In one way, this concise opinion piece is an interrogation of what Paul Rusesabagina has always believed: the persecution he currently faces in Rwanda can only be attributed to his criticism of the country’s leader, Paul Kagame, in a 2006 book authored by the former hotel manager.
The charges against Rusesabagina clearly indicate that the government believes the 66-year-old is guilty of treasonous acts. Apart from being charged with establishing the rebel group, National Liberation Forces (FNL), an ethnic Hutu paramilitary wing of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), prosecutors also believe he is responsible for attacks by the group which the state has called “terrorist”.
Rusesabagina came to the world’s attention after the global success of Hotel Rwanda, a Hollywood movie based on his believed hospitality toward victims of war during the 1994 Rwandan genocide of Tutsi natives. Rusesabagina was born to a Hutu father and Tutsi mother but opted for his patrilineal identity, thereby making him a Hutu.
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However, many of the claims he and the movie made has been disputed by a major survivors’ group, Ibuka. The group once accused him of exaggerating his life-saving role in the genocide. But this has not shut him up; neither about his role in the war nor about his contempt for Kagame.
Before Rusesabagina’s memoir hit bookstands, one finds very little proof that Kagame and his acolytes held reservations about how the story of the Hôtel des Mille Collines and its most famous manager was told on the silver screen. Ibuka, formed in 1995, had previously not published critiques of Rusesabagina’s role until his criticisms of Kagame. Indeed, writing for Foreign Policy, the film’s director, Terry George, said in a recent publication
…the basic story of Paul Rusesabagina’s heroism in those days was meticulously researched in Kigali in 2002 and based on days of interviews with genocide survivors who had stayed in the hotel
If the director is to be trusted as a man who tried to bring the nearest-accurate representation to our screens, then it leaves us with questions about Ibuka. Was the group unaware of the film’s research? Did it register its displeasure with the director and studio after the film’s release?
None of these things seems to have happened. If for anything at all, Rwanda basked in the attention Hotel Rwanda bestowed, and it needed to. A nation perpetually decimated by ethnic and political tension, Rwanda in 2004 required all the attention necessary to reimagine the future. Kagame had taken over in 2000 and his bold confrontation of injustices during the war as well as the processes he sought to lay were applauded by development partners.
Kagame hosted a premiering of the film in Rwanda in 2005. The director was in attendance. After that, Hotel Rwanda was shown in the 30,000-seater Amahoro Stadium in Kigali. It is safe to argue that hell did break loose after the release of An Ordinary Man by Rusesabagina.
The man himself had not lived in the country since the release of his book which coincided with vocal antagonism to Kagame. In 2010, Rwanda’s prosecutor-general tried to bring a case against Rusesabagina but that ambition was nullified by a lack of evidence. Rusesabagina who at the time lived in the United States called the attempts by the prosecutor-general “baseless”.
Is there an actual connection between Rusesabagina on one hand, and on the other, the FNL? He has consistently denied this for at least, 10 years and no independent confirmation exists apart from the Rwandan government’s accusation. Indeed, he launched his own now-defunct political party while in exile in Washington in 2006. In 2014, he said he had forgiven Kagame after earlier accusing the president and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) of participation in the genocide. Some historians disagree with Rusesabagina on this claim.
It was in 2016 that he declared his intention of challenging Kagame at the polls. It was also the rebirth of Rusesabagina’s troubles.
Last week, Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye revealed that the state had paid for the plane that brought Rusesabagina back into the country after years in exile. Rusesabagina, now a Belgian citizen and hitherto, resident, has claimed that he had gone back believing his presence was required for an emergency. His appeal to the court in Kigali has included the claim that he was arrested illegally. That has been rejected by the court, along with another plea to have him tried in Belgium.
State prosecutors now have one job: to prove beyond reasonable that Rusesabagina is behind all that he is accused of, and there is every reason to believe they will leave no stone unturned in this process. The man himself has no belief in the administration of justice at the courts in his country of birth, even if he appears not guilty in the court of global public opinion.