In 25 years of writing about Africa, journalist Michela Wrong said that her latest book is the one that has given her nightmares.
“I think this has been the most intimidating of the books I’ve written,” said Wrong. “It has literally made me wake up screaming in the night.”
Her latest book, Do Not Disturb, recounts the brutal murder of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence, who was strangled in a hotel room in Johannesburg, South Africa, on New Year’s Eve 2014. She uses the murder to challenge a storyline espoused by current Rwandan President Paul Karagame and supporters of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the group that has long been credited as having been responsible for ending the 1994 genocide.
While the RPF has been generally lauded for bringing stability and economic prosperity to Rwanda — a view that has encouraged large infusions of aid from Western countries — Wrong’s book shows that the ruling order in Rwanda may not be as heroic as it would like to appear. She travels back in time to the RPF’s infancy as a rebel movement in Uganda through their invasion of Rwanda in 1990, the genocide, and Kagame’s ascent to power.
Wrong sketches out a regime that uses state surveillance to pursue its enemies beyond its borders with near impunity, that silences dissidents by labeling them “genocide deniers,” rigs elections, and fabricates statistics about the country’s poverty levels and economic growth.
But her book does not require the reader to have an extensive knowledge of African politics or history. In fact, Wrong said, the themes of her book are ideas that anyone can relate to.
“I would say it was a story about brothers in arms, and how revolutions go sour. Comrades who went into battle alongside each other, ending up trying to kill one another,” she said. “It’s about betrayal and violence and power … all of these are absolutely universal.”
Wrong said she wanted her book to be accessible to people who had never picked up a book about Africa.
She draws readers in by depicting larger-than-life characters, something that she said aren’t hard to find, especially in Africa.
“In Africa, you have such amazing stories — Shakespearian stories with huge canvases. Extraordinary personalities,” she said.
She has taken this approach in her other books, including one about a colorful and thieving dictator who ruled for three decades in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a tiny northern African country whose history dovetails with that of Italy, the UK and the US (although many of those countries’ citizens don’t know it) and a Kenyan whistleblower who tried to expose a scheme involving government payments to phantom corporations.
How you spin a story
In a talk hosted by the Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council on September 8, Wrong explained that she decided to write the book in 2014 after she started receiving emails about Kareyega’s murder.
“When things like that happen to people you’ve known for ages … it just makes you take a step back and reconsider,” said Wrong.
She had another motivation, too: Wrong said that she, like many journalists who covered the genocide, fell hook, line and sinker for the RPF’s version of history, in which they were the heroes and liberators of the country. She said she wanted to be honest about the fact that she’d misunderstood the situation from the beginning.
“I always thought the RPF were amazing and wonderful,” she said.“Then, I’ve been through this trajectory where I’ve … started to see this very, very dark side of the regime and realized that the dark side was there at the start, but I missed it.”
Wrong recounts in her book how Rwandan authorities would enlist other Rwandan exiles in assassination attempts against former RPF members that the Rwandan government wanted dead. Two of the regime’s targets, Kareyega and General Kayumba Nyamwasa, the Rwandan Army’s former chief of staff, convinced their would-be assassins to serve as double agents, recording the conversations they were having with the Rwandan authorities and then releasing them on YouTube.
“In the age of the Internet, it is possible for any ordinary member of the public to enjoy the surreal experience of eavesdropping on an African intelligence officer ordering a political hit. Google “YouTube,” “Assassination,” “General,” and “Kayumba,” and you can listen to Kagame’s henchmen at their sinister work, with subtitles in English and French helpfully provided,” writes Wrong. .
In a recent television appearance, President Kagame claimed that Wrong was being “sponsored” by outside governments to write the book, and that she had been a “very close personal friend” of Karegeya who chose the story of “the person she loved” over the Rwandan state. Wrong has denied both claims as “nonsense” and “fake news,” and a way for the president to avoid discussing the [substance of the book] book’s contents.
“That’s not a nice feeling to have, to see a president of an African state telling all sorts of lies about you on national television, that misrepresent you,” she told CT Examiner. “I mean, that’s a pretty horrific thing to experience.”
Yet she admits at the start of her book that even in her recent research, figuring out whose version of events to trust was a challenge. She was well aware that the people she had spoken with and whose story she was telling were former high-ranking intelligence officers for the same organization they were now denouncing. These were people who, in the past, had lied to her and to everyone else.
“The whole book really is about how you spin a story and get people to believe it,” she said.
Many of the former regime members she spoke to, like Kareyega, had lost their positions, fled the country and become targets of the regime even in exile. Their future prospects for a career in Rwanda had gone up in smoke.
“Someone who’s a whistleblower, and has fallen out with the … system and lost everything — they’ve lost their house, they’ve lost their career. They live in fear of their lives, they’ve lost all their assets and their future in that country — They’re more likely to tell the truth, it seems to me,” she said. “Let’s be honest, these people have had a career of dissimulation behind them, but probably have better reason now to be honest than in the past.”
“I would say they are all in trouble”
Wrong expressed disappointment at the progress that many of the countries in Africa have failed to make over the 25 years that she has been writing about the region. She said that while there has been some investment in infrastructure and technological advances, there are still dictators who have been in power for decades, rigged elections and journalists regularly being harassed.
“I look at the countries that I know best … on the whole, I would say they are all in trouble,” she said. “You would have hoped that things would have gotten better by now.”
And while social media has fueled popular uprisings in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, Wrong said that in the countries she has covered, the rise of social media has only given the state more control over its people. She said this was especially the case for Rwanda.
“All of these presidents, in these regimes, have learned how to manipulate social media,” she said. “So the first thing they do, if they have an election or if there are things like protests on the streets, is they just switch off the internet or they switch off Whatsapp.”
The Rwandan government, she added, uses social media platforms like Twitter to harass and intimidate people — including Wrong herself.
“They’re using social media ironically to silence discussion — by bullying people, shouting at them, calling them whores,” she said.
In Wrong’s view, the West shouldn’t necessarily stop providing aid to Rwanda, but she said Western aid organizations should find ways to hold countries to account — by having ambassadors bring up human rights issues to the president or speak openly to the press, for example.
“If you’re going to give money to a government and that government is going to rely on your funding, then it’s normal that you should have certain demands,” she said. “I think that there’s a whole level of different means of pressure — tools that you can apply.”
The biggest problem, however, is widespread ignorance. Wrong said the West knows so little about Africa, and has very little interest in learning.
“It’s such an unbalanced relationship. The West isn’t interested in Africa — doesn’t know much about it. Western leaders don’t know much about it, and can’t really be bothered to inform themselves,” she said. “And Africa knows everything about the West, and watches Western films and TV and Western coverage of Africa obsessively, because this is the way the balance of power and money lies.”
Wrong said she sees hope in Africa’s large population of young people. In 2019, the Brookings Institute reported that sixty percent of Africa’s population are under the age of 25, giving it “the youngest population in the world.”
But the same report found that the median age of African leaders is 62. Wrong said she expected the upcoming generations will want real democracies, and that they will not accept the tight grip that elders in Africa have had on power.
“This enormous young population is coming up. and they will have different reference points and they’ll have that exasperation that young people feel towards older people, and rightly so,” said Wrong. “I think the young people coming up are going to say, ‘Well, sorry, but we don’t accept this way of working anymore.’ And that’s got to be a good sign.”
On Wednesday, October 6, Roya Hakakian, author of A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious, will be giving a talk in Old Lyme, as part of the Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council speakers series.