Foreign Policy

Rwanda's portrayal of a Hollywood hero confirms the nation's descent into dictatorship

One evening last August, Paul Rusesabagina, the former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines or Hotel Rwanda, boarded a private jet in Dubai that was supposedly commanded by the Rwandan government. His family suddenly lost touch with him. Rusesabagina said he woke up in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, where officials confirmed his arrest.

Rusesabagina was well aware of the threat the Rwandan government posed to his security. When I met him in 2015 in Washington, DC, at a lecture I was giving to US government officials about my book Bad News: The Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, Rusesabagina told me that Rwandan President Paul Kagame explained his movements and the Rwandan staff The government closely monitored him physically after criticizing Kagame's repressive policies. The Kagame government has arrested and murdered a number of dissidents, journalists and political activists. Rusesabagina said he was unsafe even in the US, where he was living in exile, and that returning to Kigali was like a death sentence.

Rusesabagina is now Kagame's prisoner in Kigali, awaiting a show trial. Kagame uses Rusesabagina's trial to demonstrate that he can even play with an international celebrity whose friends include US government officials and Hollywood stars. And so Kagame sends a threatening message to all of his critics. If Rusesabagina manages to stay alive – unlike many other Rwandan dissidents – it is because his fame offers him protection. However, it is unlikely that he will now flee Rwanda.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shakes hands with Rusesabagina during an event with Angelina Jolie, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee Ambassador for Goodwill, on June 15, 2005 at the National Geographic Museum, Washington. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images

Actors Don Cheadle and Rusesabagina, the inspiration for Cheadle's Hotel Rwanda character, attend the premiere for the film in Los Angeles on December 2, 2004. Carlo Allegri / Getty Images

Rusesabagina is the real hero of the acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda: as the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines, he risked his life to save hundreds of Tutsis, the main targets of the Rwandan genocide. It is estimated that nearly 1 million people were killed in this genocide, which was carried out by the government, which was then largely organized by the Hutu government.

Kagame has carefully crafted the story of the Rwandan genocide and wants to portray himself as the only hero of this dark period. In Rwanda, he projected himself as the man who militarily ended the genocide while the rest of the world looked the other way. There are several loopholes in its story, but scholars and former comrades who questioned this heroic tale have been persecuted, imprisoned and sometimes found dead.

Many questions about Kagame's alleged crimes during this period can hardly be investigated in Rwanda today: The Kagame government strictly controls who researches in the country, apart from many whom it considers unsympathetic. It destroyed data collected by researchers who would contradict Kagame's propaganda. Academics and reporters who have conducted such research have threatened their families in the United States and Canada and required government bodyguards. The counterterrorism divisions of the New York Police Department and Scotland Yard armed me during my Bad News book tour.

The most damaging allegations suggest that Kagame himself oversaw the mass killings during and after the Rwandan genocide. It is an accusation backed by United States investigators and journalists such as Judi Rever, who in her recent book In Praise of Blood carefully compiles testimony of Kagame's human rights abuses. Kagame's critics include genocide survivors, most of whom speak privately, as Kagame has taken over and silenced survivors' self-help groups in Rwanda.

The challenge of Kagame's heroism in Rwanda is being treated as treason today, a direct challenge to the president. And the consequences are quick, sometimes fatal. Prior to Rusesabagina, Kagame had been publicly challenged by a prominent Rwandan gospel singer, Kizito Mihigo, a genocidal orphan and until recently a government darling who played a prominent role in Rwanda's annual genocide commemorations. Last September, the Human Rights Foundation and its chairman, the Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, posthumously awarded Mihigo the Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. Mihigo was found dead in a Rwandan police cell seven months earlier.

Mihigo's song "The Meaning of Death" had demanded empathy for all those who died in the Rwandan genocide, including those killed in revenge. The allusion to revenge provoked the killings by Kagame's forces and was sufficient to have Mihigo arrested for conspiracy against Kagame. He said he was beaten in prison. Then he appeared before the public, surrounded by police officers who looked harassed and incriminated himself for the serious crimes of which he was charged. This tragic farce extended to his final moments: Rwandan government officials said Mihigo had "strangled himself to death" – a chilling reminder of how the South African apartheid regime once falsely reported the deaths of critics and dissidents while in custody.

Metal racks hold the bones of thousands of genocide victims in one of the crypts at the Nyamata Catholic Church memorial prior to the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Nyamata, Rwanda. The memorial's crypts contain the remains of more than 45,000 genocide victims, most of them Tutsi, including those who were massacred in the church itself. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Armed civilians wait for food to be delivered by the Red Cross in Kigali on April 13, 1994. Scott Peterson / Liaison via Getty Images

Rwanda's new Hutu President Pasteur Bizimungu (left) and Vice President Paul Kagame, the Tutsi-led commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), in Kigali on July 19, 1994. ALEXANDER JOE / AFP via Getty Images

As a critic, Rusesabagina poses a unique threat to Kagame. He recently supported demands for regime change in Rwanda. Armed groups seeking to overthrow Kagame are drawn to Rusesabagina as a figurehead or supporter, both because of its international standing and its popularity in Rwanda, despite its exile. Rusesabagina is popular with the majority of the Hutu to which it belongs, as well as with the Tutsi, many of whom respect the courage to save Tutsis during the genocide.

Sensing a political threat, Kagame has been promoting the damage to the reputation of Rusesabagina for years. Kagame speaker and speechwriter Alfred Ndahiro, a former lecturer at the University of Liverpool, told me that Rusesabagina made up stories of his own heroism for profit and fame. Ndahiro has written a book in which he attacks Rusesabagina. He accused him of extorting money from his Tutsi hotel guests and of betraying some of them to genocide militias. Ndahiro and Kagame are also supported by a choir of state-controlled institutions in Rwanda. Few dare to contradict Kagame's position inside or outside Rwanda, knowing full well that they can be tracked down and punished.

Rusesabagina's process already resembles a farce because he has started incriminating himself. It's likely a bargain to accept if he doesn't want to end up dead. For months now, Rusesabagina's government has denied his fundamental right to be represented by international defense lawyers appointed by him and his family. One of these lawyers, Philippe Larochelle, wrote to me that in Rwanda, “the prison in some way includes legal representation”.

Rwanda's attorney general then claimed that Rusesabagina – which human rights groups – had been abducted say is illegal under international law – was indeed legal and not an active issue in the trial as the government-appointed Rusesabagina attorney did not raise the issue in court. It is a plot that Franz Kafka would have proudly constructed for the beleaguered protagonist of his novel The Trial.

In Rwanda, however, such a Kafkaesque farce is not fiction and regulates the life and freedoms of the critics of Kagame. But Rusesabagina can hope for little outside help. Kagame accuses him of terrorism and, as in Mihigo's trial, his government will undoubtedly produce evidence that is not verifiable and incontestable in Rwanda without serious personal risk. Despite its lack of independence from Kagame, Rwanda's judicial system is trusted by prosecutors in the US, Canada, France and Norway who extradite genocide suspects to be tried in the rigged courts of Kagame.

Kagame is also regularly praised internationally and invited to lectures at universities such as Harvard and Yale on poverty reduction, human rights and economic development. He is credited with bringing order to Rwanda, strengthening its economy, and building schools and hospitals. His authoritarian government is undoubtedly efficient in building infrastructure as well as resolving disagreements. Kagame won Rwanda's last presidential election in 2017 by almost 99 percent of choice, to turn his choice into a national ritual of obedience.

The lack of dissent allows Kagame to exaggerate his achievements: Economic development researchers working in Rwanda recently released field data showing that Kagame manipulated statistics on economic growth and poverty reduction. However, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continue to publish the government's numbers without independent verification while defending Kagame's credibility.

Foreign diplomats and auxiliaries in Rwanda have told me that they are afraid to criticize Kagame for fear of being expelled from Rwanda and canceling their extensive aid programs. In other words, Rwanda's rigged statistics make Kagame and its financiers look good.

Supporters hold posters as they attend an RPF political rally in Kigali to re-elect Kagame as Rwandan president on August 3, 2010. Christophe Calais / Corbis via Getty Images

If international officials are afraid to contradict Kagame, the Rwandans fear him more: They live in a police state under strict surveillance. Disobedience to even worldly rules is punished with fines, denial of service by government bureaucrats, and visits and physical attacks by the ubiquitous state security services. In the appendix to my book Bad News, I list over 70 journalists who have been killed, imprisoned or forced to flee Rwanda because of threats after criticizing Kagame. My list doesn't include a few recent cases, as well as the dozen Rwandan politicians, judges, teachers, and activists who have attempted political reform and scrutinized Kagame's near-absolute power.

The Rwandan government is now changing its rules to block Rusesabagina's access to his Canadian and Belgian lawyers. A former Kagame critic, Victoire Ingabire, who languished in prison for years after also mentioning Kagame's murders, was allowed to have Dutch and British international lawyers at her trial, but Rwanda now insists that the lawyers' home countries have formal reciprocity agreements with Rwanda have to and so insists that Rusesabagina may only be represented by lawyers from East African countries and Cameroon. Larochelle, Rusesabagina's Canadian attorney, wrote to me: “We are still being blocked by the Rwandan authorities and Paul will be deprived of his right to legal assistance of his choice. The rules for Paul have changed. “Rusesabagina seems to guarantee an unfair trial as a prisoner in a system where Kagame sets the rules and changes them on a whim.

Exiled dissidents like Rusesabagina are also under pressure abroad, where ordinary Rwandan citizens take it upon themselves to serve as government informants. The most recent photos of Rwandans have been taken Oaths in Rwanda's embassy in London and accept to be hanged if they fail to defend Kagame's political party. They vow to "fight enemies of Rwanda wherever they may be". Several of Kagame's critics were killed abroad.

Rusesabagina arrives at Nyarugenge Court in Kigali with officials from the Rwandan correctional system from Nyarugenge Prison on September 25, 2020. SIMON WOHLFAHRT / AFP via Getty Images

Beyond the murders, Kagame wields power in paranoia and fears that his followers will instill dissidents. Rwandans forced to flee their country continue to live in fear, even in relatively safe Scandinavian and European countries where they report verbal and physical threats. Gibson, one of the protagonists in my book Bad News who prefers not to use his full name, is a talented and intelligent Rwandan reporter who got scared after the Rwandan government turned his friends and family against him.

Kagame's mastery of the judicial system and other independent institutions is a bad sign for the future of Rwanda. The country's 1994 genocide was committed by an authoritarian government that had also received praise for its programs to increase efficiency and reduce poverty. Freedom of speech in Rwanda is as restricted today as it was before the genocide, if not more. Most longtime academics working on Rwanda predict a violent transfer of power when Kagame's reign ends. It is tragic that Rwandans who witnessed the horrors of genocide a quarter of a century ago are now faced with the prospect of even more violence.

Kagame's army is powerful and trained, and is equipped by the United States and Israel, among others. The state budget is funded by the United States, the World Bank and the European Union, freeing up funds for Kagame to support armed insurgency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and enable him to use well-equipped security services against dissidents. In contrast to Kagame, Rusesabagina was faced with a difficult task: there are few manuals for activists who seek regime change and the restoration of democracy. Freedom of speech in Rwanda is depressed and many vociferous opponents are dead. Rusesabagina is one of the few brave activists who still dare to fight against Kagame, and such activists are more important than ever as illiberalism rises around the world.

If Rusesabagina survives his trial in Rwanda, he would write another chapter in his already unique history as an ordinary man who opposed not one but two successive dictatorial regimes in Rwanda.

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