Who really made a mess of Rwanda?
It is a bit rich for Western governments and NGOs to condemn Paul Kagame, seeing as they helped give birth to his anti-genocidal autocracy.
For a long time, Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and current president of Rwanda, was presented as the victim-cum-hero of the vicious civil war which gripped that tiny African state in the early to mid-1990s. A ‘visionary leader’ was how ex-British prime minister Tony Blair described him in 2009. That same year, ex-US president Bill Clinton was no less hyperbolic: Kagame was ‘one of the greatest leaders of our time’, he said.
How times have changed. The scales, it seems, have fallen from Western eyes. First, laurelled NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International began issuing critical reports of human rights abuses as Kagame, with his opponents either in prison or decapitated, marched to an election win in 2010 with 93 per cent of the vote. And now, Kagame’s biggest supporters, the governments of the US and the UK, have also started to look more than a little askance at the antics of the Rwandan government.
In fact, the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany have gone further than simply criticising Kagame’s regime; they have cut off, or withheld, millions of pounds worth of aid. The reason for this lies ostensibly with a confidential 44-page United Nations report which was circulated among members of the UN Security Council back in June. Although not made public, the contents of the report detailed evidence of what many have long suspected: the Rwandan government has been supplying mainly Tutsi rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo with weapons, ammunitions and soldiers.
That the Rwandan government, itself Tutsi-dominated, is getting stuck into the affairs of its near neighbour is hardly a surprise. It has been militarily embroiled in Congolese affairs ever since RPF troops chased Rwandan Hutu rebels into what was then Zaire in the mid-1990s. Rwanda has been fighting proxy battles in what was to become the DRC ever since. Still, for Kagame’s powerful Western backers, hard evidence of the Rwandan government’s involvement in a bloody conflict in central Africa has provided them with what looks like an opportunity openly to distance themselves from Kagame’s regime – a regime they had supported for over 15 years.
Because that is certainly what the US and friends have done: distanced themselves. The US State Department’s decision to cut $200,000 in military funding for Rwanda is not financially significant; but it is symbolic. It suggests that Kagame will no longer be treated with what has looked like impunity. Indeed, US war crimes chief Stephen Rapp declared that Rwanda’s leaders could be tried by the International Criminal Court for aiding and abetting war crimes in a neighbouring country, the very same charge on which Charles Taylor, the ex-president of Liberia, was recently convicted.
For the Western NGO-cracy, the criticism of Kagame’s government by the US and the UK has been welcomed as a necessary reckoning with the autocratic reality of modern-day Rwanda. While acknowledging the massacres of hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly Rwandan Tutsis, in 1994, Tom Malinowski, a former member of President Clinton’s national security staff and now director of Human Rights Watch, was in no doubt that the State Department criticism of Kagame was long overdue: ‘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 [the 1994 massacre of Rwandan Tutsis]. 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.’ A columnist for the UK Guardian is similarly pleased that at last the West is facing up the crimes of the Rwandan government: ‘In decades past, the West has been criticised for applying selective vision to the sins of leaders such as [Robert] Mugabe and Idi Amin until late in the day. America, it seems, is reluctantly removing the scales from its eyes regarding Paul Kagame. For Washington it may merely represent the end of a beautiful friendship; for London, it will feel more like a broken heart.’
But there’s something very troubling about the recent attacks from NGOs and now Western governments on Kagame’s regime. It is not that Kagame’s regime is not dictatorial and authoritarian – there is little doubt that it is. Under Kagame, Rwanda has been a country in which journalists criticising the government can be done for defamation and in which anyone deemed to be promoting ‘divisionism’ or some strain of ‘genocide ideology’ (the vagueness of the terms is to the authorities’ advantage) can be imprisoned – which was the fate that befell the leader of the opposition Ideal Social Party (PS-Imberakuri), Bernard Ntaganda, in February 2011. Nor is the troubling thing about the new rush to condemn Rwanda simply the hypocrisy of powerful Western states, which have been all too happy to meddle in the affairs of other countries for centuries, but which are now eager to condemn the Rwandan government for doing likewise.
No, what sticks in the craw about the likes of the US and the UK distancing themselves from Kagame’s Rwanda, and NGOs cheering them as they do so, is that both Western government and non-government bodies were directly involved in Kagame’s rise to power. In fact, if it wasn’t for Western involvement in Rwanda in the early 1990s, it is fair to say that Kagame would not be in the position he is now.
As the author Barrie Collins has argued on spiked, the key not only to Kagame’s rise but also to his maintenance of power lies in the determination of NGOs and the UN to paint a messy, brutal civil conflict in the early 1990s as a genocidal act on the part of the Rwandan Hutus, led by then president Juvénal Habyarimana, against Rwandan Tutsis. Human Rights Watch, now at the vanguard of anti-Kagame sentiment, played a central role in this regard. As the key contributor to the 1993 report of the International Commission of Inquiry, HRW accused Habyarimana of conducting systematic massacres of Tutsis while ignoring similarly brutal acts on the part of Kagame’s RPF, which was had invaded Rwanda from neighbours Uganda in 1990. While the 1993 ICI report didn’t use the word genocide, the accompanying press release did, prompting an international storm. And it was at this point that Kagame himself, during what were then meant to be peace negotiations with Habyarimana, started to use the term genocide to describe his opponent’s actions.
Following this storm of news coverage, the UN commissioned its own report. But rather than look at the messy but sobering reality of a civil war, the UN merely ramped up the black-and-white rhetoric. The violations against the Tutsi civilians, the UN rapporteur stated, satisfied the conditions of paragraphs (a) and (b) of Article II on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
With this, a virtual UN sanction, the RPF and Kagame had their moral authority, their Western-backed justification for seeking power in Rwanda. They were the victims of a genocidal regime, and they were also to be guardians against any future genocide. But what the RPF were not was popular enough to win any sort of election in a divided country. Hence, as Collins argues, the RPF decided to reignite the conflict by allegedly shooting down Habyarimana’s plane in 1994, and then reaping the moral benefits of the horrific carnage that followed. And, as many will recall, it was truly horrific, as Hutu militias slaughtered thousands upon thousands of Tutsis, whether affiliated with the RPF or not.
That the RPF, when Kagame assumed control of the Rwandan military in 1995, was to mete out its own massacres, including a two-day long mass execution at a Hutu ‘internal displacement camp’ at Kibeho, has largely been glossed over. The reason is clear enough: such acts did not fit into the Western-supported narrative that what happened in Rwanda was a tale of good versus evil, a battle between those intent on committing genocide and those who were to be their vicitims, of homicidal Hutus versus terrorised Tutsis.
Indeed, since the mid-1990s, a great deal of international energy has been expended on maintaining the Rwanda genocide narrative. Countless reports have been issued, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established in 1994, is still ongoing. All this with the aim of ensuring that Habyarimana’s Hutu forces continue to be understood as almost solely responsible for what happened in Rwanda during the 1990s, including, rather dubiously, the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane. Likewise, Kagame’s authority, not to mention the Western support he has hitherto enjoyed, has rested on his role as the ender of genocide, the anti-genocidal balm upon a divided country. It is no coincidence that in 2003, the year Kagame officially became Rwanda’s president, the crime of ‘genocide ideology’was made a central pillar of the new Rwandan constitution. Six years later, in a grisly indication of the extent to which the idea of genocide has shored up Kagame’s authority, it was revealed that of the 60,000 inmates incarcerated at Rwandan’s prisons, nearly two thirds were guilty of the crime of ‘genocide ideology’. If you are not with Kagame, it seems, you are in favour of genocide.
And here we come to the problem for those who for so long have clung to the genocide narrative. The recent history of Rwanda was never a moral parable, no matter how desperately Western observers and Kagame wanted to depict it as such. As was bound to become apparent, despite the best efforts of the likes of Blair or Clinton to believe otherwise, Kagame’s hands are no cleaner than that of his erstwhile opponents. Moreover, as Rwanda, which remains riven with political tensions, becomes increasingly autocratic, so Kagame’s regime generates an increasing number of dissidents willing to spill the beans.
And this is why a group such as Human Rights Watch or the governments of the UK or the US have begun determinedly to distance themselves from the Kagame government which, over 15 years ago, they helped to create. As the moral parable of Rwanda, resting on so many half truths, unravels, so its one-time supporters try to disentangle themselves. What we are witnessing now, with the cessation of Western aid and the rise of NGO criticisms, is an attempt to present the mess that is Rwanda as the fault of Kagame himself. He is simply not a very good man, runs the emerging new narrative, dirtying his hands, as it were, in the civil conflict of another country. The West is merely, as the Guardian put it, facing up to the ‘sins of [African] leaders’.
And with Western states and organisations now disavowing their own role in the creation of a problematic regime founded upon a genocide narrative, they can set about posing as Rwanda’s solution. ‘Loosening the autocrat’s reins and helping his nation avoid another violent explosion is a message that only Rwanda’s international supporters can deliver to President Kagame’, writes a commentator in the New York Times: ‘Foreign governments and individuals alike must push for easing or removing restrictions on the press, politics, civil society, housing, street vending and much more.’ So there you have it, the answer to the mess that Western meddling helped to create is… more Western meddling.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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