For a nation only one tenth of the size of the UK, Rwanda gets a lot of column inches in the world media. Why? Because this is the nation we failed to protect. We must be vigilant so as not to fail again. Sixteen years after the genocide, President Paul Kagame is emerging from the shelter of international guilt to finally face damning criticisms of his government. His tightening grip on power is worrying and the international community must step forward to stop him undoing years of progress.
A UN report released last month put into doubt the notion that Kagame alone stopped Rwanda’s Hutu-led genocide. It accuses Kagame’s forces of vengeful massacres against the Hutu population in Eastern Congo in 1996. The report documented 617 of the worst human rights violations by Rwandan and Ugandan troops against those who had fled the genocide. “Many of the attacks were directed against civilians consisting primarily of women and children”.
Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo called the report “an attempt to rewrite history”, as Kigali tried to paint this as an attempt to promote the double genocide theory. The government was so desperate to get the report quashed, it even threatened to pull out Rwandan troops from delicate U.N. peacekeeping operations in Sudan. However, the report’s sheer thoroughness makes any criticism hard to sustain. More than 1,200 individual witnesses were interviewed and over 1,500 documents were collected and analysed. This report is no matter of opinion, it’s a matter of fact.
Kagame’s government has enjoyed years as the global aid community’s darling in a troubled region for good reason. Average incomes have more than doubled from $242 in 1999 to $520 in 2010. Kagame as also been a champion for gender equality in the region and Rwanda now boasts the highest share of women in government in the world. Even Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption monitor, applauds its anti-corruption efforts and rates it as the cleanest country in east Africa. The compliments, however, end here.
Killings and arrests were but a few scandals which emerged in the lead up to August’s Presidential elections. Diplomats were dismayed. Why rig an election when you’re set to win? Firstly, years of struggle in the bush as leader of the RPF means Kagame sees himself as a national hero who would find defeat at the polls too humiliating to consider. Furthermore, weak institutions mean power is concentrated in the executive so all those in positions of power stand to lose if an opponent wins office. This means not only the President but the entire state relies on a Kagame victory, so democracy is undermined by everyone from everywhere.
Defenders of the current regime would argue that his recent slide towards dictatorship is necessary pragmatism. The government faces real constant threats from Hutu extremist groups in the Congo. Grenade attacks in Kigali earlier this year were seen as a sign that rebel forces were ready to attack. The recent arrest of FDLR leader Callixte Mbarushimana by the ICC proves that the groups are facing a crackdown by The Hague so the threat has diminished.
Kagame may also fear attacks from within, as the peace he has brokered among Rwanda’s warring tribes after the tragedy of 1994 remains fragile. His strategy for reconciliation involves eliminating tribal identities and replacing them with a new national identity. The government fears Hutu political opponents, such as Victoire Ingabire, could undermine this with inflammatory comments.
Kagame’s fears are more likely to be realized if he carries on oppressing freedom of speech. Violence may return if he maintains his crackdown on the press. Rebellion is probable unless he allows the prosecution of Tutsis as well as Hutus at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The President needs to understand that however noble his aims may be, his methods are misguided.
Britain and America have the power to set things right. Kagame was trained at the US Army College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in 1990 and has remained loyal ever since. As Rwanda’s biggest donors, the US and UK provide around $220m of funding each year, which the government budget relies on. Rwanda has also recently joined the commonwealth and switched the country’s entire education system from French to English. Most telling is a recent decision to establish a cricket board. The past 16 years of Kagame’s rule can be seen as an appeasement of Anglo-American desires for the greater benefit of both parties. This year things must change.
Kagame is no longer respecting the ideals he set out to protect in 1994 and in so doing risks all his achievements in reconciling the nation after the genocide. Viable opponents must be found to enable a competitive election to decide Kagame’s successor. Not so many years ago, Mugabe walked down the path to disgrace. We must prevent Kagame from following in his footsteps.