The Case Against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame

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Does the celebrated Rwandan president really deserve an indictment? Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures

When Rwandan-backed rebels recently took Goma, the biggest city in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Paul Kagame had every reason to think the world would give him a pass. That, after all, has been the pattern for years.

Frequently lauded by people such as Bono, Tony Blair, and Pastor Rick, the Rwandan president enjoys some extraordinary backing in the West—support that is particularly remarkable given his alleged hand in ongoing regional conflicts believed to have killed more than 5 million people since the mid-’90s.

On the aid and awards circuit, Kagame is known as the man who led Rwanda from the ashes of the 1994 genocide—one of the late 20th century’s greatest atrocities—to hope and prosperity: a land of fast growth and rare good economic governance with enviable advances in health care, education, and women’s rights. Bestowing his foundation’s Global Citizen Award on Kagame three years ago, Bill Clinton said: “From crisis, President Kagame has forged a strong, unified, and growing nation with the potential to become a model for the rest of Africa and the world.”

But that model narrative seems to be shifting in the aftermath of the Goma takeover. After a United Nations report found that Rwanda created and commands the rebel group known as M23, important European friends such as Britain and Belgium partially suspended aid donations to Rwanda, and President Obama called Kagame to warn him against any continued military adventurism.

Leading observers say the reevaluation of Kagame and his legacy is long overdue. Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian scholar whom many consider the world’s foremost expert on Rwanda, describes Kagame as “probably the worst war criminal in office today.” In an interview, Reyntjens told me that Kagame’s crimes rank with those perpetrated by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein or Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Washington and London have long supported Kagame as a bulwark of stability in a volatile region. But a recent U.N. report accused his government of instigating trouble across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Meanwhile, specialists in African affairs say a regime like Kagame’s, an ethnic dictatorship built along unusually narrow lines, represents a political dead end. And international human-rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have raised serious questions about violence committed against journalists and opposition figures. Kagame has generally been dismissive of such accusations of abuse.

Tall, gaunt, and almost professorial in manner, Kagame cuts an unusual figure for a former African guerrilla leader. His rise to power began in 1990, when as head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an exiled movement made up primarily of Tutsis, he launched a war to take over his native country from bases in neighboring Uganda.

Four years later, the course of history took a dramatic turn: on April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, was mysteriously shot down on its approach to the capital, Kigali, unleashing the murder spree that became known as the Rwandan genocide. In the space of 100 days, about 800,000 people—most of them members of the Tutsi minority—were killed at the instigation of Hutu extremists. As Kagame and his army gained control of the country, ending the genocide, the Hutu extremists, along with hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, fled to neighboring states, in particular Zaire, as it was then known.

Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, was named president in what seemed an effort at providing representation for the roughly 84 percent Hutu majority in Rwanda’s new national unity government. However, Kagame, a Tutsi and the nominal vice president, kept control of the Rwandan Army, becoming the country’s de facto leader. And by 2000, after numerous cases of forced exiles, disappearances, and assassinations of politicians, Bizimungu resigned the presidency, bringing a definitive end to the illusion of ethnic balance in high office. (The government now prohibits the use of ethnic labels.)

Since then, former Rwandan officials say, almost every position of meaningful power in the country has been held by a Tutsi. In 2001, when Bizimungu began organizing a political party in order to run for president, it was outlawed on charges of being a radical Hutu organization. The following year, Bizimungu was arrested on charges of endangering the state, and later he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

(Bizimungu, whom Amnesty International called a prisoner of conscience, was pardoned by Kagame in 2007, but the methods used to sideline him have been applied broadly ever since, with critics of the regime of all stripes being prosecuted for promoting “genocide ideology,” which has become an all-purpose charge.)

Congo Rwanda Troubled Neighborhood Troubled Neighborhood: For years Rwandan government forces and their proxies have operated in Congo, setting off conflicts that have killed millions.

Theogene Rudasingwa, a Tutsi who was appointed Rwanda’s ambassador to Washington after serving as an officer in Kagame’s army, puts it bluntly: “If you differ strongly with Kagame and make your views known from the inside, you will be made to pay the price, and very often that price is your life.”

Rudasingwa, who now lives in exile in the United States, describes Kagame as an extreme control freak who has concentrated power in the hands of a select group of Tutsis who, like Kagame himself, returned to Rwanda from years of exile in Uganda after the genocide.

“When you look at the structure of key parts of government, leadership is occupied almost entirely by Tutsis from the outside, and this is especially true in the military,” Rudasingwa says. “As for the Hutus, they are completely marginalized, and things [for them] have never been as bad as they are today. Almost the entire Hutu elite that was built up since 1959 is either outside the country or dead. They are marginalized and banished, forced into exile when they haven’t simply been killed.”

Kagame tightly controls the country and its citizens through the Tutsi-
dominated Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the country’s dominant political party. Throughout Rwanda—in every town and tiny village—the RPF is present, not unlike the Stasi in East Germany during the Cold War. While a town may have a Hutu mayor, under Kagame’s system government officeholders have little authority compared with the RPF representatives who work in parallel to them and often pull rank.

RPF regulations—enforced by local commissars with vigor and steep fines—govern almost every aspect of daily life. There are laws requiring peasants to wear shoes and good clothes when not working their fields and prohibition of drinking banana wine from shared straws—a traditional gesture of reconciliation—and myriad other rules, generally resented as gratuitous and insulting.

“The RPF saturates every aspect of life in Rwanda,” said Susan Thomson, a longtime Rwanda expert at Colgate University. “They know everything: if you’ve been drinking, if you’ve had an affair, if you’ve paid your taxes.” Everything is reported on, Thomson says, and there is no appeal.

From the beginning, Kagame’s legitimacy was founded on his image as the man who had halted the genocide committed by the Hutu-led government and extremist militias. While the vast majority of the 800,000 people killed in the frenzy were Tutsis and moderate Hutus, there are profound flaws in what is usually a rather simplistic telling of the country’s history.

Pointing to the origins of the war and its bloody aftermath, Scott Straus, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said: “An honest analysis ... would show that the reasons for what happened were much more complicated than the idea that the Hutus hate the Tutsis and want to wipe them out.”

For one thing, there is abundant evidence that Kagame’s forces in the early days carried out targeted executions of the Hutu elite, followed later by much larger extermination campaigns that killed tens of thousands of people.

A year after the genocide had ended, blood was still being spilled, recalls Timothy Longman, then the country director for Human Rights Watch. “People would take me around and say, ‘There’s mass grave right over here,’ and you would ask, ‘From when?’ And they would say, ‘Just from a few weeks ago—not from the genocide,’” says Longman, who now directs the African Studies Center at Boston University.

One of the earliest investigations was undertaken by a U.N. team led by the American Robert Gersony in the fall of 1994. The team conducted research by interviewing people in refugee camps and the countryside. In a report later suppressed by the U.N., partly as a result of American political pressure aimed at supporting the new RPF government, Gersony’s team concluded that four provinces had seen “systematic and sustained killing and persecution of their civilian Hutu populations by the RPA,” the armed wing of the RPF.

Furthermore, the report estimated that the RPA killed between 15,000 and 30,000 people in just four of its survey areas in the summer of 1994. Years later a key member of Gersony’s team told me that the real number of Hutus killed during this period was likely much higher, but that a low estimate had been published because of fears of a political backlash within the U.N. so soon after its failure to stop the larger-scale killing of Tutsis. “What we found was a well-organized military-style operation, with military command and control, and these were military-campaign-style mass murders,” the team member told me.

(In one notorious incident in April 1995, the RPA attacked an internally displaced people’s camp in Kibeho using automatic weapons, grenades, and mortars. A team of Australian medics listed more than 4,000 dead when the RPA forced them to stop counting. France’s leading researcher on the region, Gérard Prunier, estimates that at least 20,000 more people from the camp “disappeared” after the massacre.)

Many people inside the country know this history well but have been prevented from talking about it as the political space has narrowed.

FE03-kagame-third Almost professorial in manner, Kagame cuts an unusual figure for a former guerrilla leader. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty

In the run-up to the 2010 election in which Kagame was declared the winner, there was widespread violence, with several journalists and figures from the opposition attacked or killed, including a politician who was beheaded. Amnesty International condemned the violence and the “killings, arrests, and the closure of newspapers and broadcasters [which] reinforced a climate of fear.”

The case of Victoire Ingabire, a politician from the opposition, was instructive. When she returned to Rwanda that year, having lived 16 years in exile, to prepare a run for president, her first stop was at the official genocide memorial. “We are here honoring at this memorial the Tutsi victims of the genocide. There are also Hutu who were victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes, not remembered or honored here,” she said in a prepared statement. “Hutu are also suffering. They are wondering when their time will come to remember their people. In order for us to get to that desirable reconciliation, we must be fair and compassionate towards every Rwandan’s suffering.”

Ingabire was promptly arrested and accused of “genocide ideology.” During her trial, President Kagame publicly declared that she was guilty.

Tiny Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills because of its verdant, rolling countryside of strikingly fertile farmland. It is a land of beauty and unrelenting order. But unlike its much larger neighbor Congo, it is not endowed with any mineral wealth to speak of. Yet Rwanda’s economy depends on the exploitation of Congolese resources.

Through mafialike networks reportedly run by the Rwandan Army and the RPF, huge quantities of Congo’s minerals are siphoned out of the country, experts say.

As early as 2000, Rwanda was believed to be making $80 million to $100 million annually from Congolese coltan alone, roughly the equivalent of the entire defense budget, according to Reyntjens, the Belgian expert.

Pillaging the Congo obscures Rwanda’s giant military budget from foreign donors who provide as much as 50 percent of the country’s budget every year. It also provides a rich source of income to the urban elites, especially returnees from Uganda, who form the regime’s core.

“After the first Congo war, money began coming in through military channels and never entered the coffers of the Rwandan state,” says Rudasingwa, Kagame’s former lieutenant. “It is RPF money, and Kagame is the only one who knows how much money it is—or how it is spent. In meetings it was often said, ‘For Rwanda to be strong, Congo must be weak, and the Congolese must be divided.’”

Congo looms large in the story of Kagame in other ways as well. For years Rwandan government forces and their proxies have operated in Congo. Twice Rwanda has invaded the country outright, in September 1996, when with U.S. acquiescence it successfully waged war to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko, and again beginning in August 1998, when it mounted a repeat operation to depose Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This second operation, to replace the very man Kagame installed to replace Mobutu, ended in failure but established a pattern of intervention and meddling aimed at undermining its much larger neighbor. The ensuing war, involving several African nations, is believed to have cost the lives of 5 million people.

As early as 1997, the U.N. estimated that Rwandan forces had caused the deaths of 200,000 Hutus in Congo; Prunier, the French expert, has since estimated that the toll is closer to 300,000. According to the U.N. report, these deaths could not be attributed to the hazards of war or to collateral damage. “The majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick, who were often undernourished and posed no threat to the attacking forces.” The report concluded that the systematic and widespread attacks, “if proven before a competent court, could be characterized as crimes of genocide.”

Two years ago, Kagame delivered a lecture in London on “The Challenges of Nation-Building in Africa: The Case of Rwanda.” When confronted with a U.N. report that was then making headlines with the suggestion that his forces had committed genocide in Congo, he dismissed such allegations as “baseless” and “absurd.” Clearly he was keener to talk about economic indicators and repeat the oft-told success story of his country.

But even that is a truth with modification. Social inequality in Rwanda is high and rising, experts say. Despite an average annual growth rate of about 5 percent since 2005, poverty is soaring in the countryside, where few Western journalists report without official escort.

“The rural sector has suffered enormous extraction under the post-genocide government, far more than what had happened before,” said one longtime researcher who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There is a real increase in misery. When you speak of Rwanda as a volcano, that’s what’s involved.”

Will Rwanda explode again? The big, looming issue is whether Kagame will leave office in 2017, as the Constitution calls for. With so much to answer for, few expect a straightforward exit.

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