When they think of Rwanda, most people reflexively think of the civil war and genocide in 1994, or perhaps more recently of health and economic gains amid low corruption. Rwanda’s relationships with the right world leaders, universities and nongovernmental organisations offer an air of legitimacy to place the country apart, and perhaps above, its similarly authoritarian neighbours.
President Paul Kagame has some powerful friends, former president Bill Clinton and former United Kingdom prime minister Tony Blair among them, that contributes to rewriting the country’s narrative.
As democracy gains a foothold in other parts of Africa though, we must ask when is the right time to stop backing authoritarian regimes such as Rwanda’s and how institutional support from the United States propagate tyranny there.
Rwanda emerged from the civil war as one of the world’s poorest countries, with terrible health indicators in maternal and child health, HI, and many others. Over time, those statistics have begun to improve, such as reductions in child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by 85 percent and the economy is growing at 7% a year.
Sounds too good to be true – and it is, on several levels. The most obvious is that statistics from Rwanda are often plumped up with few ways to verify the primary source data. Neonatal or maternal deaths at the local level often go unrecorded in official statistics, whether directed from the top or not. Also, the current situation glosses over the fact that Kagame’s army massacred tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, in the Democratic Republic Congo in the 1990s. In controlling the narrative about the genocide in Rwanda, Kagame’s regime has largely erased their crimes against humanity by claiming to simply be the victims of the genocide.
The government is also assumed to be not corrupt, despite the fact that the president’s political party owns $500 million in assets, and continues to attract new international contracts. Kagame’s outsized personality stretches far beyond Rwanda’s borders and continues to be a destabilising force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.
What level of health and economic gains justify a president for life? How many massacres of entire villages will the global community permit because of improved maternal mortality indicators and the veneer of stability? I wrestled with these questions during my time in Rwanda as a junior faculty member at Harvard Medical School.
Close support from US universities grants the regime legitimacy – without which, Kagame would possibly be seen through the same lens as dictators in neighbouring Uganda and Burundi. In 2016, Harvard and Yale both invited Kagame to speak. As universities, academic dialogue, including from those whose views we may find repugnant, are a necessary part of the discourse. But, in their introduction of Kagame, Yale said he “has received recognition for his leadership in numerous areas, including peace building and reconciliation, development, good governance, promotion of human rights”. Harvard said his “remarks emphasised the growth of development and democracy in Rwanda under his leadership as president over the past sixteen years”.
Both universities not only chose to ignore his human rights record, but actively tout his democratic record. Universities have an obligation to be places of discussion, but not to coddle tyrants, no matter how much grant money they bring in.
This type of praise has often come with aid dollars; Rwanda received more than the average for sub-Suharan Africa despite having lower rates of HIV, a source of much of the aid to the region. More than a third, the lion’s share of all US aid to Rwanda, goes to the health sector. International journalists assume a low level of corruption when discussing the pro’s and con’s of the Kagame regime, despite large assets held by the president’s party and his cronies.
Several US universities, through the USAID programme called Human Resources for Health, profit directly from the preservation of the status quo in Rwanda. Not only are some of their faculties’ salaries paid for by the US government for their work in Rwanda, but they contribute to the wealth of research emanating from the tiny country. The universities can jointly claim the gains in health and improvements in health services, whether they are real or fabricated, with little incentive to ask the tough questions of their governmental partners, such as investigating the sources of the data.
US universities and NGOs have an obligation to speak out against the on-going violations of human rights in Rwanda. Since as much as 40% of Rwanda’s government budget comes from aid, continued contributions from the US and Europe send the message that the lack of human rights is acceptable, if it comes with stability and progress.
Of late, the continent of Africa seems to be having a democratic rebirth, one that probably needs to be nurtured from the outside. As the middle class continues to grow across the continent, the time is ripe for democracy to finally take hold. Several countries such as Ghana and Nigeria held elections last year that were generally seen as free and fair. The Gambia just replaced a dictator of 33 years with an elected president, after a concerted campaign over years to allow a free and fair election and under the threat of force from its larger neighbours Senegal and Nigeria, both of whom underwent peaceful transitions of power recently. A raft of past opposition leaders are now in power across West Africa, except in East Africa, including Rwanda and Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni won a fifth term last year.
All of this makes Kagame that much more of an anachronism and the US support of his regime that much more shameful. Much like Burundi’s leader Pierre Nkurunziza, who obliged the country to allow him a third term, Kagame is trying the same in Rwanda. In a 2015 referendum, the public voted to amend the Constitution with 98% of people approving, allowing him to potentially stay in power until 2034. Either Rwanda is more united behind Kagame than any leader in the history of mankind, or there is significant voter intimidation, fraud, and fabricated results. Rwandans head to the polls in August to decide whether Kagame deserves another seven-year term, and so far only one opposition candidate, currently in exile, has registered.
I left Rwanda in 2012 when I could no longer justify offering any sort of political cover to the Kagame regime. No matter how many lives I saved in the hospital, an order of magnitude more would be killed or imprisoned that very day. Perhaps as the US turns inward and pulls back from funding activities outside the borders, the conflict of interest will resolve of its own volition. Or perhaps the repression of the strongmen in places such as Rwanda and Burundi will boil over, resulting in yet another series of bloody conflicts. The preservation of poisonous people like Kagame certainly portends the possibility of conflict, but the examples across West Africa provide hope for a democratic and peaceful future.
Vincent DeGennaro is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Florida.