Do Not Disturb book cover

[This is an excerpt from a book review appearing in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

Do Not Disturb, as writer and journalist Michela Wrong has herself pointed out, is her longest book to date and the one which took her the longest to write. It is no mean feat, coming after several major books on African politics, including In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo (2000), I Didn’t Do it For You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation (2005), on Eritrea, and It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower (2009). Written in the pacy and incisive style characteristic of Wrong’s work, Do Not Disturb takes its name from the sign which was left on the door of the Johannesburg hotel where Patrick Karegeya, the former head of Rwanda’s external intelligence services and whom she had come to know during his years of exile, was found strangled to death. But for Wrong, ‘Do Not Disturb’ also symbolises the protective wall of national and international power and influence wielded by the current Rwandan Patriotic Front regime of President Paul Kagame and the influence of the past on current systems – and failures – of political accountability. Beyond the death of Karegeya and the clues tracing a complex Rwandan network of surveillance and intervention across several countries in and out of Africa, the book offers a broader portrait of a state marked by a harrowing history and multifaceted challenges.

As Wrong underlines in the opening pages, ‘[t]he debate over the Rwandan narrative has always been polarised between those – often Francophones – who saw the RPF as invaders willing to sacrifice millions in their ruthless quest to return Tutsis to power in Rwanda, and those – often Anglophones – who saw them as warrior-liberators who, tracing a giant geographical and historical boomerang, overturned one of Africa’s most evil regimes’ (p. 6). She herself was extremely impressed by the RPF when reporting on the terrible days of the genocide in 1994 which cost the lives of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis during the reign of the Hutu extremist Interahamwe, which also targeted moderate Hutus. While the genocide does not cover many pages in the book, it occupies a central place in the volume, leaving no doubt as to its reality and tragic awfulness or to the personal and collective trauma sustained. But Wrong’s main interest is in the divisions which have appeared in the RPF since, in the expansion of opposition movements at home and abroad and in the unwillingness of US and key European governments to challenge their own dominant ideal conceptions of contemporary Rwanda as a miracle country run by the best possible government.

Most of her sources are, as she emphasises from the start, people who were once – but no longer – at the heart of the RPF and by Kagame’s side. The role of Karegeya, the formidable head of external intelligence who sat with a photograph of a dead baby on his desk as a constant reminder of the unspeakable atrocity of the genocide, was to ‘keep us safe’ (p. 289) and he also played a vital role in advising Kagame on his media presence. Beyond Karegeya, some of the key figures include General Kayumba Nyamwasa, former head of military intelligence and diplomat, Gerald Gahima, former attorney general, and Theogene Rudasingwa, former secretary general of the RPF and chief of staff to Kagame. All were founding members of the opposition Rwanda National Congress, formed in the US in December 2010 and spread across the Rwandan diaspora, and all four were condemned in absentia in early 2011 by a military tribunal, on the grounds that the RNC had links with Hutu groups connected to the genocide. Wrong’s isn’t a naïve portrayal, even when some personal sympathies surface. Karegeya was himself in charge of compromising missions, Kayumba is involved in training militias in the Congo, and RPF actions, including in the aftermath of the genocide when they all still belonged, come under scrutiny, with reprisal killings and atrocities outlined by human rights NGOs and the UN report of 2010. But what also comes across forcefully is the influence of Kagame himself, with a number of severe indictments – that the Congo became ‘a war of egos, triggered by his temper’, as Karegeya put it (p. 326), or that he was given to such ‘rages’ they made some question his sanity (p. 338) and instilled violence at the heart of power relations (p. 428). Many of Wrong’s sources, particularly Rwandans and Ugandans, spoke to her under the cover of anonymity. On several occasions, security services, in South Africa, Belgium and the United Kingdom itself, have warned Rwandan exiles and journalists, as well as some foreign correspondents, of a tangible threat to their lives.

On several occasions, therefore, Wrong emits hypotheses, rather than give conclusions, and presents a web of evidence on some of the key questions that have been at the heart of Rwanda’s recent history – each section of the book, ‘The cord’, ‘The hoe’, ‘The gun’ and ‘The missile’, serving as a structural embodiment of the violence portrayed. What really happened to the competent and charismatic Fred Rwigyema, Kagame’s childhood friend, described by many as a ‘muyaaye’ or ‘one of us’ in Luganda (p. 183) and who was killed the day after crossing the border from Uganda into Rwanda? What credence should be given to accounts that the RPF was behind the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane, which was the final trigger to the genocide? Actors and witnesses offer, perhaps still unsurprisingly, divergent versions of events. In considering these questions, Wrong delves into Rwanda’s complex regional relations to paint a connected history of prominent RPF politicians, in which Uganda features most strongly: as the destination of families in 1920–60 who left Rwanda for economic reasons and of the generation of ‘fifty-niners’, including Kagame, who arrived after anti-Tutsi policies were established by the Belgian administration and continued into the early 1960s; as a training space during Yoweri Museveni’s armed movement against Milton Obote, with Kagame serving as an intelligence officer in his National Resistance Army. Across the Burundian border, anti-Hutu policies simultaneously contributed to convincing each community that the other was ‘morally beyond the pale’ (p. 240) and the forced displacement of Hutus within Rwanda by the Habyarimana government using them against the early advances of the RPF in the early 1990s further exacerbated tensions. In the regional conflicts that have sprung up since the genocide, the reluctance of the international community to criticise some of Rwanda’s actions is, Wrong argues, down to guilt. Guilt is seen as part of the reason why ‘Rwanda’s story had the international community so thoroughly by the emotional and intellectual throat’ (p. 383) – and the Western media did give little space to Africa in April 1994 beyond the landmark election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. But it also comes down to other interests. Former Conservative Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told Wrong that ‘the fundamental primary human right is the right to be free from the threat of violence’ and that ‘Kagame is a hero for ending the violence’ (p. 386). Rwanda’s best export, she stresses, is its military troops which provide a significant contribution to peacekeeping missions – and which include many women in their police sections. While its history shows the need not to leave such operations to non-Africans, peacekeeping has been, as Michel Liégeois and Damien Deltenre have argued, a means of combining domestic and foreign policy objectives, ‘giv[ing] it international leverage [as] an indispensable player in a number of key operations’ (Liégeois & Deltenre, 2017).

Some of the failings identified – the checks imposed on Parliament and the judiciary at the turn of the 21st century, Rwanda’s poor ranking on the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, the expulsion of the Human Rights Watch representative in 2014 following a damning report, the extension of Kagame’s right to run for election until 2034 after a referendum on the constitution produced a very high 98% approval – are not recent realisations, at least not in all quarters. After Rwanda’s first soundings for Commonwealth membership in 1996, which it eventually secured in 2009 after a formal application in 2006, much scrutiny was applied to the country, with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative openly opposing Kigali’s admission to the ‘family’. There was certainly a case for believing that the Commonwealth would constitute a beneficial force and on a number of counts, Rwanda’s success is impressive – including ‘in respect of participatory local democracy and decentralised public sector service provision’ (Wright, 2019). But on repeated occasions, missed opportunities were highlighted, as the British media also shifted its narrative on Rwanda after it joined the Commonwealth to adopt a more critical stance (Holmes, 2011). Commonwealth governments and civil society, one author wrote in this journal in 2014, were ‘fluffing opportunities for constructive engagement’ (Jones, 2014) and it was more recently highlighted that the Commonwealth had no election observer group in the 2015 referendum or the 2017 presidential elections – or, for that matter, in the recent elections in Uganda, marred by violence (Bourne, 2021). With the CHOGM in Kigali once more (belatedly) postponed in 2021 due to the Covid pandemic, critics of the regime have called for reforms to be implemented before Rwanda assumes the rotating chair of the organisation as the host of the Summit (Umuhoza, 2021).

The publication of Do Not Disturb therefore comes at a crucial time for Rwanda on the international stage. As Wrong herself underlines, Kagame became chair of the African Union in January 2018 with ambitious plans, and Louise Mushikiwabo Secretary General of the Francophonie in October 2018. In recent weeks, as the Commonwealth Summit was postponed, some of the international limelight has been on the evolution of the relations between Rwanda and France, with whom Kigali had severed relations between 2006 and 2009, after French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière had issued international arrest warrants against close aides of Kagame in relation to the shooting down of the plane.

Do Not Disturb: the story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad by Michela Wrong, London, 4th Estate, 2021.

Mélanie Torrent is the professor of British and Commonwealth history at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Institut universitaire de France and a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.