Africa

Love affair with Rwanda's Kagame goes sour

David Smith

Alarm bells have been ringing in Washington and London over Rwanda's clampdown on internal freedoms, writes David Smith.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has long been a darling of the United States and the United Kingdom but this is now slowly changing. (Fred Dufour, AFP)

A "visionary leader", said former British prime minister Tony Blair; "one of the greatest leaders of our time", echoed Bill Clinton, a former United States president. Such hero worship is usually reserved for Nelson Mandela, but Blair and Clinton were describing the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.

The United Kingdom and the US have staked their pride, reputations and ability to judge character, not to mention hundreds of millions in aid, on Kagame's powers of post-genocide healing and reconciliation matching those of Mandela after apartheid.

That is why the US decision to cut aid and warn Kagame that he could face criminal prosecution over meddling in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo is a humiliating but long overdue reversal.

It piles the pressure on the UK to make a similar admission – that its long-time darling, revered as a success story that underpins an entire ideology surrounding donor development aid, could have feet of clay.

There are two main reasons why Kagame's Rwanda has been bulletproof for so long. One is Western guilt over doing nothing to stop the 1994 genocide in which 800000 people died. Clinton, whose most recent visit was last week, has described it as "my personal failure".

Special case
The UK, the US and others rushed to embrace the East African state's new leadership and support the rebuilding of the country: Rwanda was a special case and would be given more leeway than most. The aid taps were turned on and the money flowed in with tangible results: great gains in education and health and in the reduction of crime and poverty.

Secondly, then, Rwanda has come to symbolise what donor aid can do. It has been a trump card for the defence of the UK's department for international development when the treasury attempts to turn the screws. Britain is Rwanda's biggest bilateral donor with an average of £83-million a year.

"When Clare Short was secretary of state, she was Kagame's number one fan," said Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on Rwanda. "In her eyes he could do no wrong. We're still living with the legacy of that now. Tony Blair was also taken in."

Blair was, and remains, one of Kagame's most ardent cheerleaders – and an unpaid adviser. His charity, the Africa Governance Initiative, places young interns in Rwandan government offices.

Eighteen months ago he told the Guardian: "I'm a believer in, and a supporter of, Paul Kagame. I don't ignore all those criticisms, having said that. But I do think you've got to recognise that Rwanda is an immensely special case because of the genocide.

Frank messages
"Secondly, you can't argue with the fact that Rwanda has gone on a remarkable path of development. Every time I visit Kigali and the surrounding areas, you can just see the changes being made in the country."

British Prime Minister David Cameron appears almost equally enamoured and the current development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, visited Rwanda last week. He said he had delivered "frank messages" to both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo about the current instability and violence.

But, diplomatic language apart, Britain has been painfully silent about Rwanda's pernicious influence in its war-torn neighbour. The recent United Nations group of experts' report named names in the Rwandan government and military who are in contact with Congolese rebels, feeding from the trough of its mineral resources and supplying weapons and uniforms.

But Kagame categorically denies it and Britain apparently believes him, or cannot bear to disbelieve, lest it suffers buyer's remorse.

"Kagame was here last week and told a bare-faced lie to David Cameron and other British officials," said a UK-based analyst. "He denied Rwandan meddling in Congo, even though the evidence is overwhelming."

Development-darling narrative
Britain and others have turned a similarly blind eye to Rwanda's domestic affairs. The state has been accused of murder and intimidation; political opponents and journalists have been jailed. In 2008, the Economist said of Kagame: "Although he vigorously pursues his admirers in Western democracies, he allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe."

The warts-and-all reality has been dawning on the US for some time. In 2010 it sounded warnings that "the political environment ahead of the election has been riddled by a series of worrying actions taken by the government of Rwanda that appear to be attempts to restrict the freedom of expression". Kagame was re-elected with 93% of the vote.

None of this fits the development-darling narrative. Instead, it is much less unpleasant for visiting diplomats to admire the transformation of the capital, Kigali, with its safety, orderliness and cleanliness (there is a ban on plastic bags).

Rwanda has a flourishing economy and well-oiled public relations machine and the affable Kagame uses that most democratic of media, Twitter.

In the past, the West has been criticised for being selective about the sins of leaders such as Mugabe and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin until late in the day. The US, it seems, is reluctantly removing the scales from its eyes regarding Kagame. For Washington, it may be the end of a beautiful friendship; for London, it will feel more like a broken heart. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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