Rwanda hit squads keep targeting hit squad whistleblowers

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

“Rwandan officer who leaked assassination-list evidence becomes a target” – The Globe and Mail

The U.S. State Department warned former Rwandan Major Robert Higiro of a “credible” threat to his life (while residing in Belgium) after his evidential participation in efforts to stop the current Rwandan regime from continuing its global hit squad operations against critics and opposition figures. (This has been an ongoing crisis for many years now.)

Interesting to watch the U.S. State Department finally cooling significantly on its past enthusiasm for the Kagame regime in Kigali, Rwanda — in large part due to Kagame’s bid for an infinite presidency.

Rwanda joins the Third-Termism bandwagon

As long expected, Rwanda’s parliament has joined neighboring Congo and Burundi (and beyond) in bids to repeal constitutionally-imposed term limits on their presidencies. France24:

The debate, set to take place over the next two months, was prompted by parliament being handed petitions signed by a total of two million people – or roughly 17 percent of the population – asking for the constitution to be changed, the head of the chamber, Donatilla Mukabalisa, told AFP.

“We have received two million requests,” she said, explaining that parliament has been receiving a number of what she insisted were spontaneous letters and petitions from individuals, groups or associations.

However, there are two significant differences in the Rwanda case, although all involve relatively authoritarian elected leaders.

The first is that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is already now in his 15th year in office (3 of them under an older constitution and 10 under the 2003 constitution) and the term length at the moment is a whopping 7 years. That length used to be more common under constitutions inspired by the French constitution of 1958, but it had fallen out of favor in most places some time ago and was removed in France itself in 2000. 4-5 years is the prevailing world standard for presidents and prime ministers at this point. Kagame’s new “first” term (after the 2003 constitution) was from 2003 to 2010. His second term began in 2010 and will not end until 2017. He would therefore have served a full 17 years as President of Rwanda even before embarking on a “third” term under the proposed constitutional revision now under consideration. Were he to serve out that term as well, and assuming that the term lengths are not shortened when the limit is lifted, Mr. Kagame would have served for an uninterrupted 24 years. As usual, his relationship with democracy is superficial and procedural at best.

The second is that, unlike many of the sub-Saharan African leaders who have been trying to remove term limits in the past year, Paul Kagame is widely supported enthusiastically by the international community to the point of getting a free pass on most abusive actions. It will be interesting to see which allies, if any, part ways with him over this issue after so much Western criticism of efforts to lift term limits in other countries.

Violent clashes in Burundi as the president clings to power

After Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his long-anticipated plans to seek a third term as president in violation of the post-civil war constitution’s term limits, deadly protests erupted this weekend. They have escalated rapidly after initial fatalities:

Gunfire was heard and streets were barricaded in parts of the capital, Bujumbura, in the third day of protests, witnesses told the BBC. Police are blocking about students in the second city, Gitega, from joining the demonstrations, residents said.

The protests are the biggest in Burundi since the civil war ended in 2005. The army and police have been deployed to quell the protests, which have been described by government officials as an insurrection.
BBC Burundi analyst Prime Ndikumagenge says the phone lines of private radio stations have been cut, a decision apparently taken by the authorities to prevent news of protests from spreading.

This may be the contagion some observers speculated might unfold after the uprising in Burkina Faso last October, when President Blaise Compaoré tried to extend his presidency in a similar fashion.

Flag of Burundi

Flag of Burundi

Burundi’s Army has been accused repeatedly of conducting extrajudicial mass executions of “rebels” and political opponents. Already, thousands of people have fled political persecution to neighboring countries in just a matter of months. Burundi also has a very low median age — half the population is younger than 17, according to the CIA World Factbook — and the President has essentially created child death squads by arming teenage members of his political party’s “youth wing.”

Burundi, which has the same colonially-fostered Hutu/Tutsi split as neighboring Rwanda, experienced a 12-year civil war beginning shortly before the Rwandan Genocide and continuing until 2005, despite repeated attempts to share power. The presidents of both countries were killed in a surface-to-air missile strike on their plane in 1994, in the incident which was widely seen as the trigger signal to initiate the genocide in Rwanda. However, the war in Burundi was already in progress at that point. Hundreds of thousands died before the 2005 peace deal.

It is interesting, however, to note that so far the armed forces have continued to respond to orders from President Nkurunziza. He is Hutu, and the armed forces are a mix of ex-rebel Hutus and the Tutsi regular troops from before the peace deal. In South Sudan, a merger of various ex-rebels from competing ethnic groups, which had been secured around the same time as the Burundi deal, basically broke down completely in December 2013 as certain factions obeyed the president and others the former vice-president, who had been sacked.

Those who intervened

It is the 20th anniversary right now of the start of the Rwandan Genocide. In Yugoslavia, in the same time span, there were many massacres and ethnic purges occurring as well, as the country continued to disintegrate over the the 1990s. (Next year will be the anniversary of the worst European massacre in postwar history.) There have been a number of compelling and important perspectives and accounts surfacing now, two decades later, from both episodes.

In Rwanda, there was very little outside intervention until the very end, when it was already over. In Bosnia and the wider Yugoslav conflict, there was some intervention off and on by outside powers to try to halt the violence, but it was generally too little too late. Certainly much of the external narrative focuses on those who failed to stand up — inside and outside the countries — to protect the innocent civilians. I think that’s important and justified, in that we should not forget and must do better. But it’s also important to remember and honor those who did intervene in these crises, at great personal risk — because their stories are the ones that remind us we could have and should have helped.

Here are two accounts I’ve read this week that I wanted to highlight. I’ve pulled just one paragraph from each, to encourage you to read the full articles.


Background: As the cowardly UN Security Council voted to start pulling hundreds of peacekeepers out of Rwanda during the genocide, a Ghanaian general decided on his own (for which he would be scolded by his president later) that he would not withdraw his last 454 troops from the country. They were young, inexperienced, and barely armed. The militias had already brazenly executed Belgian peacekeeping troops with impunity. And still the Ghanaians stayed. They are credited with saving as many as 30,000 lives, often simply by refusing to move out of the way and talking and talking until the militiamen left in frustration. There were only 5 casualties.

Excerpt from “Ghana peacekeepers remember Rwanda’s genocide” by Chris Stein for Al Jazeera:

The colonel demanded that they call their commanders, going back and forth with the leaders of the assembled mob for hours. The militiamen would threaten him with grenades, going so far as to pull out their pins in front of his face. [Col.] Yaache would pick the pins up off the ground and put them back in the grenades himself.


“I Found the Man Who Saved My Family From a Balkan Death Camp” by Kenan Trebinčević for Slate.


I realized that Pero never had the power to stop the massacres. Yet he’d carry our murdered citizens on his conscience. I could never forget: He saved my family. I decided he was a noble man trapped in a depravity he didn’t ask for. While I was a bilingual world traveler nearly able to move on, history held him hostage, keeping him from rest. I wondered for the first time if he’d suffered more than I did.

Central African Republic: “Euphoric Destruction”

Warning: This post contains descriptions of extreme violence.

The situation in Central African Republic has descended into total chaos and horrific violence that firsthand observers are comparing to scenes from the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 (although — not that this is any consolation — the rate of killing is nowhere near as high).

Over a hundred people in the capital were killed or wounded in the last four days, according to the Red Cross.

Antoine Mbao Bogo, head of the CAR’s Red Cross, said that a total of 35 bodies had been recovered from the streets in many areas of the city over the last three days and eight more bodies had been found on Friday morning.

He said the victims were from both the Muslim and Christian communities.

“A few weeks ago people were dying more from gun wounds… but now it is mostly from things like knives. Sometimes they burn the corpses,” he told the BBC’s Focus on Africa radio programme.

Human Rights Watch is claiming that French troops stood by and did nothing as two Muslim men were hacked to death and mutilated at the entrance of the Christian refugee camp at the capital airport in Central African Republic. The French Defense Ministry has yet to comment. The French troops say their mandate is limited to disarming the Muslim militias and does not include intervening when the Christian militias begin attacking.

Technically, this may even be correct, given the comments by the French Defense Minister back in December:

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the goal of the French military mission in the Central African Republic was to provide “a minimum of security to allow for a humanitarian intervention to be put in place”.

So, they are interpreting their mandate largely as a political security operation to pave the way for somebody else’s human security operation, which has yet to materialize. That’s not a particularly brave act. French peacekeeping troops, regardless of their orders, can and should act to protect civilians being killed in front of them — as a Dutch court ruled last year on their spineless peacekeepers in Bosnia in the 1995 Srebenica massacre. It’s a moral obligation to get involved when you’re an armed soldier seeing people commit murder in front of your very eyes.

Here’s another account also by Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch — one of the most vocal eyewitnesses offering news from the ground — published in The Independent:

Last Wednesday, immediately after the Séléka fled the Muslim neighbourhood of PK13 in Bangui, hundreds of anti-balaka fighters arrived, chasing away the remaining inhabitants, who fled to the relative safety of Rwandan peacekeepers at the scene. All around us, homes were being systematically looted and dismantled in an atmosphere of euphoric destruction. The main mosque was dismantled by a crowd of machete-wielding fighters who told us: “We do not want any more Muslims in our country. We will finish them all off. This country belongs to the Christians.”

I pleaded with the anti-balaka fighters to leave the PK13 residents alone, but they showed no sign of mercy, telling me: “You get them out of here, or they will all be dead by morning. We will take our revenge.”

The death records of the Bangui morgue read like a chapter from Dante’s Inferno: page after page of people tortured, lynched, shot, or burnt to death. The smell of rotting corpses is overwhelming, as when people die in such numbers, it is impossible to bury them immediately. On really bad days, no names are recorded, just the numbers of dead. In the 15 minutes we managed to remain amid the stench and horror, two more bodies arrived: a Muslim hacked to death with machetes, and a Christian shot dead by the Séléka.

The controversial “peacekeeping” troops from neighboring Chad continue to get into increasingly violent clashes with Christian militias and civilians as they evacuate their own citizens — and, unfortunately, the Séléka leaders who launched the waves of attacks in the first place.

In contrast, some of the other regional peacekeepers seem to be taking a more aggressive role in intervening between armed groups and unarmed civilian targets. For the Rwandan troops, who are by and large commanded by Tutsi officers who witnessed the 1994 anti-Tutsi genocide firsthand, this is deeply affecting.

A commander of the Rwandan troops told me that their intervention in the Central African Republic crisis is deeply personal for him and his troops: “What we see here reminds us of what we experienced in Rwanda in 1994,” he told me, “and we are absolutely determined not to let 1994 happen again.”

But they are utterly unprepared and under-equipped to cope with the scale of the unfolding violence. As in the Rwandan Genocide, it’s extremely hard for a small foreign peacekeeping force to stop autonomous, decentralized bands of machete-wielding irregulars and armed “civilians” who aren’t taking orders from anyone and have been whipped into a murderous frenzy.

Even the fresh UN troops from the EU probably won’t help as they’ve been tasked primarily with aiding the existing French protection details on the Christian camps in the capital. With the tables turned on the Muslim population, the Christians — while still at risk — aren’t the most vulnerable right now. The United Nations mission also remains in dire need of emergency funds.

An unconvincing counterargument

Killing a newspaper editor is not a compelling rebuttal to that editor’s allegation of assassinations, in my humble opinion. And the circumstances point clearly to his death being a government-sponsored assassination, too:

A Rwandan journalist who accused the Rwandan government of trying to assassinate a dissident in South Africa was himself killed Thursday night in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

Jean-Leonard Rugambage, 34, an editor and reporter for a suspended private tabloid, was shot twice and killed late Thursday night near his home, police officials said. Violent crime is exceedingly rare in Kigali, which is known as one of the safest and most orderly capitals in Africa.

Mr. Gasasira said that he and Mr. Rugambage had published an article on Thursday linking Rwandan government military and intelligence officers to the recent shooting of Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former high-ranking Rwandan general who recently defected to South Africa. Mr. Nyamwasa was shot and wounded by a lone gunman, who did not steal anything, on the streets of Johannesburg last Saturday.

Umuvugizi’s article claimed that a senior intelligence officer close to President Paul Kagame had telephoned orders to kill Mr. Nyamwasa, and that a former presidential guard was among the four suspects arrested in the past week in connection with the shooting.

Gen. Nyamwasa was considered a state enemy, like most people who oppose the current government of Rwanda.

This has been another chapter in my ongoing series of posts on Rwanda’s ruling party’s abuses in the post-Genocide period.

This article originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

A Rwandan Genocide legacy (part 3)

In parts 1 and 2 of my expanding series on a lesser-noted legacy of the Rwandan Genocide, I looked at some of the abuses that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) committed in the past and are committing today. With very close ties to the United States government and military, President Paul Kagame has been able to get away with many things, in large part because he liberated Rwanda from the extremist Hutu dictatorship that was precisely carrying out a genocide against the Tutsi minorities. It’s pretty hard to criticize the person that finally ended one of the very worst genocides of the 20th century, after over 900,000 people had been systematically murdered nationwide, with the world watching and doing nothing.

In part 1, I cited Kagame and the RPF’s consolidation of power and suppression of opposition parties ahead of national elections this year, as well as the creation of a secretive work-prison camp holding abducted children. In part 2, I examined how dissent and new historical research attempts are being silenced on grounds of fomenting genocide and civil war.

In a similar vein, defense lawyers for those charged with crimes involving the 1994 genocide report serious intimidation even though they are merely serving the international community by providing legal counsel to defendants. One American lawyer has actually been arrested as a national security threat and Genocide denier, probably in part because he is representing a client that is an enemy of the individuals in power in the post-Genocide government. NY Times, 6/12/10:

Defense lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which has been prosecuting ringleaders of the 1994 genocide, are threatening to stop participating in cases after one of their colleagues was jailed by the Rwandan government last month.

A growing number of lawyers contend that Peter Erlinder, an American who represents a senior Rwandan Army officer accused of directing death squads, was arrested for his statements at the tribunal even though he is supposed to be protected by diplomatic immunity while working for it.

Mr. Erlinder, 62, is charged with denying Rwanda’s genocide and threatening national security through his writings and speeches. Rwanda’s government argues that Mr. Erlinder’s work can “instigate riots” and “civil disobediences,” but it seems that many of the statements that the Rwandan government finds objectionable are actually part of Mr. Erlinder’s work as a lawyer in the United States and in Arusha, Tanzania, where the United Nations-backed tribunal for Rwanda is based.

So far, 11 lawyers with imminent court appearances have formally requested that the courts postpone their cases. At least 40 in total — a majority of the defense lawyers working for the tribunal — have signed a general petition saying they plan not to work unless their security can be guaranteed.

An article published today suggests that the lawyer who has been arrested might actually have been arrested because outside the ICTR he had decided to represent an opposition candidate who had pointed out the RPF also committed reciprocal atrocities during, preceding, and following the Genocide, when they were a rebel group working to overthrow the Hutu regime and wipe out the genocidaires after the events of 1994. As I discussed at length in part 1 of this series, that’s exactly what did happen, and yet she was arrested as a promoter of “genocide ideology” because she chose to speak out with the truth.

Furthermore, the lawyer in question recently filed a lawsuit, on behalf of the widows of the late presidents of Burundi and Rwanda who were killed in 1994 in an attack on the presidential plane that set the Rwandan Genocide in motion… and the lawsuit alleged (as France has in the past) that then-General Kagame had ordered the RPF’s security detachment in the capital to shoot down the plane. Since Kagame is now president, this is an extremely unpopular move to make within the ruling party’s upper ranks and was probably a serious compounding factor in his arrest. (And from what I understand, it’s much more likely that Hutu military extremists behind the coup shot the plane down, to provide the pretext to seize control and begin the killings within hours, and so this is obviously a very touchy subject with the Tutsis in power.)

Now, I have to state that I have no idea what this lawyer’s actual motivations are. He could very well be sympathetic to the Hutu side or he could be in it for the money (though that’s hard to believe if he’s an ICTR lawyer). Maybe he really believes that the Genocide wasn’t planned, when he says that on behalf of his clients charged with war crimes. However, he is a law professor and an international lawyer. It’s much more likely that he believes he’s just fulfilling a necessary role in a fair judicial system, which is that somebody has to represent the worst of the worst, or even just “the other side” of the story, to make sure everyone gets their day in court without making a mockery of the system. His legal statements probably don’t reflect his personal beliefs.

On balance, sure, the Rwandan Patriotic Front were almost certainly the “good guys,” if we have to pick, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t done bad things (e.g. killing Hutu civilians, destabilizing the Democratic Republic of the Congo several times), and as a political party in the post-Genocide period, they have been doing some very bad things that undermine the fledgling democracy of the country. If they continue to intimidate people and silence dissent or alternative viewpoints, they are not protecting any Rwandans or national security, but rather they are protecting themselves and their power… and the international community should be willing to criticize that and pressure the government to stop. Defense lawyers, who already face a nasty job in general, should not be facing the threat of twenty-year prison sentences just for doing their jobs to help international justice be served.

This article originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.