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The Kagame doctrine

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is especially strident in rejecting Western claims to democratic ethos. As political leaders go, Kagame has to have one of the most checkered resumes. Before his presidency, Rwanda had experienced recurrent ethnic clashes between the majority Hutu and the politically dominant minority Tutsi. Himself a Tutsi, he came to power through an insurgency that killed the Hutu President, Juvenal Habyarimana, and sacked his government. Yet, he has managed to bring tenuous peace and progress to the formerly moribund country.

But how Kagame attained this feat has been an issue. To begin with, he came to power in 1994 in the wake of one of the worst pogroms in the modern era. Though his insurgent soldiers didn’t carry out the pogrom, they played a role in triggering it. With political tensions simmering, his soldiers apparently shot down President Habyarimana’s plane as it approached to land in Kigali, the capital city. This triggered the bloodletting by the Hutu against the Tutsi. By the time Kagame’s rebels fought their way into Kigali, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi had been killed.

In a politically astute gesture, Kagame installed a Hutu associate, Pasteur Bizimungu, president while he took the title of vice president.

In reality though, it was Kagame who wielded the power. About six years later, Bizimungu resigned to protest the stacking of the cabinet with the Tutsi. Kagame formally ascended to the post he had held all along for practical purposes. Two years later Bizimungu was arrested, tried, and imprisoned supposedly for plotting to overthrow the government. He was subsequently pardoned and released after seeking Kagame’s clemency.

Such has been the fate of Kagame’s opponents and critics. “Since he took the reins of this small east African country after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, he has become increasingly authoritarian, cracking down on freedom of expression and making it impossible for political opponents to organize,” the New York Tinies editorialized on January 11,2016.

And that’s the more benign forms of repression. Kagame’s government hunted down even dissidents who went on self-exile. In February 2010, Kayumba Nyamwasa, the former chief of staff of the army and a founding member of the opposition Rwanda National Congress, fled to South Africa. Barely four months later, he was shot and seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. Then in March 2014 armed men invaded his residence in Johannesburg. He was not at home— purposefully or fortuitously.

Kagame’s former intelligence officer Patrick Karegeya wasn’t so lucky. Karegeya fled to South Africa in 2006, after falling out with Kagame. On New Year’s Day in 2014, he was found strangled in a hotel room in Johannesburg where he had gone to meet a Rwandan businessman.

Following the second attempt on Nyamwasa’s life, the South African government expelled three Rwandan diplomats and a Burundian envoy, whom the government said it had linked to the attacks. The government also issued a public warning to Rwanda to cease the assassination campaign.

According to a report on March 7, 2014, the assassination campaign was worldwide. “Rwandan dissidents in several Western countries, including the UK and US, say local security agents have warned them of plots to kill them,” the BBC reports. While denying specific cases of assassination and attempts, Kagame and his aides vowed in public statements that dissidents were traitors and would be dealt with as such.

What raised the most concern about Kagame’s human rights record was the fate of Rwandans who fled the country as Kagame’s insurgents took power. According to a United Nations report in October 2010,

Contention not Confucian 63 the government’s soldiers massacred tens of thousands of Hutu refugees in neighboring Congo and buried them in shallow graves.

In Rwanda itself, there is a parallel, though more benign, ruthlessness in handling offenders. As the New York Times sums it up in an article in its May 1, 2010, issue:

Nearly 900 beggars, homeless people and suspected petty thieves, including dozens of children, have recently been rounded up from the nation’s neatly swept streets and sent — without trial or a court appearance — to [Iwawa Island a] little-known outpost. They will spend up to three years here being ‘rehabilitated,’ learning skills like bricklaying, hairdressing and motorcycle maintenance.

Such spartan and peremptory discipline has had its benefits, as The Times also summed up in the report:

Under President Paul Kagame, this country, which exploded in ethnic bloodshed [in 1994], is now one of the safest, cleanest and least corrupt nations on the continent. The capital, Kigali, is not ringed by sprawling slums, and carjackings — a deadly problem in many African cities — are virtually unheard of here. The roads are smoothly paved; there is national health insurance; neighborhoods hold monthly cleanups; the computer network is among the best in the region; and the public fountains are full of water, not weeds. All of this has been accomplished in one of the world’s poorest countries.

To many Rwandans then, Kagame is a hero. A referendum was held in December 2015 on whether to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term, after 17 years in office. According to the Rwandan electoral commission, 98 percent of voters voted in favor. In the presidential election that followed about two years later, in August 2017, 99 percent of the voters voted for Kagame.

But much of that is actually window dressing. With the violent suppression and marginalization of the opposition, it is hard to tell how many Rwandans truly wanted to keep Kagame in power. Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch, told Bloomberg news in April 2015, that is, before the referendum: “It’s actually very, very difficult for opposition parties to function in a meaningful way. In reality, the situation in Rwanda cannot be described as democracy in the true sense of the term.” In effect, Kagame has ruled Rwanda very much by the principles of China’s Document 9, sans the communist ideology.

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