Welcome to the Hotel Rwanda

Andrew Donaldson on the UK plan to have their refugees first check in in Kigali


AS many as 10 000 delegates from more than 50 countries are expected to travel to Rwanda in June to attend the Covid-delayed Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Accommodation will obviously be at a premium and officials from South Africa and elsewhere looking for a spot to crash may wish to consider the Hope Guesthouse, about eight kilometres from downtown Kigali, in the capital’s Gasabo neighbourhood.

It is not exactly a luxury hotel. Certainly not as swish an establishment, let’s say, like Sandton’s Michelangelo — which, as it turns out, once unwittingly provided board and lodging for a Rwandan death squad. But the Hope does seem fit for purpose. 

According to reports, its 50 rooms each measure about 3.6 metres by 3.6 metres and are furnished with two beds and a desk. Many of the rooms have a balcony, offering views of the Kigali hills or the Hope’s “luscious garden”. There are shared bathrooms on each floor, and a shared living area with TVs. 

Early booking is however essential, for the Hope’s management are currently in negotiation with authorities in Kigali about the long-term use of their establishment to  accommodate asylum seekers while they are “processed” in terms of the memorandum of understanding signed by the UK and Rwandan governments last week.

This pact, its critics charge, will usher in the forcible deportation to Rwanda of those fleeing conflict and torture who seek asylum in Britain. “One of the richest countries in the world,” The Observer noted, “is bribing one of the poorest countries in the world to outsource our ethical and legal obligations to refugees.”

It is, simply, a cash-for-deportations deal. Britain will be paying Rwanda “a set amount per refugee”, according to The Times, “although the Home Office refused to say how much”. However, each migrant is expected cost the UK taxpayer between £20 000 and £30 000. This, the newspaper reported, will cover accommodation before departure, a seat on a chartered flight, and their first three months’ accommodation in Rwanda. In addition, Rwanda will receive £120-million a year to help and support the integration of a “portion” of refugees.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, argues the expense is minuscule when compared with the asylum system’s present annual cost of £1.5-billion. She also believes the plan will minimise loss of life by discouraging refugees from turning to traffickers for assistance in making the dangerous Channel crossing, and with some 65 000 dinghy-borne migrants expected this year — her estimation — this is clearly a dire situation that needed addressing. So why not become a trafficker too, fighting fire with fire?

Interestingly, Rwanda was not Patel’s first choice as a destination for “offshoring” asylum seekers. That honour, it was revealed in September 2020, fell to Ascension Island, a remote British territory in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That this was even considered as a viable proposition did much to cement Patel’s reputation as a politician who is as dim as she is cruel. When Ascension Island was nixed by the Foreign Office, Ghana was then considered before the deal with Kigali and president Paul Kagame’s government was struck.

Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration, incidentally, is not Britain’s first government to consider asylum camps in Africa. In 2004, Labour PM Tony Blair tried to persuade Tanzania to consider a similar “processing” centre proposal.

It’s worth noting, too, that this is not the first time Rwanda has been paid for taking in deportees from wealthier nations. In 2013, Israel struck a similar “multimillion dollar” deal and between 2014 and 2017 about 4 000 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, were given one-way tickets to Kigali, along with $3 500 each. 

In 2018, the Israeli supreme court ordered the suspension of the scheme when it emerged that it was incompatible with the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. This after it was found that the migrants’ “voluntary” decisions to leave Israel were, in fact, coerced. Haaretz later reported that, according to the Kigali office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, all but nine had since fled Rwanda. Asylum seekers had a blunt message for those in a similar position: stay away.

Government supporters here expect the Rwandan plan will also attract legal challenges. In fact, there is some suspicion that this may be part of an elaborate strategy: 

Firstly, the messy and protracted encounters with “politically motivated lawyers”, as Johnson calls them, and their noisy fellow travellers, not to mention the civil service, will see to it that this unworkable and costly business will never happen. Secondly, the brouhaha over this inhumane folly will provide a distraction from Johnson’s “partygate” difficulties and the clamour for his resignation. As he rails away at the industrial human rights complex, his reputation as the woke-busting bruiser of Brexit Britain may even come in for much-needed burnishing. Local elections are but a fortnight away, and there are, after all, Tory councils to defend in the north.

Regardless of whether the scheme goes ahead or is scrapped, the furore has however drawn unwelcome attention to Rwanda’s poor human rights record. 

Johnson insists that the country is one of the safest in Africa, and warns against “stereotyping” the nation as another of the continent’s failed states. Its president is widely admired in the West, where he is held in high esteem for his role as a peacemaker, halting the genocide of the Tutsi, as well as developing one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. Closer scrutiny of Paul Kagame, however, reveals that the criticism is not without foundation; under his authoritarian rule, the country has come to resemble a one-party Stalinist police state, where the regime’s opponents, both at home and abroad, are routinely “disappeared”.

One such person was, of course, Patrick Karegeya, the former head of Rwanda’s external intelligence services and a former close ally of Kagame who was assassinated in the Michelangelo in December 2013. The killing, sanctioned by Kagame, is unpacked in chilling detail in journalist Michela Wrong’s acclaimed 2021 book, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad (4th Estate).

Intriguingly, AfriForum and former public prosecutor Gerrie Nel chose to take up the matter on behalf of Karegeya’s family when it became clear that the South African authorities were not all that keen on investigating the murder lest it upset Pretoria’s burgeoning “friendship” with Kigali. According to Wrong, Nel’s decision to represent the family did, “at first glance”, seem a bit odd:

“Here was a country many ordinary South Africans would struggle to locate on a map. The victim’s family was so cash-strapped that Nel … would be working for free. But in other ways, it was classic Bulldog territory. There was simply no plausible explanation for the failure to hold an inquest, stage a prosecution, or launch extradition proceedings. Instead there was a strong whiff of political meddling about events, of cozy deals done behind closed doors, and that got Nel’s muzzle twitching.”

In the inquest that followed, in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court, it was revealed that the director of public prosecutions had declined to prosecute the matter on the grounds that the four suspects — named in court for the first time by Nel — had all returned to Rwanda, and, “furthermore, close links exist between the suspects and the current Rwandan government”. Nel was stunned by this. He told Wrong: “The prosecutor was saying, ‘We know there’s political interference, therefore we’re doing nothing.’ I would never have written something like that [as a prosecutor]. But that’s what they said.”

In August 2019, the justice department issued warrants of arrest for two of the alleged assassins. The following year, Nel was advised by his former employers, the NPA, that it had transmitted extradition notices to Kigali, paving the way for the issue of “red notices” and being placed on Interpol’s listed of wanted individuals. None of Karegeya’s friends or supporters expect much in the way of cooperation from Kigali.

Kagame, meanwhile, continues to silence his opponents. He was recently accused on masterminding the kidnapping of opposition leader Paul Rusesabagina from Dubai and hauling him before a kangaroo court in Kigali where he was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted of terrorism offences. Rusesabagana’s lifesaving actions during the genocide were depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda. With some understatement, the US state department has said it was “concerned” over the “fairness of the verdict”.

But we digress. In a joint article in The Times on Monday, Priti Patel and the Rwandan foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, hit back at their critics. Their proposal , Patel claimed, was the act of a “humanitarian nation”, and the partnership a  “groundbreaking” one that would set “a new international standard”. What’s more, if anyone had a better idea, well, she wanted to hear it. As she put it: “We are taking bold and innovative steps and it’s surprising that those institutions that criticise the plans fail to offer their own solutions.”

Shutting traps and cancelling culture

The Index on Censorship magazine recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. “The year of our first publication was 1972,” they recall in their latest issue. “The Cold War was not yet a chapter in a history textbook, nor was apartheid. Spain, Portugal and Greece were still under military dictatorships. Mao Zedong was the leader of China. The challenges were great and our mission was to concern ourselves with all because censorship was not a one-sided issue.”

To mark the occasion, writers and editors who’s worked with the Index over the past half-century were asked for contributions reflecting their experience. Their pieces run alongside archive material on events under the dictatorships and regimes that ruled, among others, Nigeria, Greece, Iran, the Philippines, China, Mexico, Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnia, Latin America and, of course, South Africa. Some have vanished and others are still with us. In addition, there are reports on the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the BBC’s “bias” in its reporting on Northern Ireland, and even Shakespeare’s difficulties with censorship over the centuries.

So much for the past. What of the present and, indeed, the future? In this regard, the Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard’s contribution focuses on the nature of mob justice and what we may expect in days to come. Referencing that familiar adage about disagreeing with what is said, but defending to the death the right to say it, he writes: 

“How quaint it sounds now … Could you have imagined a time when this shop-worn profession of faith in Enlightenment values would split the community?

“Try it like this — ‘I disagree with what you say, and I will defend to the death my right to silence you’ — and ask yourself which is the heterodoxy now. (Whose death, by the way? Voltaire meant his own, but the anonymity conferred on the trolls of our age has made the perfunctory death threat the coinage of dispute.)”

Stoppard reveals his idealism about freedom of expression was fashioned in the early years of the Cold War, particularly with the suppression of free speech in the Soviet bloc. “As far as I could see,” he writes of his younger self, “tolerance of dissenting opinion was the sine qua non of a free society; indeed it was the freedom on which the structures of freedom rested. Yet, it turns out, I couldn’t see as far as I thought I could.

“Back then, all the way to — it seems — the day before yesterday, I saw the battlefront as one between the individual and the state. It is still that, of course, all over the globe, but identity politics has thrown up a phenomenon, a battleground that is not political so much as psychosocial, an intolerance between individuals, and it’s about language.”

Words, Stoppard maintains, do speak louder than actions. But the notion that they cannot hurt has been repealed. People hurt by words now arm themselves with sticks and stones. There are some death threats, he says, but it’s now often the case that “transgressors” are hounded out of their livelihoods.

“With words,” he concludes, “I’m a hardliner. Language will evolve naturally, but diktat is not natural to it. But with language itself, I’m a libertarian. I don’t want to criminalise every fool who says the moon landing was faked and there were no gas ovens. Reality will take care of them too. 

“But no one, not even Lewis Carroll, saw identity politics coming. Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty has maybe had the last word. ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,’ he tells Alice. And that includes pronouns. Will reality take care of it now? I doubt I’ll find out but perhaps my children will.”

I was struck by this, particularly after I came across a tweet from the author JK Rowling. She had shared with her followers a post from a psychiatrist expressing his concern at the high numbers of autistic children and children with internalised homophobia presenting at gender clinics. This attracted the following reaction: “You’re a repulsive bigot. Go fuck yourself, transphobic trash.” The writer was the curator of the “official Twitter account” of The Humanist Report, a “progressive political podcast that discusses and analyses current news events and pressing political issues”. 

Index on Censorship’s next half-century promises to be interesting.