Military Purges in Rwanda Expose Cracks in Kagame Regime

Rwandan President Paul Kagame speaking at the London Summit on Family Planning, July 11, 2012 (U.K. Department for International Development photo).

Last month, three high-ranking Rwandan military figures close to President Paul Kagame were arrested and charged with so-called crimes against state security. The military purgeshave fueled fears of a political crisis for Kagame with dissension among the ranks of his party and backers in the army. Although officers have been arrested in the past and former Kagame supporters have fled the country and openly opposed him, last month’s detentions reveal growing insecurity within the regime, particularly when viewed in conjunction with a crackdown on other internal suspects of what the government considers “subversion.”

Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated regime, which came to power in 1994 after winning a civil war and ending a genocide, has all the appearances of a solid autocracy. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) established and maintained hegemony by closing the political landscape, organizing fraudulent elections, eliminating the political opposition and civil society, violating human rights and victimizing the Hutu ethnic majority. With a solid army and omnipresent intelligence services that operate at home and abroad, it seemed an unassailable “securocracy” for most of the past two decades.

But cracks in Kagame’s regime began to become more visible in 2010. During the presidential election that year, former close associates of Kagame who had gone into exile abroad—including the former army chief of staff, head of external intelligence, head of the president’s office and general prosecutor—founded the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) to openly oppose Kagame. Having occupied high functions in the state and the military, this group of “renegades,” as they were called in Kigali, knew the regime’s security details and other secrets.

The regime has dealt radically with this threat. There were at least three attempts on the life of one renegade, Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa; a second one, Col. Patrick Karegeya, was killed in Johannesburg in January. These operations had Kigali’s fingerprints all over them, and South Africa expelled Rwandan diplomats in retaliation for their apparent connection to Karegeya’s death.

In August 2014, a South African judge found that the attempts on Nyamwasa’s life were politically motivated and “came from a certain group of people from Rwanda.” Death squads suspected of ties to Kagame are also active in Uganda, where several exiled former military officers and journalists have been harassed, killed or abducted. Dissident refugees are even threatened in Europe: In May 2011, Scotland Yard issued a “Threats to Life Warning Notice” to two British citizens of Rwandan origin, and a Rwanda diplomat was expelled by Sweden in early 2012 for harassing a Rwandan journalist critical of the regime.

The fact that many of the opponents abroad are Tutsis who once belonged to the regime’s inner circle has created an almost paranoiac fear among the regime that they have created an opposition network inside Rwanda to topple Kagame. Since 2010, many high-ranking military officers have been arrested or put under house arrest, but most were later released and reinstated, or even promoted.

This creates a great deal of uncertainty and puts those suspected of connivance or even simple contact with opponents abroad in a vulnerable position. In addition to last month’s high-profile arrests, another former member of the Presidential Guard, Lt. Joel Mutabazi, who was illegally transferred from Kampala to Kigali, is being tried with 15 others for acts of terrorism and suspected alliance with the RNC. Kizito Mihigo, a Tutsi genocide survivor, was arrested with three others in April for having maintained links with the RNC and plotting assassinations and terrorist acts. The recent arrests may well be based on intelligence gathered through the seizure of Karegeya’s cellphones by his assassins.

All the detained military officers and targeted opponents have two things in common: they are Tutsi, and they live inside the country, a sign that the perceived threat is now seen as domestic, in league with external forces. This was again confirmed during an RPF political bureau meeting chaired earlier this month by Kagame, during which several high-profile party cadres were mentioned by name as “straying from the party line” and “spreading dangerous propaganda against the government.” Even more ominously, Kagame said, “some of them are involved in activities that can lead to serious crimes, which can amount to conspiracy against the state.”

All this creates fear in the minds of many people who were once Kagame’s most reliable supporters. In a country where rumors are widely used for strategic gains, both in high politics and in daily life, it is not too difficult to turn someone into a suspect, if only to settle personal scores. Although Kagame has stated on several occasions that a coup d’etat is impossible, the mere fact that he needs to make that kind of assurance shows his concern.

Both within the RPF and among the army and intelligence services—which are the military basis of a regime that appeared solid and coherent, at least from the outside—more cracks are appearing. But given the existence of a formidable intelligence and repression apparatus, this unraveling may take time. It is impossible to predict what form a major challenge to Kagame’s rule could take: an attempt on his life, a palace revolution, a change of regime by a coalition of the malcontent—all these scenarios are possible.

It is also impossible to forecast what the consequences of a potentially violent takeover would be. Indeed it could unleash domestic and regional dynamics that have been hidden under pervasive structural violence during the past two decades. Straddling the Rift Valley, the metaphor that naturally comes to mind about Rwanda is that of a volcano waiting to erupt.

Filip Reyntjens is Professor of Law and Politics at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. He has worked for nearly 40 years on the African Great Lakes Region on which he has published several books and hundreds of scholarly articles. His latest book is “Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda” (Cambridge University Press, 2013).


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