Winner take everything: Will Paul Kagame be Rwanda’s president for life?

“The issue is how and when to recognize the moment when staying in power becomes counterproductive.” —Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda – Copyright World Economic Forum / Eric Miller

On Friday, August 4th, Rwanda held its third election since Paul Kagame arrived with his victorious rebel army ending what has come to be called the Rwandan or, in some quarters, Tutsi, genocide. Although the U.S. State Department and some others said there were irregularities in the process, Kagame won more than 98% of the vote in the small landlocked country of almost 11 million.

In the end, the re-elected President, who had predicted his victory after a December, 2015 referendum allowed him to run for a third term, had the backing of 9 of the country’s 11 official political parties who endorsed him instead of running their own candidates. The 59 year old’s victory will allow him to continue on in power, possibly through three more elections until 2034, a potential forty year reign.

President Kagame, whose family were close to Rwanda’s last Tutsi King, Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, (deposed in 1961, in what was called the ’peasant revolution’), fled Rwanda with his family during the late 1950s, eventually landing in a Ugandan refugee camp.

Rwanda’s future president later joined his first rebel campaign with another still serving African president, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. Both fought in the  National Resistance Army (NRA), which overthrew that country’s government in 1986, at which time Kagame became Uganda’s Director of Military Intelligence.

Kagame’s experiences as a soldier and a spy likely served him well later, when his mostly ethnic Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) successfully used similar tactics to partially recreate the NRA’s victory in his native Rwanda, starting four years before the mass killings that horrified the world in 1994.

Showing the luck that has seemed to follow him throughout most of his adult life, when Kagame was the RPF’s second in command and was training with the U.S. military in Fort Leavenworth, Texas, the group’s first leader, Fred Rwigyema, was killed during an early, ill-fated incursion into Rwanda. Kagame, who quickly returned home, became the leader of the group soon after.

During a brief cease fire between the RPF and Rwanda’s Hutu President, Juvenal Habyarimana, in 1994, a missile (which some blame on the RPF others on militant Hutus in the Rwandan army) took down Habyarimana’s helicopter, killing him and the President of neighboring Burundi. This touched off the massive killing spree in which it’s believed more than three quarters of a million people died. The victims were mainly Tutsi but also included many Hutus and a third of the country’s indigenous Twa (or Batwa) people (who make up just 1% of the country’s population).

While Kagame’s forces have been given credit for ending the slaughter, they have never been held to account for the massacres their own troops engaged in from 1990 forward, including widespread revenge killings once they took power.

As reported by Human Rights Watch in 1999, “In a number of places, such as in the communes of Ntyazo, Mukingi and Runda, RPF soldiers massacred unarmed civilians, many of them women and children, who had assembled for a meeting on their orders. The people were told to come to receive food or to be given instructions or to gather before being transported to another site.”

An African economic miracle?

The soft spoken third term President, who claims he had no knowledge of these massacres, gave up his military fatigues long ago, trading them for well tailored and expensive looking suits. He has overseen what some call an economic miracle in the country, which has seen explosive growth rates of up to 8% some years.

Still, all the good press aside, Rwanda remains mired in poverty while expensive construction projects, often tendered to foreign contractors, have transformed the capital into a playground for foreigners and the country’s own elite, while the vast majority of its people do without.

To put this in perspective, heavily sanctioned North Korea still has a higher per capita income than Rwanda and no amount of praise from neo-liberal politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton or foreign investors like Warren Buffet should be allowed to hide this.

Also as much as 40% of the Rwanda’s GDP comes from foreign aid, hardly a sustainable system, especially when one considers that most richer countries, following the example of U.S. President Donald Trump, are pulling back from these kinds of commitments.

The government of Rwanda has also hidden an ongoing famine in the East and South of the country that African sources claim has left over 3 million people near starvation, the Western media was mostly silent on this in discussing Kagame’s re-election

The locals call the famine “Nzaramba” meaning “I will live long” and though it may partly be the result of climate change, some critics have also pointed to poor agricultural policies as a major contributor.

Having said this, in terms of health care and education, the country has made great strides by any standard but it also needs to be remembered that educational attainment means very little if there is no work for the country’s exploding youth population when they finish their schooling.

There is also a dark side to Kagame’s cheery, ‘development’ centered neo-liberalism, as Anjan Sundaram explained in The New York Review of Books just prior to the election, in an anecdote that would be funny if it weren‘t so sad, “In 2011, I traveled to remote villages where I found hundreds of people living in the open. Their huts were roofless, I asked a family if the army or police had destroyed their homes, and their reply surprised me: the villagers had done it themselves. Kagame had declared thatch-roof huts primitive, so local officials had ordered villagers to tear down their roofs. but the homeless villagers did not criticize Kagame – instead, they praised his housing policies.”

A history of intimidation

Kagame is tall and very thin, characteristics that have long been used to describe the Tutsis scattered throughout the region, although there is still some doubt if Tutsis and Hutus are actually separate peoples. The record is more muddied by the fact that Belgian colonizers at one point made anyone with more than ten cows a Tutsi and those with less a Hutu for identification purposes.

You will never hear Kagame publicly proclaim a Tutsi identity, calling himself and calling on all his country’s citizens to simply call themselves Rwandan. This does in some ways obscure the fact that it is mainly Tutsis from the RPF who have run the country since they took power changing very little about the political system they have inherited from colonial times.

As explained in the New York Review of Books story cited above, “All of Rwanda is divided into small “villages”, each of about a hundred and fifty families. Each village has a chief and an informer. Orders pass seamlessly between the government and villages. A Rwandan journalist colleague of mine who was pursued by the government after criticizing Kagame found evading this surveillance impossible.”

Rwanda seems to have made significant strides in combating sexism under President Kagame, one of the keys to successful development, with a parliament that is now over 60% female. However, the story of Diana Rwigara, a 35 year old accountant from Kigali who was denied the right to run for president after having what are believed to be doctored nude photos of her shared online, shows that this much vaunted progress may be somewhat illusory.

Ms. Rwigara’s family was also targeted for intimidation, their businesses closed and bank accounts frozen, as she told The New York Times after the election, “It’s because I spoke out. They don’t just kill you physically. They kill you financially, too.”

Another prominent Rwandan woman, Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu, received 15 years in prison for trying to run against Kagame in 2010. She was charged with “threatening state security” and “belittling” the 1994 genocide.

The bravery displayed by these women is not widespread and it is understandable that there is widespread support for the President among people so exhausted by conflict. But part of it might be fear, as the government can be much more brutal when cracking down on dissent, especially when it comes to people without an international profile.

Muthoni Wanyeki, Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes for Amnesty International was quoted as saying ahead of the recent election, ”Killings and disappearances in 2017 need to be placed in the context of many years of similar violence for which no one has yet been held to account. In this chilling atmosphere , it is unsurprising that would-be government critics practice self-censorship and that political debate is limited in advance of the elections.”

Even worse are the actions of the RPF in neighboring Congo, where millions more have died over the past 20 years with almost no accountability and no public memorials for the victims

As Silvestre Mido of the U.K. based Congolese rights group Genecos recently told the Black Agenda Report, Rwanda‘s actions in its western neighbor have also benefited the global business elite, “Rwanda has succeeded in getting as far as it has because it has been backed by superpowers whose corporations benefit from all the minerals smuggling,.. They continue to fuel this conflict, which has proven to be a very profitable business in more ways than one.”

It is unfair to future Rwandans if their history begins for the international community in 1994. Starting there ignores the actions, not only of the sometimes reluctant Tutsis who cracked the whip on the backs of their Hutu charges during colonial times but also the Europeans and North Americans who I believe have been major players in the country’s too often tragic history.

The country’s indigenous Twa people, who lost their traditional domain over the country’s forests in the name of conservation (oddly facilitating Asian, European and North American tourism) are usually absent from the narrative. They too must forsake their indigenous roots to become “Rwandans” under Kagame.

President Kagame may be loved at Davos and other international forums but he has effectively created a one party state and cult of personality around himself that would be more heavily criticized in most other contexts. The terrible events over those 100 days in 1994 and the (necessary) guilt felt by many in his own country and by the international community in general have given him what amounts to a blank check, will he use it to become yet another African president for life?


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