Twenty years ago the tiny central African republic of Rwanda shot to world attention when, following the felling of the President’s private jet, the country exploded into an orgy of violence which eventually saw 800,000 people murdered in just 100 days.

In the years and decades since, a crippling guilt over the inaction of western governments and international organisations has gripped and defined the response to the Rwandan genocide. Aid money has poured into the country at an unprecedented rate and in response many Rwandans have been lifted from poverty, while the economy grew at a staggering 8.2% from 2000 – 2012, incomparable to many other African or developing nations. The money continues to flow and last month the World Bank released the final $70 million of a three year $650 million aid package, Rwanda’s economic growth is predicted to balloon again, to 7.5% this year.

On the surface, Rwanda post-1994 appears to be working. A visitor to Kigali will find western standard hotels, reasonably priced and well organised tours, clean streets, sensible traffic, bars, restaurants and supermarkets in one of the continents safest countries. Rwanda also boasts the highest percentages of female parliamentarians in the world, currently 64%, while education enrolments have increased, maternal and child mortalities have decreased and gender equality is improving.

If it all sounds too good to be true, for a country that was tearing itself apart only twenty years ago, that’s because in some ways it is.

Last month South African expelled three Rwandan diplomats accused of ‘illegal activities,’ in retaliation Kigali expelled six South African diplomats. The tit for tat expulsion was the culmination of a deteriorating relationship, years in the making, brewing since the attempted murder of Rwandan exile General Faustin Nyamwasa in Johannesburg in 2010.  The shooting of Nyamwasa, to which the Rwandan officials are connected, is not an isolated event, rather one in a long line of politically motivated acts of intimidation and violence, orchestrated by Rwanda’s former liberator, now leviathan, President Paul Kagame.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Paul Kagame

Kagame rose to international prominence in 1994, as leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a force he had led since 1990. The RPF was the only significant armed (and willing) opposition to the brutal massacres that were taking place across the country. They fought their way towards Kigali, where they encircled the city and eventually forced the Rwandan government and their militia into surrender. With the killings over Kagame became, in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, the newest African liberator. Though it was a status short lived, with many of his troops taking revenge on fleeing Hutu militia and civilians, slaughtering tens of thousands as they fled towards Zaire (now DR Congo), thousands more perished from illness and malnutrition in the makeshift refugee camps which were set up in haste. Kagame has consistently denied any wrong doing, fiercely defending his troops. It was not until early 1996 that a strong enough peace was established and the UNAMIR peacekeeping forces could depart Rwanda, leaving Pasteur Bizimungu in the Presidential chair, however it was Kagame who was pulling the strings. Bizimungu remained in power until 2000 when, following a dispute with Kagame, he resigned and Kagame assumed the Presidency.

Over the past 14 years, Paul Kagame has gone on to consolidate his Presidency through intimidation, violence and even murder. Many Rwandans fear that their country is slipping down a dangerous path. In July 2010 I visited Rwanda, entering through Butare, on the southern border with Burundi. A large billboard greeted me at the crossing, ‘INVESTMENT – YES! CORRUPTION – NO!’ Underneath, almost as an afterthought it read, ‘Welcome to Rwanda.’ Butare had only one week earlier been the scene of a gruesome murder, with the almost headless body of opposition leader Andre Kagwa Rwisereka found in a local river. Throughout my week in Rwanda I hitchhiked across the country, crisscrossing to touch every corner. Along the way I met the rich, poor, the educated, layman, the young and elderly. All spoke of their appreciation of the economic and health developments which had improved their country and remarked that life was generally good, especially in comparison to many of their Congolese, Burundian and Ugandan neighbours.

When discussion inevitably turned to politics the mood changed. All were happy to talk about the impending election and a common theme soon emerged. To their north, Rwandans were witnessing Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni slowly corrupt, unable to relinquish the Presidency he had held since 1986. Further south, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was fast destroying his own country and daring anyone to stop him. These were the two most compared Presidents to Paul Kagame. First, Rwandans predicted he would morph into Museveni, willing to betray his own constitution and fudge elections to cling to power, and then Mugabe, a man so drunk with power that he is simply unable to give it up and will take any measure to ensure that the status quo remains. Given the events of the last 14 years Rwandans have real cause for concern that that could be their fate, in fact it may already be.

A Kagame supporter at a 2010 election rally.
A Kagame supporter at a 2010 election rally.

The first post genocide election in 2003 saw a laughable 95% of the vote awarded to Kagame. Given his stature amongst the Tutsi’s, the stability he had bought to the country and the development dollars pouring in, a victory was arguably inevitable, but as The Economist put it, ‘Kagame won, a little too well.’ With the memories of 1994 still fresh and attacks on opposition politicians in the lead up, Kagame’s victory went unchallenged. Rwandans seemed content to select peace over justice for the time being.

Seven years later, the 2010 election again saw another ridiculous majority to Kagame, this time 93% of the vote. However, the build up to 2010 was far more violent, with many Rwandans no longer content for justice to be denied once again. Opposition groups were better organised and more plentiful, journalists and civil society were better connected and more willing to speak out and even some of Kagame’s party members and allies deserted him. The responses from Kagame and his government ranged from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, to intimidation into exile, and attempts on life, some successful. Many of those arrested also claimed to have been tortured while in prison. Those arrested were so on politically motivated charges such as ‘conspiracy,’ ‘disrupting state freedom, propagating ethnic division, genocide revisionism and libel,’ or ‘endangering national security, genocide denial, defamation of the President, and divisionism.’ Many of these and similar charges are described as ‘vague Rwandan statutory crime, which means disagreeing with the official history of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, or, it often seems, disagreeing with the Kagame regime.’ The sentences for some stretched to well over a decade and were condemned internationally.

Accompanying the arrests, exiles and murders were disturbing reports filtering from the Orwellian named ‘rehabilitation facility’ on Iwawa Island in Lake Kivu. In ‘Rwanda’s Alcatraz’, as it was sometimes known, hundreds of men and boys, many homeless, petty criminals or political dissidents were shipped off for re-education and training. There were claims made against the government of people being routinely rounded up and shifted there, unable to inform family or friends and having no recourse to leave the island. Kagame slammed the ‘pathetic’ reporting of the rehabilitation facility in the international press.

Lake Kivu, Rwanda
Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Since his victory in 2010 Kagame has continued to silence his critics at home and next door (particularly Uganda) and attack those who criticise him internationally. Reporters Without Borders continually ranks Rwanda amongst the worst African countries for press freedom, sharing space with Sudan, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea and Kagame’s government attracts regular criticism over media censorship, arrests of journalists or opposition politicians and involvement in the arming of the M23 rebel group in neighbouring DR Congo.

In contrast to the civil and political unfreedoms of many Rwandans, their economic opportunities, improved education and overall health and life expectancy continue to rise, largely due to the support of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) program. However, as those in Museveni’s Uganda and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe have seen, without all forms of freedom situations can quickly deteriorate – sooner or later, with enough people out of poverty, or with their freedoms so withheld, attention turns to political rights and civil freedoms. Paul Kagame holds the key to the next chapter in Rwanda’s history and is the major influence on how the country will be shaped over the next 20 years.

General Nyamwasa appearing as a witness in a Johannesburg court last month
General Nyamwasa appearing as a witness in a Johannesburg court last month

Arrested / Imprisoned

Agnes Nkusi Uwimana – Umuvugizi Newspaper

Saidath Mukakibibi – Umurabyo Newspaper

Patrick Kambale – Umurabyo Newspaper

Charles Kabonero – Umuseso Newspaper

Richard Kayigamba – Umuseso Newspaper

Peter Erlinder – American lawyer representing Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza

Theogene Muhayeyezu – lawyer representing Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza

Bernard Ntaganda – Parti-Social Imberakuri

Theobald Mutarambirwa – Parti-Social Imberakuri

Frank Habineza – Democratic Green Party

Seraphine Mukamana – Democratic Green Party

Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza – FDU Inkingi Party

Alice Muhirwa – FDU Inkingi

Sylvain Sibomana – FDU Inkingi

Deo Mushayidi – FDU Ikingi

Theoneste Sibomana – FDU Ikingi

Charles Ntakirutinka – Democratic Party for Renewal

Fled / Living in exile

Jean Bosco Gasasira – Umuvugizi Newspaper

Didas Gasana – Umuseso Newspaper

Robert Mukombozi – Investigative journalist

Rene Mugenzi – Rwandan dissident

Jonathan Musonera – Rwandan dissident

Andre Munonoka – Rwandan Pastor


Sibomana Rusangwa – Parti-Social Imberakuri

Lusanga Toba – Parti-Social Imberakuri

Andrew Muhanguzi – Umuvugizi Newspaper

Attempted murder

Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa – ex Lt. General, living in South Africa

Godwin Agaba – exiled journalist living in Uganda


Seth Sendashonga (Nairobi, Kenya 16 May 1998) – Minister of the Interior in the post genocide government of national unity

Jean Leonard Rugambage (Kigali, Rwanda 24 June 2010) – Umuvugizi Newspaper

Andre Kagwa Rwisereka (Butare, Rwanda 13 July 2010) – Democratic Green Party

Jwani Mwaikusa (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 13 July 2010) – Tanzanian defence lawyer

Charles Ingabire (Kampala, Uganda 30 November 2011) – Inyenyeri News

Patrick Karegeya (Johannesburg, South Africa, 1 January 2014) – former intelligence chief