Who made a mess of modern Rwanda?

ESSAY: Western leaders and human rights groups are now slating Paul Kagame’s authoritarianism. Yet they nurtured and facilitated it for years.

Barrie Collins

Topics Politics

Paul Kagame’s return to office after winning Rwanda’s presidential elections on 9 August has been met with unprecedented criticism in the mainstream Western media.

There’s certainly much to criticise him for. For a start, any presidential candidate who referred to ethnicity during the elections was automatically disqualified, on the grounds that they were promoting ‘divisionism’. An all-embracing law prohibiting ‘genocide ideology’ was used to knock prominent opposition figure Victoire Ingabire out of the race.

In June, former army chief Faustin Nyamwasa was shot and wounded in South Africa. Five days later, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a newspaper journalist in Kigali, was shot dead after publishing an online article linking Rwandan intelligence to the SA attack. In July, the partly decapitated body of André Rwisereke, vice-president of the Democratic Green Party, was found in a wetland. Soon after, Jwani Mwaikusa, a Tanzanian lawyer who defended a prominent Hutu at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was murdered.

To no one’s surprise, Kagame came out with 93 per cent of the votes cast. And considering that the three so-called opposition parties were in fact drawn from the ruling coalition, and received five per cent, one per cent and 0.4 per cent of the votes cast, this was clearly not a meaningful democratic mandate for Kagame.

But there’s nothing new in this. In the presidential elections of 2003, Kagame took 95 per cent of votes cast. In last September’s parliamentary elections, his party won 92 per cent. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘evidence collected by the European Union and Rwandan monitors suggested that the government actually inflated the percentage of opposition votes so as to avoid the appearance of an embarrassing Soviet-style acclamation’.

What is new is the degree of criticism of Kagame in the Western media and by Western human rights groups. What this criticism reveals is that the Western mythology about Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which he led to war and power in Rwanda in the 1990s, has finally had its day and is now unravelling. And many of Kagame’s erstwhile cheerleaders are now cynically repositioning themselves as his critics.

Myths of Rwanda

The mythology has it that the RPF was driven to war in the early 1990s in order to put an end to oppressive rule in Rwanda that victimised the Tutsi ethnic group. Kagame is said to have made possible the return from exile of Tutsi refugees and to have established an honest government that has worked hard to overcome ethnic division. For his part, the incumbent president, Juvénal Habyarimana (in power from 1973 to 1994), is portrayed as a sinister, Machiavellian figure who implemented reforms only to please Western donors while operating a covert Mafia-style organisation dubbed the Akazu, which was the power behind the throne, fixing corrupt deals and organising death squads. Some claim Habyarimana was subordinate to the Akazu and manipulated by them. Either way, the established Western line is that the Habyarimana government was the Devil, while Kagame and the RPF had Right on their side.

In truth, Habyarimana was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, making moves towards ethnic reconciliation and democratic reform. The RPF’s invasion of Rwanda from Uganda in October 1990 was timed to scuttle preparations already underway to accommodate returning Tutsi refugees. The RPF was determined that refugee return would be conducted on its terms and under its control. Despite the rapidly deteriorating security situation brought about by the RPF’s war, Habyarimana pressed ahead with reforms that resulted in a free press and a democratic constitution written into law in June 1992. The constitution specifically outlawed discrimination on ethnic grounds.

One might imagine that Western governments – in particular the US, which was loudly trumpeting its promotion of human rights and democracy at the time – would have applauded Habyarimana’s moves and exposed the RPF for what it was: an army backed by Uganda bent on seizing power in Rwanda. As an almost exclusively Tutsi organisation driving the Hutu majority of Rwanda off their land and into internal displacement camps, the RPF was generating fear and hatred across the ethnic divide – which led eventually to the calamity of 1994 in which Hutus killed thousands and thousands of Tutsis.

In fact, Kagame was able to wage his war and violate the peace negotiations underway at Arusha with impunity precisely as a result of discreet Western backing, primarily from the US, Belgium and Britain. Legitimacy was also provided by human rights organisations, who set about demonising Habyarimana with the zeal of modern-day crusaders.

Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch (HRW) now says that, ‘ironically, it is the genocide that provided the [Kagame] government with a cover for repression’. But an even greater irony is that Roth’s own organisation’s opportunism with regard to the use of the word genocide helped Kagame to justify his war in the first place, and to construct a mythology about Rwanda that has enabled his Western backers to find ways of excusing his authoritarianism.

Providing Kagame with moral ammunition

Under the direction of the late Alison Des Forges, HRW was the key contributor to the 1993 report of the International Commission of Inquiry (ICI) into Human Rights Violations in Rwanda. This blatantly one-sided tract accused the Habyarimana government of conducting systematic massacres of Tutsis and made no attempt to investigate numerous allegations of atrocities committed by Kagame’s RPF. The report was suspiciously well-timed to distract attention from the misery caused by the RPF’s offensive of February 1993, which resulted in a large number of civilian casualties.

The report came close to accusing Habyarimana’s government of committing genocide, but it held back. However, the spindoctors for the report used the word genocide in their press release, giving rise to an international storm about Habyarimana’s allegedly evil government and thereby providing Kagame with some much-needed cover and moral ammunition. Not surprisingly, Kagame returned unrepentant from the battlefield to the resumed Arusha talks where he fulminated about the ‘genocide’ being committed in Kigali, winning the sympathy of British diplomatic observers in the process (1).

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights had the opportunity to conduct a more balanced report on civilian killings in Rwanda on his fact-finding mission a few months later in 1993. But he decided instead to adopt the ICI report, and went one step further by officially declaring that the violations against Tutsi civilians satisfied the conditions of paragraphs (a) and (b) of Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (2).

Secure in the knowledge of backing from Western powers, and endowed with the moral support of key Western human rights agents and much of the Western media, Kagame had the confidence to press on with his military ambitions when faced with his greatest obstacle: the threat of the ballot box. While his RPF had emerged as the ‘winner’ of the peace agreement known as the Arusha Accords, which placed it in a position of dominance in the unified army of Rwanda, it was faced with the certain prospect of being exposed as a minority party in the elections due to take place in Rwanda after Arusha.

For Kagame, the elections had to be avoided at all costs. A tried and tested means of doing so already presented itself: incite ethnic killings that Western observers would attribute to Hutu extremists, then use the evidence of killings to justify resuming the war in the name of defending civilian victims against the extremists, and against genocide.

The RPF’s Western-backed war

The RPF embarked on a programme of renewed military preparations and caused endless delays in the formation of the Arusha-agreed Broad-Based Transitional Government. The political isolation of Habyarimana that had resulted from the Arusha Accords, the factional behaviour of the coalition government of the day, economic collapse and escalating ethnic tensions all resulted in the collapse of the government’s authority and state institutions becoming dysfunctional shells.

Paradoxically, the beleaguered Habyarimana saw his popularity rise amongst ordinary Hutus during this period, mainly because of his show of support for those enduring the hellish conditions of the displacement camps. Observers had no doubt who would win the expected elections: Habyarimana, not the RPF. And the grave security threat posed by the anarchy into which Rwanda was sliding at a time of unprecedented ethnic polarisation was obvious to all, including American intelligence. At the end of January 1994, a CIA study concluded that if conflict were to resume in Rwanda, up to half a million lives would be lost (3).

This scenario turned into grim reality shortly afterwards. President Habyarimana’s plane was blown out of the sky in a ground-to-air missile attack on 6 April 1994. The news of his death proved the final provocation that pushed Rwanda over the edge. Hutu thugs went door-to-door after their scapegoated targets: hapless Tutsi civilians. The now leaderless presidential guards went after political figures associated with the RPF. For its part, the RPF ordered its units to move from its base in Mulindi immediately upon receiving confirmation of the president’s death. In Kigali, RPF forces killed prominent government figures. Claiming that a genocide was underway, the RPF resumed the war.

Kagame’s Western backers broadcast the RPF line that the president’s plane was brought down by Hutu extremists as a signal to start implementing their well-prepared conspiracy to annihilate Rwanda’s Tutsi population. While there is no doubt that Tutsi civilians were specifically targeted and killed in vast numbers in 1994, finding evidence for such a conspiracy, and for the idea that the killings were organised, directed and controlled by figures in authority, has proved to be problematic to say the least. In subsequent years, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has failed to demonstrate that there was ever such an organised conspiracy. Théoniste Bagosora, whom everyone seemed to know was the chief architect of the conspiracy, was found not guilty on this specific count due to lack of evidence.

Much other ‘proof’ of the organised and premeditated character of the killings, mostly provided by HRW’s Des Forges, in a book she authored and in her numerous appearances as an expert witness for the ICTR prosecution, has been discredited. These include the story of machete imports; the so-called genocide fax which purported to show a plan for a thousand Tutsis to be killed every 20 minutes; Bagasora’s notebook entry, which supposedly identified all Tutsis as the enemy, and so on.

Furthermore, it is now well-known that when the UN’s own investigators found evidence pointing to the RPF as the shooters-down of Habyarimana’s plane, not Hutu extremists, there was immediate intervention to ensure that the investigation was terminated. The subject was declared off limits at the ICTR, in violation of its mandate, and chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte was relieved of her position after stating her intention to turn the spotlight on to the RPF. Instead of establishing the truth behind the war and the massacres of 1994, the tribunal has granted impunity to Kagame and the RPF.

Glossing over RPF massacres

Kagame launched the deadliest phase of his war in order to prevent elections from taking place and to seize power. While he and the RPF were of course not responsible for the actions of the Hutu militia in 1994, they are primarily responsible for creating the conditions that made mass slaughter possible. By seizing power, the RPF put an end to the militias’ killings of Tutsis, but they did not put an end to their own killings.

On 15 April 1995, the Rwandan military, now under Kagame, encircled the internal displacement camp at Kibeho, which was made up of Hutu refugees. Advisers warned the US embassy that the military was on the verge of committing a large-scale massacre. According to Tom Odom, the embassy’s military attaché, ‘no one, including us in the embassy, could offer any possible solution other than what was about to unfold’ (4). What unfolded was the worst single massacre Rwanda has endured to date. As the displaced population stood, or fled, in pouring rain, they were fired upon for 48 hours. The death toll was in the thousands. Odom records this conversation with US ambassador David Rawson, who expressed his shock at what he had witnessed by uttering:

‘[T]hey’re killers! They have driven those people to desperation’, he exclaimed before I cut him off. ‘No they didn’t, David! Those people were desperate people when they went into that camp. Many of them were hip-deep in the genocide. This was inevitable. We just have to sort out the results.’ (5)

When it became clear that the US was willing to ‘sort out the results’ of an atrocity on this scale, Kagame had no qualms about meting out the same treatment to remaining refugees in Zaire. Large-scale massacres, notably at Mugunga and Tingi-Tingi camps, followed. Kagame went on to play a key role in two wars in what became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The death toll under his command has far exceeded that of Tutsi civilians at the hands of the Hutu militia.

What’s more, virtually every able-bodied Hutu male who survived the war and the massacres in the refugee camps, and who then returned to Rwanda, was thrown into prison as a genocide suspect. Carina Tertsakian, who has covered events in Rwanda extensively for Amnesty International and is presently HRW’s representative in Rwanda, has written an extraordinary book about Rwanda’s prison life. Prisoners are forced to stand for hours on end in overcrowded and filthy enclosures. Many have had their feet amputated as a result of gangrene. Prisoners too weak or sick to move have died where they lay. Tertsakian has revealed that between September 1994 and May 1995, 13 per cent of the prison population had died as a result of overcrowding, a situation ‘unparalleled in any part of the world’ (6).

So why was Kagame revered for so long by Western leaders? Tony Blair described him as a ‘visionary leader’. Bill Clinton handed him a global citizenship award just last year for ‘freeing people’s minds’. Barack Obama’s deputy ambassador to Rwanda stated that ‘Rwandans are lucky to have a visionary leader in President Paul Kagame, whose ideas are simply admirable’.

Washington’s ‘African new order’ unravels

To begin with, the US supported the RPF in order to consolidate President Yoweri Museveni’s rule in Uganda, where RPF members had played a key rule in his military takeover. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Washington was replacing its former Cold War clients in Africa with those that it termed ‘Africa’s New Generation Leaders’. Kagame joined the club following the coming to power of Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. All three leaders shot their way to power with US support and benefited from biased human rights coverage that helped to legitimise their rule. And having harnessed the human rights discourse to install these regimes, Washington subsequently deprioritised human rights, saying little about the authoritarianism of these new leaders.

In a speech to the African Union in Addis Ababa in 1997, then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright praised Africa’s ‘New Generation Leaders’. They ‘sometimes resorted to tactics of which Americans might disapprove, but their circumstances left them little choice’, she said. According to her biographer Thomas Lippman, Albright had concluded that the new leaders ‘were not interested in hearing lectures from Washington about human rights’. She made ‘an effort to treat them as equals, tolerating if not approving of certain counterinsurgency and crowd-control tactics that would have outraged human rights purists, and avoiding putting pressure on leaders such as Museveni and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi to hold elections and ensure political openness’ (7).

Moreover, Washington’s willingness to promote Kagame’s offensives in Rwanda as a means of ‘ending the genocide in Kigali’ found a resonance within an intellectual current across the Western world – a current which rapidly took on a life of its own. The debasement of genocide as a tool for legitimising newly anointed leaders may have served Washington and its Western allies well in forging a new order in Central Africa that appeared ‘ethical’ in contrast to the ways in which the West had supported African dictators during the Cold War – but it has also become a trap. The official version of Rwanda’s genocide has acquired the status of a sacred text and, thanks to the efforts of the ICTR, has also acquired the authority of international law. But as Kagame’s authoritarianism alienates more and more of his own circle, turning them into dissidents, and as critical voices within an increasingly disloyal US administration grow louder, so the finer details of the ways in which the story of the Rwandan genocide was constructed will continue to leak into the public domain.

The undoing of the moral parable of the Rwandan genocide could well prove disastrous for US foreign policy. The Obama administration may have calculated that it will have to continue suppressing inconvenient truths about Rwanda while at the same time lecturing Kagame about democracy. The US did not congratulate him on his victory on 9 August. It’s National Security Council representative stated that ‘We have expressed our concerns to the government of Rwanda, and we hope the leadership will take steps towards more democratic governance, increased respect for minority and opposition views, and continued peace’. On the other hand, the human rights agencies which also did a great deal to legitimise Kagame’s warmongering and anti-democratic authoritarianism may have less difficulty than Washington in dropping their baggage and changing tack in this tragic African arena.

Whatever happens next, it is clear that the official version of the Rwandan genocide is unravelling. The Clintons, Blair and the rest of Kagame’s Western cheerleaders will have some explaining to do.

Barrie Collins is a writer on African affairs and author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question published by Sheffield Hallam University Press. This article is drawn from his PhD thesis The Rwandan War 1990-1994: Interrogating the Dominant Narrative, University of London, 2009.

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Topics Politics


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