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Exclusive: Top Lawmaker Proposes Cuts to Rwanda Aid

Exclusive: Top Lawmaker Proposes Cuts to Rwanda Aid

This post has been updated. 

After a string of assassination attempts on Rwandan dissidents, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is proposing cuts to American aid to the central African country as part of a broader overhaul of Washington’s relationship with Kigali.

Once the darling of Western aid donors and top American officials, the reputation of the Rwandan government has sharply deteriorated in recent months because of detailed allegations that the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been stifling dissent and hammering its critics with increasing ferocity.

While much of Washington’s hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Rwanda goes to humanitarian assistance and is therefore politically untouchable, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) is proposing a cut to the $2.3 million in bilateral security assistance the United States gives Kigali to help train and equip Rwandan forces for peacekeeping operations. The move would effectively be a shot across the bow of the Rwandan government — and a warning that further cuts could come if it doesn’t change its behavior.

"Last year Rwanda received over $200 million in U.S. foreign assistance," Royce said in an interview. "Any assistance outside humanitarian should be re-evaluated."

Royce’s frustration stems from a growing rap sheet of allegations against Kagame from the United Nations, human rights advocates, the media, and Rwandan opposition figures. For years, Kagame has been linked to civilian killings, mass rapes, and other human rights abuses carried out by Rwandan-backed rebel forces operating in neighboring Congo. But a recent string of assassination attempts on Rwandan opposition figures has cemented Royce’s view that U.S. policy toward Kagame and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front cannot remain business as usual.

"The audacity of the attacks really demands our action," he said.

A State Department official gave no indication that a reduction in U.S. funds to Rwanda was forthcoming, but said "we have raised our concerns with the highest levels of the Rwandan government and will continue to engage as appropriate as the situation develops."

The new accusations against Kagame date back to March, when South Africa expelled three Rwandan diplomats accused of involvement in a murder and attempted murder on South African territory — a common refuge for political dissidents. In January, former Rwandan spy chief Patrick Karegeya was found strangled to death in his hotel room in Johannesburg. Another opposition figure, former Rwandan Army Chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, has survived four assassination attempts over the years, including one in March.

The latest attempt saw more than five unidentified assailants with AK-47 assault rifles storm Nyamwasa’s safe house in Johannesburg, according to local reports. The gunmen searched each room and narrowly missed Nyamwasa before he fled the residence. South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said last month the country has evidence the diplomats helped carry out "attempted murders, including a murder" of the former Rwandan official.

But what shocked many international observers was the way senior Rwandan officials reacted to accusations that the regime orchestrated Karegeya’s murder: by publicly celebrating his death. "Rwanda did not kill this person," Kagame told a reporter in January. "I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish it." Rwandan Prime Minister Pierre Habumuremyi called Karegeya a traitor and suggested he deserved to die. "Betraying citizens and their country that made you a man shall always bear consequences to you," he said. Most brazenly, a Twitter account linked to Kagame’s office began harassing journalists looking into the details of the murder attempts of the Rwandan dissidents.

"The narrative coming out of the presidential palace would implicitly suggest to Rwandan intelligence officers around the world that they have a blanket OK to conduct these kinds of operations," said Royce.

For years, the chairman has kept a close eye on Rwanda’s security forces, which have been known to operate far beyond the country’s borders. "They are very proficient and effective," he said, noting his first encounter with Rwandan armed forces in 1997 following the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "When I first went into Congo, the day after Mobutu was tossed out … those were the first troops we saw," he said.

The Rwandan security forces had fought all the way to Kinshasa, a distance of nearly a thousand miles, to help bring an end to Mobutu’s reign — demonstrating Kigali’s far reach on the continent. That operational breadth has Royce convinced that Kagame needs to be admonished by Washington in a substantive way.

"The question is not whether the president personally had Karegeya murdered," he said. "The question is the messaging Kagame is sending out to his security forces that can operate halfway around the world with a tremendous amount of agility." Royce echoed those concerns in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in early March.

In January, a Human Rights Watch report called "Repression Across Borders" identified widespread targeting of individuals in foreign countries ranging from Kenya to Uganda and regions as far away as Europe. It cataloged a dossier of incidents involving Rwandan critics abroad, including disappearances, threats of violence, assassinations, and attempted assassinations dating back to 1996. With such attacks increasing, the report called on the governments of host countries to ramp up protection of Rwandan asylum-seekers "who may have well-founded fears for their security in exile."

The most difficult question, of course, is how to exercise leverage over Kagame, who has become a permanent fixture in a country still haunted by the 1994 genocide that claimed more than half a million lives.

The bulk of U.S. aid to Rwanda goes through the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), politically bulletproof causes. But in recent years, the Rwandan government has benefited from bilateral assistance to help train, equip, and deploy security forces for peacekeeping operations throughout the continent. In the last fiscal year, they received $2.3 million for this purpose and continue to receive such assistance today. Royce wants Barack Obama’s administration to re-examine that aid in particular — a move supported by some Rwanda experts.

"Rwanda has virtually no natural resources and so is heavily dependent upon foreign aid and investment, much of which comes from the United States," said Timothy Longman, director of Boston University’s African Studies Center. "We thus have considerable influence in Rwanda, if we choose to use it."

Longman, like Royce and other critics of Kagame, said the United States should not cut humanitarian assistance to Rwanda. He did, however, say that humanitarian groups with major projects in the country such as the Clinton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Partners in Health should be more conscious of the relationship between political rights and sustainable development. "Many humanitarian groups in Rwanda have been far too willing to accept the idea that Rwandans cannot yet handle true democracy and civil rights, but the failure to address these issues may ultimately lead to disaster," he said.

Susan Thomson, an assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University, applauded Royce’s efforts, but raised doubts about them having a sizable impact. "If Royce pushes through a military cut, it will be symbolically significant," said Thomson. "I still think any cuts will be window dressing given America’s policy of willful blindness." She emphasized the footprint of Rwandan peacekeepers in Sudan and the Central African Republic, which diminish the need for American boots on the ground — a priority for Washington.

"The U.S. has close ties to Rwanda’s military through Africom and will continue this relationship as long as Rwanda is a bastion of economic growth and political stability in an otherwise volatile region," she said.

A State Department official acknowledged that reality. "Rwanda is a strong U.S. partner for peacekeeping operations, and one of the largest and most effective contributors of troops and police to United Nations and African Union peacekeeping missions," the official said. "We believe it is in the interest of U.S. national security to continue to support Rwanda’s role in peacekeeping."