Bill Clinton has called him one of “the greatest leaders of our time.”
Tony Blair named him a “visionary” and Harvard and Yale both
invited him to give talks, during which he addressed the issues of
reconciliation and the western perception of his leadership. The
hypocritical stance of the west is nothing new to African nations,
urging democracy with one hand they prop up and praise dictators
with the other. Of course, in this case, it is not only the west that is to
blame. Our own people stand in awe of what Kagame has
accomplished in just a few short years. Many bloggers, activists and
leaders have praised Kagame for his record on development, his clean-
city initiatives and his provision of education. At first glance you can
see why: the streets of the Kigali are clean, free of the litter of plastic
bags, cans, and other rubbish that characterizes many cities around
Africa. Efficiency is the name of the game, with corruption and crime
at an all-time low and beautiful hotels and housing springing up in
And yet, there’s a dark cloud that hangs over Rwanda’s success. It is a
sinister cloud, one that should make us think twice before heaping
praise upon the so-called ‘success story’ of Africa. The cost at which it
comes is huge, a cost that is conveniently not mentioned by the west’s
aid organizations, including NGO such as the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation and Bono’s ONE foundation. Behind it all, playing the
NGOs, media and government organizations off against each other is
the master puppeteer himself, Paul Kagame. Kagame is famous for his
post-genocide reconciliation measures, and here we must allot to him
the credit he is due. In the space of a mere 23 years Kagame has pulled
Rwanda back from one of the most despicable acts of genocide in the
history of the world. After the genocide in 1994, reconciliation seemed
all but impossible. How could a country recover from such a
devastating tragedy, with the deeply entrenched divisions that it had?
So, for this achievement, I salute Kagame and congratulate him on his
unprecedented success. Leave it here however… and we are left with
only half of the story, half of the truth.
We must halt our praises of Kagame for just a moment and examine
the dark secret behind his success. 23 years on from the genocide
Rwanda has yet to experience a transition of government. The word
‘democracy’ means nothing in a nation where the only leader that
post-genocide children have ever known has been Paul Kagame-the
man with the iron fist. It is almost eerie, as you speak to Rwandans,
that there is not a single person who has a single bad thing to say
about him. There is no criticism, only worshipful praise, for the man
that the press tells them they owe their prosperity to. Kagame has
played the role of ‘benign dictator’ to its absolute max using his
success and the country’s economic growth to justify the horrific
abuses of human rights that his people have to suffer under him.
Opposition politics are non-existent and critical journalism is nowhere
to be found. Every politician who has made any meaningful attempt to
run against Kagame has either mysteriously ‘disappeared’ or been
arrested on false pretences. Kagame has been quietly brilliant in the
way he has sown such a deep fear of reprisal in his people that the vast
majority of the population refuse to utter anything but praise towards
the man they fear so greatly.
When confronting Kagame supporters, there are two main arguments
that I come up against consistently:
1. Kagame doesn’t have an opposition because nobody opposes him;
his people love him and they want him as their president.
2. I’ve been to Rwanda, I’ve seen how successful he has been… and
I’ve spoken to the people. They all love him.
I’ll tackle these separately, #1:
This is patently false. One of the beauties of Kagame’s narrative is that
it’s very easy to “prove”. Rwandan papers espouse his exceptional
leadership and the social media personalities croon over his success.
They call him “father” and heap unconditional praises upon him. The
official ‘opposition’ parties never actually oppose Kagame, they back
him and do not field candidates to challenge him in elections.
To an outside observer it seems like the ultimate success story; a
leader that truly holds the unanimous support of all his people. Stop
there, I beg you, and scratch away the chrome veneer of this story, and
you start to expose something ugly underneath. A man who refused to
do business with Kagame’s people dies mysteriously in a car accident.
His daughter, political activist Diane Rwigara) decides that she has
had enough of the regime’s brutality and starts to speak out against
the regime, stating her intent to run against Kagame. Before long she
receives multiple threats that end in the eventual arrest of her and her
mother. Another one of Kagame’s political enemies is silenced by the
deaf bars of his dark prisons. This story is not unique; Kagame’s
penchant for ridding himself of uncomfortable opposition is becoming
something of a tradition. There is story after story of Kagame abusing
his power to arrest or eradicate those who threaten his ‘ideal Rwanda’
in which he is the God-king, the self-declared saviour of the nation.
For example- Patrick Karegeya, former spy chief-turned critic of
Kagame was found dead in his hotel room in South Africa. We can
conclude that Kagame is not quite as loved as people believe he is. The
truth is he rules by fear and intimidation.
This point obviously ties in very closely with the previous one, in
which I concluded that Kagame rules by fear and intimidation, not
because of undying loyalty from an adoring fan-base of Rwandan
citizens. Constantly when I talk to people about this issue, they bristle
and give me some quote along the line of ‘I’ve been there’ or ‘I know
someone who’s been there’ and, because I have not, people think they
have seen the real Rwanda and I am just judging from a distance.
The reason they never heard anyone speak against Kagame, and only
see adoration and love for the leader is simple: fear. This is Kagame’s
greatest tool of control. People are far too scared to speak their minds.
On the odd occasion where somebody has spoken their minds, they
have been dealt with severely, thus re-enforcing the fear and
intimidation that Kagame rules by. So, in many ways, visiting Rwanda
as a tourist or a special guest is one of the least reliable ways to get an
accurate representation of the true opinion of the people.
I must add a disclaimer now: I do not claim to have some special
intuition into the minds and hearts of Rwanda’s citizens. I do not
know them personally, and I do not live there or fully understand their
political scene. However, I object viscerally to the attitude of Kagame’s
‘worshipers’. If Kagame is so confident in his position, why doesn’t he
host a truly free and fair election where he allows any and all who wish
it to run against him with no restrictions, no intimidation and no
interference from state agents. Then we can see whether he is truly the
choice of the people… or whether he’s really just a brutal dictator
playing a spectacular and brutal game.
It is time we, as Africans, and the international community as a whole
stop condoning dictatorships and brutal oppression. Political, press
and speech freedom are all vital to a truly functioning democracy. I for
one condemn the Kagame regime, and as an African I express my
deepest concern at the way Rwandan citizens are treated by the people
who are sworn to protect them. It’s up to you to make your own
decision, but I implore you to examine the facts before singing the
praises of a man who could be one of the strongest opponents to
democracy in Africa. We have a responsibility, as Africans, to be
united in our condemnation of injustice and fear, history will not be
kind to us if we neglect doing so now.