The assasination of a former Rwandan minister in Kenya

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Rwanda gained independence in 1962 with Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, becoming president. His young government first bloodied its hands in December 1963 when Tutsi exiles (called inyenzi or “cockroaches” by the government) from Burundi launched an attack and then started advancing towards the capital Kigali. The exiles were casualties of Hutu violent purges that took place during the Rwandan Revolution between 1959 and 1962. This was when power dynamics in the county firmly shifted from the Tutsi to the Hutu. The exiles were not well equipped or organized and in the end, were defeated by government troops. Between December 1963 and January 1964, an estimated 10,000 Tutsi were killed by the government. This included all Tutsi politicians who were still in the country.

By 1964, about 336,000 Tutsi were in exile in 4 neighbouring countries: Burundi, Uganda, Tanganyika (later named Tanzania) and Congo-Léopoldville (later named Zaire and then Democratic Republic of the Congo).

In July 1973, Major General Juvénal Habyarimana overthrew Kayibanda in a military coup. He had been appointed as the Army Chief of Staff that January. Habyarimana summarily executed those close to the previous government who included government officials, lawyers and businessmen. His rule was practically a military dictatorship that didn’t take too kindly to any opposition or dissent.

Born in 1951, Seth Sendashonga was a man with a conscience and one that loved his country. He got into trouble as the leader of a student movement that opposed the rule of Habyarimana. The Rwandan President had continued in the footsteps of Kayibanda and did not allow the formation of other political parties in the country. He was routinely elected in elections where he was the sole candidate. Like many others who opposed the president, Seth was forced to go into exile in 1975.

In the first year of the Rwandan Revolution, a 2 year old Paul Kagame and his family had to flee their home as all around them Hutu activists were killing Tutsi. They eventually crossed into Uganda as did Fred Rwigyema, a fellow Tutsi, in 1960. The two first met in 1962 while living in a refugee camp. They would remain friends and eventually form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Before that, Rwigyema joined the rebel army of Yoweri Museveni that removed President Idi Amin Dada from power in Uganda. It was this victory that endeared Museveni to Kagame and other Rwandan refugees. When Museveni disputed the results of the 1980 elections that followed after the removal of Amin, he formed the National Resistance Army (NRA). Museveni wanted to overthrow the new government of Milton Obote and Kagame and Rwigyema joined NRA as founding soldiers. When the NRA successfully completed their mission, capturing Kampala with a force of 14,000 soldiers that included 500 Rwandans, Museveni formed a new government and controversially appointed Rwigyema as the deputy Minister of Defence and deputy army commander-in-chief with Kagame as head of military intelligence. They were later demoted after outcry from Ugandans serving in the army.

A political organization, the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU), was formed in Uganda after Amin was overthrown to plan a possible return to Rwanda for the refugees. RANU became radicalized after some of its members joined Museveni’s NRA and helped remove Obote from power. In 1987, the organization was renamed the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and was dominated by Rwandans who had fought with Museveni. Rwigyema was named its head and he and Kagame started plotting to invade Rwanda. In October 1990, RPF rebels under the command of Rwigyema invaded Rwanda. He was killed on the third day of the attack and Kagame, who was in the United States for military studies had to return to lead RPF. The rebels continued to engage government troops within Rwanda and this eventually led to a ceasefire in 1993. A peace agreement was signed in Arusha, Tanzania whereby Government agreed to share power with the rebels.

Seth Sendashonga, who had been working periodically for the Nairobi-based UN-Habitat since 1976, joined RPF in 1993. He was brought in to serve as a liaison between the RPF and political parties within Rwanda who were opposed to Habyarimana. He was also designated to become a member of the New Transitional Government but this was not to be. The peace agreement was never implemented and in April 1994, President Habyarimana Falcon 50 jet was shot down. Following his death, a military committee led by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora took immediate control of the country and oversaw the killing of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. RPF immediately launched a new offensive and they finally defeated government troops in July 1994. RPF immediately formed a government with Pasteur Bizimungu as the President, Major-General Paul Kagame as the Vice President, Minister of Defence, Faustin Twagiramungu as Prime Minister and Sendashonga as the Minister for Interior.

As Minister for Interior, Sendashonga had serious differences with the now very powerful Kagame. He was uncomfortable with the killings and forced disappearances carried out by some sections of the army. The army had been named the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) to differentiate it from RPF, the political party. Sendashonga wrote to him regarding the issue on several occasions. The Local Defense Forces (LDF) replaced the police after the genocide and were also linked to murders and disappearances. Sendashonga, exercising his power as minister, disbanded the LDF. At the time, RPF was using the LDF to keep track of what was happening in the rural areas and Kagame wasn’t happy with the decision. Sendashonga was eventually fired along with Twagiramungu. They were both placed under house arrest but were later allowed to leave the country. Sendashonga went into exile in Nairobi in November 1995 where his wife, Dr. Cyriaque Nikuze Sendashonga, was working at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

On 26th February, 1996 someone tried to kill Sendashonga. He was lured to a meeting by a family friend who claimed to be in possession of a document that showed a failed mutiny in the RPA. They met and in the end there was no document. The real reason he was called for the meeting showed itself in the form of two men who shot at him as he walked back to his car. He was wounded but not seriously. A suspect, Francis Mugabo, was arrested nearby by Kenyan police with a pistol, a silencer and thirteen 9mm bullets. He was attempting to dispose of the gun in the toilet of a petrol station when he was apprehended. He was an attaché in the Rwandan Embassy in Nairobi at the time of his arrest and so the Kenyan government asked for a diplomatic immunity waiver so that he could be charged and tried. Rwanda refused the request and the case hit a dead end. Sendashonga suspected the RPF government was behind his shooting and their reluctance to help by approving the waiver didn’t help. They were more concerned with the release of Mugabo than assisting in solving the attempted assassination case. Kenya upped the stakes by giving the Rwandans two choices: waive the immunity or we close your embassy in Kenya. You can probably guess by now which one they chose. The Rwandan Embassy was closed and Mugabo, who had been in police custody for months, was expelled along with 4 other diplomats.

The Daily Nation ran a curious editorial after Sendashonga’s assassination attempt. It warned refugees against abusing Kenyan hospitality. It read in part, “Kenyans do not give them succour and sanctuary in order that they may continue their wars here. If they want to kill each other they should go back to their country and do it there.”

Before the attempt on his life, he had planned to travel to Brussels, Belgium to launch a new opposition movement, the Forces de Résistance pour la Démocratie (FRD), with his friend and former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu. They would later launch it in April 1997 after Sendashonga recovered from the wounds he had sustained. Sendashonga received the support of soldiers from the old Rwandan army. He reached out to Tanzania, who agreed to host rebel training camps, and Uganda, through General Salim Saleh, President Yoweri Museveni’s brother.

On 13th May 1998, a taxi driver, Ali Abdul Nasser was approached by David Akiki Kiwanuka who sought to hire killers to eliminate someone. The person in question had apparently swindled his father about US$50 Million. Kiwanuka promised to pay Ksh. 100,000 to whoever carried out the deed. Nasser was shown a picture of the intended victim. He was also apparently taken and shown his house, business premises, a Forex Bureau in Gigiri, and the man himself, as he drove his car in Nairobi. Nasser was a police informer and on 14th May he reported the same to Chief Inspector Daniel Songol Seroney who was with the C.I.D in Nairobi. Seroney tasked two police officers, Corporal Oburu and Constable Ewoi, to accompany Nasser, to the meeting with Kiwanuka, where they would pose as killers for hire. The police officers met Kiwanuka the same day and accepted the assignment. The killing couldn’t however, proceed before some guns Kiwanuka was expecting from Uganda could arrive. They agreed to meet on 15th May but Kiwanuka didn’t show up. They went back again on 16th May but he was once again a no show.

On 16th May, 1998 at the junction of Limuru and Forest Road in Parklands, two gunmen armed with AK-47 rifles opened fire on a car killing the two men inside. The car, Reg NO. UNEP 108K, belonged to Dr. Cyriaque Nikuze, Sendashonga’s wife. The two dead men were Seth Sendashonga and his driver, Jean-Bosco Nkurubukeye. The gunmen fled in a car reg NO. KAJ 426Z which they dumped 3 kilometres away. Nimish Shah and Agnes Ngina saw the gunmen hurriedly dumping the car and described them as being very tall. Spent cartridges that were recovered from the scene of the shooting were similar to those found in the abandoned car. Firearm expert Benson Gichuki Nduguga would later confirm that the spent cartridges were fired from an AK-47 assault rifle.

The man Kiwanuka wanted killed had been Sendashonga and when Chief Inspector Seroney received a report of his shooting, he connected the dots and arranged for him to be arrested. He was apprehended on 19th May and a pistol and bullets were found in his house. He then lead police to Ngara where two other men, Charles Muhanji Wamuthoni and Christopher Lubanga Mlondo, who he named as co-conspirators were arrested. While in police custody, Kiwanuka repeated the story of how his father working as a Director of Immigration in Rwanda, was swindled of US$ 50million by Sendashonga while he was Interior Minister. The minister later arranged the death of his father and that’s why he took it upon himself to eliminate him. The story deviated from the original as this one now included Wamuthoni and Mlondo, who were apparently the killers that Kiwanuka hired to assassinate Sendashonga. Wamuthoni admitted that he was part of the plot to kill the former minister but denied actually doing it. Mlondo however, denied any involvement. A Charles Butera, once Kiwanuka’s story became public, would surface and confirm that he was indeed the Director of Immigration and had no son called Kiwanuka.

The officer tasked to investigate the twin murders was Inspector John Kathae. He inspected the evidence collected and came to the conclusion that there were political connotations to the killings. He did not believe Kiwanuka’s statement. He decided to change tact and went to interview Kiwanuka’s wife. She revealed a connection between the Rwandan government and Kiwanuka. Alphonse Mbayire, who was the acting Rwandan ambassador to Kenya at the time, was apparently financially supporting their family. Kathae tried to interview Mbayire by requesting for a diplomatic immunity waiver but it didn’t come and that was that.

Despite the case against the three being thin and lacking sufficient evidence, they were charged and taken to trial. The three were acquitted of all charges in 2001. Justice Mbogholi Msagha commented on the lack of compelling evidence against the three men. He also added, “I am convinced the murder was political.”

During the trial, Nikuze testified that she believed her husband had been assassinated on the orders of Rwanda’s then Vice President and Defence Minsiter, and now current president, Paul Kagame. She also claimed that Alphonse Mbayire organized the assassination. Mbayire was immediately recalled back to Rwanda in January 2001 after the accusation. He was shot dead a month later in a bar in Kigali by a young soldier who fired more than twenty bullets at close range into his head. The soldier, despite being identified, was never questioned.

Nikuze also shared that her husband had been scheduled to testify before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the French Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry. Defense lawyer Pascal Besnier later confirmed to ICTR that the former Rwandan interior minister, had agreed to speak in defense of his client Obed Ruzindana, a genocide suspect. Had he testified, he would have been the first current or former member of the RPF to testify before the International Criminal Tribunal. It is thought that his impending appearance at the court and the commission made some people jittery and therefore his elimination was planned. His friend Twagiramungu told AFP, “I’m pointing to the RPF and its government. Professionals were sent to carry out this dirty piece of work.” Other Rwandan exiles agreed with him.

The Rwandan foreign ministry denied any involvement in the killing, with Foreign Minister Anastase Gasana quoted as saying, “The Rwandan government did not order this assassination because Mr Sendashonga was not a problem for us. Rwanda has lost a worthy man and a well-known political figure”.

Sendashonga’s killers were never found. However, assassinations of Rwandan exiles abroad continue. In January 2014, former military intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was found brutally strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel room. Former Army Head General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa has survived assassination plots which, according to the South African government and other sources, were orchestrated by Rwandan government agents.

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