Former Rwandan army chief shot in South Africa. Was it an assassination attempt?

Former Rwandan army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa - a top critic of Rwanda's authoritarian leader, Paul Kagame - was shot Saturday in Johannesburg, South Africa, in an apparent assassination attempt.

Jason Straziuso/AP
Rwandan President Paul Kagame (r.) at the nation's parliament on May, 17. One of Kagame's biggest critics, former Rwandan army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, was shot Saturday in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is currently being called an assassination attempt.

A top critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the former Rwandan army chief Lt. Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, was shot Saturday in front of his house in what police are treating as an assassination attempt.

The Rwandan government told the BBC that it “does not condone violence” and would trust the South African police to investigate the shooting.

Gen. Nyamwasa has been living in exile in South Africa since February, when President Kagame’s government accused him of launching grenade attacks in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, and also masterminding a failed coup attempt back in 2001. Nyamwasa, who was shot once in the stomach, is reported to be in stable condition in a Johannesburg hospital.

The apparent assassination attempt comes just months before Rwanda’s second set of scheduled elections since Kagame came to power, sweeping aside a Hutu majority government that is blamed for launching a genocide that killed 800,000 Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis.Kagame, Nyamwasa, and much of his ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, are members of the ethnic Tutsi minority.

The shooting also comes after a series of troubling events – the banning of two independent newspapers, the arrest of Kagame’s chief opponent in the presidential elections for “genocide denial,” and the defection of several high-level RPF members – that call into question Kagame’s credentials as a democratic leader.

Kagame’s 16-year rule over Rwanda has created a state where there is very little political space for opposition and dissent, says Jason Stearns, an independent analyst and former UN panelist on Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The biggest danger isn’t the Hutu opposition, and it isn’t even the FDLR,” says Mr. Stearns, referring to the Congo-based Hutu-led rebel group whose leaders are blamed for the genocide. “The dissent that Kagame fears is within the RPF itself. What he worries most about is a coup from within.”

The shooting of Nyamwasa occurred outside the general’s house in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Melrose Arch, after a shopping trip with his wife. According to Nyamwasa’s wife, Rosette, who was in the car, a gunman approached Nyamwasa’s car as it waited to get in through the security gate of their high security residential complex. The gunman shot once through the window, and then attempted to finish the job with a second shot, when the gun apparently jammed. The gunman then jumped into a waiting car and escaped.

“When we got to the gate, a black man with a pistol came to the driver’s window... and he fired a shot,” Mrs. Nyamwasa told the South African Press Association. After the shot, Nyamwasa got out of the car and began to struggle with the shooter. It was certainly an assassination attempt, she said, because the shooter made no demand for money.

Kagame himself is regarded by many Western leaders as one of Africa’s more economically enlightened reformers.

Rwanda has reformed its laws to make foreign investment easy, and the time it takes to set up a business in Rwanda is a mere 3 days, compared to 14 days in the past. Kagame has also pinned his country’s hopes not on natural resources, which Rwanda sorely lacks, but instead on its educated workforce. Rwanda recently became the first country to be completely connected to a fiber optic internet connection.

Yet these reforms come at a heavy political price, say Kagame’s critics.

“Rwanda is the most secure country, but it is also one of the more repressive,” says Col. Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence from 1994-2004, who has also fled into exile in South Africa. “This country is a one-man show. It’s obvious even to people who support him. Nobody can talk to him. Nobody can write what they feel. Can you imagine reconciling with people who you don’t talk to?”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.