About six weeks ago a South African went missing in Rwanda, where he was living and working illegally, just as diplomatic relations between the two countries began to thaw. The fact that he was a critic of Rwanda’s government has his family speculating that he was abducted, but for now there seem to be more smoke and mirrors than real clues. By CARIEN DU PLESSIS.
“Happy birthday, Mr President, so when would you like to kill me?”
This is the first and last sentence in an unpublished short book with some drawings and dark poetic criticism against Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s rule, written by 60-year-old Leon Orsmond.
The freelance advertising creative is, by all accounts, a maverick, the kind of guy who, under apartheid in the 1980s, was a regular in Soweto drinking holes and once almost got killed by a gang.
He’s a free spirit, but his friends and family say he has a big heart – and very distinctive looks. Locals in the Kigali neighbourhood where he’s been living – illegally for the past eight years after entering the country on a 30-day tourist visa – called him “Lion”.
Friends and family think it strange that someone like him could disappear without trace almost six weeks ago. An eyewitness seems to think that Orsmond was abducted, but it’s not clear if there was violence or willingness. The eyewitness has since refused to get involved any further. Family also claim the landlord denies knowledge of anything unusual. In fact, if anyone in Kigali were close to him, they’re not speaking now.
The family has since appealed to authorities – and also to South Africa’s high commission in Kigali – for help. While they’ve been sympathetic, the lack of any apparent progress on the case or further information, has family and friends have worried.
It’s obviously complicated, since Orsmond’s passport expired two years ago. South Africa’s broken relations with Rwanda – there was a mutual expulsion of diplomats in 2014 after South Africa accused Rwanda of assassinating an opposition leader on South African soil – meant he possibly couldn’t renew his passport locally, because the South African office offering visa and passport services has been closed for four years.
He might not have wanted to leave the country for fear of getting arrested or not being able to return, but he wasn’t scared enough to be quiet.
His last post on Facebook before his disappearance started like this:
“DEAR BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE OF RWANDA, We are writing this to you as we might not be around for much longer, we realise your daily freedom is threatened every second of every second.”
In it he referred to Rwanda’s head of state as “a illegal corrupt dictator who has gone rogue & is asfixiated with power” (sic).
Orsmond lived in Rwanda without his family or his estranged wife, who lives in South Africa and to whom he was still sending money regularly.
He apparently didn’t leave Rwanda to visit them, and neither were there regular, if any, visits from the family’s side, but they were constantly in touch via WhatsApp and social media.
“His last posts on the Freedom of Speech Rwanda [Facebook] page was on 16 February. He has not been heard of or seen since,” his long-time friend and former colleague Philip Botha said.
His UK-based cousin, Digby Orsmond, who has kept constant contact with him via WhatsApp, said that was the same day that Leon’s messages started going undelivered.
Family and friends reported him missing with South Africa’s department of international relations, and the Rwandan National Police were alerted.
The police tweeted on their official account on March 14:
“#RNP has received a complaint regarding the disappearance of Leon Osmond (sic) and has since taken on the case, concerned departments have launched investigations into the matter. Whoever has useful information of his whereabouts is request (sic) to share it with us to support investigations.”
Relations between Rwanda and South Africa have been icy, but there were signs of thawing after the resignation of former president Jacob Zuma.
In January, then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa met Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Just last week, Ramaphosa jetted into Kigali to a lunch reception by Kagame and a bilateral meeting, in which relations were discussed.
Ramaphosa afterwards declared that “we are going to put the relationship between South Africa and Rwanda on a much better footing”. The respective foreign ministers were tasked with thrashing out the details and resolving the “gaps and challenges”.
This is meant to open the two countries up for business again, Ramaphosa said.
Still, could Orsmond have been abducted like opposition presidential candidate Diane Rwigara, who disappeared before last year’s presidential elections only to emerge in police custody a while later? Orsmond was, apparently, responsible for her social media campaign at the time.
Such “disappearances” are, however, less common in the case of foreigners – but not without precedent. The Rwandan reported that another government critic, American law professor Peter Erlinder, “nearly died” in custody in 2011 but was released after pressure from the Obama administration.
Still, it would have been easier just to deport or expel Orsmond for his expired papers if the authorities did take offence.
The Rwandans wouldn’t want to risk a renewed spat with South Africa, unless, perhaps, they want to use him in a tit-for-tat trade for General Kayumba Nyamwasa, former Rwandan Armed Forces chief of staff turned government critic, who has been living in South Africa.
It’s also not entirely impossible that Orsmond could have staged his own disappearance to draw attention to what he considered the bad politics of Rwanda, oblivious of the distress this would cause his friends and family. Or perhaps he had mental problems.
A criminal abduction to a neighbouring country, for a ransom, can also not be ruled out, but so convinced is the family that this was a political abduction that they say any such claims could be a decoy.
Besides, in the latter three scenarios, there would have been some more reported sightings of Orsmond by now.
He was also busy with a paying, creative job for a magazine, and Botha says it’s unlike Orsmond just to up and leave like that.
A multinational human rights organisation with offices in Rwanda says he has done some volunteer work for them in the past, but, although sympathetic, a staffer said they’re hesitant to get involved when it’s not clear that this is a political disappearance.
After more than a week of trying to get comment from South Africa’s department of international relations, ministerial spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya said:
“Our high commissioner in Kigali [George Twala] is engaging with authorities in Rwanda on this matter. We will update you when there is any new information communicated to Capital (Pretoria).”
A Rwandan government spokesperson hasn’t replied to messages asking for information, preferring the police to handle the matter. In off-the-record conversations, Rwandan officials have, however, expressed concern.
Police don’t have Orsmond on record as being wanted for any crimes, and are efficient enough to have found him in a prison, hospital, brothel or mortuary by now, they say.
His unconventional ways make him difficult to pin down but also an easy target for discredit. For now, the family is hoping to apply the right amount of pressure on authorities. They don’t want Orsmond’s book to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. DM
Photo: Leon Orsmond ( via Facebook)