Why does the west turn a blind eye to Rwanda's dictatorship?

Paul Kagame led his country away from genocide and war, but today his regime is upheld by authoritarian controls and political violence.

Louis Collenette
10 August 2016
Rwandan president Paul Kagame in 2011. Flickr/Commonwealth Secretariat. Some rights reserved.

Rwandan president Paul Kagame in 2011. Flickr/Commonwealth Secretariat. Some rights reserved.In 1994, Paul Kagame and his rebel forces, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), took Rwanda’s capital Kigali from Hutu extremists, bringing an end to the genocide that saw close to a million people killed in 100 days. Although only officially elected president in 2000, Kagame has been the de facto leader ever since and, following recent changes in the nation’s constitution that allow him to run for a third term, he could remain in power until 2034. Rwanda has seen great progress during his incumbency and has been held up by many in the international community as an exemplary model of development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, it is not all sunshine and smiles. Kagame faces allegations of war crimes, is known to suppress any form of political opposition and has even been implicated in the assassination of various Rwandan dissidents. Despite all this, western leaders — who continue to give substantial aid to Rwanda — have not only failed to challenge Kagame on these issues in any meaningful way, but have even praised him as being, to quote Bill Clinton, among “the greatest leaders of our time.” Why does the west turn a blind eye to Rwanda’s dictatorship?

Few heads of state can be said to have a spotless record, but Kagame’s is practically polka-dotted. He has a strong reputation for silencing critics — often violently — dating back to his time as a rebel fighter living in exile during the genocide, while his chokehold onthe press has allowed him to cultivate an almost messianic public image at home. The authoritarian control he exercises over the small East African nation has led Gérard Prunier, an eminent scholar of East African politics, to label Rwanda “a very well-managed ethnic, social and economic dictatorship.”

Kagame has also been tied to various assassinations of Rwandans living in exile, most notably the 2014 murder of his former head of intelligence, Patrick Karegeya. This came four years after Karegeya stated to the British press, following the assassination of Rwanda’s former Lieutenant general, Kayumba Nyamwasa, that “there is a deliberate plan to finish us off.”

Perhaps most troubling, however, are accusations of war crimes; Kagame is alleged to have sponsored and armed a group of militants who have perpetrated numerous atrocities in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

So why is it then that the west shows such continued support for a man referred to by Rwandan affairs expert Filip Reyntjens as “probably the worst war criminal in office today”? There are two reasons. The first is that Rwanda is in many ways a success story for the ideology of developmental aid. Since the genocide, western nations — the US and UK in particular — have given an enormous amount in aid and it seems to have paid off, providing vindication for often-criticised development policies.
What kind of message does this send to other would-be autocrats?
The second and more potent reason is the pervasive sense of guilt in the west for its failure to act during the 1994 genocide. Bill Clinton, for example, who has in the past been so vocal in his praise of Kagame, has expressed deep regret over his failure to act sooner in Rwanda, saying that he feels a “lifetime responsibility” for the nation.

It is this sense of guilt that has driven western politicians and aid-givers to afford Kagame so much leeway. Although some have begun to signal muted disapproval of Kagame’s policies, he still has the vocal support of world leaders, including the last UK prime minister David Cameron. One has to wonder, what kind of message does this send to other would-be autocrats? And given what Kagame has gotten away with thus far, if support for him remains unwavering, what else will he get away with in the future?

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