Lara Santoro is the author of two novels. She covered Rwanda for the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek from 1997 to 2003.
Patrick Karegeya’s murder did not come as a surprise. The former Rwandan spymaster, whose network of spooks at one point spanned half a continent, had fallen foul of President Paul Kagame in 2007 and went on to help found the opposition, headquartered in South Africa. But as human rights organizations keep noting, the survival rate among Rwanda’s dissidents is not high .
The country that many in the West associate with brave recovery from genocide in the 1990s has, in the years since, turned into an autocratic state with zero tolerance for dissent. Filip Reyntjens, a leading academic authority on Rwanda, says the central African country is no longer “a state with an army but an army with a state.” It’s a depressing transformation, although true plurality was unlikely to blossom in that country, with a 15 percent ethnic minority effectively in charge.
What did come as a surprise was the way Karegeya was murdered. His strangled body was found in a Johannesburg hotel room Jan. 1. The killers didn’t even bother to tidy up: They left the rope and a bloodied towel behind, as well as a “do not disturb” sign on the door. “It’s Kagame’s impunity,” Theogene Rudasingwa, a former Rwandan ambassador to the United States and one of the leaders of the Rwandan opposition in exile, said in an interview. “He doesn’t care anymore, no one has ever held him accountable, so why should he care?”
Kagame has denied involvement in the murder, but at a recent prayer meeting in the Rwandan capital he said, “You cannot expect to betray your country and get away with it.” Aside from a brief statement by the South African police mentioning strangulation, the circumstances of Karegeya’s death remain mysterious. What is clear, however, is that no one had greater interest in seeing Karegeya dead than Kagame. Experts on the region say that Karegeya’s job description under Kagame included eliminating enemies — potential and actual — which left Karegeya with a lot of sensitive information. “It was pretty clear to everyone what Karegeya’s job was,” professor Brian Endless of Loyola University said in an interview just after the murder. “Even he wasn’t terribly shy about it. He took care of dissidents, in however distasteful a fashion was required.”
When someone was deemed a problem outside Rwanda — be it in Kenya, Congo or other countries — it was Karegeya’s job to get rid of them. (Internally, the job fell to Jack Nziza, whom Rudasingwa called “the most feared man in Rwanda”).
Whatever “problems” Karegeya allegedly eliminated at Kagame’s behest is unknown, but Endless and others have estimated that the number is in the double digits and includes former interior minister Seth Sendashonga, who was gunned down in traffic in Nairobi in 1998.
Such information is public knowledge in Rwanda. When Nziza walks into a room, Rudasingwa told me, people start to shake. The murder of Karegeya does more than silence a potential squealer. It sends a message to the Rwandan opposition and to ordinary citizens: If someone as powerful, rich, competent and cunning as Karegeya can be dispatched, what can be done to the average citizen? Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch attest that the levels of fear in Rwanda are pathologically high: Too many people have vanished and later turned up dead. Karegeya’s death is certain to make the situation worse.
Despite a clear pattern of stifled dissent during his tenure, Kagame is about to receive his latest installment of U.S. bilateral aid. Overall foreign aid to Rwanda — estimated to be about $800 million a year — is roughly 40 percent of its government expenditure, keeping the country afloat. Karegeya’s murder ought to open a debate on whether Rwanda should receive any aid at all.