Ethiopia’s Mengistu & Rwanda’s Mpiranya: Two Africans wanted for genocide

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: The 20 most wanted Africans…

By Marième Soumaré, Mehdi Ba
Posted on Thursday, 7 October 2021 08:52

In our final delve into Africans on the run, we look at these two men who have been accused of having committed crimes against humanity: the worst category imaginable. Ethiopia's former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, and Rwanda's Protais Mpiranya, the elusive ex-commander of the Rwandan Presidential Guard who is said to have played a key role in the Tutsi genocide.

This is part 4 of a 4-part series

Ethiopia – Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Blood Red Negus

84-year-old former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was sentenced to death in his own country, has enjoyed a quiet life in Harare for the past 30 years, despite the death of his old friend Robert Mugabe.

When he arrived in Zimbabwe in 1991, Mariam felt safe enough to settle there; discreetly, of course, but without hiding. He had just fled Ethiopia after a 14-year reign at the head of a brutal Marxist-Leninist regime. His military committee, the Derg, was known for making families pay for the bullet that was destined for their children.

At the beginning of his exile, the deposed autocrat was still walking the streets of Harare, armed and accompanied by his bodyguards, who were paid handsomely by his host country. However, in 1995, he was nearly killed at his own residence and he has been more discreet ever since.

Following Mugabe’s death on 6 September 2019, reports indicate that Mariam moved from his luxurious villa in Harare’s Gunhill district – where he resided with his family and close friends – to one of his more remote farms. He had lost one of his oldest friends, host and protector: ‘Comrade Bob’.

Mugabe, who had been forced to resign two years earlier, had been a figure of decolonisation and like his Ethiopian counterpart, was strongly influenced by Marxism.

In the 1980s, Mariam had supported Mugabe and his guerrilla independence movement against the white regime in what was still called Southern Rhodesia. Mugabe did not forget this gesture and in return offered Mariam a villa, an income, a diplomatic passport and – most importantly – immunity. He even gave Mariam his personal tailor’s contact details. Mariam is also believed to have acted as a ‘military adviser’ to the president.

In 2008, the Ethiopian justice system sentenced the former officer-turned-autocrat to death for genocide. The ‘Red Terror’, an assassination campaign that targeted alleged opponents, created hundreds of thousands of victims.

Despite Mugabe’s death, Mengistu has continued to enjoy protection in Zimbabwe. The 84-year-old Negus, who has described his living situation as ‘political exile’, has never expressed regret for his crimes.

Rwanda – the elusive Protais Mpiranya

Ever since Félicien Kabuga, ‘the financier of the genocide’, was arrested in the Paris region in May 2020, and Rwanda’s former defence minister Augustin Bizimana’s death was announced, his name has featured at the top of the list. Alongside him are the four Rwandans that are still wanted by the international ‘Mechanism’ that was supposed to carry out the residual functions of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which closed in December 2015. The reward promised for information leading to Protais Mpiranya’s capture could be as much as $5m.

The former commander of the Rwandan Presidential Guard, who is suspected of having played a leading role in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, is also the subject of an Interpol Red Notice and a US State Department wanted-persons notice. However, the 61-year-old former intelligence officer has managed to escape international justice since 2000, the year he was indicted.

It is important to note that Mpiranya enjoys a high level of protection in southern Africa, where he has sought refuge. Didn’t he, in many ways, provide assistance to the three countries of the sub-region (Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe) that were involved in the second Congo war between 1998 and 2001?

For a long time, the fugitive benefited from the late Mugabe’s regime and that of the South African authorities’ complacency. “We knew that he was moving between Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa,” says a lawyer who contributed to the ICTR’s investigation unit in the early 2010s. “But he is a well-trained military man, well versed in intelligence methods, who has always managed to evade tracking unit investigators.”

“I know that I am wanted everywhere. […] It seems that my time has not yet come, otherwise I would be with the other co-accused,” he said in 2010 in a book that has been attributed to him. At the time, Mpiranya had even faked his own death in the hopes of discouraging the investigations of the bloodhounds that have been following his trail.

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