scary because they are evil, but also because they are obedient and because there are too many of them.
Wrong continues: “Xenophobic propaganda, broadcast by Rwandan radio stations, certainly played a role, its impact boosted by a culture of unquestioning obedience toward an all-seeing, all-powerful state that had long peered into every corner of its citizens’ lives—characteristics the Mwami’s court had bequeathed successive Hutu administrations. In Africa’s most overpopulated country, plain greed—for livestock, for land, for women, for property, for access to water—was also an undeniable factor. In DRC, hundreds of thousands of hectares of equatorial forest serve as an outlet for aching land hunger. In a dirt-poor, landlocked Rwanda, where every plot was already accounted for, self-betterment always seemed like a zero-sum game: for me to prosper, you must fail.”
The return of Malthus to the discussion, and of overpopulation, is racist to the core and made even more ridiculous because, when the genocide occurred in 1994, Rwanda’s (supposed over-) population was around 7.5 million whereas today it is more than 13 million.
Wrong pours on the notion of “Rwandan obedience” thick: “As in the past, killing was presented to ordinary Rwandans as a patriotic duty. Out in the provinces, local bourgmestres and préfets called public meetings to pull together lists of victims, while Radio Mille Collines urged its listeners on to greater efforts. Their ‘work,’ as the radio announcers termed it, was made easier by the fact that overpopulated, intensely cultivated Rwanda had so little tree cover. On the terraced, denuded hillsides, there was nowhere to hide.”
And yet for all that it portrays pre-1994 Rwanda as a surveilled dystopia of obedient subhumans waiting for a chance to genocide their neighbors, Do Not Disturb contains some incongruous admissions that post-1994 Rwanda is worse. Quoting one of her favorite unnamed “Western intelligence officials,” Wrong describes one of the characters recruited into helping the RPF assassinate Karegeya, a young man named Apollo:
“Apollo owned the $1 million Cine Star cinema complex in Nyamirambo, Kigali’s Muslim district, and enjoyed the freewheeling lifestyle of the playboy businessman, traveling widely in the Middle East and Europe, where he was briefly detained on suspicion of drug trafficking.
Then in 1994 Rwanda acquired grimly puritanical new masters, and adjustments had to be made. “Apollo’s big mistake was not to realize that he was living in a different Rwanda,” says a Western intelligence official who worked in Kigali during that period. “He’d grown up in a country where you could more or less speak your mind. He didn’t realize he was now in a Rwanda where you were under constant scrutiny.’”
She also describes how the RPF had their own methods for organizing mass murder, from the 1990s on and perhaps even before, in Uganda: “Human rights investigators registered that the tactics used—UN Special Rapporteur Roberto Garretón detailed how radio appeals were used to summon Hutus to meetings in schools and churches, urging those hiding in the forests to emerge for medical care and food—had a chilling familiarity.
The same methods for gathering people in one spot, the better to eliminate them, had been described in the infamous Gersony report. Like a serial killer, the RPF had developed a recognizable modus operandi.”
Continue to cover for RPF crimes
This, too, presents a challenge. How to showcase a subset of Kagame’s crimes while minimizing their extent, duration, and Western support for them? Presenting Hutus as evil is part of it, to be sure. Another key element is portraying the RPF crimes as revenge, perhaps excessive, but understandable—which is what the RPF dissidents believe. The evil of the Hutus made Africanists embrace the RPF:
“Covering the genocide had brought reporters face-to-face with the worst in human behavior. They had seen the splayed bodies, met the gang-raped women. At the few press conferences they staged before fleeing, members of Habyarimana’s government, expressing themselves in flowery French, had come across as thuggish and evasive. No wonder, amid all that horror, the slim puritans of the RPF, with their direct talk—‘Never forget, these guys spoke English,’ recalls an aid worker—seemed the incontestable Good Guys.”
RPF massacres, like the one at Kibeho, are explained as revenge and self-defense: “As the months passed, the new government in Kigali became increasingly irate at the way in which the giant refugee camps in neighboring Zaire were being used as launching pads for cross-border attacks by interahamwe and ex-military, recruiting fighters in full view of the aid agencies … Kibeho camp’s existence felt like an insult [emphasis added]. On April 18, 1995, when the country had just staged a commemorative reburial of 6,000 genocide victims, several battalions of Rwandan soldiers surrounded it, torching shelters and firing warning shots at the 150,000 Hutus inside.”
The self-defense theme is presented again and again: “The refugees were being used as both shields and hostages by characters like General Augustin Bizimungu, former Rwandan army chief of staff, who was busy buying weapons from Mobutu’s corrupt military officers and using Congo’s local airports to import ammunition. In camps like Mugunga, thousands of young men were being openly trained in the arts of guerrilla warfare, as the ex-military and interahamwe prepared to reinvade.”
“The camps sat illegally close to the Rwandan border, and the readiness of the likes of Oxfam, GOAL, Concern, Save the Children, and UNICEF to keep providing a rebel-army-in-training with food, water, and medical treatment violated every principle of international law. But aid officials, outnumbered and thoroughly intimidated, turned a blind eye.”
And again: “An exasperated Kagame made clear in interviews with journalists like myself that if the international community wouldn’t put a stop to the situation, the RPF would. In truth, he and his colleagues had already decided that the only way to neutralize the threat posed by the génocidaires involved invading Zaire, breaking up the camps, and forcing the refugees home. The plan possessed the mixture of ruthless brio and strategic chutzpah the world had learned to associate with the RPF, a movement beginning to feel it possessed a military Midas touch.”
The Africanists explain away the RPF’s genocidal violence against Hutus and Congolese. Wrong paints a picture of Hutus as an undifferentiated mass. Present at the event, she makes no attempt to talk to any individual as she watches them walk by. They are not human to her.
“A week later, Rwanda’s army, commanded by James Kabarebe and Cesar Kayizari, launched a multipronged blitzkrieg on the refugee camps lining Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika, encircling the settlements where the génocidaires held sway while leaving open a corridor that led all the way back to Rwanda. The vast majority of Hutu refugees obediently plodded home. After two drawn-out, miserable years, the Great Migration took place in just ten days.”
Wrong continues: “I was one of many journalists who stood at Gisenyi’s border post watching that biblical human tide. The Tutsi taxi driver who took me there, his car radio blaring disco, drove through the oncoming refugees with a speed bordering on viciousness. From the Hutu refugees, there was no laughter, no chat, no smiles; but there was no wailing, or sobbing, either. The only sound was the strange, feathery whisper produced by thousands of bare feet brushing tarmac [emphasis added].”
Wrong tells the story of Kagame’s invasion of the DR Congo and killings running into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, like this:
“Some 800,000 Hutus returned, trudging across the border without screening or checks. But it soon become clear that a large group of refugees, a group including the ex-military, interahamwe, and the genocide’s masterminds, had peeled off in the opposite direction, plunging into the equatorial rainforest as they headed for Shabunda in the southwest and Kisangani, the trading city built on the Zaire River.”
“The Rwandan army ruthlessly hunted them down. The RPF wanted the broad mass of the refugees back, but not these men. ‘These are not genuine refugees,’ Kagame told an interviewer. ‘They’re simply fugitives, people running away from justice after killing people in Rwanda—after killing!’ Women, old people, or children who had walked the red jungle roads alongside the fighters were dismissed as so much collateral damage.”
The seeming concern for “women, old people, or children” is reduced by the fact that they had “walked alongside the fighters.” Why did they do that? Notice too that there is no verb attached to what was done to these women, old people and children—they “walked,” then they were “dismissed as so much collateral damage”—Wrong has said at the very beginning of the paragraph that they were “ruthlessly hunted down”—but creates an entire paragraph of distance between that verb and the object.
Wrong also minimizes and dismisses the number killed like this: “No definitive death toll was ever possible, but the UNHCR reckoned that some 200,000 people remained unaccounted for.”
Such a statement could of course be made about those killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide too—we know no more about the real number killed there than we do about the number killed in the Congo, how could we?—but neither Wrong nor any other Africanist would dare say such a thing.
Nor would any Africanist dare to call the Rwandan genocide a “low impact conflict” or a “classic blight of underdevelopment,” but take a look at this: “The International Rescue Committee estimates that up to 4.7 million Congolese died in the civil war in eastern Congo: civilians for the most part killed not by gunshot, shrapnel, or bombing—for this was a low-impact conflict [emphasis added]—but by diarrhea, malaria, and malnutrition, classic blights of underdevelopment.”
The same goes for the way Wrong, like the other Africanists, implies that some RPF killing would have been acceptable, since Hutus are evil, but the RPF probably did too much killing:
“The campaign was utterly brutal, though, in terms of civilian casualties. Journalists covering what became known as the Northern Insurgency saw scores of bodies lined up along road verges and were allowed to visit a network of caves at Nyakinama full of rotting corpses—up to 8,000 were said to have been sealed inside, then grenades thrown in. It was the usual problem: Were the dead Hutus really ‘infiltrators,’ as the army claimed, or villagers shot as suspected sympathizers? The often-indiscriminate nature of the killings, coming at a time when young Hutu men in the northwest were constantly mysteriously ‘disappearing,’ left a permanent stain on General Kayumba’s reputation” [emphasis added] on an ex-RPF dissident’s reputation.
But perhaps the greatest exoneration of the RPF that the Africanists do is by associating the RPF with Israel, protecting Tutsis everywhere the way Israel claims to stand up for Jews. Wrong produces a supposed speech made by Karegeya echoing every Israeli talking point about pre-emptive war doctrine, and it is worth reproducing here whether Karegeya said it or not (as typical for the book, it is a hearsay by an anonymous source), as it reveals the powerful associations Wrong is trying to invoke. Patrick tells Wrong’s source:
“We are a small and densely populated country. We have a higher population density than any other country in Africa. So we have no space for another war. We just don’t have the strategic geographical depth.”
Because of that every threat will be dealt with preemptively, and extraterritorially, because we do not have room for it to take place on our sovereign territory. So what you call ‘murder’ is not a crime, it’s an act of war by other means, and if it took place in any other circumstances, we would be congratulated, praised for it.
We have chosen to externalize the battlefield and preempt the threat. Externalizing the war zone is part of that policy and so is buffering. So, because of our relative sizes, we will never leave DRC, for example, until there’s a government in Kinshasa we can trust. Never Again will we allow a mass killing of our people, Never Again will we allow a war on Rwandan territory, Never Again will we allow anyone to lay a finger on a Tutsi head.
There are two countries in the world that have this doctrine, us and Israel. This is how Israel sees things, how Mossad acts, and this is how we see it. We will never allow our enemy to land a blow on us and remain standing.”
Karegeya also supposedly kept a picture of a dead child on his desk as a reminder of this in-group morality: “On his desk he kept a heartrending framed photo of a dead Rwandan baby on the ground, encircled by anonymous male boots. It served as both wordless reproach and daily reminder of why he did what he did.”
As with Israel, the slightest dissent from the most bloodthirsty aggression is celebrated. Karegeya, for example, apparently felt badly while running the occupation, plunder, and genocide of the DR Congo, quoted as saying: “I expressed to President Kagame privately and later on in a meeting with other senior officers that Rwanda’s invasion of Congo was quite unnecessary, as it would result in the loss of innocent lives and resources of which we could not afford at the point in time.” A noble heart. When they kill Palestinian children, the Israelis claim to be “shooting and crying.” Karegeya apparently was “looting and crying.”
Why write so badly?
Wrong’s skills as an Africanist writer are evident not only in her taking up such a difficult challenge but also in her implementation of it. She humanizes Karegeya and her other subjects and she makes a murderous imperialist proxy—the RPF—seem like a good organization “gone bad” because of the ambitions of Kagame alone, forcing her favorite RPF dissidents into their various tragic plot arcs.
The question arises then of why she writes so badly at times, since it must be by design. What is the role of these awful metaphors inserted into the text?
– “The first domino in a long column of mahogany and ivory that would eventually lead to the intelligence chief’s murder had just toppled, but no one in the South African diaspora had heard its quiet click.”
– Kampala, the capital of Uganda: “The city where the RPF’s key figures spent their formative adult years looks, from a distance, like a giant bowl of salad, ripe for munching.”
– Sendashonga’s death makes her feel shame, “a little silvery salamander of shame flips over inside me,” while the story is a splinter: “in the smooth, contoured shape of a widely accepted narrative, his story stood out like a jagged splinter. So the splinter went ignored until it became too painful to bear.”
– “Brutality passes like a virus from one community to another.”
– “Suspicion of personal responsibility for Sendashonga’s murder was to hover over Patrick for the rest of his life. Like a speck floating across an eyeball, out-of-focus yet definitely there [emphasis added], it was one of those unconfirmed suspicions that niggled silently at the back of one’s mind.”
– Kagame “even—like some clucking mother—gave tips on how to dress.”
– “Patrick set about recruiting the Aimés and Apollos of the future, precious assets to be stowed like wine bottles in a cellar.”
– On the battle between Rwanda and Uganda in Kisangani: “The strands of that brotherly scrap weave in and out of one another, as fiddly to unpick as the plaited fibers of a mat.”
– The assassination of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana by the RPF, which triggered the war and genocide, “squats like a giant toad at the heart of the RPF story, even uglier and more poisonous than the question of who killed Fred Rwigyema or organized the assassination of Laurent Kabila.”
– New institutions “sprang up like pristine white mushrooms in the forest, bodies that would—surely, inevitably—become healthy checks and balances.”
There are also word salads like this: “But for those accustomed to stripping the political ingredients from their assessments of African nation-states, Rwanda’s incredible statistics made it easy to overlook that inconvenient fact.”
This sort of intrusive metaphor parallels the way Wrong intrusively inserts her own views and struggles into the text. I am not certain what is happening here but I hypothesize that if she had done it too well, she would have humanized the Hutus, revealed too coherent a picture of RPF criminality at the West’s behest, or made the new Africanist story (Kagame bad) too blatantly incongruous with the old one (Kagame good).
So what do the imperialists want to happen in Rwanda?
To puzzle out what the imperialists really want, we have to spend some time talking about what really went on in Rwanda and the DR Congo, rather than taking apart the Africanist version. Here goes—note that I have written a whole book about this, America’s Wars on Democracy in Rwanda and the DR Congo (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) if you want more detail.
In 1990 the RPF, an army created in Uganda and sponsored by the U.S., invaded Rwanda. The U.S. was interested in sweeping France (and eventually Mobutu) out and they used Kagame to do it. The RPF was not driven by events into this position. They were the local proxies and the French withdrawal was negotiated—and accompanied by plenty of humiliating propaganda.
After three years of assassination, massacre, the creation of immense numbers of refugees from areas the RPF conquered, and successful negotiations that would have seen the RPF take over a disproportionate share of power in Rwanda with full U.S. backing, the U.S. decided to go all the way. The RPF assassinated Habyarimana in April 1994 and conquered Rwanda over the next three months, taking the capital in July. In the process, the RPF massacred a huge number of civilians. Militias on the losing side massacred an even bigger number.
The big massacres by the militias were abstracted from the assassination, war, and conquest and labeled a genocide, with the entire conquered population blamed for it. The lesser (but also immense) massacres by the RPF were simply erased from the Western historical record. The successful military conquest of the country by the RPF, the erasure from history of their crimes, and the labeling of the conquered population as “genocidaires” have changed politics in the entire region forever.
The creation of the narrative that abstracted the militias’ massacres from the broader processes of war and civilian massacre was led by African Rights, Human Rights Watch, and several Western authors—notably Gourevitch, Melvern, Prunier, and afterwards Wrong, Stearns, Dallaire, and others. They successfully imposed the idea that the enemies of the RPF and of Kagame were all genocidaires or proto-genocidaires and ultimately deserving of death. That idea facilitated mass imprisonments within Rwanda and Kagame’s multiple invasions of the DR Congo and multiple wars of occupation there that killed millions of people.
And the truth is we have seen this movie before—literally. In 2014, inspired by the murder of Patrick Karegeya, the first mainstream cracks in the story appeared on the BBC. Elements—only elements—of the reality were presented for the first time in the documentary “Rwanda’s Untold Story.” Notably Kagame’s assassination program, the possibility that the entire conquered population might not be guilty of genocide and deserving of conquest and death, and even the “ethnic accounting” of the Kagame government and its supporters came under scrutiny.
The sources for the BBC documentary were the same RPF dissidents Wrong relies on in her book—notably Theogene Rudasingwa—and the inspiration was the murder of Patrick Karegeya by Kagame’s assassins in South Africa. Kagame and his supporters in the West collectively freaked out and they all signed a letter together to try to discipline the BBC. Wrong’s book, if anything, is more narrowly cast and departs from the pro-Kagame position even less than the BBC documentary, and largely exonerates the U.S./UK of any wrong-doing.
And so Kagame marches on, even amidst the Hotel Rwanda scandal.
What Rwanda needs, as Congolese have argued since their own country was occupied, is a process of real reconciliation—not a reconciliation program used to further suppress and terrorize the majority, but a process that acknowledges all crimes committed by all sides and a new regime that actually includes everyone. Such a regime would leave its neighbors in peace and would not be a keen imperial catspaw.
If what happened in Rwanda is seen as a war, not unlike what happened in Uganda before, or the DR Congo afterwards, then there is a possibility for peace or reconciliation. If it is seen as a genocide with Hutus as the genocidaires and eternally guilty, then they have to be suppressed forever. This means, for humanitarian reasons, the West also has to be there forever, to help manage this guilty population.
With his international assassination program, his selfish desire to stay in personal power forever, and his increasingly brazen persona, Kagame may no longer be the best vehicle for control of the region. This was hinted in 2014 and is being repeated in 2021 a bit louder. But the other planks—eternal Hutu guilt, ultimate Western innocence and control—should remain in place. This is the task that Do Not Disturb takes up. It is the challenge of keeping intact, while making some tweaks, one of the most successful propaganda operations in history.
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About the Author
Justin Podur is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Urban Change at York University in Toronto.
He is the author of America’s Wars on Democracy in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Palgrave McMillan, 2020) and Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, the Earthquake and the UN Occupation (London: Pluto Press, 2012) among other works.
Justin can be reached at: email@example.com.
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This is a huge article. Is there any abstract or overview or summary of the message?
That would be very helpful as after reading I forgot most of what I read. A short summary would be very helpful