What the arrest of Rwandan military and security chiefs reveals about Kagame’s leadership style
Last week, President Paul Kagame ordered the house arrest of four top military and security officers; three of them generals. Among them, I know the chief of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Richard Rutatina and the chief of staff of the reserve force Lt. Gen. Fred Ibingira, fairly well. I can even claim them to be my friends. The head of Rwanda’s external security, Col. Dan Munyuza, I know, but not closely. I know little about the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Division, Brig. Gen. Wilson Gumisiriza.
All the four officers are among the most influential and powerful figures in the military and security establishment in Rwanda. And the three that I know do not have any political differences with the government. On the contrary, they are very loyal officers to the army and to Kagame personally. Under normal circumstances, especially what we know as Standard Operating Procedures in Africa, they should not be under house arrest. We would expect the president to turn a blind eye to their dirty dealings given that they are not a threat to his power.
Their arrest instead demonstrates Kagame’s rare ability to separate his personal feelings towards a loyal lieutenant from his official responsibilities as a president. It does not matter how loyal someone is to him or how hard working that official has been or how best they perform their official duties. If there are allegations of improper conduct against a lieutenant, Kagame will not hesitate to make them face the law. Because it is personal to his character, one wonders how Rwanda will sustain this strict adherence to the rule of law when Kagame retires in 2017.
No one close to Kagame and no one distant from him can exercise impunity and get away with it. In fact the closer you are, the more careful you have to be. Every public official in Rwanda knows that. Some have done wrong things and gotten away with it. But that would be largely because Kagame did not get to know. Therefore contrary to what we have always known in most of Africa, an officer, minister or other government official does not have to be disloyal for Kagame to order his/her arrest.
Many “experts” on Rwanda who do not understand this aspect of Kagame’s leadership style see in such arrests hidden tensions in the army. So conspiracy theorists will claim that the arrests are a reflection of some wider discontent in the military. They will speculate that there was a plot by the arrested officers to stage a coup; that there may have been a meeting where they expressed positions in conflict with the leadership. These “experts” will predict regime collapse.
These were the speculations that took place when Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa escaped from Rwanda in early 2010. I listened or read in silent wonderment tall tales of discontent in the Rwandan army; of how Kayumba was only a tip of an iceberg etc. I tried to explain to those who cared to listen that Kayumba was alone and lonely; that whatever following he had in the army was not sufficient to allow him move even a platoon and that hopes of regime collapse were as fantastical as hopes that you will wake up to find a million dollars in your pillow.
A few months after Kayumba has escaped, Kagame ordered the house arrest of four top generals including Lt. General Charles Muhire and Major General Emmanuel Karenzi Karake. This added fuel to the speculation that there was some bigger problem. Sections of the mass media claimed that these officers were “independent minded” (read were critical of the government); that their arrest was to forestall some wider plot to overthrow the government. Friends in Uganda who are always keen to criticise President Yoweri Museveni for not arresting thieving ministers and army officers were coming to me and asking: “what is wrong with Kagame? Why does he arrest these army officers?”
We African elites live a contradictory life. Having been brought up in villages and socialised at home to peasant notions of justice and fairness, our instincts tell us that you don’t arrest those close to you. But having been educated in western intellectual thought and public sector ethics, our minds tell us that the law must be applied to everyone equally; that we must not create exceptions for our friends and allies.
So, while in our official comments on a public matter we may call upon the president to arrest a thieving minister, our instincts tell us such action is not “appropriate” and this is especially true when the minister is from our tribe. Thus, the very people who criticise Museveni in Uganda for inaction on corruption are the same who criticise Kagame for action on it. Museveni’s inaction may be the basis of many Ugandans considering him to be “democratic” i.e. allowing freedom for impunity. Kagame’s action is often the reason he is accused of being an intolerant despot, taking away people’s freedoms to loot public resources.
I often sympathise with the holders of such views because they are rooted in the experience of most of Africa over the last 50 years. For instance, in 1971, President Milton Obote tried to arrest the army commander Idi Amin and was instead overthrown. In 1980, President Godfrey Binaisa fired the chief of staff David Oyite Ojok and his government fell the next day. In 1985, Obote fired another army commander, Tito Okello Lutwa, and immediately thereafter his government fell.
And this experience is not unique to Uganda. African nations from Nigeria to Ghana, Chad to Liberia and Mauritania to Niger have gone through this experience. The problem for Rwandan experts today is that it is simply not the case under Kagame.