JOHANNESBURG – A Rwandan general who was once a top aide to Rwandan President Paul Kagame but now is among his most prominent critics said Thursday that Kagame ordered the killing of the previous president that sparked Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa made the accusation Thursday as he testified in a Johannesburg courtroom about an attempt on his own life in 2010 in South Africa. The shooting of Nyamwasa, and developments in other countries, have raised suspicions that Rwanda's government has deployed hit teams against dissidents abroad. Rwanda denies the accusations.
Asked why the three Rwandans and three Tanzanians on trial may have wanted him dead, Nyamwasa, once Kagame's military chief, described a breakdown in his relationship with Kagame.
"I ran out of the country because my life was threatened," Nyamwasa testified.
Nyamwasa fled in 2010 to South Africa, where he was shot months after arrival. Nyamwasa testified Thursday that a bullet remains lodged at the base of his spinal column.
Rwanda's government has denied involvement in the attempted murder.
Nyamwasa testified Thursday that another Rwandan exiled in South Africa allowed him to listen in secret to a telephone call with a top Rwandan army official in Rwanda. Nyamwasa said the caller from Rwanda was looking for someone to help "eliminate" Nyamwasa. Nyamwasa said he reported the conversation to South African authorities before he was shot, but that his security was stepped up only after the shooting.
He added, as a further explanation of why he may have been targeted: "There are facts in my knowledge that the president of Rwanda ordered the killing of the former president of Rwanda, President Habyarimana."
Rwanda's 100-day genocide was sparked by the shooting down of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane in 1994. Militants from the Hutu ethnic majority blamed Tutsis, sparking the massacre of more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, a frenzied slaughter that was stopped when Kagame's Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, toppled the Hutu extremists.
While the Rwandan government blames Hutu extremists for the crash that killed Habyarimana, accusations persisted for years that Kagame's Tutsi rebel force shot down the plane. A French investigation completed earlier this year found that the missile fire came from a military camp and not Tutsi rebels. French judges had filed preliminary charges against Kagame's allies and were investigating the crash because a French air crew was killed.
Nyamwasa was not allowed to elaborate Thursday after the judge ruled that the general was merely speculating and not offering evidence of the suspects' motives.
A South African lawyer hired by Rwanda's government to monitor the proceedings, Gerhard van der Merwe, said after Thursday's session that it was unfortunate accusations could be leveled without Kagame being given an opportunity to respond.
Nyamwasa was for years a top Kagame aide. In testimony over the last two days, he has described a falling out that may have led to his apparent demotion from national security coordinator to ambassador to India in 2004.
Nyamwasa described the shooting in a soft voice Thursday, standing with straight military posture.
Asked whether the shooter was in the courtroom, he walked from the witness stand and calmly and firmly placed his right hand on the left shoulder of one of the defendants, Hemedi Denengo Sefu, a Tanzanian.
"This is the person," Nyamwasa said, then stared at Sefu for a beat before returning to the witness stand.
According to Nyamwasa's account of the assassination attempt, he was sitting next to his driver as he and his wife returned to his Johannesburg apartment complex after a shopping trip. He saw the shooter reaching through the driver's window, holding a pistol in both hands. Nyamwasa opened his door and was shot in the lower abdomen as he ducked out of the car. As the shooter then walked around the front of the car, Nyamwasa considered running a few meters (yards) to his apartment's basement, but worried his right leg would not hold him — he would find out later that the bullet had fractured his right hip. Instead he grabbed for the gun. The shooter took a few steps back, and Nyamwasa could see the gun had jammed. The shooter then tried to pull out a knife. As he fumbled with his weapons, Nyamwasa ran to the basement, shouting at his driver to grab the shooter.
The driver, who is charged as a conspirator, did nothing, Nyamwasa said. The driver is accused of giving the plotters information on Nyamwasa's movements in exchange for money. He sat next to the accused shooter in the defendant's dock Thursday.
Once in his basement, Nyamwasa said he became concerned the shooter would then attack his wife, so he came back out and saw the shooter running out of the pedestrian gate of the apartment complex wall.
Observers speculate Kagame saw Nyamwasa as a political rival who was becoming too powerful. In South Africa, working with other dissidents here and elsewhere, Nyamwasa established the Rwandan National Congress, which they say is dedicated to pursuing peaceful political change in their homeland.
Nyamwasa has been dogged in exile by questions about his conduct when he was close to Kagame. Nyamwasa and other senior Tutsis are accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in the aftermath of Rwanda's genocide. Nyamwasa denies the charges.
In Rwanda, a military court last year convicted Nyamwasa and three other dissidents in absentia and sentenced them to 20 years in prison for threatening state security and on other charges they deny.
Last year, British police warned Rwandan exiles in Britain that their lives were in danger, and the threat was believed to have emanated from the Rwandan government. In Sweden earlier this year, a Rwandan diplomat was expelled because he was engaged in "refugee espionage," according to a person close to the Swedish government.
Last year, after a Rwandan journalist who was a frequent critic of his government was shot and killed in Uganda, Human Rights Watch urged Uganda's government to protect Rwandan dissidents living in Uganda.
Inside Rwanda, opposition politicians, journalists and civil rights activists have been harassed, human rights groups say.
The trial in Johannesburg was suspended until July 10.