The African Leader Obama Shouldn’t Invite

David Himbara, Ph.D.

When President Obama holds an historic meeting with African leaders this week, one guest will be especially awkward: Rwanda’s increasingly authoritarian president, Paul Kagame. Unless the United States wants to wink at assassinating adversaries, stifling opposition and subverting neighboring nations, Kagame should be stricken from the guest list.

Since Kagame won a second seven-year term in 2010 with a reported 93 percent of the vote and an opposition cowed into submission, Rwanda has descended into despotism. This is a story I watched up close: Having served as a presidential aide and economic adviser, I resigned in 2010 before the election, after seeing Kagame become more dictatorial and sensing that much worse was on the way.

Sadly, my intuition was right. As Kagame once said of his political opponents, “Many of them tend to die.” Growing numbers of Kagame’s critics are dying, even in exile, in suspicious circumstances.

The death toll includes: Former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya, strangled in a hotel room in Johannesburg, South Africa, early this year. Andre Kagawa Rwisereka, deputy president of the opposition Democratic Green Party, decapitated and dumped in a river in Rwanda in 2010. Charles Ingabire, editor of a newspaper critical of Kagame, shot to death in Kampala, Uganda, in 2011. And Theogene Turatsinze, former director of the Rwandan Development Bank, whose body was found floating in a lake in Mozambique in 2012.

Many more critics have been arrested on flimsy charges, beaten by police or simply disappeared. Independent newspapers have been shut down. Opposition parties have been suppressed. Many Rwandans have gone into exile, while many more have been scared into silence.

Kagame counts some fabulously famous and powerful people among his friends—people like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Rick Warren. If those international elites truly value the welfare of Rwanda and its people, it is time they told Kagame to rein in the killing of his political opponents and respect human rights, or risk ruining his personal reputation and continued support for his country.

World leaders know something is wrong in Rwanda. Following the killing of Karegaya in Jonannesburg, South Africa expelled three Rwandan diplomats. Visiting Rwanda in 2011, Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, courageously declared: “Civil Society activists, journalists and political opponents of the government often fear organizing peacefully and speaking out… Some have simply disappeared.” In a report last year on Rwanda’s human rights record, the U.S. State Department documented the Rwandan government’s “targeting of political opponents and human rights advocates for harassment, arrest and abuse,” including “arbitrary or unlawful killings both inside and outside of the country, disappearance [and] torture.” And last October, the Obama administration reduced military aid to Rwanda because of Kagame’s support for the M23 rebel group, which abducts and recruits child soldiers to subvert the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But Kagame continues to sneer at world opinion, without paying much of a price. Earlier this year, after the State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the arrests and disappearance of Rwandans, Kagame declared, “We will continue to arrest more suspects and, if possible, shoot in broad daylight those who intend to destabilize our country.”

Why haven’t the United States and other leading nations taken stronger steps against Kagame’s repressive regime?

First, the world remembers Rwanda’s ruinous civil war in 1990 and the horrific genocide in 1994, and regrets not having saved the hundreds of thousands who died. To put it bluntly, “genocide guilt” works in Kagame’s favor.

Second, Kagame has sent Rwandan soldiers on missions to stabilize other African countries. “Peacekeeper gratitude” is another of his calling cards.

Third, early in his rule, Kagame did much to restore order, rebuild the economy and regain the respect of world leaders—so much so that President Bill Clinton hailed him in 1998 as one of a “new breed of Africa leaders.”

Fourth, global elites find Kagame’s personal style reassuring. Presenting himself as more technocrat than thug and mouthing the latest management theories, he encourages leaders from government, business and academia to relate to him as a CEO, not a strongman.

Once, I saw him the same way. When Kagame first recruited me in 2000 from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, where I was a professor, he asked me to lead a session at his annual retreat for leaders from government and business. Saying that he was impressed by my presentation, he asked me to help him reform the economy.

Together with my team, we identified the indicators by which international economists evaluate countries’ business environments. Then, we set out methodically to improve Rwanda’s rating in the World Bank’s Doing Business report—and we did, modernizing laws and regulations, streamlining processes and cutting red tape. We leapt from 146th to 70th out of 200 countries. Currently, Rwanda stands at 32nd.

But the closer Kagame got to the election in 2010, the worse he became—the more he would overstate, the more he wanted to exaggerate. He was determined to turn Rwanda into the Singapore of Africa.

It’s an alluring model in many respects, but no country can remain an attractive place to live, work or do business when its inhabitants fear being arrested or assassinated simply for speaking their minds.

President Obama has spoken eloquently for human rights. Now is the time for him to tell President Kagame: You can’t be a despot in your home country and an honored guest at the White House.

David Himbara

David Himbara is a former senior aide and economic adviser to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

Source: Politico Magazine