Rwanda-Zimbabwe ties under strain after investigators track down top genocidaire in Harare

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Wednesday, 25 May 2022 10:15

Friends and relatives lift a man wounded by a motar fired by RPF at a downtown government held area in Kigali July 1, 1994. Four civilians died and 10 were wounded in the shelling. SCANNED FROM NEGATIVE REUTERS/Corinne Dufka AVD/CMC

Warming relations between Rwanda and Zimbabwe could take a hit after UN investigators tracked down a major suspect in the 1994 Rwandan genocide to the outskirts of Harare.

Earlier this month, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) announced that it had confirmed that Protais Mpiranya had died of tuberculosis in 2006 and was buried under a false name just outside Zimbabwe’s capital city. Mpiranya was alleged to have been a senior leader in the genocide and was the last of the major fugitives indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The UN says Mpiranya fled to Zimbabwe in 2002, running a small business and living in an affluent suburb of Harare for four years under the name Ndume Sambao. Both his presence in the country and his death were “deliberately concealed by the concerted efforts of his family and associates, including up to the present”, the IRMCT said.

There is no way the Zimbabwean government can pretend not to know that Mpiranya [had been] staying in the country…

UN investigators tracked down his grave and had his body exhumed. DNA analysis proved his identity.

“His tombstone was purposefully designed to thwart its discovery as Mpiranya’s final resting place,” the prosecutors’ report says. “These efforts, which continue to the present, obstructed investigations and prevented identification of Mpiranya’s remains until earlier this year.”

Officially, the government of Zimbabwe has been assisting with the investigation, but some experts say that Mpiranya’s exile in Zimbabwe and his newly revealed ties to Zimbabwean authorities will inevitably set back ties between Kigali and Harare.

“There is no way the Zimbabwean government can pretend not to know that Mpiranya [had been] staying in the country since 2002 and that it facilitated his stay, insulating him from detection, deportation and prosecution,” says Daglous Makumbe, a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

But others aren’t so sure.

“The discovery […] creates an awkward situation in the relations between Kigali and Harare,” says Kigali-based analyst James Munyaneza. “But I do not see it, in itself, reversing the gains the two countries have made in recent years in deepening bilateral cooperation and collaboration on the international stage.”

Wartime allies

Mpiranya was a commander of the presidential guard that played a key role in the 1994 genocide that saw more than half a million members of the Tutsi ethnic minority massacred. He is accused of ordering the assassination of then-Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and the 10 Belgian UN peacekeepers guarding her.

When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) routed the Hutu armed forces that July, he fled into neighbouring Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) before eventually relocating to Cameroon.

UN prosecutors traced the links between Mpiranya and the government of then-President Robert Mugabe back to the start of the Second Congo War in 1998 when the Zimbabwean military fought alongside President Laurent-Désiré Kabila of the DRC and his allies Angola, Namibia and Chad against Congolese opposition forces backed by Rwanda and Uganda. By then, Mpiranya was a commander of the Horizon Brigade, which played a significant role in the war.

He received military support from the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF), which worked with him to protect Congolese diamond mines during the war, according to UN investigators. At the tail end of the Second Congo War in 2002, Mpiranya fled to Harare, with Zimbabwean authorities allegedly facilitating his entry into the country.

The discovery of course creates an awkward situation in the relations between Kigali and Harare.

Around that time, his indictment was made public by the international tribunal that was established to bring the genocide’s perpetrators to justice, leading to a 20-year manhunt. Mpiranya became one of the world’s most wanted war crime fugitives, with a $5m bounty on his head.

Those alleged wartime links to Zimbabwe are particularly troubling, Makumbe says.

“Having taken part in the hostilities on the Zimbabwean side way back in 1997 and living in Zimbabwe surreptitiously with the aid of Zimbabwean officials, this will be bad news for Zimbabwe-Rwanda relations,” he says. “Such connivance between an international perpetrator of egregious crimes and a government shows the highest degree of betrayal for Rwanda, which had unspoilt and cordial relations with Zimbabwe.”

Post-war ties

The revelations could prove a setback for President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has sought to mend relations with Rwanda since Mugabe was toppled in 2017.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been a powerful ally, advocating for the removal of international sanctions on Zimbabwe, even as he faces his own showdown with western powers. Rwanda is also set to recruit teachers from Zimbabwe as the Southern African nation struggles to pay its educators a living wage amid its stagnant economy.

In a May 15 statement, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs Minister Fredrick Shava denied allegations that the government had harboured Mpiranya. He insisted that Harare had “fully cooperated” with the UN while denouncing “smear campaigns peddled by both international mainstream media and social media”.

Makumbe says Zimbabwe is only cooperating now as a cover-up and that Rwanda is unlikely to buy it.

“President Kagame may apply abrupt foot brakes in his rambunctious support,” he says. “His stance towards Zimbabwe is likely to change because of the suspicion and mistrust shrouding this issue.”

However, Tatenda Mashanda, a foreign policy expert at Wake Forest University in the US, says the discovery of Mpiranya’s body in Zimbabwe is just a hiccup that won’t have much of an impact on the overall relationship between Harare and Kigali.

“Rwanda is particular about the history and narratives of the genocide,” Mashanda says. “It is an explosively sensitive issue, understandably so for a nation still healing.”

Still, he says, the new revelations “will not lead to any serious diplomatic rifts and bad blood between Zimbabwe and Rwanda. Kagame’s rhetoric on Zimbabwe and calls for ending sanctions will not change”.

At the very least, Munyaneza says, Zimbabwe will be expected to do more to ensure justice for the victims of the genocide as many of its perpetrators are still believed to be hiding out across Southern Africa.

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