Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s Saviour is Becoming Increasingly Authoritarian

The 1994 Rwandan genocide saw an estimated one million people slaughtered out of a population of 7.7 million, as Hutu extremists attempted to eliminate the Tutsi minority, moderate Hutus and other, smaller ethnic groups. The international community, distracted by divisions between the major powers and simultaneous events in Yugoslavia, largely stood by, despite the valiant attempts of the UN Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) Commander, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, to raise the alarm.

The genocide was ended when the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized control of the country. The RPF had been fighting since 1990 from its bases in exile in Uganda to overthrow the increasingly extremist Rwandan government. It was led by Paul Kagame, one of the most capable world political figures of his generation.

Kagame has been Rwanda’s de facto leader ever since (he was nominally only Minister of Defence and Vice-President to Pasteur Bizimungu from 1994 to 2000) and is standing for re-election as President on 4th August.

The imposingly tall and lean Kagame’s Tutsi family fled as refugees to Uganda when he was two years-old, during one of the previous outbreaks of conflict in Rwanda’s troubled history. He was raised in Uganda and joined the rebel forces that eventually brought Yoweri Museveni to power there. Kagame then served as a senior officer in the Ugandan Army, before taking command of the RPF in 1990. The military leadership skills he learned were crucial to his development of the RPF into a formidable fighting force.

The RPF made significant progress in fighting their way into Rwanda before agreeing a UN-brokered ceasefire with the Hutu-chauvinist dominated government in 1993. But events took a tragic turn when the plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down over Kigali on 6th April 1994. With astonishing symbolism, the plane fell into the gardens of the Presidential Residence, killing all on board. The case of who downed the plane has never been conclusively solved, with some blaming the RPF. What is clear, and perhaps provides a more plausible motive, is that the Hutu extremists in the government and military who opposed negotiations with the RPF used Habyarimana’s assassination as the trigger for their long-prepared genocide.

Kagame is attempting to inculcate a single Rwandan identity

Leading the RPF to takeover Rwanda and stop the genocide within 100 days was Kagame’s first great achievement. He has since led the broken and traumatised country to an impressive recovery and record of development. Rwanda has routinely been one of the world’s fastest growing economies over the past two decades. At least 1.7 million people have been lifted out of poverty and 1 million newly connected to the electricity grid (the country’s current population is 12 million). It is the third highest-ranked African nation on Transparency International’s corruption index. Rwanda has also made outstanding progress in areas such as gender equality, with a world-beating 61% of its parliamentarians being women.

It will take generations to assess the success of Kagame’s efforts to eradicate the poisonous distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans. These previously fairly frictionless divides were, as in much of Africa, amplified by the colonial occupiers to divide and conquer the local population. The Belgians who ran Rwanda favoured Tutsis for lower administrative posts, thus stoking the enduring resentment of some Hutus. And it was the Belgian initiated practice of featuring citizens ethnic identity prominently on their ID cards that, years later, helped to make it easy for the genocidaires to select some of their victims.

Kagame is attempting to inculcate a single Rwandan identity and has removed any mention of Hutu or Tutsi from official settings and documents. Erasing something which has become so deeply rooted in society, and where many people remain aware of the ethnic identities of those around them, is a fiendishly difficult task. Critics also point to the still mostly Tutsi composition of the government and senior military.

the greatest current concern is the Kagame government’s growing authoritarianism

The darkest episode of Kagame’s period in power was the Rwandan military involvement in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the 1990s. Following the 1994 genocide, around two million Hutus fled Rwanda fearing retribution. The refugee camps established for them over the border in the DRC quickly fell under the control of exiled genocidaires, who used them as bases to launch attacks on Rwanda. It is hard to dispute the Rwandan army’s decision to cross the border to confront this insurgency. But the subsequent attacks on the camps that resulted in up to 200,000 deaths are far harder to justify, as is Rwanda’s role in the two horrific civil wars in the DRC. Rwanda has also been credibly accused of exploiting the conflict to plunder Eastern Congo’s vast precious mineral resources.

Perhaps the greatest current concern is the Kagame government’s growing authoritarianism. Opponents have been suppressed and, in a few cases, died in mysterious circumstances. The elections on 4th August will be far from free and fair, despite the near-certainty that Kagame would still win handsomely if they were.

Wariness about introducing full democracy too soon into a society with Rwanda’s catastrophic history of division is understandable. But failing to build towards it threatens ultimately to undermine what has been achieved. In the long-run, few countries manage to maintain the degree of relatively clean and efficient governance of which the Rwandan government is proud, without democratic accountability. Whilst the 59 year-old Kagame is still reasonably young and fit, he might also note that authoritarian regimes rarely successfully survive the demise of the brilliant guiding hand that established them.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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