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Do Not Disturb – or perhaps: ‘Why We Should be Disturbed’?

March 26, 2021

Michela Wrong’s awaited new book on Rwanda is well researched, well written, and shines a light on uncomfortable truths.

I was living in the African Great Lakes region at the turn of this century, when Michela Wrong published In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz – her explanation of President Mobutu’s accession to and sustained hold on power, and why it eventually slipped from his grasp, in what was then Zaire. I read it avidly, as did several friends, including politicians whom I knew. The book provided helpful and accurate insights into how things had worked – and hadn’t worked – under Mobutu. It stood out as a diligent journalistic search for a story and an accurate explanation of that story, based on triangulated interviews with people who had been involved in or close to the action. And it was a complex story well-told: accessible to the non-specialist reader, but not over simplified.

I’ve known for some time that Wrong was working on a new book about the same region, in this case about Rwanda, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Published in the UK next week – almost 27 years after the Rwanda genocide was unleashed – Do Not Disturb does not disappoint.

It follows a similar format and style as Mr Kurtz: weaving different strands of a complex story together in an accessible manner, moving seamlessly forwards and backwards in time, and bringing to life many of the protagonists through sharply written accounts of their actions, as well as through their own words.

The story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, and why, has been told many times. Wrong avoids retelling too much of this, using it more to set the scene for and explain what has happened in Rwanda since, than to rehash a deeply tragic but well-rehearsed story. Her interest is in understanding how the governing regime in Rwanda has evolved in the quarter century since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fought its way to power, as seen mainly from within.

To do this, she takes a very detailed, human drama as the backbone of her tale. This is the story of Patrick Karegeya, one-time political prisoner in Milton Obote’s Uganda, later a head of external intelligence for Paul Kagame’s government in Kigali, before becoming alienated from the regime and falling from grace, eventually escaping to exile and then his eventual murder – by the state, it is widely believed – in 2013.

Examining how the Kigali regime has acted since taking power, Wrong claims Kagame’s RPF has cleverly exploited its international reputation as Rwanda’s genocide saviour, as well as the international community’s guilt at its own failure to prevent the genocide. She shows how the RPF government has done this even while committing awful acts of violence itself – often against defenceless civilians. Somehow, the international community, and aid donors, have allowed themselves to ignore or accept this aspect of the Rwanda they continue largely to support.

Central to her account, she describes in great and convincing detail how individuals rise and – all too rapidly – fall within the RPF system, and how those who fall are dealt with – not stopping short of murder. She paints Karegeya and other disaffected RPF cadres in somewhat sympathetic shades, emphasising their personal histories and family lives. But she does not shy away from acknowledging the role they also played in organising and committing atrocities before they fell from grace, including acts of thuggery against other individuals accused of undermining the regime. One of the many interwoven themes running through the book is the immeasurable human suffering caused by political violence in Rwanda and neighbouring countries in recent decades: much of it seen as ‘collateral damage’ to which the RPF’s leaders (along with other political leaders) seem to have become inured, and which they appear quite cynically to instrumentalise.

The book is well-researched, but Wrong’s knowledge and understanding of political science sits lightly on the text. One senses that she draws on it without shoving it down the reader’s throat. That is welcome. This is not a scholarly book, but it’s serious, fully researched, triangulated, balanced, thoughtful and well-read journalism. I think Machiavelli – a man with his own painful, personal experience of the consequences of rising and falling politically – would recognise the story told here. This is not a book about a ‘grand theory’ of post-conflict governance. (God knows we have enough of those.) Rather it emphasises the role of individuals who played key roles at key moments, and it asks what drove them then, and what drives them now. In pursuit of this, Wrong traces some of the protagonists back to their early years at home and at school, and their formative experiences as young adults. This may be just one of the many reasons why President Kagame won’t like this book: because it paints him, supplying evidence from multiple sources in support, as a fundamentally unstable and vindictive individual, projecting a chronic inferiority complex onto the political dynamics that he has so far manipulated so masterfully.

As the narrative of Do Not Disturb unfolds, so the argument unfolds within it, of a revolutionary regime built on highly visible public lies. For example, the pretence that ethnicity is no longer a central question for Rwandans – when in fact, the regime is predicated above all on protecting one particular ethnicity from harm. The book provokes, but does not explicitly answer, the ‘big question’ often posed by foreign observers of Rwanda. On one hand, Kagame can be viewed as an autocrat with a benign vision, holding power close for now, in order to prepare his devastated county for a time when it will be safe to relax and allow the kinds of personal and political freedoms he currently denies Rwandans, because the country is ‘not yet ready’ to be free. On the other hand, he is a simply a cynical, tactical genius, ready to take whatever steps are needed to hold on to power, with no real vision and potentially thus undermining the sustainability even of whatever rickety political settlement currently exists. I’m not sure that Wrong specifically asks or answers this question, but one ends the book with the fairly clear impression that she tends – as Machiavelli might have, too – towards the second option.

To answer that question fully would probably require a fuller political economy analysis than Wrong provides. Personally, I would have liked her to have included more of that. I think it would have added an additional layer of explanation for the events she describes, and perhaps filled out the shape of her narrative a little more. But no matter, much of that analysis is available elsewhere: this book is already almost 450 pages long, and I can see that she – or her editor – had to set the limits somewhere.

For anyone interested to understand the origins of the RPF in 20th Century Rwandese politics and in the Ugandan civil war that brought President Museveni to power in 1986, as well as how power has been allocated and revoked in Rwanda since 1994, and also consider what all this means for the future of Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region, this book is eye-opening, essential – and deeply concerning. I thoroughly recommend it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen Mulcahy permalink
    March 26, 2021 9:27 am

    To a one-time visitor to Rwanda who is now horribly out of touch with the situation there, this sounds like a really interesting read, Phil.

  2. March 26, 2021 9:30 am

    highly recommend it

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