Who's to blame when Rwanda's exiled spy chief is found dead in South Africa?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The sort of ethnic violence that threatens South Sudan today haunted Rwanda some two decades ago. Since those mass killings, Rwanda has struggled to move on, but violence continues in the aftermath of the genocide and often it reaches beyond Rwanda’s borders. This week, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief was found dead in a Johannesburg, South Africa hotel room. Investigators said Patrick Karegeya’s body showed signs of possible strangulation. Karegeya was a fierce critic of Rwanda’s current President, Paul Kagame. New Yorker staff writer, Philip Gourevitch follows Rwanda closely. He says it’s far too early to point a finger of blame in the killing.

Philip Gourevitch: We don’t know anything so far, except that the South African police say there was a murder, there was a rope and a bloody towel found in a hotel safe, and an investigation will follow.

Werman: Philip, you've met Patrick Karegeya. Who is he?

Gourevitch: Patrick Karegeya was a career military officer and an intelligence man with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the former rebel movement that formed the government of Rwanda after the genocide. He became the chief of external intelligence, he was seen as very very close to the center of power, and at some point had a falling-out with the President, or the security apparatus around the President. He went into exile, where he was relatively quiet, until 2010, which was the year of the most recent Rwandan presidential election. President Kagame stood for his second term. At that point, another prominent military figure, General Nyamwasa, Kayumba Nyamwasa, left Rwanda and went into exile in South Africa, and he, Patrick Karegeya and several others formed an opposition party, challenging the Kigali government and calling, at time, pretty explicitly for his violent overthrow.

Werman: When you met Karegeya in 2010, when he was in exile in South Africa, did he seem worried about his security?

Gourevitch: He did not seem terribly concerned about his security at that moment, but two weeks later, the colleague I met him with was the target of an apparently assassination or, at any rate, he was attacked and shot at gunpoint in his driveway, and that was the obvious suspicion fell on Kigali, and has remained there. As everybody in Kigali said at the time: Of course we’re the prime suspects. That’s the only story anybody would have. Let’s see what happens in the South African court.

Werman: I mean wild cloak and dagger stuff, with the axis being between Kigali and Johannesburg. What do you think can be said at this point about who killed Karegeya?

Gourevitch: Nothing. I think that what can be said at this point is there’s a consistent pattern of people who were insiders of the government and have very intense fallings-out with the government of Paul Kagame, going into exile and going into absolute opposition. In other words, it’s not a party that tolerates dissent internally, and when they go into opposition, they basically start to call for the overthrow of that government. And there have been either attacks, alleged threats, warnings of various kinds. And after the assassination attempt in 2010 in South Africa, I had an interview at one point with President Kagame where I said well, you know, of course the suspicion falls on you, and what do you think about that? He, of course, denied but said you know, I wouldn't be unhappy if it had succeeded. Sending signals like that obviously raises this extremely strong suspicion anytime one of them has any threat against them, and obviously, in the case of Karegeya, that’s again the case. But we don’t actually know anything concrete. The South African police have said that they would conduct an autopsy - That hasn't yet happened – And conduct a murder investigation.

Werman: It must strike you as kind of odd that here is Rwanda, a country traumatized by genocide, and now those that govern it sort of turn on each other.

Gourevitch: One assumes that in such movements, there will be struggles for power, divisions of power. The question to me really is: Does other than being a reflection of the nature of that crowd, what does it tell us about the actual politics that these different figures represent? Do they represent different politics? That’s been, for me, the question I've found most urgent and most difficult to actually get any kind of an answer to.

Werman: New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch has looked at the roots of Rwanda’s genocide and its aftermath. He’ll have a new book out on Rwanda this Spring. Looking forward to that, Philip, and thanks for your time today.

Gourevitch: Thanks very much.