Rwandan Seif Bamporiki, a leading opposition politician, was shot dead in South Africa, where had been living in exile. His murder has left South Africa government officials confounded – even though this is far from the first case of murder of a South Africa-based, high-profile Rwandan critical of the regime of President Paul Kagame.
“We still don’t know what to make of it,” a senior official tells The Africa Report. “The police haven’t told us anything as yet, so we don’t know.”
Local co-ordinator for the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) Seif Bamporiki was shot while delivering a bed in to a customer in the Europa informal settlement in Nyanga, outside Cape Town.
It could have been passed off as just another robbery in one of the most deadly peace-time neighbourhoods in the world, were it not for one thing: witnesses say the killer’s gun had a silencer.
“Our criminals are not that sophisticated that they would have guns with silencers,” says the official. “That is someone hired from outside.”
Other possibilities exists: that Bamporiki was involved in shady dealings or organised crime – also rife in that part of Cape Town – and that this was a deal gone wrong.
But RNC spokesperson Etienne Mutabazi says Bamporiki’s murder “was executed in a similar modus operandi of luring the victim in a compromising and insecure environment for assassination”.
Not the first time on South Africa soil
On New Year’s Eve in 2013, one of RNC’s founders, Patrick Karegeya, was found strangled in his Michelangelo Hotel room in Sandton, Johannesburg’s posh business hub, after being called there by someone he knew.
Three Rwandan suspects, including the “friend”, left South Africa within hours.
Pretoria has since requested the extradition of two suspects for prosecution, with no success so far.
Fellow RNC founder Kayumba Nyamwasa has survived four attempts on his life since fleeing to South Africa in 2010.
Police probing Bamporiki’s murder have thus far only confirmed that they are investigating a robbery involving two suspects, neither of which has been apprehended.
Officially, Rwanda has not made any comment about Bamporiki’s death. Like many other Rwandan dissidents, he was no longer regarded a Rwandan citizen since his passport was revoked by the Rwandan government in 2012 – despite a ruling by the African Court on Human and People’s Rights that this was unlawfully done.
The South African government has been equally careful about commenting on the murder, with the Karegeya and Nyamwasa cases having caused major strain on diplomatic relations.
South Africa expelled Rwandan diplomats it suspected were involved in Karegeya’s murder, and Rwanda followed suit by expelling diplomats at South Africa’s high commission in Kigali.
George Twala, South Africa’s high commissioner to Kigali at the time, was left behind almost alone in the mission, until he was recalled for “consultations” at the end of 2018 and never returned.
This recall followed an incident where a pro-government Rwandan paper then South African international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu a “prostitute” after she remarked on a difficult meeting with Rwandan officials at a press conference.
Twala was replaced only towards the end of 2020 by Mandisi Mpahlwa, a senior diplomat who was previously posted in Mozambique and Russia.
Improving relations with Kigali
President Cyril Ramaphosa started his tenure in 2018 by moving to continue predecessor Jacob Zuma’s efforts to improve relations with Kigali – and Kigali appeared receptive. Kagame personally received Ramaphosa on the tarmac when Ramaphosa arrived to attend a special African Union summit on the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement hosted by Rwanda in March 2018.
Ramaphosa, a former businessman, complimented Rwanda on its pro-active approach to attract investments, and he spoke about how economic diplomacy and trade could fuel development in the continent.
Complementary noises were also made about having two women, Sisulu and then Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabu, tasked with strengthening the ties.
But Ramaphosa’s effort was complicated by a lack of institutional support. “All those assigned to deal with Rwandan relations are gone or have retired,” says a former senior government official. This included foreign and intelligence ministers and officials. “At least we have new ambassadors now,” he says.
Zuma’s international relations minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, was originally tasked to lead the effort to mend relations following a 2014 spat after a failed attack on Nyamwasa, but Kigali is said to have been suspicious of her close friendship with Nyamwasa.
They were, amongst others, both posted in India by their respective countries years before Nkoana-Mashabane became international relations minister in 2009.
Another South African diplomat says relations were so low at some point that there was talk of a love triangle and petty jealousies, but it is unclear what fuelled this.
“Some said you could not leave these matters to women, which really wasn’t true,” says the retired diplomat, but adds it was true that personalities played a role in the spats. “Sometimes you just have to be prepared to set aside personal issues and take one for your country,” he says.
Rwanda’s former high commissioner to South Africa, Vincent Karega, who studied in South Africa in the 1990s when relations with Rwanda were more amicable, reached out to local officials, businesspeople and even journalists in an effort to strengthen relations. He has since been posted to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and was replaced by another high-ranking official, Eugene Kayihura in October 2019.
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South Africa is likely to take a cautious approach to commenting on Bamporiki’s murder or jumping to conclusions. “Every time South Africa speaks out, you have others in the region cheering and it seems like we are taking sides and it becomes a bigger issue,” says the former official.
Strained relations galore
Rwanda has strained relations with a number of its neighbours, including the DRC, Uganda and Burundi.
There is also unease in Pretoria about the refugees participating in Rwandan politics, especially since there are accusations of opposition supporters in South Africa being involved in plans for militant attacks on Rwanda. The Rwandan government has also called the exiles “fugitives from justice” and has accused South Africa of harbouring them.
“But we do have a responsibility of protecting them because the assassinations [of Karegeya and the attempts on Nyamwasa’s life] show that their lives would be in danger in Rwanda,” says the former official.
“For now, let’s wait for the police to make a finding,” he adds about this latest murder.
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