David Himbara is the kind of chief of staff any president would die to have.
Loyal, dedicated, committed and extremely hard working.
I know for I saw him in action firsthand. Like others, the Toronto resident followed the dream of returning to his native Rwanda in hopes of helping his struggling homeland.
Today he lives in partial fear, his dream in tatters — and with no hope of ever returning to Rwanda. At least, not so long as Paul Kagame remains president.
Himbara’s story is like that of a host of other trusted advisers to Kagame who suddenly — and without explanation — find themselves out of favour with the notoriously fickle president.
Charges of corruption, treason or personal misbehaviour usually follow, dutifully reported and hyped up by the president’s propaganda machine, most notably the English-language New Times newspaper.
In a few cases, widely reported, one-time Kagame loyalists have been gunned down while in exile. Final proof is hard to come by, but South Africa went so far as to expel the Rwandan ambassador following its investigation of one attempted assassination within its borders.
Himbara, a Tutsi, came to Canada in 1974 as a stateless refugee when the Hutus were ruling Rwanda and purges were commonplace.
He studied political economy at Queen’s University, where he earned a PhD in economics. He moved to Toronto, where he came to love this city, its neighbourhoods and its politics.
But like other African émigrés, he became an anti-apartheid activist and was lured in 1993 to South Africa with his wife.
The Rwandan Genocide took place the following year, leading to the eventual rise of the Tutsis, led by their cunning leader Paul Kagame.
During his time in South Africa, Himbara had built a successful life as a university lecturer and consultant for United Nations development programs and the World Bank.
But he couldn’t resist the challenge in 2000 when the president called him personally to come back to Rwanda. Over a seven-year period divided into two stints, he served as consultant, personal secretary to the president, and head of both the economics and strategy units.
When I was working in Kigali on a journalism project, Himbara was known simply as the “president’s right-hand man.”
He was involved in everything — and knew everything.
On the occasions we met, his loyalty to the president was unquestioned, his dedication to his work beyond belief and his commitment to Rwanda indisputable. He behaved as if this was his true calling.
He told me he was assured by Kagame that his unit would be totally independent. He took Kagame at his word.
But he concedes now there was no independence. “(Kagame) started interfering with my unit. He began to see it as critical, rather than looking at it as a policy adviser. And in 2008-9, the years of the global economic crisis, Rwanda’s minister of finance insisted at a meeting that the country’s economy grow by 11 per cent.
“I told them that was absolutely not possible,” he remembers. “And if it was possible, our 11 per cent was in cassava and mango.”
Himbara came to learn that Kagame could be prone to physical violence and show utter contempt for even his closest advisers. “A so-called doctor from Canada,” Himbara remembers Kagame taunting him. “You’re just a Rwandan peasant. Dog. Rwandan peasant.”
During those years, there was no question Himbara knew, or was involved in, everything that was going on. Everything.
Shortly thereafter came the message from a presidential aide to Himbara, while he was travelling in South Africa. “Tell the dog to come home,” the president was quoted as saying.
Himbara knew then his time was up. He didn’t return.
Over the past four years, he says he has been the target of a failed assassination attempt and a failed kidnapping attempt in Kenya. Two brothers and a brother-in-law have subsequently been imprisoned in Rwanda and a former associate was murdered in a Johannesburg hotel room.
He says he has been shut out of jobs in Africa because employers were threatened with retaliation by the Rwanda government. More recently, he has been the subject of a slander campaign in Rwanda, being called everything from a drug addict to a rapist.
When asked for comment about the allegations, Rwanda’s charge d’affaires in Ottawa was curiously dismissive. “I really don’t think I’ll take my time to discuss that,” Shakila Umotoni told the Star.
“And I don’t think you should allow that in your newspaper, you know … I don’t think allegations made by such a person — a disgruntled former staff — I don’t think they are worth space in any reputable newspaper.”
Then, three days later, came a tweet to the Star from one-time Toronto resident and now Rwandan MP John Rukumbura, who has always kept very close tabs on Toronto’s Rwandan community.
“Do something to show the difference from Geoffrey York. A hater of Rwanda’s progress,” he wrote.
His tweet — an indirect request for favourable coverage — was an apparent reference to York. Several months ago, the Globe & Mail reporter wrote an exhaustive and convincing expose into the apparent links between the Rwandan government and an assassination in South Africa.
If Himbara’s tale was unique, one might wonder. Yet similar stories have abounded in the past few years and the unexplained events continue.
The most recent was the kidnapping of Emile Gafirita in Nairobi. Before his disappearance, Gafirita was slated to testify at a French inquiry into the missile attack on the plane of then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyariman, which triggered the genocide. It is said Gafirita had evidence that would link Kagame to the crash.
The list of disappearances and mysterious murders involving former Rwandans close to Kagame reveals a troubling pattern, says Colgate University professor, Rwanda watcher and author Susan Thomson.
“We do see a systematic pattern of disappearances and politically motivated assassinations as early as 1998,” she says. “We see it starting first with those who challenged the vision of Kagame.”
Like others, even Thomson has been the subject of unwanted interference by Rwandans. Her computer was recently hacked and the FBI said it had traced two of the hacking attempts to the Rwandan Embassy in Belgium.
Human Rights Watch has also been highly critical of the Kagame regime, citing particularly the strong-arm tactics and the repression of opponents of the regime.
Meanwhile, Himbara is glad to be back in Canada and has even started an investigative blog on Rwandan affairs.
“Coming back to Canada is like a homecoming,” he says. “No longer do I look behind, who’s walking behind me … My experience of the last five years has really demonstrated to me beyond my wildest dreams how important being a Canadian is.”
Source: Toronto Star