At 11 am on March 6, the Rwandan Chargé d’affaires in Pretoria, South Africa, Didier Rutembesa, was summoned to a meeting with the Director General of the Department of International Relations of the South Africa’s ministry of foreign affairs. The meeting was scheduled for 4 pm that same day. Rutembesa, who is also the First Councillor, was asked to go along with three other colleagues from the Rwanda High Commission in Pretoria.
At 4 pm, Rutembesa and his colleagues Claude Nikobisanzwe (1st Secretary), Fred Rwabandira and Aimable Nshagayitwari (both administrative attaches) met the Director General at the Department of International Relations. There was in fact no meeting at all. Instead, they were handed deportation letters. The diplomats were given 48 hours to leave the country.
The letters claimed that, over a long period, members of the High commission of Rwanda had been involved in unacceptable activities, which could not be tolerated.
Nshagayitwari and Rwabandira, who had arrived in the country only two weeks earlier on Feb. 17, were shocked. They had just received their accreditation cards from the Department of International Relations. Their visas were in the process of being issued.
South Africa said it was ready to receive new diplomats from Rwanda as their replacements. However, observers familiar with diplomatic etiquette, told The Independent that expelling diplomats who had only been in the country for two weeks on unspecified accusations of accumulated abuses committed by their mission over “a long time” is intriguing.
Even Rutembesa and Nikobisanzwe, who had been in Pretoria for several years, had never received any warning letter from the South African government regarding their activities. So claims that the mission was involved in abuses over a “long time” surprised them.
Kigali retaliated by expelling six South African diplomats from the country. As it turned out, two nations that were once the closest of allies had locked themselves in a mysterious diplomatic row.
When The Independent began investigations into what could be behind the frosty relationship between Rwanda and South Africa, it found a dangerous mix-up of personal vendetta into affairs of State.
In the process, Rwanda has earned a notorious reputation of hunting down its political enemies abroad and killing them.
The expulsion of the Kigali diplomats occurred after the alleged assassination attempt on a top Rwandan dissident, Lt. Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, now exiled in South Africa. It was the third alleged attack on Nyamwasa in the four years he has been in exile.
Because of the many attempts on his life, the South African government ensures that Nyamwasa lives in a “secured house” guarded by its security forces. However, it is alleged that on March 4, unknown assailants attacked it. Nyamwasa was not at home, because, according to South African intelligence, he had been evacuated to another place after a tip-off that a Rwanda government hit-squad had been sent to kill him.
The South African police say the assailants came, disarmed the two policemen, ransacked the house, and left without hurting anyone.
Security experts The Independent talked to say that it was unusual. Normally, a security organization with such a tip off would lay a trap to catch the assassins. Why didn’t the SA police try that? Was this a major security lapse on the part of South African security forces guarding the house or is there much more to this Nyamwasa story than the SA security are revealing?
The same questions arose last December, when former Rwandan External Intelligence Chief Col. Patrick Karegeya was killed in South Africa.
But before that, Kigali’s alleged penchant for assassinating opponents in foreign capitals was magnified when two prominent Rwandan dissidents; Seth Sendashonga and Col. Alex Rezinde, were killed in the mid to late 1990s in Nairobi, Kenya. Both had escaped from Rwanda and had allegedly begun mobilising armed resistance against Kigali. Ironically, Karegeya while still in charge, had once gloated over Sendashonga’s death.
Without disputing that Nyamwasa’s life could be in danger, observers say the latest alleged attack on him was merely a spark for a diplomatic war that has been simmering for some time between Rwanda and South Africa.
The Zuma, Nyamwasa connection
The two countries have been involved in an internecine diplomatic war since 2009 when President Jacob Zuma succeeded Thabo Mbeki.
The Independent has been told that in 2011, Kigali sought to extradite Nyamwasa and another dissident, Col. Patrick Keregeya from South Africa. Kigali had submitted to Pretoria a report detailing their alleged involvement in terrorism and rebellion against the government of President Paul Kagame.
The Independent has seen Rwandan intelligence reports alleging that the two were masterminds of a spate of grenade attacks in Rwanda in 2010 and 2011 that left over 45 people dead.
Kigali also accuses both officers of having direct links with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group operating in eastern DR Congo that is led by people accused of committing genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and which has been declared a terrorist organisation by the US.
A top Rwandan security official also confirmed to this newspaper that officials in Kigali have held many formal and informal meetings with South African government officials in which evidence of Nyamwasa’s and Karegeya’s involvement in terrorist activities has been presented.
However, Pretoria did not act as requested by Kigali. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty. As a result, Kigali took these army officers to court, prosecuted them in absentia, found them guilty and sentenced them to long prison terms.
The Independent has been told, however, that on August 3, 2012, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa “had written “warning letters” to both Nyamwasa and Karegeya. Both officers reportedly signed “received” on the letter on August 6, 2012.
The letters reportedly said the department had received reports that both officers were involved in “political activities” and were making “public pronouncements” against the government of Rwanda in contravention of their refugee status. It warned them to desist from such conduct.
However, the two dissidents continued to speak to the media and to indulge in political activities; including organising and attending meetings of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), a gathering of people whose mission is to remove Kagame from power. That Pretoria did not take further action could be understood by Kigali as implicit sympathy to their cause.
The strategy of RNC has been to organise publicity stunts against Kigali whenever there is an international event where coverage of Rwanda is central in international media. This time, it is the commemoration of 20 years since the 1994 genocide in which about a million mainly Tutsis were killed in 100 days. Some officials in Kigali believe that the current claims of security breaches at Nyamwasa’s house may be lies meant to tarnish the image of Rwanda, which is now under the spotlight.
Indeed, recently, on Feb.18, Nyamwasa and members of RNC were reportedly received by the South Africa ruling party, ANC. The meeting took place at the headquarters of the Commission on International Relations at Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg.
MaiteNkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, was in the meeting which RNC members described as “part of seeking support from the Government of South Africa”.
Mashabane was South Africa’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, India when Nyamwasa served in the same capacity for Rwanda.
Diplomatic sources say the two cultivated a very close personal relationship that raised many eyebrows in Pretoria and Kigali.
When Jacob Zuma was elected president, he appointed Mashabane minister of for International Cooperation.
Since the diplomatic row erupted, some top officials in Kigali believe that Mashabane has used her closeness to President Zuma to personalise the relations between the two countries by seeking to fight for her close friend, Nyamwasa.
They complain that it is because of her that the South African government has been reluctant to reign in Nyamwasa and his political activities and alleged terrorism, which he is accused of directing from Johannesburg.
It is alleged that Mashabane is also very close to Zuma. Such a triangle of friendship, observers say, can easily make Nyamwasa a target by those close to the South African president who may worry about the foreign minister’s close relationship with a former head of intelligence of another country.
The Zuma, Karegeya connection
But many diplomatic observers also say that the relations between Rwanda and South (and also Tanzania) hit a frosty start earlier when Karegeya fled from Kigali to Pretoria in 2007.
It is alleged that Karegeya was critical in the building of post-genocide Rwanda’s foreign policy architecture. During this time, he established close relations with journalists, diplomats, politicians, academics and foreign security officials around the globe. Because of his humour and friendly manner, many of these relationships remained strong even after he had fallen out with the government in Kigali.
Among the people whom Karegeya befriended were Jacob Zuma, who was at the time the vice president to Thabo Mbeki, and Tanzania’s current President, Jakaya Kikwete who was then minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation.
It is alleged that Kigali, knowing that Zuma and Kikwete were heirs-apparent, had deployed Karegeya, then head of external security, to cultivate strong ties with them.
In the process, Karegeya built a strong personal relationship with the man later to become South Africa’s president. However, the relationship with Zuma became more of personal than institutional. Zuma allegedly put Karegeya in charge of organising the equivalent of his `escort services’. So when Karegeya arrived in Pretoria, he was reportedly able to mobilise the new South African president to his side against Kigali.
Karegeya’s other strong relationship was with Bill Masetera who was the chief of intelligence in South Africa under Mbeki. Masetera later sided with Zuma in his fight against Mbeki, causing him to lose his job. But when Zuma finally won the presidency, Masetera returned to influence within the government although he did not take an official state job. Instead, he became one of the most influential officials in the ANC. Masetera, it is alleged, is a powerful voice for Rwandan dissidents, a factor that has made Pretoria sustain an anti-Kigali stance.
Killing for the state?
When Nyamwasa fled into exile in 2010, he and Karegeya – who had been there since 2007 – became hand in glove as leaders of the anti-Kagame RNC.
Several commentators told The Independent that there are strong reasons to believe that Kigali would have an interest in killing Nyamwasa and Keregeya if only because they declared war and allegedly kill civilians.
The commentators said, however, that the question for regional leaders is whether, if Kigali is convinced of the complicity of any dissidents in treason and terrorism, it should have an interest in extraditing them. And if extradition should fail, whether Kigali or any other so aggrieved state, should have an interest in pursuing its enemies wherever they are based.
Kigali is in a unique position because it is always the first suspect whenever an attempt is made on the lives of Rwandans in exile. It happened when Karegeya was killed.
However, it is now almost three months since Karegeya was killed on January 1, yet there have been no arrests by South African police. Initially, South African officials claimed to have CCTV images of the killers. How come no pictures have been published yet?
Observers have noted that to walk from the parking lot of the Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg where Karegeya was killed, to the lobby, the reception, the elevators, and then the corridors, and finally to the rooms, one goes through seven CCTV cameras. How is it possible that the killers of Karegeya could not be detected by all these surveillance cameras?
One expert told The Independent that only an organisation with capacity to compromise the entire security system of the hotel could delete the images captured by the CCTV cameras. One such organisation is the South African security services.
If Kigali was the mastermind of the assassination of Karegeya and the attempted assassination of Nyamwasa, did it work with some people inside the South African security forces? Or did someone high up in the South African establishment seek to kill both officers knowing that it would be blamed on Rwanda? What would be the motive of such a person?
A security analyst told The Independent that one possible scenario would be that if Rwandan Intelligence deliberately leaked information to South African intelligence showing that Karegeya was working with Kigali, such misinformation could possibly lead Pretoria to terminate him.
“If the South African intelligence had invested a lot in him, and they knew he knew their secrets,” said the analyst who did not want to be named because of his current position. “Then they too would have an interest in terminating him. In intelligence, your enemy can use your ally to kill you and Karegeya must have known he was playing a high stakes game.”
Nyamwasa’s life and the risks to it have been shrouded in mystery. After the first attempt on his life in 2010, the story told then has since raised more questions than answers.
Carol Ndagira, a forensic scientist who has read media reports about the story, is intrigued by the claim that during the assassination attempt, the pistol jammed after firing one bullet, and the assassin could not un-jam it.
“Why would a professional assassin shoot someone in the stomach and also not know how to operate a gun?” Ndagira asked.
Ndagira had more questions: If the assassin was not a professional, why would the government of Rwanda hire an amateur for such a sensitive mission? One of the suspects claimed that he had been given a key to one of the security gates, why was it never used? Why would the assassins attempt to finish off Nyamwasa in the hospital just hours after the incident? Why would the driver roll the window down halfway when there was apparent unrest around the car?
“All these issues are intriguing,” Ndagira concludes.
After the Nyamwasa shooting, South African police arrested many suspects, including Tanzanians, Ugandans, and a Belgian of Rwanda descent. Some of them were released without charge. The accused signed statements which they later denied in court alleging that they had been forced to sign them.
Indeed, one of the major issues in court was that South African police had been with Nyamwasa’s brother, Frank Ntwari, during the interrogation of the suspects yet he is not a police officer.
Later in court, one of the interpreters the South African government was using turned out to be a member and official of RNC, the political party headed by Nyamwasa and the defence presented photographs of him demonstrating in favour of Nyamwasa on the streets. These developments have led Kigali to believe that Pretoria has an agenda against Rwanda.
South Africa police also alleged that there had been a second attempt to kill Nyamwasa at the hospital on the day he was shot in 2010. However, the judge dismissed this case for lack of evidence. This was after the principle prosecution witness alleged that he had been paid by South African police to become their witness.
Matters are not helped by the confusing lack of evidence about the details of the case presented by South African official agencies. Although whatever is driving the wedge between Pretoria and Kigali remains unclear, the existence of Rwandan dissidents with high connections in that country could be a part of it.