Paul Kagame has over 260,000 followers on Twitter, and has become well-known for using the service to engage with his followers. "I think it [Twitter] is very important from my perspective," he told Wired last year. "I learn a lot from that because you are having free access to as wide opinion as the whole world has ... I learn about people's views, about challenges, and that goes beyond Rwanda itself."
For the past few weeks, however, the Rwandan president hasn't been tweeting, apparently taking a break from the service. That is, until Thursday morning, when something quite unusual – and possibly revealing – happened.
It began when Laura Seay, a political scientist with Colby College, approvingly tweeted of the work by Sonia Rolley, a journalist with RFI who has been covering the deaths of Rwandan dissidents. This tweet, in turn, prompted a response from an account named "@RichardGoldston."
"'Goldston' was insulting Sonia in a number of ways," Seay told me in an e-mail, "including a really bizarre attempt to embarrass or slut-shame her, implying that she had been dating Patrick Karegeya (the Rwandan dissident who turned up dead in South Africa on January 1) and that he had sultry details on their interactions."
At this point Steve Terrill, another journalist who covers Rwanda, stepped in to ask that @RichardGoldston stop the "misogynistic harassment" of Rolley (you can read the tweets here, but note that the @RichardGoldston account has been deleted).
After a little back and forth, something strange happened: Kagame himself apparently stepped in, tweeting directly at Terrill. The tweets have since been deleted, but not before people were able to get a screenshot:
Another view of Kagame's deleted tweet. Very mysterious. (4/4) pic.twitter.com/Nu3tBxCepv— Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) March 6, 2014
I spoke to Terrill on the phone on Friday morning, and he said that his first thought was that Kagame himself had chided him. However, when the tweets were deleted, and later the entire @RichardGoldston account was erased too, Terrill realized another possibility: Someone with access to Kagame's Twitter was behind the @RichardGoldston account, and had accidentally tweeted from the wrong account.
While the @RichardGoldston is now gone, an old version can be found with Google Cache and it's certainly curious. The account's name appears to be a reference to Richard Goldstone, the first United Nations Prosecutor for Rwanda, and the photograph was of Andrew M. Manis, a history professor at Macon State College in Georgia who has no obvious link to Rwanda. "I am a descendant of an English imperialist," a bio on the cached Twitter account reads, "and i [sic] regret every deed that imperialistic policies did to Africa. I am on a mission to clear my conscience." The account had over 2,000 followers, and appeared to be well known among those who follow Rwanda.
"Goldston has trolled a lot of people, basically anyone prominent who criticized Rwanda in even the slightest way," Seay says. "This includes Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth and the Special Representative of the Secretary General for DRC Martin Kobler."
Terrill says that he has had suspicions about the @RichardGoldston Twitter account for a while: Despite the picture of Manis (who has denied any link to the account), it seemed to be written by a Rwandan, and, notably, it was followed by a number of official Rwandan accounts. After searching back through the account's tweets on social media analytic tool Topsy, Terrill says he found that the account had asked someone to e-mail him at at an address linked to the president's office. The "@RichardGoldston" account appeared to be the work of someone in Kagame's communications department: Someone he'd actually had drinks with on certain occasions. When he asked the president's office about it, he says, they dismissed the idea. Requests for comment from Kagame's office from the Washington Post went unanswered on Friday.
Twitter trolls are two-a-penny, of course, and even if Kagame's Twitter ghostwriter is really behind the @RichardGoldston account it may look like an embarrassment rather than a scandal. However, the fact that the tweet that started this was a reference to Rolley's reporting on the death of Rwandan dissidents lends the situation a darker tone.
For the past few months, Rolley had been reporting on the death of Patrick Karegeya, the former head of Rwanda's intelligence communities who was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel on Jan. 1. Karegeya had become one of the most vocal critics of Kagame since falling out with the president in 2007. The Rwandan government denied any involvement in his death, but apparently couldn't hide their pleasure. “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog," Defense Minister General James Kabarebe has reportedly said.
The death of Karegeya would be suspicious enough on its own, but some suspect it to be part of a broader trend to silence Rwandan critics who have fled abroad. Just this week, armed men attacked the home of Kayumba Nyamwasa, an exiled Rwandan general living in Johannesburg. "They searched almost every room," a source close to Nyamasa's family told AFP. "It can't be an armed robbery. You don't ask where 'are the people?'" Nyamwasa wasn't home, and South Africa on Friday expelled three Rwandan diplomats it believes were linked to the attack.
One of @RichardGoldston's deleted tweets from Thursday morning was apparently a reference to Rolley's "reporting since January 3." As Rolley later noted, the only incident she could recall that happened on Jan. 3 was when Karegeya's phone, taken by his murderers, was apparently turned on that day (Rolley declined to comment for this article).
It's worth remembering, of course, that this year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and the Rwandan government has big plans to commemorate it. Kagame was initially praised by the international elite for his role in leading Rwanda out of that terrible period – Tony Blair once called him a "visionary leader" for example. In the past few years, however, people have become more skeptical, with Politico recently dubbing him a "darling tyrant."
With Thursday's social media slip, his once-praised Twitter presence now seems like it could perhaps be placed under the latter category, serving as a reminder of the harassment and political pressure many people say they feel in Rwanda today.
UPDATE: After this story was published, Kageme's office sent out this tweet:
@RichardGoldston was an unauthorized account run by an employee in the Presidency. It has been deleted and the staff member reprimanded.— Presidency | Rwanda (@UrugwiroVillage) March 8, 2014