Criticizing Rwanda’s regime—and especially Pres. Paul Kagame—is highly dangerous for Rwandans living abroad. Just ask exiled Rwandan general Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who has publicly objected to Kagame’s dictatorial style.
Last Tuesday armed men overpowered South African police officers standing guard outside Nyamwasa’s Johannesburg home. The would-be assassins entered the house, but the general wasn’t home. They left without anybody getting seriously hurt.
Armed robberies are not uncommon in Johannesburg, but burglars usually don’t target houses under police protection—and in this case nothing was stolen.
The South African government apparently has additional proof linking the attack to the Rwandan government, because it wasted no time expelling three Rwandan diplomats for their alleged role in the planned assassination. The South African government is reportedly considering a complete severing of diplomatic ties with Rwanda.
Not the first, not the last
This wasn’t the first assassination attempt on a Rwandan dissident. In January, former Rwandan spy chief Patrick Karegeya was found strangled in a South African hotel room. Nyamwasa himself survived two other attempts on his life. During the last one, his assailants shot him in the belly in front of his home, but he recovered.
Critics of the Rwandan government have been killed in Kenya and Uganda, as well as in Rwanda itself. And in 2011 the British Scotland Yard warned two Rwandan nationals living in London that they were likely to being targeted by a government hit squad.
Many of the victims are former members of the regime itself who at some point fell out with Kagame or were dissatisfied with the increasing totalitarianism of the regime.
The Rwandan government of course denies any involvement in the assassination attempts, but it also leaves little doubt about its feelings towards dissidents. After Karegeya’s murder in January, Kagame went on record saying that “Rwanda did not kill this person […]. But I add that I actually wish Rwanda did it, I really wish it.”
Rwandan prime minister Pierre Habumuremyi was even less subtle, Tweeting in reaction to the murder that “betraying citizens and their country that made you a man shall always bear consequences to you.”
Kagame went on to compare Karegeya’s murder with the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Special Operations Forces.
If the attempt on Nyamwasa’s life is any indication, the Rwandan assassination program is far from over. With the possible exception of the United States, the Rwandan government doesn’t seem to mind offending foreign governments with its actions.
From a diplomatic row to regional crisis
Now South Africa and Rwanda are locked in a tit-for-tat diplomatic row. After South Africa expelled the three Rwandan diplomats, Rwanda sent home six South African representatives.
The tension could become a serious problem for the whole of Central Africa. South Africa is one of the main troop contributors to the United Nations force hunting down rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which borders Rwanda.
Last year, the Force Intervention Brigade booted the Rwandan-backed M23 armed group from Congo. Many observers think that this was only possible because Rwanda ended its support of the group in return for FIB next targeting the FDLR, an armed group aiming to overthrow the Rwandan government.
South Africa has considerable economic interests in Congo, as does Rwanda. Both countries also sent peacekeepers to the Central African Republic, even though the South African contingent withdrew after taking heavy losses in a pitched battle with rebels.
Besides being an affront to law and order and human rights, an assassination-related standoff between South Africa and Rwanda could seriously undermine Rwandan support for the peace process in Congo.