Kagame:International darling no more

The developed world has a soft spot for little Rwanda, the plucky, scarred nation that kindly Paul Kagame has unified and put on the path of prosperity. That’s been the narrative, at least; but, as recent events in the DRC are forcing the international community to concede, there are a few holes in it.

In 2009, current affairs analyst and CNN presenter Fareed Zakaria wrote an article for Newsweek about President Paul Kagame and the under-reported success story that was his Rwanda. The country is “a model for the African renaissance”, Zakaria wrote, observing a sharp increase in average national income, the establishment of a decent national health service and the fact that Kigali is popular with western CEOs (apparently good judges of national character).

He brusquely dismissed criticism of Kagame and his government: “Kagame has his faults. Though elected, he rules like an authoritarian. But in his emphasis on self-reliance he provides an intriguing picture of what a more hopeful African future might look like—driven by capitalism, pride, indigenous traditions, and a prickly nationalism that insists on finding its own path to success.”

Zakaria’s piece is but one of many that have been written along the same lines, for this is the story of Rwanda in the 21st century. A plucky, brave nation heals the scars of the horrific genocide and moves forward, under the leadership of an innovative, forward-thinking government. Economic indicators rise, as do standard of living measures. And the more unsettling elements of Kagame’s rule are glossed over. Freedom of the press—almost non-existent—is suddenly not so important to Bill Clinton, who described Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time”. And Tony Blair didn’t seem too worried about the well-documented suppression of opposition, or the Rwandan army’s extra-territorial adventures in the DRC, when he said Kagame was a “visionary leader” and that he “believed in him”.

There are a few reasons why Rwanda has become, and remained, the darling of the international community. One is their sophisticated public relations strategy. Aided by a top London PR firm, the country is quick to respond to criticism, and even quicker to plant positive stories that support the image it wants to project. International organisations that criticise Rwanda, even tangentially, are often invited to Kigali for top-level government discussions to hear the official line, along with an emotional trip to the genocide museum. Journalists are given free trips to Kigali where they are shown just what the government wants them to see, returning home to rave about how clean the capital is and the grace of their hosts.

Then there are the great strides the country has made in tackling socio-economic problems – a genuinely impressive achievement which has made Rwanda the poster-child for development aid for Africa. “Rwanda has come to symbolise what donor aid can do,” wrote David Smith in the Guardian. As such, donor countries, particularly Britain and the USA, are both financially and emotionally invested in the country. Speaking about Kagame’s latest denials of Rwandan involvement in the DRC, Smith commented: “Britain apparently believes him, or can’t bear to disbelieve, lest it suffer buyer’s remorse.”

Finally, there’s the guilt factor. The international community stood by during the Rwandan Genocide; in fact, the UN’s abandonment of its posts likely made things worse. This sense of shirked responsibility has dictated the international community’s involvement in Rwanda ever since, encouraged by Kagame and his government, who are never afraid to play the genocide card. “We all went through that awful searing experience and the sense of guilt that President Clinton expressed many times about the international community’s failure to help Rwanda in that moment of need,” said Tom Malinowski, a former state department staffer who now heads Human Rights Watch’s Washington office. “Unfortunately Kagame has played on that guilt over the years to mask additional crimes that frankly we should also feel a little bit guilty about not having confronted.”

Human rights groups have been among the few international observers to remain unconvinced by Kagame’s polished act. Human Rights Watch in particular has been consistently vocal about the need to address the fundamental abuses perpetrated by the Rwandan government, both at home and across its border with the DRC. But until recently, its constant flow of press releases, reports and calls for action have fallen on deaf ears.

The situation is a familiar one. Without going into the complexities—and the situation is very, very complex – Rwanda has been accused by a United Nations monitoring group of supporting a rebel militia in the DRC with arms and personnel. Kagame has furiously denied the charges, but the evidence is pretty convincing, and this time no one is buying into his denials. The United States has suspended $200,000 in military aid in light of the allegations—financially insignificant, perhaps, but a diplomatic punch to the gut for Rwanda’s government. Other donors followed suit, with the UK holding back $25-million, while Germany and the Netherlands have withdrawn €21-million and €5-million, respectively.

So what’s changed? Why is the West suddenly calling Kagame on his bluffs? It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing.

Partly, it must be because of the seriousness of the situation in the DRC. The last time Rwanda blatantly supported a rebel group against the central government, it spiralled into an eight-country war that killed hundreds of thousands.

Partly, it must be a consequence of familiarity with Kagame’s tactics; after hearing the same urbane arguments for years, diplomats are able to distinguish the bullshit and the bluster.

Partly, it must be thanks to the relentless campaigning of human rights organisations. It’s probably in bad taste to compare human rights activism to a practice that violates the Geneva Convention, but it is a little like Chinese water torture. Each press release is a little drop of water, meaningless by itself; but over time, all those drops create real pressure that makes them very difficult for diplomats and politicians to ignore.

Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that world opinion is slowly turning against Rwanda. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton might come to regret their effusive praise of Kagame and his government; and, in time, the international community might come to realize that their responsibilities in the present outweigh their historical guilt.