South Africa’s inquest into the 2013 murder of exiled former head of Rwanda intelligence Patrick Karegeya, to begin on Wednesday, could further stress relations between the two countries.
The inquest will involve testimony from 30 witnesses, and may lead to criminal charges, according to South African Senior Prosecutor Yusuf Baba.
The decision by South African prosecutors to go ahead with the inquest was made five years after investigations into his murder had stalled.
However, the timing of the decision to conduct the inquest is seen by officials in Kigali as a ploy by exiled Rwandan groups. Officials think the goal of the judge’s move is intended to disrupt efforts to repair relations between South Africa and Rwanda.
Mid last month, Rwanda said it had communicated to South Africa its concerns about attempts by the South African Department of International Relations to delay normalisation of relations.
“These include unfounded allegations made against Rwanda in public statements and the media, based on rumours and distortions propagated by Rwandan detractors based in Canada and South Africa, and media platforms associated with them,” the statement said.
“It is a cause for concern that the South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation chooses to believe these groups over the assurances provided by the Government of Rwanda.”
Kigali government officials, speaking off the record, suspect that lawyers of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), of exiled former Rwandan general Kayumba Nyamwasa and the old guard in the South African administration have “influenced” Magistrate Jeremiah Matopa to reopen the inquest.
Rwandan authorities accuse the RNC of being behind a spate of grenade attacks in Kigali, around 2010, that killed and injured several people.
A recent United Nations report has suggested that Gen Nyamwasa is recruiting fighters and getting ammunition from Burundi, Uganda and the DR Congo.
The report by a UN Group of Experts, dated December 31, 2018, says that Gen Nyamwasa, who is exiled in South Africa, has frequently travelled in the region on a recruiting drive for his newly formed rebel group called P5, which is under the RNC.
Kigali is concerned that allies of Gen Nyamwasa will want to use the inquest to divert attention from the damning UN report.
South African officials however say that “despite some misunderstandings,” the country remains committed to restoring diplomatic relations with Rwanda.
Spokesperson of the Ministry of International Relations and Co-operation Ndivhuwo Mabaya was quoted in the South African media as saying, “Good relations between South Africa and Rwanda are important because there are growing economic ties between the two countries, and it could boost tourism.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met with his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame in March last year in Kigali. After the meeting, President Ramaphosa told the press that the two heads of state had assigned their foreign ministers to step up the normalisation process.
Genesis of the stalemate
Col Karegeya, a former confidant of President Kagame, was in December 2013 found strangled to death in a hotel room in Johannesburg, where it is alleged he had gone to meet a Rwandan businessman.
His murder happened after a failed attempt in June 2010 on the life of Gen Nyamwasa, former chief of staff of the Rwandan army.
Four men were arrested as suspects and found guilty of the assassination attempt on Gen Nyamwasa, with the court magistrate stating that the attempted assassination was a “politically motivated conspiracy,” during the 2014 trial.
South Africa responded to Col Karegeya’s murder by expelling three top Rwandan diplomats in March 2014, which prompted Rwanda to act in kind by expelling six high-ranking South African diplomats.
Diplomatic ties between the two countries have been frosty since then, with South Africa withdrawing its visa services for ordinary Rwandan citizens.
The situation promised to change for the better when President Ramaphosa met President Kagame last March, where he promised that restrictions against Rwandan travellers would be removed and visa issuance would be reinstated at the South African consulate in Rwanda.
This did not happen. Instead, a war of words between officials from both countries culminated in South Africa recalling its ambassador to Rwanda, George Nkosinathi Twala last month.
His recall was as a result of Rwandan authorities allegedly insulting South Africa’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Lindiwe Sisulu for her alleged support for talks between Gen Kayumba and the Rwandan government.
Rwanda denied insulting the minister.