Slightly before the midday call to prayer, Alice Gwiza heads towards me from the mosque. She moves sideways in small, crablike steps. The 36-year-old Tutsi woman wears an oversized dress to cover three protruding lumbar disks, the damage from a beating administered on her first attempt to leave Rwanda.
Leaning her dislocated body against the wall for support, Gwiza whispers that she and her husband have long been under surveillance by Rwandan intelligence because of his work as a human rights advocate. In other circumstances she might have sounded paranoid. In reality she sounded tired and fearful.
On 1 January last year, Gwiza took her children to visit their grandparents in Burundi. They were stopped at the border by an immigration officer demanding her husband’s phone number. When she refused to give it she was kicked, slapped and thrown against a wall, she says. Two months ago she tried to escape a second time. She crossed the border into Uganda by foot, cutting through dense undergrowth as her four children were simultaneously being smuggled out of the country on the same border 120 kilometres to the east. “We lost everything,” she says. “I cannot sit or stand. I have no money for surgery. I cannot carry my youngest child.”
While many Rwandans flee their country for their lives, rich foreigners are being urged to go there. “Visit Rwanda” is the slogan of a marketing campaign said to have cost one of Africa’s poorest countries more than $39m. It is the message on the sleeve of every Arsenal first team player – a message the club says is seen 35 million times a day.
It is, above all, a bold invitation. Twenty-five years ago this weekend the assassination of Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, marked the start of the worst genocide in modern African history. At least 500,000 and possibly more than a million men, women and children were slaughtered in 100 days. Most of the dead were from Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. Most of the perpetrators were from the Hutu majority. Since then the country has risen almost miraculously from the hecatomb of 1994. It has reinvented itself as a clean, crime-free democracy (even if the 98.8 per cent vote share won by the incumbent president, Paul Kagame, in 2017 speaks more of autocracy). It has made tourism its international face and to that end has become a brand as well as a country.
But visit Rwanda today and you will not see people like Alice Gwiza. As an affluent tourist you will see a luxuriant, green time capsule recalling Baudelaire – “nothing but grace and measure, richness, quietness and pleasure”. There is no denying that the regime led by Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), in power continuously since the genocide, has achieved what many thought impossible in 1994 by restoring inter-ethnic stability and creating the conditions for rapid growth of investment, the economy, living standards and public services.
Yet this is also a regime that prioritises appearances, to the point that the crippled, the lame, those maimed by war, beggars, pickpockets, orphans and prostitutes are liable to be sent to internal “transit centres” – centres that Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week called “fundamentally illegal”.
Laws and presidential orders have been used to codify the government’s dislike of those considered undesirable in public spaces. Vulnerable people and the very poor are detained without due process and told that “they tarnish the image of Kigali”, says Lewis Mudge, HRW’s Central Africa director.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch counted 28 centres, a number that continues to grow. The state claims to have made efforts to formalise and regulate them, but Mudge maintains that Rwanda has “a real problem” with unlawful detention: “The government seems to think that if it regulates and makes this more official, that means it’s OK. And it’s not.”
Hundreds of thousands who have escaped internment but feel unwelcome in their own country have voted with their feet.
At the time of the genocide Rwandans of all ethnicities set records for the fastest exodus in modern history, fleeing at a rate of a million in three days. According to the International Rescue Committee, six million more have disappeared into refugee camps in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1997. My 96-year-old great-grandmother was among those who died there. In my family we count ourselves lucky to have had the chance to wrap her body in a plastic sheet provided by the UN before dumping it in a mass grave.
Millions of Rwandans did not receive such a dignified send-off. According to the UN, hundreds of thousands who were returned at gunpoint from the DRC camps have vanished inside Rwanda. Since February this year, the country’s population of 12 million has been confined within its borders, even though tourists are still welcome.
There are at least two Rwandas. The one sold by the armband of Mezut Ozil, of Arsenal, is an African success story, creating opportunities, welcoming tourists, open for business and investment. The Rwanda Development Board claims more than $1.5bn entered the country as foreign direct investment in 2017, even though the World Bank put the figure at under $300m.
Whatever the true figure, many benefit. But the Rwanda lived by many others is a police state that tortures and blackmails its own people and reserves the right to hunt down those who disagree with it, wherever they are. In 2014 Kagame’s former intelligence chief and childhood friend was murdered in his hotel room in South Africa after falling out with the president. In 2011 a Rwandan was apprehended in Folkestone, Kent, suspected of planning the assassination of two dissidents in London.
No one landing at Kigali International Airport can help but be fascinated by its display of discipline and order at the heart of Africa. In addition to the cameras recording every move, uniformed airport workers and immigration officers silently scan new arrivals for anyone they may consider suspect.
During the genocide, many Rwandans paid with their lives for trusting their friends. Since then, revenge, paranoia and pre-emptive assaults have to a considerable extent determined the country’s agenda. To the diplomatic community Rwanda is an army with a country, not a country with an army; soldiers are positioned every 700m along Kigali’s main streets every afternoon. Rwandans themselves say 90 per cent of the population are informers.
Most tourists are unaware of this climate of fear; unaware that even seemingly trivial conversations with drivers and waiters will be reported.
Visitors are encouraged to tour the Kigali Genocide Memorial. At least they have a choice. For Rwandans, failure to pay their respects to the dead can constitute genocide denial, a crime under the law of Genocide Ideology, passed by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament to prevent any divergence from the official narrative of the RPF as saviours.
Punishments include being sent to rehabilitation camps for forced labour and indoctrination.
Yet unlike Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem, Rwanda’s genocide memorial presents the skulls of genocide victims for public exhibition. Each one represents a family member who has not been buried – a profound affront to surviving relatives and Rwandan tradition – even as more skulls in more mass graves continue to be found. The purpose is to keep alive the trauma of the genocide, and the trauma is real: hospital admissions for emotional disorders are said to be higher in April – the anniversary month of the genocide – than at any other time of the year.
The climax of most visits to Rwanda is an encounter with its national celebrities: the mountain gorillas of the Virunga National Park. Their fame was established by Gorillas in the Mist, the book by Dian Fossey, and the film of the same name. One of Fossey’s most ardent fans, the talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, is the latest to attach herself to the gorillas. As a birthday present, her wife endowed a gorilla research centre in her name at the foot of the Virunga volcanoes.
Located in the north, the gorilla population stretches across the border region of three countries – Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda. Rwanda is the smallest, sandwiched between the other two, but it claims to host the largest number of gorillas, with estimates fluctuating between 600 and 1,000.
The hike into the Virunga has evolved to cater to the rich tourists’ tastes, and wallets. The entrance fee to the park is $1,500, equivalent to a Rwandan government minister’s monthly salary or twice the yearly income of an average family. Either way, tour guides know better than to leave the approved trail. The danger is not posed by wildlife so much as the possibility of bumping into Rwandans fleeing their country through the forest.
Mzee Kimenyi, 65, a former Kigali city councillor, fell foul of the regime after accusing RPF paramilitaries of murder following the discovery of a body in a river near his home. He was forced to abandon his house, land, cattle and a restaurant before escaping to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, with only the clothes on his back.
“I drove to Musanze and crossed by foot through the Virunga,” he says. “Then I walked for eight hours because I had chosen the hidden forest path. From Kisoro [across the border in Uganda], I boarded a bus to Kabale, where I spend the night at my guide’s home. The next morning I came to Kampala to seek asylum.”
Like so many others, Kimenyi had fled before, to the DRC in 1994. He returned in 1996 and prospered at first. He is now a shadow of the wealthy and flamboyant character he once was. Now, he says, “they [the RPF] have deprived us of our country. They have deprived us of our livelihoods. They have deprived us of their people. They have even deprived us of the right to be refugees.”
The highlight of the tourist season is the annual baby gorilla naming ceremony, Kwita Izina, in September. In Africa the naming of a newborn life has hitherto been a ritual reserved to humans. The naming of gorillas has come with foreign tourism. It is true that they are critically endangered and recovering in numbers, thanks largely to tourist revenue. But Kwita Izina gives them human names. If its message to Rwanda’s humans is that they are less valued than gorillas, that is not surprising and is heartily resented, especially by the overwhelming majority who still identify as Hutu.
In principle there are no Tutsis and Hutus in modern Rwanda – only Rwandans. In practice, as baby gorillas are sanctified, young Hutu children grow up burdened with guilt by association with the genocidaires. According to a recent World Bank report, 38 per cent of them also suffer chronic malnutrition that stunts their growth.
Gorilla-based tourism is not even a sustainable business model for those who work in it. Daniel Mugabo, 24 and unemployed, works for meals – not wages – at a modest hotel in Musanze, gateway to the Virunga National Park. “Once a year the rooms are fully booked,” he says. “That is two weeks before the naming ceremony. The rest of the year we get by hosting government workers attending meetings in the area.”
For Mugabo and many Rwandans it’s clear that the national strategy of luxury tourism is not designed for small businesses. Yet even the luxury lodges at which foreigners pay up to $4,000 a night are reliably full only for those two weeks each year. The rest of the time the hotel industry is struggling. Figures from the 2018 East African Hotel Market Overview show that Rwanda’s supply of rooms is abundant but its occupancy rate is under 40 per cent. Kenyan banks that financed much of the construction are starting to repossess hotels unable to service their loans.
An undoubted achievement of the Kagame regime is to have all but eliminated the street-level graft that assails visitors to much of Africa. There are no plastic bags on the streets, and no police demanding bribes. But the reality for investors and entrepreneurs is that no one can run a business if not affiliated with the RPF. Business owners learn quickly to curb any overt entrepreneurial creativity. That could attract undesirable government scrutiny, and expropriation can follow the mildest squabble.
According to the World Bank, Rwanda is the second-easiest place to do business in Africa. It ranks higher than any of its neighbours on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. These are significant credentials. They set the country apart from its neighbours and enhance the quality of life for those of its citizens – apparently a majority – content never to challenge the regime even with idle talk. In Chile, these are the people who would quietly have supported Pinochet. Yet the personal experience of others is revealing, too. A Rwandan engineer who took a sabbatical from his job in Geneva to help a relative to set up a small printing business in Kigali once told me his experience of working in Rwanda was like “working with the mafia”. American investors regularly complain about uneven enforcement of law and regulations. Many Rwandans living outside the country even boycott RwandAir, the national carrier, for fear of being kidnapped.
Despite an average annual growth rate of around 6 per cent this century, Rwanda remains one of the poorest countries not just in Africa but the world. Average yearly income per head is $600; nearly half of Rwandans live below the poverty threshold of $1.90 a day; only 20 per cent have access to electricity. In 2016 Rwanda received $1.2bn in aid, of which $70m came from the United Kingdom.
The Department for International Development (DFID), the development arm of the British government, was born in 1997 as the RPF bombarded refugee camps in the DRC. Britain’s aid community has since developed a sentimental and morally conflicted relationship with Rwanda. DFID’s strategy is one of “helping Rwanda to generate more taxes to help end aid dependency”. Yet with tourism still only accounting for 12 per cent of GDP, that dependency endures, and aid props up a surveillance state.
In the unique political ecosystem of the Land of a Thousand Hills, western governments and NGOs see order and relative transparency. Rwandans who know this system from the inside have coined a slang term to explain how it works. Gutekinika, a corruption of the word “technique”, is Rwanda’s way of getting things done to keep up appearances and please authority (and foreign donors). An example: last year the US-based African Wildlife Foundation gave the government of Rwanda 27 hectares to expand the gorillas park. While the foundation bore the financial cost, the human one was handled with a brisk announcement of the impending relocation of local Hutu populations.
In Rwanda, the devil is in the detail. Since the genocide, the Akagera Park, on the eastern border with Tanzania, has been halved in size – to make way for returning Tutsis.
With the approaching genocide anniversary, relations between Rwanda and its neighbours, always tense, have worsened. Most of its borders have been closed, which is why David Rurangwa can’t go home.
Now in his mid-forties, Rurangwa’s life took a turn for the worse when he gave up his job as a prison warden to become a lawyer defending those imprisoned without charge by the regime. He estimates that 98 per cent of those he supervised were labelled genocidaires and locked up without evidence.
“The people in charge were themselves fresh from the battlefield,” he says. “They wanted revenge.” After a decade as a lawyer and a judge his career was abruptly ended over accusations of a fraudulent house sales contract. “The disciplinary ruling came out, and four days later I fled,” he says. “I came as close as I could to the Gatuna border point [in northern Rwanda], and took a shortcut through the woods into Uganda.” Rurangwa and his wife, Alice Gwiza, are together now with their four children. Just not in their own country.
Rwanda’s goal is to transform itself into a world-class tourist destination and business hub – the Singapore of Central Africa. After a quarter of a century of Kagame’s iron rule it has made progress on both fronts. It is also a net exporter of refugees and hitmen. It has attacked all its neighbours – Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and the DRC – and alienated Kenya and South Africa, its closest allies on the continent.
Arsenal football club has nonetheless chosen to associate itself closely with Rwanda. Kagame is a fan, but this is not the reason. A spokesperson for the club says the country “has transformed itself dramatically in recent times and is now regarded as one of the most advanced and respected countries in Africa”. Arsenal insists it did enough due diligence before signing a three-year deal last year; the club calls the deal “a partnership that will help Rwanda meet their tourism goals while developing football in the country”.
Claire Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, sees “mutual benefits” in a deal that the board says earns more in tourist revenue than it costs in fees to the club.
HRW’s Lewis Mudge responds: “Based on the sheer number of mysterious deaths that continue to occur against Rwandans inside and outside the country, Arsenal should be made aware that they are associating themselves with a government that is repressive. By advertising and promoting this country on their uniform they are in some regards providing justification for this type of oppression.”
They are also giving aid donors reason to worry. Richard Crowthers, a former Rwanda director for the International Rescue Committee, now based in Kenya, says it makes sense to invest in tourism to expand the economy. “But that leads to the question of whether donor resources are going to a football club. I think it’s a fair question. I’m not convinced a football club in the UK is the way to go.”
Vinai Venkatesham, Arsenal’s chief commercial officer, has said the club’s huge following “will bring Rwanda into people’s minds in a new and dynamic way”. It may do just that, even as Rwandan people make way for tourists and the gorillas they have come to see.
Yoletta Nyange is a Rwandan-born journalist and film-maker. Follow her on Twitter @yolettanyange
- In Praise of Blood, by Judy Rever (2018), is an unblinking study of the Kagame regime by a Canadian journalist who has followed the story since 1997. Its subtitle is “The crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front”, and Rever claims these include shooting down Habyarimana’s presidential jet in 1994.
- Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998) is history and travelogue, based largely on reporting undertaken with the protection of the RPF. At its heart is the story of a pastor’s complicity in killings for which he was eventually convicted in The Hague.
- For an up-to-date portrait of Kagame’s Rwanda this paper by the French scholar Gerard Prunier is hard to beat.