Fearing assassination, Rwanda’s ex-army boss Kayumba Nyamwasa said in an interview how he swam across a river and fled for safety halfway around Africa, only to be shot in the stomach four months later.
Now the trial of six men accused of trying to kill him in South Africa has put the spotlight on politics in his home country 2 600km away with assassination attempts, arbitrary detentions, and murky court cases.
Infamous for its 1994 genocide, Rwanda now is often touted as an African success: the economy grew 8.8 percent last year, while poverty and infant mortality rates have plunged over the past five years.
But Nyamwasa, who lives in exile in South Africa, said authorities’ crackdown on opposition casts a shadow over the fairy tale.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame told parliament in April 2010 he would deal with the former general – his former adviser and army chief – like a hammer crushes a fly.
“Within two months I was shot,” Nyamwasa said in an interview in Johannesburg.
So far no evidence links Rwanda’s government to the shooting, but Kigali has hired a lawyer to attend the hearings, as a observer.
The Rwandan government could not be reached for comment.
Nyamwasa described the shooting as part of a systematic “targeting” of Kagame’s opponents.
“He kills, he imprisons, he fires any time any day, and nobody will go to court or any situation to challenge any decision.”
“Why is Rwanda so unique that you’ve got prime ministers in exile, you’ve got foreign ministers in exile, you’ve got former parliament members in exile, we’ve got journalists in exile, we’ve got armed officers in exile?”
Three Rwandans and three Tanzanians are accused of attempting to murder Nyamwasa in Johannesburg. He was shot in the stomach outside his home on June 19, 2010, four months after receiving political asylum in South Africa having fled a murder plot in Rwanda.
Nyamwasa said he was targeted because of his claims that Kagame ordered the shooting of a plane that carried president Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994. This set off a genocide during which members of the Hutu ethnic majority killed around 800 000 of the Tutsi minority in three months.
Nyamwasa himself is wanted by France for his alleged involvement in Habyarimana’s death and by Spain for the deaths of Spanish citizens during the genocide.
The Nyamwasa case fits a larger picture in Rwanda, said Human Rights Watch researcher Carina Tertsakian.
“There’s a very very clear pattern of repression of opposition and criticism more generally which even extends to human rights organisations and others.”
“If you take a case like the assassination attempt on Kayumba Nyamwasa that seems to very much fit into that pattern.”
A journalist accused the Rwandan government of involvement in the botched assassination. A week later he was shot dead in the Rwandan capital Kigali. Authorities later said a man had confessed to killing the journalist as revenge for murdering his brother in the 1994 genocide.
Nyamwasa’s younger brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Rugigana Ngabo, was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment in July by a military court for threatening state security.
“Rwandans have been witch-hunted in reference to myself even in reference to my friends,” said Nyamwasa.
He’s not alone.
A former opposition leader was jailed for four years in April, while another will hear her fate in September on similar charges.
All the cases have dragged on since 2010, which prevented the politicians from running in the polls that year. Puppet opposition parties competed instead against Kagame’s RPF, which won 93 percent of the vote.
Months before the polls another opposition leader was decapitated.
Former president Pasteur Bizimungu was jailed in 2004 for embezzlement. He was released in 2007.
“It’s one of the rare cases in Africa… where you can point to achievement, so the human rights problems are somewhat quite inconvenient because they spoil the good news story,” said Tertsakian.