For years, Rwanda's budding dictator, Paul Kagame, has gotten away with murder, while winning praise (and billions of dollars) from the West. But is the blind support for this strongman finally drying up?
- By Anjan Sundaram<p> Anjan Sundaram has reported from Africa for the Associated Press and the New York Times. </p>
For a slide show of Paul Kagame’s rise to power, click here.
KIGALI, Rwanda — Despite years of credible accusations of repression and war crimes leveled at Rwanda, both within the country and abroad, the United States, Britain, and a host of Western governments have consistently looked the other way, showering this tiny central African country with aid, touting it as a paragon of post-conflict reform, and protecting it staunchly against criticism. The accusations have included killing tens of thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, supporting violent rebellions in that country, illegally controlling Congo’s lucrative mineral trade, and running an authoritarian regime that severely represses political opponents, journalists, and citizens in its own country.
But this summer, after a U.N. Group of Experts report accused Rwanda of aiding a Congolese rebel group, many of these same donors — almost inexplicably, given the gravity of the accusations they were willing to overlook in the past — have suddenly begun to ask tough questions of Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We have deep concerns about Rwanda’s support to the Congolese rebel group that goes by the name M23." A number of countries have gone as far as suspending aid to Rwanda, which, until recently, was a darling of the international development community.
The development community is heavily invested in Rwanda’s success, providing over $1 billion annually in development assistance to this small country of 10 million people. To many, the country incarnates the hope that Africa will rise from its poverty. The government has reported an average 8.2 percent annual GDP growth rate over the last five years, even in the midst of the global financial crisis, and claims to have lifted 1 million people out of poverty during the same period. The World Bank unequivocally praises its progress on development. And Kagame — along with Western governments — has promoted a narrative of a country rising spectacularly from a horrific genocide in 1994, a shining example that foreign aid, if well managed, can indeed give poor countries a leg up.
But Kagame, who relies on Western aid for about half of his country’s budget, has reason now to be alarmed. For weeks, his government has fended off the damning accusations, not wavering from its usual strategy of forcefully denying all criticism and claiming the evidence has been fabricated. Rwanda generally argues that the crimes it is accused of would be against its interests — for instance, that a war on its border would hurt its own economic growth and development. But the old arguments seem to be no longer working for Kagame. While Western donors in the past seemed content to give the president the benefit of the doubt, it appears now that his staunchest friends no longer believe his repeated denials.
Kagame lashed out in late July, dismissing America’s aid cut as stemming from ignorance and saying the international community — once his unwavering ally — has "twisted everything" and is not listening to him.
The U.S. government, Rwanda’s staunchest ally and largest donor, began its surprising about-face with a July 22 announcement that it was suspending military aid to Rwanda. The amount of aid cut was minuscule — only $200,000 – and is unlikely to apply to the full extent of U.S. military support to Rwanda, which includes training Kagame’s son at the West Point military academy, but analysts saw the announcement as deeply symbolic.
Obama’s ambassador at large for war crimes, Stephen Rapp, then issued an astounding warning, reported on July 25 by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, that Kagame could be charged with war crimes for "aiding and abetting" crimes against humanity in a neighboring country. The Dutch government followed by suspending aid to Rwanda. Britain — one of Rwanda’s largest donors and strongest allies, which had facilitated the country’s entry to the Commonwealth — did the same. Germany also held back payments, with Development Minister Dirk Niebel saying, "The suspension of aid is an unmistakable signal to the Rwandan government." Even the African Development Bank — usually apolitical, and headed by a Rwandan, Donald Kaberuka, who is sometimes mentioned as Kagame’s successor (the president, who has run Rwanda for almost two decades, insists he will step down in 2017) — has been forced by its Scandinavian board members and India to suspend aid payments.
The U.N. Group of Experts’ late-June report that led to this surge of defection from Rwanda’s camp alleged that the country had violated a U.N. arms embargo by providing troops and weapons to M23, the Congolese rebel group. The embargo, in place since 2003, was designed to help bring peace to a volatile region that the world has tried to secure for years. The United Nations’ largest peacekeeping force, at a cost of $1.5 billion annually, has been deployed in this effort. The report laid out credible evidence that officials at the highest levels of the Rwandan government — in Kagame’s immediate entourage — were involved in supporting the rebels.
M23 is made up of soldiers who defected from the Congolese army this year, and the group appears to be trying to carve out an area of eastern Congo for itself. It is composed of ethnic Tutsis who have been historically marginalized in Congo but also count among their ranks powerful politicians and wealthy businessmen, with ties to Rwanda, who are supporting the rebellion. Kagame — and much of the elite in his government — is also Tutsi. The rebellion has caused great turmoil, displacing more than 260,000 Congolese in the last four months as it has seized territory and successfully fought off Congolese government troops backed by U.N. forces. The U.N. report suggests not only that Rwanda has been subverting the world’s attempt to bring peace to Congo, but that it seems, according to the report, to be helping the rebels take control of a part of its neighbor.
The charges are grave. But then again, Kagame has been accused of far worse in the past. And donors have been more than happy to ignore those transgressions. With few exceptions, they never withdrew their aid or even criticized his government.
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When Rwanda invaded Congo in 1996 and 1998, deposing Congo’s longstanding dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, and installing a new leader, Laurent Kabila, Kagame’s forces were accused of systematically killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people, including unarmed women and children living in refugee camps. The invasions left a trail of mass graves across Congo. The Rwandan government has said it was pursuing the perpetrators of its 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed. But a 2010 U.N. report mapped the killings — in which Rwanda was not the only foreign country involved — and raised the question of whether Kagame’s forces might have themselves committed crimes of genocide. Two previous U.N. reports had concluded that genocide might have been committed.
Since these invasions, Rwanda has plundered tens of millions of dollars annually — by conservative estimates — through control of lucrative tin, coltan, and gold mines in Congo. Rwanda has always denied these claims, and the plundered wealth does not appear on the national budget. But diplomats say Rwanda uses the Congo profits to finance the country’s formidable army. Kagame’s government has long supported proxy armies on Congolese territories, and his immediate circle has enriched itself immensely from these wars, as well as through corruption. The wealth is visible in Rwanda’s capital. A newly developed boulevard in Kigali — housing many of the government’s elite, along with well-off expatriates — is informally called "Congo Street" by residents who are well aware that it was funded with this illicit money.
Six years ago, Rwanda supported a rebellion almost identical to M23’s. That rebellion was accused of multiple war crimes — including incidents of mass rape — for which Congo issued an international warrant for rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. The Rwandan-backed rebellion acted with impunity, attacking and capturing cities almost at will, taking control of vast swaths of Congo, and displacing several hundred-thousand people. Nkunda eventually became a bit too hot for Kagame to handle, and Rwandan forces arrested him in 2009. He has been held in secret detention in Rwanda ever since.
Kagame has also been accused of ruthless repression and human rights violations in Rwanda — charges he has denied. In the run-up to Rwanda’s 2010 presidential election, which was funded by Western donors, his government imprisoned a number of political opponents. Some were said to have been tortured; one was found beheaded. A defector from Kagame’s government was shot at and nearly killed in Johannesburg. Worse, the journalist who reported that Kagame’s men were responsible for the Johannesburg shooting was killed in Kigali hours after he filed his story. Other reporters were arrested on charges of threatening state security and insulting Kagame. Several journalists and political opponents fled the country. But exile is no guarantee of safety: Journalists critical of Kagame abroad have also been killed.
Kagame subsequently won the election with 93 percent of the vote. By the end of the election, according to Freedom House, "the government no longer allowed any independent media capable of criticizing it to function in Rwanda."
Rwanda has denied deploying assassins against its opponents abroad, though Scotland Yard has issued letters to critics of Kagame living in Britain, stating that the Rwandan government posed an imminent threat to their lives.
Remarkably, none of these transgressions led to any serious international penalties for Rwanda. Indeed, despite the gravity of the accusations and the degree of available evidence, the dominant narrative from the West has been not one of criticism, but of stunning praise for Kagame as a new breed of African leader.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has called him "one of the greatest leaders of our time"; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has described him as a "visionary." In fact, Clinton was in Rwanda with his daughter on July 19 to inaugurate a new cancer hospital and issue more praise for "the strong national leadership … from His Excellency President Kagame." (There are no reports that Clinton discussed the M23 allegations with Kagame.) Visiting U.N. supremos regularly say that Rwanda has much to teach the world about good governance. On June 23, 2010, the day before the journalist was killed in Kigali, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon named Kagame co-leader of a prestigious panel of development experts, dubbed the Millennium Development Goals "superheroes."
While all this was happening, aid to Rwanda kept steadily increasing, and more and more of it was channeled directly to Kagame’s government. The adulation and money gave Kagame an aura of invincibility. If the president was seen as doing no wrong, it gave him the ability to act with impunity, whether overseeing repression in his own country or pursuing his opponents and interests in Congo and the world.
Such was the level of support for Rwanda that the United States has reportedly for many years helped block investigations into the crimes in Congo. The 2010 U.N. mapping report was issued more than a decade after the massacres and only as a result of an investigation conducted with an unusual level of secrecy — to prevent Rwanda from mobilizing its allies to block the inquiry yet again, investigators have said in private.
Academics, diplomats, and journalists observing the region have long been intrigued by such total support from the West for Kagame. Adam Hochschild, author of a book on Congo, has written about Kagame: "How this media-savvy autocrat has managed to convince so many American journalists, diplomats and political leaders that he is a great statesman is worth a book in itself." Some have said it was due to Western guilt for not intervening in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, during which the Clinton administration in particular refused to act. Others have cited Rwanda’s contribution of troops to foreign peacekeeping missions, relieving the burden of military intervention from the West.
There was also Rwanda’s efficient autocratic state, which appeared to carry out foreign aid programs to their last details. Prominent development experts like Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs champion Rwanda’s programs. This led to Rwanda’s emergence as a poster child for a global movement that believed in the power of foreign aid to turn around Africa. And Kagame has used his influence with astuteness, both to consolidate political power within his country and to make Rwanda the region’s most formidable military force.
This is why the recent about-face was so unexpected. Few foresaw such change in Kagame’s fortunes so quickly.
At a news conference in Kigali, the Rwandan president cut off a foreign journalist, ordering her not to even mention Human Rights Watch, which had been among the first to accuse Kagame of complicity in the Congo rebellion. It was a typical display of defiance — and irritation — from the president.
Rwanda must have assumed that it would be able to block or dismiss this report, as it had all the other accusations in the past. The U.N. investigative team has claimed that Kagame’s government refused to engage with it on its findings, despite the team’s efforts, as far back as this May.
After the team first presented its findings — orally — about one month ago at the U.N. Security Council, every member state, including China, Russia, and Britain, voted in favor of publishing the findings that were damaging to Rwanda, according to diplomats who witnessed the meeting and spoke with me under condition of confidentiality. But the United States blocked the release.
Under pressure from the other council members, the United States finally agreed to allow publication of the U.N. report, under the condition that Rwanda be allowed to add its response before publication. The concession was one that countries accused of war crimes are rarely allowed — another example of favoritism to Rwanda. This was not news.
Then, suddenly, the U.S. government announced that, for the first time, it was suspending military aid — to the tune of $200,000, which had been earmarked for a military training academy — to its longtime ally. In an emailed statement, Hilary Fuller Renner, a State Department spokeswoman, wrote, "The United States government is deeply concerned about the evidence that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups, including M23."
It was the first sign of a change in policy. And though Kagame dismissed the cut as "nothing," he was obviously concerned. A team of French journalists reporting on the president noted how much of Kagame’s time was spent dealing with the M23 accusations — and his government’s denial has been swift and strident. But it seems the West’s patience for Kagame’s interference in Congo has run out. A Human Rights Watch director has claimed that the United States is "sick of being lied to."
The U.N. team responsible for the report traveled to Rwanda last week to present its findings to Kagame’s government. Donors are waiting to see how Rwanda will respond before deciding whether to continue sending aid to Kagame.
Yet it seems likely that Rwanda’s government will continue its pattern of angry denials, no matter the evidence presented. Rwanda’s shrewd foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, claimed on Aug. 1 that she had successfully rebutted, point by point, the United Nations’ accusations and had shown them to be false. She said Rwanda’s response had been officially submitted to the U.N. Security Council on July 30.
Kagame has also upped the ante, accusing the West and the international community as being the cause of Congo’s current crisis, and repeating that his government had not supplied the rebels with even "one bullet." On July 28, Mushikiwabo accused Western governments of treating aid recipient countries in paternalistic ways — trying to reignite Western guilt for colonialism and inaction during the genocide that has worked so well to Rwanda’s advantage in the past.
Kagame is the region’s most powerful figure, and his army could neutralize the M23 rebels if he ordered it. Additionally, if the alleged Rwandan support for M23 were to end and Rwanda offered the rebels no escape route, the rebellion would quite likely be beaten into submission by Congolese and U.N. forces. But there’s no indication yet that Kagame intends to exercise either of these options.
Why? He’s still got more than enough support from other quarters. Some of Rwanda’s Western and multilateral donors have not cut funding to Kagame: The European Union, Belgium, the World Bank, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria provide over $400 million in aid to Rwanda each year, according to the OECD — with significant portions going directly to the Rwandan government or to government-led projects. At this time, none have suspended their payments or expressed any intent to do so. The United States has still not suspended nonmilitary aid, some $240 million, meaning its action so far amounts to a slap on the wrist for Rwanda.
China, too, will likely continue its support for Rwanda and may well be increasingly courted by Kagame’s regime. Chinese companies are already involved in a host of infrastructure and related projects in the country — in deals shrouded in great secrecy — including the construction of roads and extensive hotel complexes, as part of a Rwandan government plan to transform the capital into a tourism and conference hub modeled on Singapore. The Chinese are, however, profiting from both sides: They are also friendly with the Congolese government and involved in major infrastructure projects in Congo.
The bottom line is that there’s a long history of support for Rwanda despite evidence of human rights violations. The regime that Kagame toppled back in 1994, which was responsible for the genocide, also received large amounts of aid and support from the West. And that government was also praised for maintaining peace and stability in a troubled region and for managing foreign funds effectively. Kagame has been equally effective in casting a spell over donors and extricating himself from tight diplomatic situations. But one judges by the increasingly bitter tone of Kagame’s public pronouncements, it seems that the Rwandan autocrat is tiring of constant Western scrutiny. And the West may be getting tired of him as well.