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Denying a genocide by investigating a car accident

Denying a genocide by investigating a car accident

By Evelyn Groenink

Photograph by Maxime Niyomwungeri via Unsplash

How the Kagame PR machine turned on Forbidden Stories and ZAM

“They are going to say that we deny the genocide,” the colleague at Forbidden Stories – the project of fifty journalists and seventeen media that investigated work, life, and death of our Rwandan colleague John Williams Ntwali – had already warned us. He was right: in the past two weeks, they did just that. We are Rwandan genocide deniers, all fifty of us – or at least funded, or deceived by, genocide deniers. Even though all we did was investigate the mysterious car accident that killed John Williams Ntwali on 18 January 2023.

By the end of this project, we all felt like we had come to know the now deceased Rwandan journalist, although only a few of us had met him. Ntwali was the man who would not leave Rwanda, even though his life was threatened multiple times; the man who said: “If we all leave, then who will speak out?

Though threatened, Ntwali would not leave Rwanda

He was the journalist who looked behind Rwanda’s prosperous image and interviewed people who were forcibly removed from a slum area. Who documented the expulsion of genocide survivors from a building that the government, in exchange for Western cash, was preparing to receive refugees from the UK (see box). Who went to Eastern Congo to document Rwanda’s military and mineral-smuggling operations. Who investigated two mysterious car accidents that had killed individuals who had fallen out of favour with Rwanda’s strong-man-regime.

He was still busy investigating the last one when he was killed in a mysterious car accident, too.

You can kill a journalist, but you cannot kill the story

We followed up on his death because, as the motto goes, “You can kill a journalist, but you cannot kill the story.” Most of us had been involved in such projects before, in a wide array of countries. ZAM had carried out a similar project in Cameroon, when reporter Martinez Zogo had been hacked to pieces in that country.

Trump card

This time, the Rwandan regime – while not answering any of our (timeously sent and detailed) requests for comment – hit back hard, using, as it does, its phenomenal PR trump card: the 1994 genocide. Criticise the government, which is the same as criticising the president, Paul Kagame (one of those many-terms-elected- with-98-percent-type presidents), and you are denying the genocide. Which means you are on the side of the genocidaires, those who commanded the massacres back then, and who are, the regime says – without providing any facts showing that this may be the case (1) – busy trying to enter the country, ready to massacre again.  

John Williams Ntwali and the building for the refugees

A few days before his death, John Williams Ntwali had confided in a colleague that he was doing a story on the forced eviction of genocide survivors – young people who had been children or babies at the time of the massacres in 1994, many of them orphaned – from a building in the capital, Kigali. The “Hope Hostel” – also nicknamed the “One Dollar Campaign Centre” because it had been built from many small donations – had housed the survivors from 2014, assisting them with schooling and preparations for independent breadwinning. But in April 2022, “they had to leave. A UK minister (Priti Patel) came to see it because she was to send refugees from her country there. And it had to be empty then,” says the colleague, whom Ntwali spoke to in January 2023, about a week before his death. “John was following up on what happened to the people who had lived there, after they were thrown out. No one seemed to know where they went. We heard some of them left the country.”

They were going to say that we, too, are in support of old and new genocides. We knew that.

The white West

But they also said a whole lot of other things, some of which are quite interesting, not just for understanding Rwanda, but for understanding Africa’s autocrats and dictators in general. The arguments made by ruling party ideologues in their widely marketed opinion pieces were also interesting for understanding white Western relations with this country and continent.  

Since this is very much the business of ZAM, here goes. In no particular order:

We are white. Well, that is true, at least for most of us, who are based in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. It isn’t entirely true of ZAM, though. ZAM served as a cover for an Africa-based team that investigated on the ground, within communities of exiled Rwandans. Ironically, the team could not share the white spotlight of Rwanda Classified because of the risks they face, similar to the risks faced by Ntwali. Though we could not name most of them, we incorporated their reports and their interviews, which all exuded fear: fear for themselves and their families, as well as their sources.

We (as whites) deny Rwandan agency. This is puzzling. Our whole report is about Rwanda’s agency: from the ruling party building skyscrapers in its capital Kigali, to keeping the poor and hungry away from the city, to effectively policing its entire population into silence and even inspiring terror across borders. Maybe the regime should have a little less agency and the terrorised should be allowed a little more of it, is all we said.

By all accounts the West absolutely loves Rwanda

The racist West hates well-governed Rwanda because it proves African stereotypes wrong. One critic, who appeared to hail from the Rwandan state mouthpiece The New Times, sent us a twenty-page article that attributes our work to a Western “collective unconscious that is still influenced by an outdated colonial perspective.” No argument there; ZAM has published numerous articles on racism, conscious and unconscious, and its colonial roots. Only in this case, that collective unconscious seems to work differently to what the critic asserts, because by all accounts the West absolutely loves Rwanda. The West funds close to half of its state coffers. The West invests in Rwanda like nowhere else in Africa. The UK even wants to send its refugees there. There are proposals in other Western countries to do the same. Rwanda is, some – chillingly – say, a “model” for the rest of the continent. What is the racist West’s agenda here? Is a police state that keeps the “natives” quiet and locked up perhaps exactly what the racist West wants?

The West is jealous of Rwanda’s success. Kigali certainly induces envy among many. Indeed, Western diplomats and businessmen based there told a Forbidden Stories team how impressed they were with the cleanliness, the safety, and how one is not bothered by (publicly noticeable) corruption in the city. However, the diplomats were, they said, also aware of the extreme poverty outside Kigali, and the fact that wealth is concentrated within a small, nepotist elite around the skyscrapers. But such things are whispered, not said out loud, in Rwanda, where beggars and street children are swept away from sightThe person who blogged pictures of Kagame’s private jets and yacht disappeared from Nairobi shortly after he did that.

It’s all lies from discredited sources. Being a conscientious editor, I double-checked this one. Nope, not one. Unless being “discredited” means that they were discredited by the same Rwandan state PR machine, which calls you a “genocidaire” for basically any critical remark. If you apply that criterion, then yes, they were all discredited. Admittedly, that was a bit of a catch-22.

The project did not unearth any investigation carried out by John Williams Ntwali previous to his dying in a car accident. Please. Read the article.

None of the journalists went to Rwanda. It’s almost disappointing to see the predictable police state caught in yet another transparent lie. Check your immigration and visa records, guys. (Hint: the visitors were white, not black, since black colleagues might be less likely to return home safely.)

There are a lot of car accidents in Rwanda. This is my personal favourite. The regime that maintains its capital like Pyongyang, that has speed traps and checkpoints at every corner, that doesn’t even allow dirty cars to enter the city (police will send you back to have it washed), has no problem at all admitting to an unusually high deathly traffic accident rate.

The above was all easy to debunk. Where the PR machine onslaught became painful and unsettling was on three more complicated fronts.

Genocide experts

The first troubling response was the bunch of Western Paul Kagame fans, often genocide-specialised historians, who appear to be so under the spell of the story of the hero-president who singlehandedly defeated the massacring militias, created peace, and built a prosperous country, that they cannot to see the more complex reality beyond the façade. A couple of dozens of them signed an open letter, published inter alia by Jeune Afrique, denouncing our project as “failed journalism.”

That epithet was, of course disturbing. Did we do a bad job after all? But when checking the letter for examples of journalistic failures, for us to apologise for, I did not find any (one can check for oneself here).

The group simply repeated all the above assertions. It explained, as Kagame spokesperson Yolande Makolo had also done when interviewed by a Forbidden Stories team, that Rwanda is only involved in the conflict in the DRC because of “genocidaires” knocking at their border gates (see note 1). They overlooked, among other reports, the 2021 estimate by the mining investment company Bay View that 50% of all minerals and 90% of coltan exported from Rwanda comes from the DRC.

The group repeated all the regime’s assertions

On Ntwali’s car accident, the expert group repeated that “nothing indicates” that this was murder, apparently not noting the interview with the mototaxi driver officially involved in the accident, who said that, if we wanted to know about the death of John Williams Ntwali, we should “ask the institutions.” They had also not taken note of the interview with the scared local reporter who said “please let me not answer that question,” when asked about the clearly fake trial about the clearly fake car accident. They had missed the ZAM intro about the statements made by petrol station attendants who said there “had not been an accident in the area for months.” They had also missed our summary of critical investigations Ntwali had been working on prior to his death, writing that “no information (was) provided by the ‘Forbidden Stories’ on the investigations he allegedly carried out and their threatening nature for Kigali.”

The group also appeared to have scrolled past the statements from Western diplomats who (off the record) compared Rwanda to North Korea, as well as the many accounts of families and friends of killed and disappeared individuals. They furthermore seemingly had missed the book written by President Kagame’s former bodyguard, also interviewed for this project, that narrated the descent of the hero-president and his men into paranoid enemy-hunting. 

Blind adoration

If there is white saviourism and white guilt and white bias anywhere, it appears to me it is to be found in these white experts’ blind adoration of the Kagame regime, not in a group of black and white journalists who stand in solidarity with a murdered colleague. The white experts’ letter echoes in all respects the statements made by the Rwandan ruling party ideologues who wrote the other pieces linked below, as well as the identical statements issued by Ibuka, Kigali’s official propaganda arm, which, nestled at its embassies, engages in extremely vocal “genocidaire” opponent-hunting abroad. The two black co-signatories of the letter are representatives of Ibuka.

One of the stories Ntwali worked on before he died examined the involvement of individuals working for Ibuka in a mysterious car accident that had killed an environmental NGO leader they disagreed with.

“Rwanda is a ‘model for Africa’”

The second problematic response came from Western diplomats, who know all of this, but continue to see Rwanda and its shiny capital, in their own words, as a “model for Africa.” This is where it gets chilling for ZAM’s partner network of African investigative journalists. Is that really what the West wants? I asked earlier. To turn the entire African continent into one giant concentration camp where all refugees can safely be dumped behind barbed wire, while we continue to get all the right minerals for our money? If there are any Western colonial tendencies, they seem to jump out from that nauseating vision.

Racist stereotype

As for our black colleagues who participated in this investigation, their risking their lives has been met mostly with insult. A cartoon published in one of Rwanda’s government-friendly media (there are no others in the country) features a bunch of dumb-looking, hunched black men seated around a table full of dollar bills. (We can only try to imagine the psychological depths behind promoting that racist stereotype of black people without any agency whatsoever.) The money appears to represent whiteness now as an invisible force; the black men clearly are instructing themselves to write whatever will merit those dollars.

An unattributed cartoon that circulated on Rwanda’s regime-friendly social media. It portrays the Forbidden Stories project as a slanderous exercise carried out by black reporters in exchange for piles of dollars. 

I look at it in disbelief, still feeling the shivers from having to communicate with a set of colleagues deep undercover, knowing that one wrong click on the keyboard may result in another mysterious car accident or disappearance. This is so much worse than being called a white racist. 

"Journalism is about truth”

Our colleagues themselves cannot speak out. Most of them remain undercover. But I know how much they risked doing this report, and how much easier it would be for them to work for the regime’s PR machine; like the guy I met fifteen years ago at a journalism conference, who “was actually a disc jockey,” he confided with a smile, and who is now one of the most villainous and vociferous Kagame propagandists. If our African colleagues were like him, they would get a lot more money than they did now, that is for sure. 

They shrug it off, or at least pretend to. “They always come with the ‘white agent’ thing,” one says. “It’s what dictators in Africa do. They manipulate their own people and the outside world with that.”

“But journalism is about truth,” says another, simply.

  1. The Rwandan government points at a militia of former Hutu genocidaires, the FDLR, still present among many of the armed groups fighting in Eastern Congo, but offers no evidence that this group is trying to enter Rwanda. According to this article, the group is “diminished” and poses no real threat.
  2. Kagame is at best a deeply traumatised character who has translated that trauma into paranoia and violence. According to sources close to him like his former bodyguard Noble Marara, besides purging and hunting even his own close comrades, he once beat up a 16-year-old domestic maid for not having put him properly through on the phone. Questions about this event, and others, sent to Kagame’s office, were left unanswered, like all the others.

See for the pro-Kagame responses to the Rwanda Classified project:

What is behind the Western media’s obsession with Rwanda?

Forbidden stories: A war to distort Rwanda’s good story 

Belgium engineering ‘Forbidden Stories’ to undermine Rwanda

Western Media’s Unrelenting Scrutiny of Rwanda: An Examination of Bias and Recycled Narratives

« Rwanda Classified » : une enquête à charge?

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