Understanding Rwanda’s foreign policy – Andrew M Mwenda

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This is a second instalment of my three-part review of Michela Wrong’s book, Do Not Disturb, about the murder of Patrick Karegyeya. Many readers of part one missed the core of my argument. I did not seek to argue that the government of Rwanda under the leadership of President Paul Kagame does not hunt to kill its enemies abroad. I only meant to illustrate that Wrong did not do basic journalistic work of trying to look at different hypotheses and then showing why she believed the one she went with. The core of my argument was that if Kigali has assassinated anyone abroad, that is because of a rational foreign policy, not because of some violent psychopathy of Kagame as a person the way Wrong presented it.

Karegyeya was head of external intelligence in Rwanda from 1994 to 2004. In that capacity, he oversaw the evolution and articulation of that nation’s policy towards the security threats it faces. According to Wrong, Karegyeya once met a friend in Nairobi who asked him why the government of Rwanda indulges in targeted assassinations of its enemies especially in foreign lands. Karegyaya’s answer is reproduced here for clarity.

“You have to understand,” Wrong quotes Karegyeya speaking to someone in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi in 2002, “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 extra territorially, because we do not have room for it to take place on our sovereign territory. So what you call murder is not a crime but an act of war by other means and if it took place in any other circumstances, we would be congratulated and 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.”

This was the real Karegyeya: articulate and genuine, making a rational argument every student of international relations and strategy would understand. The Karegyeya Wrong interviewed in exile was an opportunist, strategically forsaking things he deeply believed in and did in order to win Western sympathy and support for his anti-Rwanda activities. Karegyeya knew what Western liberals and their cheerleaders in Africa want to hear. To them, leaders in Africa are psychopaths. So Africans need Western governments and their diplomats, backed by their journalists, human rights organizations etc. to save us. Wrong was easy prey to such manipulation because she carries the baggage of prejudice?

At any rate, Wrong knows that liberal democracies like the USA, UK, France and Israel rely on this policy of preemption and extra territoriality in dealing with threats to their security. President Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have used assassination of key leaders to degrade Al Qaeda and ISIS. Everyday American drones hover over the Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc. targeting and killing those suspected of threatening US security. When Rwanda implements the same policy, Wrong claims it is because Kagame is a violent psychopath. What is the source of these biases? The reader can judge.

Wrong can argue that Israel or America target non-citizens while Rwanda targets her own citizens. This argument has the following weaknesses. First, the issue here is human rights, not citizen rights. Someone does need to be a citizen for his or her life to be respected. Second, after 9/11, legal experts, including Obama, argued that the US president has power to target and assassinate US citizens suspected of being top Al Qaeda leaders – wherever they might be. Third is context: the nature of the threats determines the nature of the response and the target of such a response. America and Israel are well consolidated states and nations; their security threats are largely external. The state and nation in Rwanda are still young and fragile and a significant part of their threat is internal.

For instance, no American president or UK prime minister goes to bed worried about a military coup, a civil war or mass insurrection. In our part of the world, states and nations are in the early process of development and consolidation. To make matters worse, elites lack a common agreement on basic national goals. Consequently, small disagreements among the top leadership can lead some, as Karegyeya, Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, Col. Alex Rizinde and Seth Sendashonga did in the case of Rwanda, to attempt coups, insurrections and civil wars. Hence fears of these risks loom in the minds of leaders in poor countries.

This danger is particularly alive in the minds of leaders in a country like Rwanda which, 25 years ago, witnessed horrors on a scale unseen in human history – one million people hacked to death in 100 days using ordinary tools like machetes and hoes. How does not ensure that such a disaster does not befall the country again? Therefore, the weight of responsibility that hangs on the heads of the leaders of Rwanda especially Kagame is very, very heavy – any slight misstep can take that country back to the abyss.

To understand Rwanda’s hypersensitivity when it comes to security, one has to appreciate what in geopolitics is called the “margin of error”. This refers to the space a country has to make mistakes. When a small mistake can have catastrophic consequences, a system becomes hypersensitive. The margin of error has two elements: the type and magnitude of danger that a country faces and the power it possesses to neutralize that danger. In Rwanda’s case, the danger is always an attempt at a violent power grab via a civil war or coup. All too often, this danger tends to find allies in neighboring regional powers who are larger and richer than Rwanda – DRC, Tanzania and Uganda. I will illustrate this later when dealing with the assassination of Sendashonga in 1998.

The involvement of neighboring powers in Rwanda’s internal affairs militates around two major vulnerabilities. One is “strategic geographical depth,” a point Karegyeya expounded very well. But this is compounded by limited “strategic political depth”. The 1994 genocide revealed the dangerous underbelly of Rwanda’s identity politics. RPF, given its history, is Tutsi-led. Given the recent ethnic political history of Rwanda, anyone in leadership in Kigali has to worry about the attitude of the Hutu majority in the event of a civil war in that country. These threatens have shaped the political system Kigali has evolved, although people like Wrong would want to see Rwanda governed like Belgium.

Therefore, the hypersensitivity of the Rwandan state to security threats has to be understood in this context – its geography (small country surrounded by richer, bigger neighbors sometimes hostile to it), its population density, its history (of ethnic polarization leading to genocide). And so is its response. Wrong glosses over the context of Rwanda’s threats claiming that many people allegedly assassinated by the Rwandan state like Sendashonga, Karegyeya or Kayumba (a failed attempt) were not plotting war. Even if this were objectively true, it does not change anything. The Rwandan state acts on the intelligence it has and believes, not on “objective truths.” No country, not even the USA which has a huge margin of error, can wait to have 100% proof of a terrorist plan before taking action. If it did it would be too late to stop it.

Rwanda has an even smaller margin of error, the price of one misstep is too high, it cannot afford the luxury of waiting. So the room for mistakes is very, very small. Kigali cannot wait for 100% proof on its enemies’ actions and intentions. If you want to know why Rwanda’s security antennae is on a hair trigger, just think which kind of error would be more-costly the next time you are walking alone at night in a deep forest or a dark alley. The hypersensitive danger detection mechanism in your brain is fine tuned to maximize survival, not factual accuracy. That is Rwanda’s reality.

The problem with many critics of Kagame specifically and the post genocide government in Rwanda generally is a failure to appreciate this context in which its institutions, policies, processes and actions take place. They want Rwanda to adopt the policies and practices of UK or France. Yet these countries themselves do not adhere to the ideal we always attribute to them. Their actions and intentions are also shaped by their experience.

The anti Kagame coalition in Kampala, which has fallen in love with Wrong’s book, claims that Kagame should rule like President Yoweri Museveni – large hearted, forgiving, tolerant of his generals like David Tinyefuza and Henry Tumukunde who have gone rogue at times. But even if this were true about Museveni, the two countries face different threats. For instance, most of the security challenges Uganda faces are largely, if not entirely, of a tactical or strategic nature. But Rwanda’s threats are existential. How each leader responds therefore cannot be based on some universal norm but on the objective conditions obtaining on the ground.

Yet there is more than enough proof that the people allegedly killed by Rwanda, or whom it allegedly attempted to kill, were actually involved in planning civil war. Gerald Prunier is a French scholar and was a close friend and collaborator of Sendashonga. In his book, Africa’s World War, he reveals Sendashonga’s plans for armed rebellion against Rwanda. He says Sendashonga was fed up with always playing the good guy. Prunier quotes Sendashonga and I quote: “I have got to make my move,” he told me in early 1998 during one of our meetings in Nairobi, “Everybody uses a gun as a way of sitting at a negotiation table one day. If I always refuse to use guns, I will be marginalized when the time comes.”

According to Prunier, and again I quote: “About 600 men and around 40 officers of the Ex-FAR had gathered around him [Sendashonga]. They were ready to follow him into battle… Tanzania had agreed to host their training camps but he wanted support from what he felt would be the most decisive and progressive force in the region, that is, the [Yoweri] Museveni regime in Uganda. He asked for my help in talking to Kampala and I arranged the necessary contacts… On Sunday May 3rd 1998, he met in Nairobi with Salim Saleh… and Saleh was open to the idea of helping a new moderate face enter the game.” Two weeks later on the evening of Saturday May 16th 1998, Sendashonga was shot dead as he drove home.

I interviewed Saleh at that time who confirmed that he met with Sendashonga immediately before he was shot. If Prunier’s allegations that Kampala wanted to help “a moderate face enter the game” are true, one understands why Kigali had to act quickly and decisively. Relations with Uganda had collapsed over Congo, and the next year the two countries’ armies fought in Kisangani. In building alliances with Tanzania (to provide training camps for his rebels) and Uganda (to get a moderate face into the game), both countries larger and richer than Rwanda, Sendashoga was posing a serious risk to Rwanda’s security. Could Kigali reasonably afford to wait until Sendashonga unleashed his army on Rwanda? Does Wrong believe Kigali should have given Sendashonga, a “credible” Hutu politician, space to launch his war before it acts?

Even in her own narrative, Wrong admits that Kayumba has a rebel force in Congo to fight the Rwandan government. I quote: “Today, the exiled Gen Kayumba is doing exactly what Kagame once suspected he would – training a militia in Eastern Congo and gathering around him a loose coalition of Hutus and Tutsis determined to oust his former boss. But at the turn of the century, were Kagame’s suspicions well founded? Or did he, in the ultimate of ironies, inadvertently bring about the exactly the outcome he feared?” You have to be excessively naïve to believe that Kayumba thought about armed rebellion after the attempt on his life.

Wrong reveals her naivete when she claims that Kayumba was “very popular” among sections of the Rwandan army. Yet this “popularity” had been carefully cultivated, always using corrupt means, for a purpose i.e. to grab power for himself via a coup. When he went to London for a course, he went a step further – began cultivating relationships with exile forces seeking to overthrow the government in Kigali. More than that, there is intelligence that he established a working relationship with regional powers seeking a similar end. I had access to Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence showing how he was travelling from New Delhi to Mauritius to meet exiled Rwandan dissidents.

Wrong was taken for a ride by Karegyeya, Kayumba, Sendashonga’s wife and the entire anti group of Kagame haters. Sadly, she bought their claims line hook and sinker. Kayumba and Keregyeya lied to her that they wanted to retired from government to private life and Kagame refused. If there was an iota of truths in that, it could only have been part of the story. The truth is that both men did not want leave the limelight, could not afford to be an ordinary-citizens in Rwanda. They had to be in power or else.

When Karegyeya was removed from heading external security and made government spokesman (a demotion), he became bitter and his actions and words came to border on subversion. In my next installment, I will provide a firsthand personal experience of my dealing with Karegyeya and other Rwandan officials and the lessons I derived from that experience.


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