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Assassination in Africa: Inside the plots to kill Rwanda’s dissidents Add to ...

Rwanda's
Hunted

Much of the world regards President Paul Kagame as a hero. But 20 years after he helped to stop his country’s brutal genocide, there are mounting allegations that he is silencing dissenters with violence.

A months-long, international inquiry by The Globe’s Geoffrey York and contributor Judi Rever has uncovered explosive testimonies from those who say they were recruited for assassinations – including an alleged recording of one job offer

(David Johnson/Corbis Outline)

‘The price is not a problem,” says the man on the phone. "We will show our appreciation if things are beautifully done. They will be rewarded."

The tone of this offer, calm and confident, is so casual it could be about bringing on workers for a plumbing job. What is actually under discussion: $1-million for the hiring of contract killers to assassinate two of Rwandan President Paul Kagame's most hated enemies.

It is 2011, and the speaker is Colonel Dan Munyuza, Rwanda's director of military intelligence and a trusted ally of the Rwandan president. The man on the other end of the line is Robert Higiro, a former Rwandan army major living in exile.

But Mr. Higiro said he had no intention of hiring killers. He had been tapped for the assassinations months before, and informed the targets. They told him to play along with Col. Munyuza - and to tape the explosive conversations.

When one of the two targets was brutally killed on Dec. 31, and gunmen tried to kill the second, Mr. Higiro agreed to share those recordings with The Globe and Mail. Three independent sources - former army colleagues who also know Col. Munyuza personally - confirmed that the voice on tape is his. Two independent translators worked on transcribing the phone recordings from the original Kinyarwanda language.

The phone recordings are part of a months-long investigation by The Globe into murder plots organized by the Rwandan government. Rwandan exiles in both South Africa and Belgium - speaking in clandestine meetings in secure locations because of their fears of attack - gave detailed accounts of being recruited to assassinate critics of President Kagame.

Their evidence is the strongest yet to support what human rights groups and Rwandan exiles have suspected for years about the Rwandan government's involvement in attacks or planned attacks on dissidents, not only in South Africa but in Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Uganda, Kenya and Mozambique.

It also raises new questions about the world's moral stand on Rwanda. This year, the country marks the 20th anniversary of a shocking genocide. Because he helped stop the genocide, Mr. Kagame is hailed as a hero and his reborn country is touted as a model for African development - stable, business-oriented, fast-growing, environmentally clean and virtually free of pettty corruption. But as revelations of murder plots and assassinations mount, easy narratives of good overcoming evil become more and more difficult to sustain. The reality in Rwanda is far more complex. The mass killings of the 1990s and the recent assassination plots left almost no one untainted.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kagame's enemies live in fear - or in hiding - after a wave of attacks against them.

And they are the lucky ones: On New Year's Eve, one of the Mr. Kagame's most-wanted, Rwandan dissident Patrick Karegeya, was brutally strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel room. His killer or killers remain at large.

Too close for comfort

Rwanda has repeatedly denied any link to the attacks on dissidents abroad. Presented with the key allegations in this story, Vincent Karegeya, the Rwandan high commissioner to South Africa, said this week that the accounts by exiles are false and are motivated by a "political agenda."

If their stories are true, he said, they should go to the police and provide evidence for criminal charges. "These are stories that we can't rely on. They even sound a bit bizarre. It's a basic principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty."

When The Globe requested an interview with Col. Munyuza, the high commission said it would be impossible because the colonel is not an official government spokesman.

The assassination plots matter because of their implications for a country that is crucial to Western policy in Central Africa. Although a nation of only about 12 million people, Rwanda has been a key player in the wars and rebellions that have killed millions of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its role in perpetrating violence beyond its borders has often been ignored because of the worldwide sympathy for the 1994 genocide. Even reports from UN investigators accusing Mr. Kagame's army of mass slaughters in Congo in the 1990s have generally been brushed aside by the West, which continues to offer huge amounts of aid and political support to the country.

But many of Mr. Kagame's closest aides, who have inside knowledge of the violence in Central Africa, have defected and fled the country in recent years. These men, now dissidents, were members of Mr. Kagame's inner circle during some of the most significant events in African history: the presidential jet that was shot down in 1994, killing the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and igniting the Rwandan genocide, for example, and the 2001 assassination of Laurent Kabila, the Rwandan-backed rebel who became Congo's president. There have been frequent allegations that Mr. Kagame's loyalists were involved in both events, and the exiled dissidents say they have evidence to support those suspicions.

Four high-profile dissidents formed the Rwanda National Congress in 2010. The organization's goal is "to bring political change to Rwanda." Mr. Kagame has denounced its leaders as "terrorists" and cancelled their Rwandan passports. In early 2011, they were tried in a military court in absentia and sentenced to 20 to 24 years of prison on charges of destabilizing public order, endangering state security and fuelling ethnic division.

The convictions are dubious. Rwanda's courts are not independent. Mr. Kagame dominates the country in an authoritarian system that permits no serious opposition. But he remains enraged at the RNC's challenge. The two RNC founders at the top of Mr. Kagame's most-wanted list - and who Mr. Higiro alleges he was paid to have murdered - were Mr. Kagame's former army chief, General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, and his former intelligence chief, Colonel Karegeya.

Because both men were part of Mr. Kagame's regime, they have not escaped blame for atrocities in the 1990s. A Spanish court has accused Gen. Nyamwasa of war crimes because of the Rwandan Patriotic Front's involvement in the killing of civilians and refugees during that time. (The same court also found evidence against Mr. Kagame and his defence minister, but said Mr. Kagame had immunity as a head of state.) The general has also been asked to testify on the RPF's role in the presidential jet crash of 1994, which is still being investigated by an anti-terrorism inquiry in France.

But the complications of their own pasts also make men like Gen. Nyamwasa and other RNC leaders dangerous to Mr. Kagame. Gen. Nyamwasa's testimony, for example, could contain fresh revelations about who was responsible for the 1994 plane crash. He and other leaders also have extensive military connections that could allow them to incite a revolt against the Rwandan President. "These are people who were close to him, people who understand his way of operating," says Mr. Higiro. "Kayumba [Nyamwasa] formed the military. He knows everybody."

Most-wanted men

Major-General Paul Kagame's forces appeared on the verge of seizing the capital of Kigali on May 22, 1994. The RPF captured the airport, the main government army Kanombe barracks and headed toward the heart of the city. (Jeremiah Kamau/Reuters)

Over the past four years, Gen. Nyamwasa has been the target of a series of attacks and murder plots, which - according to the South African government and other sources - were orchestrated by Rwandan government agents. Deeply worried about his safety, he agreed to talk to The Globe only in a heavily guarded courtroom in the town of Kagiso, near Johannesburg, where six men (including three Rwandans) are on trial for one of those attempts to kill him.

At one time, though, the general was one of the Rwandan President's closest comrades. He served with Mr. Kagame in the Ugandan army in the late-1980s; together they helped found the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a largely Tutsi rebel movement, and led its invasion of Rwanda in 1990, fighting the largely Hutu army during the genocide. When the RPF became the ruling party in 1994, Gen. Nyamwasa held senior posts, including as the army chief of staff.

He says he began to fall out with Mr. Kagame around 2002, when the government arrested a Hutu opposition leader and former president, Pasteur Bizimungu. Gen. Nyamwasa says he disagreed with the arrest. He remembers how Mr. Kagame became "jittery and excited" in their arguments, denouncing Mr. Bizimungu as an "enemy."

A few years later, Gen. Nyamwasa was pushed aside and appointed to a lower-ranking post as ambassador to India. Then, in early 2010, on a return trip to Rwanda, he was interrogated by senior RPF officials about his suspected dissent, and realized he could be arrested. So, at dawn the next morning, he drove to the border and swam across a crocodile-infested river to Uganda. "It was dangerous, but I had to take the risk," he says. "I knew they would kill me."

He made his way to South Africa, but his defection infuriated Mr. Kagame. Three months after arriving in South Africa, he was shot in the stomach by assailants at his home in a Johannesburg suburb. (He still has the bullet in his spine.) As he recuperated in hospital, another group of attackers tried to kill him in his room. According to South African officials, one of the suspects planned to strangle the general with string.

Rwandan government agents were among the six people arrested for the first attack, according to the South African authorities, who also reported that the suspects had offered a $1-million bribe to get the charges dropped.

In total, Gen. Nyamwasa says he has been the target of at least four murder attempts - most recently on March 4, when a group of heavily armed men broke into his government-supplied "safe house" in Johannesburg and hunted for him room-by-room after overpowering his police guards.

He had been forewarned, and the house was empty. Things went differently for the other man on Mr. Kagame's hit-list, Patrick Karegeya.

Born in exile in Uganda, Col. Karegeya joined Mr. Kagame and the RPF rebel movement in its early days, leading up to its invasion of Rwanda in 1990. He was the intelligence chief from 1994 to 2004, but began to disagree with Mr. Kagame's repressive policies.

He was jailed for six months in 2005 for unspecified "disciplinary" infractions. The following year, he was jailed again for 18 months for "desertion and insubordination." When he was released from prison in November, 2007, he fled the country and journeyed to South Africa as a refugee.

The South African government put him up in a safe house to prevent him from being attacked. But Col. Karegeya found it difficult to earn an income in the witness-protection system, and he felt isolated. His daughter, a university student and intern at a human-rights centre, was living in Canada.

Col. Karegeya moved out of the safe house and let down his guard - a decision that cost him his life.

David Batenga, his nephew, remembers the horror of identifying his uncle's body after he was strangled with a towel and a curtain rope in an upscale hotel in Johannesburg's business district, Sandton. After his uncle had disappeared on Dec. 31, it took him many hours to persuade the hotel staff to check the room. By the time the hotel contacted police to investigate, Col. Karegeya had been dead for 24 hours. His face was blackened and shrunk, and the killer or killers were long gone.

In an interview last month at a hotel where he feels safe, Mr. Batenga said his uncle was normally very cautious about meeting any visitor from Rwanda. But in late December, he was visited by an old and trusted friend: a Rwandan businessman whom he had known for many years.

The businessman had been harassed by Rwandan authorities because of his friendship with Col. Karegeya, and this made the colonel sympathetic to him, Mr. Batenga said. But he was also developing a major retail project in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, which may have left him vulnerable to pressure from Rwandan agents seeking his co-operation in a murder plot.

Before his arrival in Johannesburg on Dec. 29, the businessman had asked Col. Karegeya to rent him a room at the Michelangelo Towers hotel. On New Year's Eve, the Colonel visited the hotel room, number 905, to share a drink with his friend. He was never seen alive again.

Directly across the hotel corridor from room 905, Mr. Batenga alleges, two Rwandan agents had rented a room - and he believes they were involved in the murder. The next morning, before the body was discovered, all of them returned to Kigali on a commercial flight, he said.

Within days, Rwanda's top leaders were gloating about Col. Karegeya's murder. The foreign minister and prime minister denounced the former intelligence chief as an "enemy" who had suffered the consequences of his "betrayal" of his country. "When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash," said the defence minister, Gen. James Kabarebe.

Mr. Kagame denied Rwandan involvement in Col. Karegeya's murder but said he would have been happy if Rwanda had killed him. "I really wish it," he told an interviewer.

Even before this murder, Mr. Kagame made little secret of his desire to see the RNC leaders dead. "Maybe he deserves it," Mr. Kagame told an interviewer in 2012 when asked about the attempted murder of Gen. Nyamwasa. His propaganda newspaper, the New Times, said the RNC leaders should suffer the same fate as Osama bin Laden.

Robert Higiro was part of Paul Kagame’s rebel army in 1990 when it invaded Rwanda. Here, the two men (Mr. Higiro at right) attend a military academy ceremony. (Courtesy of Robert Higiro)

‘He has a job for you’

The investigation by The Globe and Mail found a common thread in interviews about plots to murder exiles: Rwandan agents search for vulnerable people within the social circles of their targets and then put pressure on them or offer them money in exchange for their co-operation. In some cases, the agents go back repeatedly to the same potential assassins even if they failed to do the job, urging them to do what they were paid to do.

Robert Higiro was one of them.

Born in exile in Uganda in 1972, he joined Mr. Kagame's rebel army in 1990 when it invaded Rwanda. After 20 years in the army, he was serving as a United Nations peacekeeper in Darfur in 2010 when he fell afoul of the Rwandan authorities after making offhand comments critical of two senior Rwandan army officers.

Mr. Higiro was discharged from the army. He needed to make a new living, so he went to Uganda to pursue business opportunities, but was soon summoned to the Rwandan army headquarters to be questioned.

Mr. Higiro says it was then that Col. Munyuza first reached out to him. He was given about $500 for his transportation home (much more than he needed). But he says he was also put under covert surveillance. He wondered why he was becoming the subject of such attention.

He eventually fled to Senegal, where he had contacts, and within a few days was working for a French security company in Dakar.

Someone tied to Col. Munyuza came to talk to him.

"He has a job for you," Mr. Higiro says the intermediary told him.

A few days later, Col. Munyuza phoned him and asked him to go to South Africa to kill Col. Karegeya and Gen. Nyamwasa, says Mr. Higiro. If he did the job, the intelligence chief promised that he would be amply rewarded and would become "a hero" in his country.

Mr. Higiro stalled, fearing that he would be killed no matter what happened. He decided to phone Col. Karegeya - an old family friend - to warn him of the plot. Mr. Higiro says they agreed that he should play along with Mr. Munyuza's offer and secretly record the phone conversations. (Jump to an excerpt of one of those conversations.)

Mr. Higiro went to South Africa and invented a cover story. He told Col. Munyuza that he knew a South African military officer with a friend who could gain access to the dissisdent's bodyguards. The bodyguards could either kill the targets or allow a Rwandan hit squad to do the job. Mr. Higiro says he asked for a $1.5-million (U.S.) payment to arrange the hit, and Col. Munyuza countered with an offer of $1-million in installments.

In their recorded conversations, the man identified as Col. Munyuza suggests that the hit men could be rewarded with "a piece of the market" - possibly a contract at a Rwandan cellphone company. "Tell him that the essential thing is that the job is done and I'll take care of the rest," he says to Mr. Higiro. "I know people who've carried out similar jobs in the past, and they are well-treated today."

In another conversation, the colonel tells Mr. Higiro: "If we managed to hit both of them ... the others would shut up."

He adds: "If he could kill two birds with one stone and eliminate them both at once, he could earn more. Even one alone, the enemy would be weakened."

But these conversations eventually ended when the Rwandan officials refused to provide any upfront money. Talks petered off. And Mr. Higiro decided to take the chance to escape, first to Kenya, then Belgium, where he has applied for refugee status.

After the latest attacks on Rwandan dissidents this year, though, he decided to disclose the secret phone recordings.

"I think it's time to expose - using evidence that we have - that this conspiracy of assassinations is going on," he said in an interview in a hotel room in Brussels.

‘I can’t kill refugees’

A similar murder plot is described by a Rwandan exile named Gustave Tuyishime.

Born in Rwanda in 1979, he migrated to South Africa as a young man and got UN refugee status in 2001. He worked in odd jobs in Pretoria, as a taxi driver, a barman and a bouncer, but was often desperate for money. In 2011, he says, a Rwandan intelligence agent approached him and offered him about 100,000 rand (about $16,000 at the time) to buy a gun and shoot Gen. Nyamwasa or other RNC leaders, whom he knew through the small Rwandan exile community.

A total of about $15,000 was wired to him, he says, and he was given the address of a safe house in a small rural town where Gen. Nyamwasa was being guarded. He says he was promised millions of dollars, plus a government medal, if he completed the job. But he got cold feet. "I can't kill refugees," he says. "I'm a refugee myself."

He spent the money on a new car, warned the dissidents of the murder plot, gave a statement to the South African police, and then went into hiding, to the fury of the Rwandan agents.

Mr. Tuyishime, though highly nervous, agreed to meet for an interview at a Pretoria hotel after being contacted by Kennedy Gihana, an immigration lawyer and Kagame opponent who had become the RNC's secretary-general. The two know each other through Rwandan refugee circles and remain on amicable terms - even though Mr. Tuyishime says he was twice contracted to kill Mr. Gihana himself.

It was last year, Mr. Tuyishime says, that a senior Rwandan diplomat tracked him down and told him to repay the debt from the Gen. Nyamwasa job by doing a new hit for them.

First, he says, the diplomat offered him 200 rand to find the hospital room of Mr. Gihana, who had been injured in a car accident in early December, 2013. Then, Mr. Tuyishime says, he was offered money to kill Mr. Gihana. But instead he warned him, and Mr. Gihana quickly moved to another hospital.

Mr. Tuyishime says he also filed a statement with a police station in Pretoria, giving details of the murder plot. A text message on his cellphone from the police station gives the file number of the case.

A few weeks later, though, just before Patrick Karegeya was strangled to death, the diplomat gave him a new assignment: for a $5,000 payment, he says, he was supposed to set fire to an RNC house in a Pretoria suburb.

"They think you will see the money and you'll do whatever they want," Mr. Tuyishime says. But again, he was unwilling to do the job.

Three days after the murder of Col. Karegeya, he says, the Rwandan diplomat who had been contacting him found him in a Pretoria hotel. "You didn't do what we told you to do," the diplomat told him angrily. "So we did it ourselves." Two days later, he says, the diplomat issued a death threat to him: "You will be the second to die."

Mr. Gihana, too, says he often gets phone calls from South African police officers warning him of new threats on his life. When the Rwandan embassy hosted a social event at a Johannesburg hotel, the dissidents boldly tried to barge in, and Mr. Gihana says the diplomat told him: "I didn't come here as a diplomat. I came here to hunt you."

Other RNC leaders in South Africa have also been the targets of mysterious attacks - including Frank Ntwali, a laywer who is Gen. Nyamwasa's brother-in-law and the head of the RNC's Africa branch. In August, 2012, in Johannesburg, a car with police-style blue lights pulled over his vehicle, and three men approached him. "Are you Frank?" one asked. A second man jumped into the back seat and stabbed him repeatedly in the shoulder and hip.

He fought back and the men ran away. He was stabbed 10 times but survived, perhaps because of the thick winter coat he was wearing. The assailants were clearly uninterested in robbery - they ignored his cellphone, computer and wallet.

Mr. Ntwali has become so worried about the threat of attack that he often removes the batteries from his cellphone so that his movements cannot be traced. "They will keep coming after me," he said in an interview in a Johannesburg restaurant. "But they'll never succeed. Only God has the right to take our lives. The cause that I'm fighting for is bigger than I am. It's about liberty. People won't be intimidated forever."

Rwandan President Paul Kagame addresses an audience on the campus of Tufts University on April 22, 2014. Kagame spoke on issues relating to the 20th anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsis. (Steven Senne/AP)

Forward, carefully

Global authorities are taking what they hear from Rwandan dissidents seriously. Their own investigations have confirmed their stories, and they are trying to protect the dissidents by urging Mr. Kagame to restrain himself.

The U.S. State Department has already warned the Kagame government that it must not "silence dissidents." It has expressed "deep concern" over Mr. Kagame's public threats against critics and the apparent "politically motivated attacks" on them.

In Britain, police warned two dissidents in 2011 that the Rwandan government "poses an imminent threat to your life."

In Sweden, a Rwandan diplomat was expelled in 2012 for "espionage" against Rwandan refugees, and authorities protected an exiled Rwandan newspaper editor who feared for his life.

Despite Rwandan officials' denials, the South African government has concluded that the country's diplomats have been involved in murder and attempted murder. In 2010, it recalled its ambassador from Rwanda to protest an attack on a dissident in Johannesburg. And in March, after the latest attack, it expelled four Rwandan diplomats and accused them of "direct links" to the Karegeya assassination and other attempted murders and "organized criminal networks."

There is also the ongoing trial against the six people accused of trying to kill Gen. Nyamwasa in 2010. The trial is now in its final stages, with a verdict expected in the next few weeks.

While he awaits that ruling, the general sits on a bench at the back of the courtroom, protected by seven South African police officers with guns and bulletproof vests. It's one of the few places where he feels secure.

On Christmas Eve, a week before Col. Karegeya's death, the general met socially with the fellow dissident. On that same night, he remembers, Col. Karegeya got a mysterious phone call from a Rwandan intelligence agent who had been briefly arrested in 2010 in connection with the general's shooting. The agent may have been trying to discover where the two men were located, Gen. Nyamwasa said.

Faced with violent attacks in South Africa and repression in Rwanda, the dissidents see little hope for peaceful solutions. In every election, Mr. Kagame wins more than 90 per cent of the vote, a result that has been widely questioned by democracy advocates. Some of the RNC leaders have hinted that an armed revolt or coup, led by the Rwandan army, might be the only way to depose him. It would be "self-defence," they argue.

"If you imprison people and force them into exile, the anger could end up in war again," Gen. Nyamwasa says.

He's not afraid to talk about the genocide in Rwanda either. The general says his lawyers are still talking to French authorities about their investigation into the RPF's role in the presidential crash of 1994, the event that triggered the genocide.

"If I'm alive, and if the opportunity arises. I will tell my story."

Staying alive requires care, of course - for targets as well as those recruited to attack them.

In Pretoria, Gustave Tuyishime says he doesn't feel safe these days, and he takes precautions to stay out of sight. "I sleep in a car," he says.

Robert Higiro, the ex-army major who secretly recorded Col. Munyuza, also keeps a low profile in his new hometown in Belgium.

He does speak out when he can by attending impromptu meetings and doing interviews. But he moves around. He shifts his daily patterns and is unable to attend regular Flemish language class for fear of being spotted.

For all that, he still has ongoing security concerns, which Belgian authorities are aware of. He sometimes gets phone calls from Rwandan visitors who seem to be looking for him.

"I'm definitely being hunted," he says. "I'm in a fragile situation. I'm afraid, but it doesn't stop me from doing what I have to do."

Geoffrey York is The Globe’s Africa correspondent, based in Johannesburg.

Judi Rever is a Montreal-based freelance reporter who contributes to media outlets including Agence France-Presse and Reuters.


Transcript

Major Robert Higiro says he was recruited by Rwanda’s intelligence in late 2010 to kill Colonel Patrick Karegeya and General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, the most wanted men on Rwanda’s hit list.

Just a few months earlier, Gen. Nyamwasa narrowly escaped death after being shot in the stomach by suspected Rwandan agents. An alleged second attempt to kill the general while he was in the hospital was foiled by South African intelligence.

Desperate and defiant, Mr. Higiro decided to inform Col. Karegeya and Gen. Nyamwasa of the plot. They told him to play along with the plan and tape the conversations in order to provide evidence of the crime.

The conversations between Mr. Higiro and Colonel Dan Munyuza, Rwanda’s head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, focused on strategy and logistics: getting access to the men’s South African bodyguards and negotiating a payment for carrying out the task.

Here is an excerpt of one of those conversations, from February 2011, translated from Kinyarwanda into English. They are discussing a supposed South African intelligence officer who had contacts among the dissidents’ bodyguards – but Col. Munyuza doesn’t realize that the South African officer is a fiction. Their later reference to ‘the superior’ is General Nyamwasa.

Dan Munyuza: “….if he agrees to do it, then that means he’s able to carry it out. He could figure out those closest to the bodyguards and do it with them.”

Robert Higiro: “…at that point he could tell me how we could organize it all. But it depends on what we want, like I was telling you.”

Dan Munyuza: “…no, it’s up to him to tell us how he wants to do it. He needs to propose two ways and we’ll choose one that has fewer consequences.”

Robert Higiro: “…..he is waiting to see whether we are serious and whether we have an idea of how the job could be executed.”

Dan Munyuza: “….what are you thinking of…isn’t it using a weapon to do it? And to make sure it’s done by our man? If he could kill two birds with one stone and eliminate them both at once, he could earn more.”

Robert Higiro: “What’s that?”

Dan Munyuza: “…if it isn’t possible to do both, then it would be good to get rid of the superior.”

Robert Higiro: “You’re saying…”

Dan Munyuza: “…It would be great to get rid of them both at the same time, but if that’s not possible even (getting) one alone, the enemy would be weakened.”

Robert Higiro: “…ok, I’ll tell them that our priority is to eliminate both, but that if there’s only a chance of getting one, the focus should be on the superior.” (Return to your place in the story.)

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