The Paul Kagame I Know

Rwanda's president fought to end the country's 1994 genocide -- then used it to justify his own awful rule.


On Aug. 9, Paul Kagame’s mandate as president of Rwanda will be renewed in an election in which he will probably receive, as before, about 94 percent of the vote. Rwandan journalists who criticized him are in prison; some of his earlier would-be opponents are dead, in prison, or in exile. Rwandan elections have no more uncertainty than those in the Soviet Politburo of Brezhnev’s day.

Some American church leaders will be pleased that Kagame, whom they see as a God-fearing man, will continue to lead a nation that suffered the planet’s worst genocide in the last 20 years. Many corporate leaders and economists will be pleased that the government of a Central African country claiming the fastest economic growth in its region has won again. Only justice, democracy, and the silent and terrified majority of the Rwandan population will have lost.

I first met Kagame in September 1994, just two months after the Tutsi forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had defeated the Hutu genocidaires and captured the capital city of Kigali. As U.S. ambassador to neighboring Burundi, I had been invited to join U.S. Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth and U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda David Rawson for a two-hour meeting with Kagame, then the leader of the RPF. On the drive to his headquarters in downtown Kigali from the airport, half the buildings in the capital still lacked windows; shattered glass littered the streets.

We entered a large, shadowy office with cement floors and walls. The most striking thing in the room was Kagame himself, a man with a sorcerer’s air about him, dressed in a dark suit too large for his rail-thin body. (Fine tailoring is often a victim of civil war, especially for guerrilla leaders.)

My perceptions of Kagame undoubtedly had been shaped by my earlier interviews with some of the 100,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees who had arrived in Burundi over the previous two months. They had been coming at a rate of more than 1,000 a day since Kagame’s victory, and were living on bare ground under blue plastic sheeting provided by the United Nations, stretched over branches torn from surrounding trees. When I asked them when they would return home, they invariably replied, "Whenever the RPF stops killing us." A counter-genocide by Kagame’s all-Tutsi force, they said, was mercilessly slaughtering the Hutu population.

Kagame surely knew all that, but of course refused to admit it when I questioned him. I found him to be shrewd, well spoken, and careful. He never directly denied my statements, but always refused to take responsibility for the RPF’s campaign of revenge. And the United States and the U.N. preferred to believe that the Tutsi victors were better than the defeated Hutu forces. Emerging from the meeting into the darkened streets of Kigali, I knew there would be no equal justice or real democracy as long as Kagame held power.

Several months later, I visited a missionary couple in Burundi who lived only three miles from the Rwandan border. At night, we heard gunfire from Rwanda. In the morning, we found four bodies floating in the stream, and more than a hundred Rwandan refugees who had crossed the border to find shelter at the mission. They reported that the RPF had surrounded their encampment and slaughtered approximately 750 people during the night. The U.N. mission nearby, which refused to send troops to assist, claimed only 12 casualties occurred. The numerical discrepancy was so great that I received the State Department’s permission to inspect the massacre site in Rwanda personally. But when I was flown by helicopter to the site, the U.S. military attaché on board refused to allow the helicopter to land, making inspection impossible.

This unwillingness of the American military to allow any re-examination of the actions of Kagame’s RPF was regrettably characteristic of U.S. policy then and now. Kagame has enjoyed a long relationship with the Pentagon: He was trained at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and later headed the intelligence operations of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a U.S. ally. The Pentagon has praised Kagame often for his military successes; clearly U.S. military leaders want no shadow of human rights violations to touch his reputation.

Washington’s deference to Kagame extends beyond the military as well. In 1994, shortly after the end of the genocide, the United States and the U.N. suppressed a report prepared for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees by conflict consultant Robert Gersony, who estimated that the RPF had slaughtered between 25,000 and 45,000 people in four months. That same year the United States successfully offered a motion in the U.N. Security Council to reduce from 5,000 to 100 the number of U.N. troops to be sent to Rwanda — a 98 percent cut.

Over the past decade and a half, Kagame has masterfully exploited the benefit of the doubt he receives from the international community to consolidate his power. Today, journalists and former high-level leaders who have broken with Kagame have "disappeared," been shot in South Africa, or been imprisoned in Rwanda. (The Rwandan government denied any responsibility for the killings today.) Even an American attorney who sought to defend a Rwandan opposition candidate was briefly imprisoned. Censorship is widespread, and some citizens have been imprisoned for suggesting that Tutsis have killed Hutus for ethnic reasons, just as Hutus have undoubtedly killed Tutsis. When I asked a Scandinavian missionary who had lived over 30 years in Rwanda and Burundi to share his opinion of the president, he replied, "Paul Kagame is one of the greatest murderers on the continent of Africa. There is blood all over his hands."

Like others, I have no doubt that Paul Kagame will be reelected president of Rwanda. The nation he leads with Western assistance has become more efficient and neatly run than other Central African countries, and many Americans will undoubtedly be pleased for the seeming economic dynamism under Kagame’s government to continue. But we must not suppose that it is a free society.

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