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For 26 years, Félicien Kabuga successfully eluded police all over the world. On 16 May, the man suspected of financially backing the Tutsi genocide was arrested on the outskirts of Paris. Below is a portrait of the final months of the hunt for Rwanda’s most wanted fugitive.
It’s at The Hague, nearly 10,000 kilometres away from Rwanda, the hunt for Félicien Kabuga got a second wind, almost 26 years after he left his home country. This key case had been revived in July 2019 during a meeting held under the aegis of the “Mechanism”, the organisation that performs the remaining functions of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which itself is tasked with judging the masterminds behind the massacres committed against the Tutsi people in spring 1994.
Back in July 2019, Kabuga was one of the three main Rwandan fugitives alleged by international courts to have played a major role in the genocide. A prosperous businessman with close ties to the Hutu regime prior to and during the genocide, he founded and bankrolled the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) station which spread anti-Tutsi propaganda and broadcast calls to exterminate the ethnic group.
Kabuga also allegedly imported several hundred tonnes of machetes, the weapon at the centre of the murderous apparatus, and handled the transport of Interahamwe militiamen towards the sites of the massacres.
During this meeting, the chief prosecutor for the Mechanism, the Belgian jurist Serge Brammertz, decided to bring law enforcement from the Central Office for Combatting Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide and War Crimes (OCLCH in French) and their British and Belgian counterparts together to bolster the genocide tracking unit working to hunt down the principal perpetrators of the genocide ever since the ICTR’s creation. The objective: put the case of the “genocide financier” – a case that has been taunting international courts since 1997 – at the top of the priority list.
Spending time in Switzerland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and eventually Germany, Kabuga always managed to shake off his pursuers, to such an extent that he created the illusion of being eternally elusive.
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The OCLCH, made up of 20 investigators, is the French law enforcement unit assigned to the division of the High Court of Paris tasked with cracking down on crimes against humanity.
“When we joined forces with our European colleagues, the theory that Kabuga was present on the European continent hadn’t been confirmed,” Colonel Éric Emeraux, head of the unit since 2017, told Jeune Afrique.
At that point in time, investigations into Kabuga’s whereabouts had gone cold. Investigators were receiving conflicting accounts, with some locating the genocide financier in Africa, where he had taken refuge for a long period of time with the complicity of certain governments, including that of the Kenyan President, Daniel arap Moi, while others were placing him in Western Europe, the region to which he fled after the genocide.
Wanted under an international arrest warrant since 1997, the very wealthy businessman has constantly been able to elude police, from Switzerland to the DRC to Germany.
But this time around, things unfolded differently.
Brammertz’s tracking team sent international letters rogatory to France, Belgium and the United Kingdom. In early 2020, a new investigation was opened in France under the authority of the Paris Public Prosecutor’s Office. This move increased the resources available for the teams assigned to the case, giving them the ability to intercept the communications of persons suspected of helping Kabuga continue to live at large.
A lead in the suburbs of Paris
Thanks to intelligence sharing between various European police and national law enforcement agencies, a lead gradually emerged in Asnières-sur-Seine, a suburb located west of Paris.
According to a source familiar with the case, the first decisive tip came from the UK. British police notified their European counterparts of the fact that one of Kabuga’s daughters (he fathered 11 children) was making regular trips between London and Paris.
On their end, French investigators noticed that one of his sons would periodically travel from Belgium to France, leading them to wonder if Kabuga was living in France, in spite of the risks involved. In February, during another Mechanism-led meeting in The Hague, the investigators came together and took the decision to pursue the lead.
READ MORE: Genocide in Rwanda: The mechanisms of denial
In cooperation with their European associates, OCLCH officials decided to track the phone communications of family members present in the countries in question. The resulting mapping helped establish a pattern which appeared to confirm the investigators’ initial suspicions: over a one-year period, virtually all of Kabuga’s children seem to congregate at one point or another at the same location in Asnières-sur-Seine. Later on, the investigation was able to ascertain that the location in question was rented under the name of one of Kabuga’s sons.
Narrowing in on Kabuga
For the investigators, the lockdown ordered by the French government as from 17 March had the advantage of limiting the fugitive’s flight risk. What’s more, because the lockdown ground several other cases to a halt, it created a window of opportunity to look into the lead. The irony of the situation is that the surveillance team narrowed its focus on the location suspected of housing Kabuga less than one week before the fugitive’s arrest, at a time when France was just freshly out of lockdown and citizens were once again permitted to move about.
Despite the numerous leads suggesting that Kabuga was living in the apartment, doubts persisted.
“We had good reason to believe that he was there but we weren’t absolutely certain, as he was very discreet,” recounts Colonel Emeraux. The following week, he didn’t come out of the apartment.
Everything accelerated in the hours before dawn on 16 May. “Abnormal movements” planted an idea in the investigators’ heads and they decided to take action. “We were only able to confirm his presence once we opened the door,” Colonel Emeraux said.
Inside the apartment, Kabuga was found in a physically weakened state and in the company of one of his sons. The Rwandan fugitive – who had eluded authorities for years – had in his possession a host of identity cards, including an African passport of an as yet undisclosed nationality. Law enforcement reported that he had used 28 false identities in 26 years.
While the genocide financier’s lengthy stint on the run has come to a close, many questions remain unanswered, such as how long had he been on French soil? Likewise, the investigators are still largely in the dark about the financial support he received for a quarter century. Will the evidence gathered by French law enforcement at his home on 16 May help shed light on the Kabuga mystery?
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