Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, the Reformer Despot Who Saved a Nation
Deep contradictions in leader who led Rwanda out of genocide
The president of Rwanda is either a nation-saving reformer or a despot in disguise—or both. But figuring that out is your problem.
Because Paul Kagame doesn’t give a shit what you think of him. Twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of his people died in one of history’s worst atrocities.
“Twenty years is short or long depending on where you stand but there is no justification for false moral equivalence,” Kagame said during the April commemoration of the Rwanda Genocide. “The passage of time should not obscure the facts, lessen responsibility or turn victims into villains.”
Many regard Kagame as one of the 20th century’s most effective military leaders, a commander who marched his troops on Kigali and ended a massacre. As Rwanda’s president, he rules over one of Africa’s political powerhouses, a model of effective reconciliation and reconstruction.
Kagame is hugely popular in Rwanda.
But there is another side to Kagame and Rwanda. The country has supported violent militias in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and restricted its own media. It’s likely that Kagame has ordered the assassinations of political opponents and exiles around the globe.
When Western critics speak out against Kagame, he retorts that he will not be lectured by the same people who stood by as genocide washed Rwanda in blood.
How does one reconcile the man who has brought peace and prosperity to Rwanda with the man who sends assassins to kill his critics, many of them former friends and colleagues?
Paul Kagame is, if nothing else, a complex man.
Lifetime of war
In an interview with War is Boring several years ago, Kagame said that one of his first memories was watching his village burn as his mother carried him out of Rwanda and into a refugee camp in neighboring Uganda. The expulsion of Kagame’s family was part of several waves of ethnic violence, mostly by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority.
Hutu and Tutsi originally weren’t so much ethnic groups as different social classes. In pre-colonial Rwanda, the Tutsi were broadly comparable to Europe’s medieval aristocracy, their wealth and political power deriving from their large holdings of cattle.
Even today, cattle ownership is an important symbol of wealth. As a farmer you were automatically a Hutu, but there was always the possibility to climb the social ladder by amassing wealth and political power.
The arrival of European colonizers overturned this feudal social structure. Blinded by their racist ideology, first the Germans then the Belgians refused to acknowledge the presence of a complex and efficient socio-political system in Rwanda.
They interpreted the Hutu-Tutsi divide as being purely ethnic, with the minority Tutsi being naturally predisposed to ruling the majority Hutu, according to the colonizers.
As in many other places around Africa, the colonial masters ruled Rwanda by proxy, lending their support to Tutsi. This sowed the seeds of resentment that would bloom into genocide.
Tutsi had access to a superior education system and it’s therefore no surprise that it was mostly Tutsi intellectuals who pushed for independence in the 1950s and ’60s.
Angered by this perceived betrayal but no longer capable of resisting the call for self-determination, the Belgians granted independence but with a twist. They gave power not to the Tutsi elite, but to the Hutu majority—and without doing anything to ensure that this sudden change of leadership would be peacefully.
The policy shapes Rwanda to this day. Suddenly in power after decades of being disenfranchised, Hutus droves tens of thousands of Tutsi, among them young Paul Kagame, into refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Marginalized and unable to return home, many young Tutsi grew frustrated. Kagame and many others from the camps joined the Ugandan National Resistance Movement rebel group, led by Yoweri Museveni. The rebels toppled the Ugandan government in 1986.
Kagame quickly rose through the ranks, soon becoming head of the Ugandan military intelligence. Museveni rewarded his Rwandan followers by allowing them to establish their own rebel group on Ugandan soil to wage war against the Hutu regime in Rwanda.
In 1990, while Kagame was in the U.S. attending military training courses, his rebel group the Rwandan Patriotic Front launched its assault against Rwanda, sparking a civil war. Initially unsuccessful, the RPF made gains once Kagame took over command.
It was during this time that Kagame gained his reputation as one the greatest military commanders of our time.
The RPF’s military successes forced the government into peace talks and a power-sharing agreement. But for the hard core of the Hutu extremists, this was unacceptable. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down while approaching Kigali airport.
To this day, it’s unclear who was responsible for the attack, but evidence points to elements of the Rwandan army and politicians associated with Habyarimana’s own wife.
The Rwandan army and Hutu militias used the president’s death as a pretext to set up roadblocks and start targeting Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Thus, the Rwandan genocide began.
More than 800,000 people in just 100 days. The world did worse than nothing. When Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian officer in charge of peacekeeping forces in the country, asked for reinforcements, the U.N. instead withdrew many of his troops.
Dallaire and a cadre of a few hundred peacekeepers refused to leave—and remained behind to protect refugee sites. They saved thousands but were powerless to actually end the violence.
It fell to Kagame and the RPF to end the genocide. With practically no outside help save for that of Uganda, Kagame’s forces dealt a decisive blow to the Rwandan government. As RPF soldiers marched into Kigali, the war came to an end.
With the country in ruins and thousands of Tutsis dead, observers expected Kagame and the RPF to exact revenge on the Hutus. And in some cases, RPF troops did exactly that. But reprisals were rare. Kagame wanted the war to end once and for all. That meant finding a way to live together.
After the war, Kagame assumed the role of statesmen, first serving as vice president before being elected president in 2001.
Although the government prosecuted top war criminals like Col. Theoneste Bagasora, forgiveness was the main policy. Many Hutus remain in prominent positions of authority throughout the country in both the private and public sector.
The government has banned the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” in an attempt to spread a post-racial ideology.
A huge challenge has been the sheer number of perpetrators. By 2000, about 120,000 alleged genocidaires were still in prison in Rwanda, completely overwhelming the judicial system. Inspired by traditional forms of arbitration, the Rwandan government introduced local Gacaca courts.
Chaired by the villagers themselves, these courts offered forgiveness to perpetrators who faced their victims. The Gacaca named other perpetrators, located mass graves and documented acts of violence.
Critics claimed the Gacaca court system “enforced” forgiveness by pressuring victims to absolve perpetrators if the perps confess their crimes. At the same time, the system encouraged suspects to confess to crimes they may not have committed in order to avoid prison.
Gacaca courts didn’t offer legal counsel, making them incompatible with Western judicial standards. The Gacaca courts may not have been perfect, but they were probably the best solution available to Rwanda at the time.
The Rwandan education system has also played an important role in reconciliation, encouraging integration of pupils from all backgrounds. It’s illegal to distinguish between Hutu and Tutsi students. Education reform has been one of Rwanda’s crowning achievements. The country boasts Africa’s highest primary-school enrollment rates—97 percent.
As a class, women too have benefited from Kagame’s reforms. Women arguably suffered the most during the genocide. Today they play an instrumental role in reconciliation, business and politics.
“Gender equality in every sector is not a favor, it is your right,” Kagame told a group of Rwandan women in a speech last July. Today women hold 51 out 80 seats in the nation’s parliament—the greatest proportion of women representatives of any country in the world.
Kagame and the RPF have overseen incredible economic growth. Reforms made it incredibly easy to start businesses. As Rwanda is land-locked and lacks abundant of mineral resources, the government has pushed for the country to become Central Africa’s services and IT-hub.
It didn’t hurt that Kigali received huge sums of cash from foreign governments trying to make amends for not intervening in the genocide. For years, Rwanda posted eight percent GDP growth, easily outperforming the world average as well as other developing countries.
In recent years, the Rwandan army has played a huge role in regional peacekeeping and security. In no small part spurred by their own experiences, Rwandan troops are often among the first to intervene in mass killings in nearby countries.
They were among the first troops to go to Darfur, initially with the African Union mission then as members of the A.U.-U.N. mission. Rwandan troops protected refugee camps, kept tabs on Sudanese troop movements, patrolled for bandits and militia and escorted aid convoys.
Seventeen Rwandan soldiers have died in Darfur.
Rwandans also deployed to South Sudan and Central African Republic. In South Sudan, Rwandan troops have helped protect internally displaced civilians, maintained camp security and have escorted civilians to safety through hostile areas.
In the Central African Republic, where the international response has been indecisive and uncoordinated, Rwandan soldiers with the African Union force have been singled out for praise. But they’re also spread thin. It’s obvious that many of the other A.U. troops are struggling to keep pace with the Rwandans.
But beware the overblown celebration of Rwanda’s post-genocide renaissance. Kigali has received more development aid than other countries, giving it a development edge. Its economy has also profited enormously from the spoils of Rwanda’s involvement in the Congo Wars.
And while the government has generally been a champion of economic freedom and open corruption is rare, many of the larger businesses are directly or indirectly controlled by the military and political establishment. World bodies still consider Rwanda a developing economy—and rightly so.
Rwanda’s international engagement and Kagame’s personal political success have come at a cost. While many people are better off economically than before the genocide and everyday life in Rwanda is orderly and secure, these achievements have occurred within a burgeoning police state.
In Kagame’s Rwanda, the government tightly controls public life. Local media is either directly owned by the government or toes the RPF party line and the reach and prowess of the intelligence services is legendary.
In 2011, the country’s police commissioner told War is Boring that if something as small as a laptop were stolen from a Western visitor—itself unlikel y—the security services would be able to return the item within days. The security services have made the protection of visitors one of their top priorities and have established an intricate system of snitches and spies.
Far from being benign, Rwandan leaders employ this system to undermine any sign of organized political opposition. While rival parties to the governing RPF do exist, they almost unanimously supported Kagame in his latest bid for re-election, which he won by over 90 percent of the vote.
While the professionalism of Rwanda’s army makes it a prime candidate for peace missions, there’s also a sinister edge to it. Rwanda has twice invaded its western neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first conflict in 1996 was triggered by the presence of genocidaires in refugee camps across the Congolese border.
Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko supported these armed groups. Again the international community proved unable or unwilling to help, and Rwanda took matters into its own hands.
The intervention may have been justified, but this doesn’t change the brutality of the Rwandan attack. Rwandan soldiers and their local allies overran refugee camps, killing thousands. The offensive culminated in the march on Congo’s capital Kinshasa, hundreds of miles from the Rwandan border.
Rwanda succeeded in ousting Mobutu and installing its allies, but the arrangement didn’t last.
Fighting flared again in 1998 and this time it drew in the whole region. The second Congo War involved 12 armies and a plethora of local armed groups. Including deaths caused by starvation and illness, the two wars are thought to have killed more than five million people, making them the deadliest conflicts since World War II.
Rwanda, like other factions, profited immensely from the mineral riches of the territory it controlled, laying the foundations of a network of economic interests that remains in place today. The second Congo War officially ended in 2003 with the Sun City peace treaty, but Kigali wasn’t ready to give up its foothold in the eastern part of the DRC.
Remnants of the Genocidaires were still present in the Congo and they still posed a limited military threat to the RPF and Rwanda in general. But economic reasons were important, as well. Rwanda relied heavily on its profits from the Congolese mining sector.
To secure its interest, Rwanda backed a succession of Tutsi-dominated armed groups in eastern Congo. While the Rwandan army officially withdrew, Kagame consistently held a knife to the throat of the Congolese government by financing and arming the military opposition in the impoverished country.
As a result, the violence of the second Congo War has dragged on until this day, leaving eastern Congo in a state of perpetual low-intensity conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
In February 2008, a Spanish court issued an arrest warrant for Rwandan Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, then serving as the deputy commander of peacekeeping force protecting civilians in Darfur.
Karake, a former intelligence chief, has been implicated in a series of assassinations and other crimes, including civilian deaths in the bloody battle for the Congolese town of Kisangani in 2000. When Kagame threatened to withhold support for the Darfur mission, Karake was allowed to stay.
Then in 2010, Kagame announced a shakeup of military leadership. Rwandan authorities arrested Karake for “immoral behavior.” Former air force chief and civil war hero Charles Muhire was also arrested and charged with corruption.
The arrests shocked colleagues. Some Rwandans have alleged that it was disagreements with Kagame, not the generals’ corruption, that motivated the arrests. In recent years, Kagame has shown a ruthless impatience with dissent.
Regime critics and and opposition politicians have a nasty habit of getting violently killed. Human rights organizations have detailed at least six successful and attempted assassinations of opposition members over the last years, not counting targeted killings of leaders of armed groups hostile to Kagame’s government.
And while the government officially denies having any hand in the murders, Kagame himself has frequently proclaimed sympathy for the killings. The South African and British government have found proof that Rwandan diplomats were involved in organizing hit squads.
These transgressions have not gone completely unnoticed. Some American politicians have voiced displeasure at Kagame’s antics. But for now the West, and much of Africa, seems willing to look the other way. Many still view Kagame as a forward-thinking reformer and crusader against corruption—as Africa’s rising star.
His efforts to end ethnic strife in his homeland and improve life for women are real enough. And compared to some other African leaders, his indiscretions seem miniscule.
And Rwanda’s willingness to step up militarily, particularly in places like Sudan and CAR where Western nations would rather not risk lives, has made Kagame an indispensable partner.
So who is Paul Kagame? A soldier? A statesmen? A reformer? A tyrant? A hero?
Maybe all of the above.