With Arrests and Assassinations, Paul Kagame Prepares 2017 Re-election Bid
Changing the constitution is easier when there’s nobody left to resist
Frank Rusagara was close to Paul Kagame. Both were born in Rwanda but had to flee anti-Tutsi pogroms together with their families. Both grew up in neighboring Uganda, where they joined a rebellion against the government and helped boost Yoweri Museveni to power. Museveni in turn helped the Rwandan Tutsi to start the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel movement intent on dislodging the Hutu-led government in Rwanda.
Kagame led the RPA, the RPF’s armed wing, while Rusagara held important posts in the rebel group, including serving as Kagame’s aide-de-camp. Both fought to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Kagame went on to become Rwanda’s president. He’s supposed to leave office in 2017, having served two full seven-year terms—the maximum the Rwandan constitution allows.
But there are signs that Kagame plans to run a third time. For years, political allies and the state-controlled media have demanded a renewal of his mandate. And Kagame himself has ended his tradition of categorically denying ambitions for a third term.
Probably the most important indicator of Kagame’s intention to tighten his grip on power is the increasingly harsh line his regime takes against any person perceived as critical … like for example Rusagara.
Punish the traitors
Last year, the Rwandan army forced into retirement Rusagara and around 80 other high-ranking ex-RPA officers—a move some observers interpreted as an effort to rid the armed forces of undesirable persons of influence.
Rusagara, who held the rank of brigadier general, is a respected academic and author of an influential book on Rwandan military history. He went on to pursue a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
On Aug. 18, police arrested Rusagara during his visit to Rwanda. Authorities also arrested two other retired officers, Capt. David Kabuye and Col. Tom Byabagamba. It’s not clear what the charges are, although Rwandan military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita said they were linked to “state security offenses.”
According to several sources with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Rwandan government and army but who want to remain anonymous, Kagame and his closest allies increasingly see individuals like Rusagara as threats—simply because people such as Rusagara might be critical of Kagame’s regime.
As ex-RPA rebels and—in Rusagara’s case—respected academics, they are also potential challengers to a possible third presidential term for Kagame.
Rwanda’s government does not hesitate to crack down on perceived threats. The tiny East African country twice invaded its much larger neighbor the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order safeguard its interests there. Rwanda has also supported proxy forces in Congo and led a campaign of targeted assassinations against leaders of the FDLR, a rebel group that can be traced back to the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
The current wave of arrests isn’t Rwanda’s first attempt to rein in ex-RPA cadres. South Africa has accused Rwanda of sponsoring at least three attempts on the life of former Rwandan general Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who fled his country in 2010. Some of the accusations against Rusagara are said to be based on his contacts with Nyamwasa.
Under RPF rule, Rwanda has always had a tightly governed political space. And in a country where one part of the population murdered a million fellow citizens, there’s an argument that this arrangement is a sensible one.
But instead of gradually allowing more and more political freedoms, Rwanda has gone the opposite direction. Today Rwanda is on the way back to being an authoritarian police state. A constitutional amendment to allow Kagame a third term would finalize this development.
Of course, this path could lead to further internal conflict. Only this time around, it won’t be along the Hutu-Tutsi divide. Instead, Kagame is drawing a clear line across the country. You are with him, or against him.