#Book Club: Edward Clay Reviews Michela Wrong’s Do Not Disturb

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Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, by Michela Wrong, London, Fourth Estate, 1 April 2021, ISBN-10: 0008238871 £20.00 (Hardback) ISBN-13: 978-0008238872

This book has an important tragic, central character but, arguably, no great heroes.

I first encountered Rwandans as refugees in Burundi in 1964 and then again in Rwanda as non-resident British ambassador in 1994. I was one of those who  believed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the insurrectionary force of emigrés and refugees who invaded Rwanda from their base in Uganda and then fought a victorious civil war against the genocidal former regime – were heroes in a just cause, up to 1994.

They helped Museveni, their patron, in Uganda to gain control of that ruined country by force and instal himself as President. They walked back in 1990 into Rwanda, the country from which their parents had been driven in waves of persecution since independence by an explicitly ethnic Hutu regime. Once in Rwanda, the RPF claimed a place in the regional peace process which was supposed to lead to the establishment of an inclusive government. In 1994, when their people in Rwanda faced genocide, they fought and defeated the government which had devised and put into effect their plan to kill the minority and their sympathisers.

Their story has the elements of tragedy, struggle and ultimate success to be truly heroic. After 1994, the world’s sympathy and guilty conscience over the genocide ascribed virtue to the victorious RPF. They helped the struggling new regime, buttressed by the return of exiles from the region and beyond, to rebuild Rwanda. But the lustre began to tarnish as events raised questions about their virtue, and the intentions they had proclaimed in their days of struggle. The decision to mention only the Tutsis as victims of the genocide is a travesty. To suggest non-Tutsi were not victims, too, indicated an exclusivist hubris on the part of Rwanda’s new masters.

Michela Wrong lays out the context of her story with great care. Her central character, Patrick Karegeya, is one of those who joined the RPF’s trek home from Uganda, and became its intelligence chief. His job commanded respect, and his character made him popular in the RPF, and internationally well known. He, more than most, must have known where the bodies were buried.

As the RPF’s new government settled in after their military victory in 1994, the shadows began to lengthen over its reputation. Those who cut it some slack on the grounds of necessity, came to feel increasingly uneasy about its internal direction, its willingness to ditch the inclusion of Hutus in the government, its ruthlessness internally and its foreign adventurism. Questions arose about its own record of crimes against humanity during and after the civil war of 1990-4.

Michela Wrong has chosen the right moment to train her forensic eye and formidable writer’s skills on the later, unheroic phase of the RPF under President Kagame. The lapse of time helps her to apply perspective to her observations; and there is enough evidence now, and still sufficient live witnesses, to make this book about the assassination of one man a morality play. It is a judgement on the regime which has commissioned exile and murder as a way of silencing uncomfortable voices within as well as outside its own ranks. Rwanda’s tragedy is still playing out. Debates between the regime’s apologists and critics are toxic.

The story is compelling. Wrong sets Karegeya’s career in the context of the Tutsis’ emigration over decades and the RPF’s formation, invasion of Rwanda and ultimate victory. She pre-empts head-on what have become standard lines of attack by regime apologists, both Rwandan and foreign – that those who criticise the regime are somehow genocide-deniers and irredeemably ill-disposed to the post-1994 Rwanda. She covers the invasion and civil war straightforwardly, and its aftermath as dispassionately as possible in a state which discourages inquiries and denies visas to sceptics. Her research is thorough and has taken years.

She does not precis well-trodden ground. There are in her account fascinating insights into some of the mysteries that have remained unexplained for the last 26 years. No spoiler alerts, but these include the circumstances of the death of the RPF’s first leader, Fred Rwigyema; and the shooting down of the hired French aircraft conveying the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi from a meeting in the Arusha Peace Process. Responsibility for the attack remains a mystery which has until now poisoned Rwanda’s relations with France.

Wrong has equally important insights into the characters of the RPF leaders in their heroic phase, which helps us understand how they behaved in the non-heroic aftermath. Fred Rwigyema was a charismatic leader, whose body received a hero’s burial when it was finally taken back to Kigali from Uganda over four years after he was killed in Rwanda. He was President Museveni’s favourite Rwandan and deputy during the Ugandan Bush War; he led Museveni’s own victory parade through Kampala.

Few of us rumbled the difference between those Rwandans whose families had migrated more than a generation before 1994, and were therefore ethnic Rwandan citizens of, and settled in Uganda; and those Rwandan citizens whose parents fled from the persecutions and pogroms unleashed by the Hutu leaders in Rwanda after independence, and took refuge in Uganda, or other neighbouring countries. Karegeya was a Ugandan of Rwandan ethnicity: this split loyalty became most painful for him when, in the DRC, Rwandan and Ugandan troops confronted each other on opposite sides. His Ugandan origin made him vulnerable to charges of disloyalty when it suited his erstwhile colleagues in the RPF.

In the course of her research, Wrong also dug into the character of Paul Kagame. His severe demeanour and spare physical frame are familiar to many outside Rwanda, but Wrong describes his upbringing, his role in Museveni’s Bush War in Uganda, and in the RPF, where he emerged from obscurity to leadership and thence to the presidency of Rwanda. From a stern disciplinarian he has become the hammer of his opponents and a remorseless driver of his old friends into exile, where many met their deaths.

Wrong refers to two points  which show how differently Museveni viewed national political leadership from Kagame. First, he eschewed political assassination as counter-productive. Second, he advocated at the outset that his own victorious National Resistance Movement should hand over power quickly. Museveni has famously resiled on the second; but on the first his record is better than Kagame’s.

Karegeya was privy to some of those RPF assassinations. He was the regime’s PR man abroad, and the broker for the blood diamonds looted from the DRC. His disillusionment with Kagame might have rehabilitated his reputation, had his assassins not interrupted that process.

Wrong concludes with reminders of why her book’s title is apt. The heroic days of the RPF have yielded to duplicity, treachery, betrayal and assassination. Why did those who later fell out with the regime serve so long as its defenders, apologists and executives; and why is the obscure Kagame of 1990 still standing tall thirty years on?

Edward Clay was Non-resident Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Rwanda 1994-6, British High Commissioner in Uganda from 1993-7 and British High Commissioner in Kenya from 2001-2005.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a powerful review, Sir Edward Clay! Your question: “Why did those who later fell out with the regime serve so long as its defenders, apologists and executives; and why is the obscure Kagame of 1990 still standing tall thirty years on?” I think this is a million-dollar question. We must leave it to those who are better qualified than us to answer it.

    But for what it’s worth, and based on your review – ‘Do Not Disturb’ strikes me as a book about the human tragedy that flows from the love of raw power. It is about the human condition of covetousness at its simplest. For covetousness dries up the milk of human kindness in a man’s breast and makes him hard, callous, indifferent towards the needs of his fellow human beings. A man whose heart is set on covetousness will do anything for raw power, including venturing to stain his hands with blood itself, if he may but gain by it.

  2. My name is Theogene Rudasingwa, and I appreciate Sir Edward Clay’s review of Michela Wrong’s book “Do not Disturb. I am one of the millions of actors in Rwanda’s seemingly never-ending drama. I am one of those who have met Michela Wrong, and my story is part of her narrative in the book. I am one of those refugees who took arms in 1990 to invade Rwanda from Uganda in 1990. I served as a battlefield doctor before I took up diplomatic missions on behalf of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), the Secretary General of the RPF, before I became Rwanda’s Ambassador to the United States and finally President Kagame’s Chief of Staff until 2004 when ultimately I run into exile in 2005. The question that Sir Clay asks is a pertinent one. Why did we, who served the system, build it that way and kept quiet for so long?

    I have have reflected on that for a long time. I can answer for myself. It is a deeply personal question, and I believe we answer it differently at different times.

    First, there is the group identity challenge. Where ethnic identities are sharp and injustice/victimhood/perpetrator take the shape of Hutu, Tutsi, (and the long forgotten Twa) and regional group identities, conflict becomes an existential zero-sum game. That is how Hutus felt in before 1959. That is how Tutsi felt in 1959, when the Tutsi monarchy lost power as the Hutu revolution brought forth new realities. That is how Tusti and southern Hutu felt in 1973 when there was a Hutu cleavage within Hutu power, and in 1994 when the largely Tutsi RPF captured state power. In moments of danger, the usual group survival instinct kicks in.

    Thus, in 1994, I felt that Kagame, despite my knowledge that he was a violent man who never pretended he had democratic credentials, wielded enough power to prevent Tutsi being totally annihilated by Hutus. A deceptive, selfish, and yet arguable position back then.

    Second, the rise of Kagame to unchallenged, unchallengeable absolute rule came slowly as he deliberately devised mechanisms of dividing his peers and subordinates, each in their own corner, compartmentalized, and often working at cross-purposes. As he slowly amassed enormous resources within the intelligence establishment that underlies every feature of life in Rwanda, the party and the government, he was able to reward blind loyalty, and punish any real or perceived hint of disagreement with deadly force by death, disappearance, exile, jail or -the infamous “agatebe”
    (sit, do nothing and wait). To make a decision about departure from the system is a question of life and death, especially if you have been close enough to Kagame to know where the skeletons are kept. Kagame has sentenced me to 24 years in jail, and has tried repeatedly to assassinate me. “Do Not Disturb” describes in gruesome details some of these assassination plans.

    Third, being a revolutionary before being in power, and being one in power are totally different things. Power is tempting, Power corrupts. For sons and daughters born and brought up in poverty, in refugee camps, all of a sudden there are resources and privileges you can access from the state, and the intelligence and party that control it on behalf of the absolute ruler. There are myriads of ways that tie you to the system, making you deeply in debt as you serve as a cog in the wheel of the totalitarian state. To cut yourself from this seamless web of control is to cut the umbilical cord that seems to nourish you while it saps your physical, mental, intellectual, social, and spiritual essence.

    Last but not least, I had to go through an internal crisis to respond to my conscience, asking how much I could go on living a double life of lying on behalf of the system, and measuring that against who really I was, and the founding idealism of what our struggle and enormous sacrifices entailed.

    As for Kagame still standing tall, I beg to offer a different take. You can be in power, and for long, but remain an impoverished, diminished, insecure and blood-stained dictator who enforces rule by the bayonet, the bullet, and deception. That can not be all the time, history teaches us.

    Like Sir Clay and many others, I do strongly recommend Michela Wrong’s “Do Not Disturb”.

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