IIt was a silver BlackBerry, surprisingly heavy in hand, belonging to a businessman who had flown from Kigali to South Africa to visit exiled former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya. The businessman, Apollo Kiririsi Gafaranga, boasted of having bought it in Qatar.
“It cost me $ 10,000,” recalls a friend of Karegeya’s being told by the businessman. “It is a model that can only be bought in the Middle East, a phone that cannot be traced.” Karegeya picked it up, weighed it, and put it back on the counter where it was being loaded. “You’ve been robbed,” joked the former spy chief.
Looking back, Karegeya’s friend thinks the phone was just one of a series of clues they couldn’t detect. “I’ve never seen a BlackBerry like this, that color, that weight,” he recalled. “There was something very fishy about that.” He is convinced that the phone was actually a recording device to record the conversations that Karegeya, who fled Rwanda in 2007 and co-founded the opposition Rwandan National Congress (RNC) party, had with other exiled activists during Rwanda’s visit. Gafaranga.
By New Years Eve 2013, Karegeya was dead. On another trip to Johannesburg, Gafaranga allegedly lured him to a room at Sandton’s five-star Michelangelo Hotel, where a four-man team jumped on Karegeya and strangled him to death. In September 2019, a South African magistrate arrest warrants issued for Gafaranga and the alleged conspirator Alex Sugira, who has not yet been extradited from Rwanda. Officially, Karegeya’s former boss, President Paul Kagame, denies his involvement. But his message to a prayer breakfast shortly thereafter he was openly triumphalist: “You cannot betray Rwanda and get away with it,” he exclaimed.
The revelation this week that Carine Kanimba, daughter of former “Hotel Rwanda” manager Paul Rusesabagina, had her phone repeatedly hacked, with found evidence of multiple NSO Group spyware attacks while campaigning for her father’s release after that he was abducted in Dubai and later imprisoned in Kigali, has not come as a surprise to journalists, dissidents and human rights activists exiled from Rwanda.
Few African societies are monitored more closely, and critics of the government have repeatedly realized that the arm of the state extends far beyond its borders, with Kagame apparently determined to track dissidents as far away as Australia, Canada. , USA, UK and continental Europe.
If Rwanda is a client of the NSO Group, as the Pegasus project suggests, it presents a terrifying picture of what a government determined to hunt down “enemies of the state” could do with cyber weapons of this type. In February, the US advocacy group. Liberty house He cited Rwanda as one of the most prolific practitioners of “transnational repression,” ranking alongside Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Turkey. “The commitment to control Rwandans abroad and the resources devoted to the effort are staggering when you consider that Rwanda is a country of 13 million people where roughly a third of the population lives below the poverty line,” he said. .
Information gathering has always been a Kagame specialty; modern technology has simply broadened the scope of your curiosity. A Rwandan refugee who had grown up in western Uganda, Kagame was sent by Yoweri Museveni, today President of Uganda, for training in Dar es Salaam by Tanzanian military intelligence.
Joining the rebel Museveni National Resistance Movement (NRM) in the Luwero Triangle, his assigned task was to collect incriminating information on fighters suspected of failing in their duties: falling asleep on sentry duty, showing cowardice on patrol. His role in the resulting court martial, which could result in execution, earned Kagame the nickname “Pilate”, in honor of Pontius Pilate.
When the Ugandan capital Kampala fell to the NRM in 1986, Kagame was given a job in military intelligence and played a key role in the formation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a secret force within the armed forces. from Uganda. After the charismatic RPF leader was assassinated invading Rwanda in 1990, Kagame nervously took the initiative, relying on a personal network of informants to double-check commanders whose loyalty he doubted.
When the RPF captured Kigali after the 1994 genocide, during which between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed by Rwandan soldiers and Hutu extremists, it gained control of a small former monarchy where the hand of the state was always heavy on its citizens. . The late President Juvénal Habyarimana had run an internal monitoring system in which local officials reported on groups of 10 houses (ten houses), while the intelligence services kept detailed lists of citizens considered subversive or slavishly loyal.
At home, Kagame has kept ten houses, led by politically sensitive RPF cadres, as a very effective instrument of social control. “The whole country is a spy machine,” David Himbara, Kagame’s former economic adviser, told me while researching my book. “The army, the police, come to his office to tell him things. He does not rule, he collects rumors ”.
Abroad, Rwanda’s network of embassies and high commissions has been used to track down, intimidate, and in some cases even kill journalists, human rights activists, and members of opposition parties – challengers increasingly emanating not from the ranks of the majority Hutu but of Kagame’s own Tutsi elite. .
In the past, the Metropolitan Police formally warned several London-based RNC activists of an “imminent threat” to their lives from Kigali; in Belgium, a former prime minister of Rwanda was put under armed guard; while the Australian police have advised dissenters in exile to stay away from Rwandan agents supposedly operating in Brisbane.
Officially, Rwanda denies using NSO’s Pegasus software, but former intelligence chief and RNC co-founder Kayumba Nyamwasa, who has survived repeated attempts on his life in South Africa, notes that the RPF has enjoyed extremely strong military and intelligence ties. close with Israel since the genocide. , and that the line between the Israeli military and spin-offs that sell intelligence equipment is clearly blurred.
Kayumba, who was already notified by WhatsApp In 2019, he was one of 1,400 users targeted by Pegasus, recalls that he realized that his phone had been compromised. “When I left Rwanda I thought I was probably being monitored by the Rwandan state telecommunications system and the private telecommunications companies in South Africa,” he told me. “But in 2018 I was told the details of a conversation that someone close to me had had with a friend, I double-checked, those details were correct and I felt that a superior surveillance system was involved.”
Aware that they are likely to be tracked, Rwandans abroad try to go unnoticed by changing phones and numbers, using anonymous “identifiers” and migrating from one platform to another. WhatsApp has been largely abandoned in favor of Signal and Telegram, but many users don’t trust it either, as time messages automatically disappear after set periods. However, it is an uphill battle, activists say, as new numbers and phones can soon be identified and blocked through the targets’ conversations with existing contacts.
Many Rwandans are so intensely suspicious of all modes of electronic communication that they only deviate beyond the prosaic and banal when they sit face to face. In that way, the mere knowledge of the existence of Pegasus has had a chilling effect on the freedom of thought in this small but influential Central African nation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism