Rwandan Tutsi leader turned President Paul Kagame is a popular man in the West. And why not? In his ten years in office he has lead his war-ravaged nation through a period of unprecedented economic growth which has turned Rwanda into a playground for foreign investors. At the same time, he emphasizes self-reliance and efficient government while supporting populist spending programs that could make Rwanda the only African nation to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals (not that he is a fan of the UN, which he frequently criticizes for its response to the 1994 civil war). His administration in Kigali has admittedly wracked up a deficit that would ordinarily draw frowns from World Bank bureaucrats but in the case of Rwanda, the organization that usually demands drastic budget cuts is underwriting a litany of government programs. It helps that some of Kagame’s greatest admirers are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz (1). American evangelist Rick Warren (2) considers him something of an inspiration and even Bill Gates has invested in what has been called Africa’s success story. Yes, Western liberals, reactionary evangelicals, and capitalist carpetbaggers alike tout Paul Kagame as the herald of a new, self-reliant African prosperity.
Of course, nothing in Rwanda is ever so clear cut. Kagame’s regime has benefited from more than its fair share of political repression. This prompted his challenger in the 2003 election, Faustin Twagiramungu, to denounce the poll citing harassment and restrictions that inhibited any effective campaign efforts (3). An earlier opponent, Pasteur Bizimungu (who Kagame replaced as Prime Minister) attempted to form a party at the beginning of the last decade which was promptly banned. What’s more, the formation of new groups is often hampered by Kigali authorities. Reporters Without Borders has also expressed concern at the restrictions on the press which have included the shuttering of critical newspapers and new fees for launching media outlets (4). Even The Economist took exception with his heavy-handed domestic policies and accused the new hero of Clinton and Blair as being more repressive than Robert Mugabe (5).
Most alarming is the integral role that Kigali has played in the Second Congolese War (6) which has claimed upward of three million lives. The Rwandan government has been lending significant support to rebels within the Congo, especially in the mineral-rich north. There, the objective is widely considered to be securing the valuable resources of the region which have been trafficked through Rwanda during the conflict. While some press attention has been given to the horrendous plight of women in the area and the massive and mounting casualty figures, little connection seems to be drawn between Kagame and his complicit fans in Europe and North America.
Kagame, however, maintains innocence. While never outright denying his support for murderous combatants in the Congo or his imposition of restrictive policies on journalists, he counters that his critics are merely stoking ethnic divisions. That, of course, is a serious charge in Rwanda. It is also a strange one coming from a man who boasts that he has put the past behind him. Not far enough, as it would turn out, to trust the democratic process with criticisms or challenges. Nor far enough to shut down the parasitic black-market trafficking of minerals and resources — reminiscent of the lecherous European occupations of other centuries — that have enriched some foreign and local entrepreneurs while leaving little more than funeral bills for the Congolese (7).
There are bigger issues at play in Rwanda and the DRC than this one man but what is remarkable about Paul Kagame is the support he has received from both conservatives and liberals in the West. It is no surprise that foreign investors have so embraced a man who is willing to put aside the rule of law or the mandate of the ballot. What is surprising is how quiet the left has been in challenging the blatantly backward praise Kagame has so vocally received while stoking one of the most tragic and violent conflicts of the present day and rolling out plans to sell his nation to the highest bidders. It is time to connect the dots in Africa.
(1) “Rwanda Rising: A New Model of Economic Development.” Fast Company, Wednesday, March 18, 2009. http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/134/special-report-rwanda-rising.html
(2) This comes on the heels of reports that Rick Warren and his reactionary cohorts where involved with neighboring Uganda’s efforts to execute homosexuals. http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/11/rick-warren-silent-enabler-of-hatred.html
(3) This BBC report is from the end of the election when Twagiramungu called on Kagame to “accept freedom of speech and association and also to accept democracy.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3104092.stm
(4) Reporters Without Borders profile of Paul Kagame (http://www.rsf.org/en-predateur13640-Paul_Kagame_.html) and also a brief report on the issue of fees for free press (http://www.rsf.org/Government-to-demand-exorbitant.html).
(5) “A Flawed Hero”, The Economist, August 21, 2008
(6) The New York Review of Books printed an extensive article on the matter by Howard W. French in their September 24, 2009 issue (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23054). The UN has also issued annual reports on the Second Congo War every year which allude to the influence Kagame has played in the conflict.
(7) “Looted Wealth Fuels Congo Conflict”, Financial Times, November 30, 2009. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8ae76ab0-dde6-11de-b8e2-00144feabdc0.html
Image: UN Photo/Mark Castro