Home The Washington Diplomat August 2010 Rwanda’s Paul Kagame: Visionary or Tyrant?

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame: Visionary or Tyrant?

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame: Visionary or Tyrant?

KIGALI, Rwanda — For a land just 16 years removed from genocide, it’s hard not to be impressed by a visit to the Rwandan capital.



To travelers accustomed to the hectic and dingy African metropolis, this city perched on a series of hillsides is an oasis of order and cleanliness. In Kigali, roads are smooth and lined with palm trees, public spaces spotless, and crime rates among the lowest on the continent. Across town, construction is booming — with yellow cranes giving rise to modern office buildings, McMansion-style houses sprouting from a growing fringe of sub-divisions, and upscale restaurants opening on an almost weekly basis. Though the majority of Rwanda’s 10 million citizens will never see the glitz of city life, poverty has fallen in the countryside thanks to the creation of agricultural cooperatives, increased use of fertilizers, near universal health insurance, and a government program that aims to provide a cow for every rural household.

Above all, in a country where genocide survivors often live next door to their families’ killers, Rwanda has managed to avoid the return of systematic violence.

For Rwandans who’ve seen both the deepest form of national despair and its most unlikely revival, their country’s rebirth can be traced back to one man: Paul Kagame, their gaunt, spectacled president.

To his supporters, the 52-year-old Kagame, who became president in 2000, is a new breed of African strongman — a leader who eschews personal gain for the sake of national progress. Schooled in conflict, Kagame grew up in Uganda where his family, like many Rwandan Tutsis, fled during a wave of ethnic violence that swept through Rwanda prior to its 1962 independence from Belgium. In his 20s, he fought alongside current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in a six-year guerilla war against the dictator Milton Obote. After a stint as head of the Ugandan military intelligence, Kagame became a founding member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a group of exiled Rwandans bent on ending the dictatorship of Juvénal Habyarimana and what they deemed his “state-induced creation of refugees” policy. From 1990 to 1994, Kagame steered the RPF through a four-year civil war against the Habyarimana government, seizing power in the wake of the 1994 genocide — the 100-day bloodbath in which up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by government-backed death squads.


In the 16 years since, Kagame has led the effort to rehash Rwanda’s image from that of a bloodied agricultural backwater to an enclave of order and stability that has drawn comparisons to Singapore, Israel and Switzerland. Through a shrewdly branded development agenda known as Vision 2020, his government seeks to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by the end of the decade by placing it as a regional leader in information

The “before and after” of life in Rwanda following its 1994 genocide is truly remarkable. At left, Rwandan refugees set up camp outside Goma, Zaire, after fleeing the violence in 1994. Today in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, above, roads are smooth, public spaces spotless, and crime rates among the lowest on the continent.

technology, financial services and education. Kagame cites the “East Asian Tigers” of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan as inspiration — peasant societies as late as the 1960s that became high-tech leaders and joined the rich world in little more than a generation.

This vision, along with a firm commitment to stamp out corruption, has won Kagame a cadre of friends in high places. Figures from Britain’s Tony Blair to American evangelical pastor Rick Warren have lauded him for his drive and efficiency — a rarity on a continent still known for its serial kleptocrats — as well as his country’s female majority in Parliament, his environmental stewardship, and his pledge to wean Rwanda off of foreign aid, which remains the source of approximately half of his government’s budget.

“President Kagame is a man of tremendous long vision,” said Sir David King, formerly Blair’s chief scientific advisor, who now consults the Rwandan government. “You can give advice to Kagame and his cabinet and he follows it through. To be honest, its quite difficult to find that anywhere.”

A Climate of Repression

Yet the run-up to this month’s presidential election has exposed an alternative Kagame narrative. To human rights activists and pro-democracy groups, Rwanda’s progress cannot be removed from a context of systematic political repression — one where opposition parties are stifled, freedom of speech assaulted, and dissidents forced into exile or, as some allege, assassinated with the aid of a powerful spy network.

Even among his admirers, Kagame’s controversial past is no secret. In 1996 and 1998, as RPF military commander and Rwanda’s de facto head of state, he twice invaded neighboring eastern Congo — acts he argues were necessary to track down génocidaires intent on destabilizing Rwanda. Critics allege his invasions where motivated as much by designs on the region’s vast mineral wealth and blame him for precipitating Congo’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, which, by some estimates, has led to the deaths of more than 6 million people.

Kagame’s record of democracy is no less contentious. In 2003, he won Rwanda’s first post-genocide presidential election with 95 percent of the vote after outlawing main opposition parties and jailing or driving their leaders from the country. 2010 has been no different. Although three opposition parties have officially registered as candidates for the Aug. 9 election, others have been barred from the ballot, their leaders intimidated, harassed and arrested. On June 24, the first day of official registration of candidates, police broke up multiple peaceful demonstrations in Kigali and arrested members of several opposition groups. Some have since claimed that they have been tortured.


Young people attend the “Village of Hope” community project, run by the Rwanda Women Community Development Network, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving women’s lives in Rwanda.

That same night, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, deputy editor of the biweekly Kinyarwanda-language publication Umuvugizi, was gunned down outside his home in Kigali after investigating links between Rwandan intelligence and the attempted murder in South Africa on June 19 of Rwandan Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a one-time Kagame loyalist now in exile after falling out with the president. The Rwandan government has called allegations it was involved in Rugambage’s murder “outrageous,” and police have since arrested two suspects, one of whom allegedly admitted to killing the journalist to avenge the death of his brother that he claims Rugambage killed during the genocide. Revenge killings of the sort, however, are increasingly rare in Rwanda, and Rugambage was acquitted of genocide crimes by a local “gacaca” community court in 2006.


Ambrose Pierre, head of the Africa desk at the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, says he is “shocked” by the revenge-killing narrative. “We don’t have proof that the government is guilty of his killing,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “But we are concerned because it seems the authorities have created their own justification for the crime and we will never know the truth. We know he was a brave journalist investigating very serious issues.”

Revisionist History

According to Pierre, the Rugambage episode of just part of a growing crackdown on press freedom and independent thought in Rwanda. Umuvugizi was one of two publications known for its criticism of the government suspended from print earlier this year. In recent months, Victoire Ingabire, leader of the United Democratic Forces, and Peter Erlinder, her American attorney, have been arrested and charged with a series of laws prohibiting speech that differs from the official history of the genocide.

Ingabire, an ethnic Hutu who returned to Rwanda in January after 16 years in the Netherlands, has never publicly “denied” the genocide — defined by the government as a “carefully planned and executed exercise to annihilate Rwanda’s Tutsi population and Hutus who did not agree with the prevailing extremist politics” of former President Habyarimana. She has, however, insisted the government acknowledge crimes against humanity committed by the RPF during Rwanda’s four-year civil war and the genocide period. A U.N. report estimates the RPF killed up to 45,000 people between April and September 1994, yet those events have been erased from the official record. She has also called for the acknowledgement that many Hutus were killed alongside Tutsis in the genocide but never officially mourned.

The rhetoric of Erlinder, who is lead defense council for genocide suspects at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), is arguably more divisive. Accused of engaging in “conspiracy theories and denial surrounding the circumstances of the genocide,” he places the word “genocide” in quotation marks in various published articles and essays. In a 2008 column for Jurist, he points to a series of ICTR verdicts that suggest Rwanda’s 1994 tragedy was “closer to a case of civilians being caught up in war-time violence, like the Eastern Front in World War II, rather than the planned behind-the-lines killings in Nazi death camps.” In April, before arriving in Rwanda, the Minnesota law professor and two fellow attorneys filed a lawsuit in an Oklahoma City federal court alleging that Kagame gave orders in 1994 to shoot down the plane carrying then-President Habyarimana, the event that immediately triggered the genocide. Kagame has long pinned the attack on Hutu extremists disillusioned with Habyarimana’s signing of a peace deal with the RPF.

Erlinder was then arrested Kigali on May 28, soon after his arrival to prepare a case for charges of genocide-denial against opposition presidential candidate Ingabire.

With the reported assistance of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Erlinder was released on bail to the U.S. after three weeks in a Kigali prison and is unlikely to return to Rwanda. Ingabire remains under extended house arrest, prevented from contesting the election and charged with “divisionism,” “downplaying genocide” and “association with terrorist groups,” the latter stemming from her alleged links to members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia based in eastern Congo still intent on destabilizing Rwanda.

Dangerous Dialogue

Ingabire, along with many human rights groups, considers herself a victim of a government ploy to use the genocide as an excuse for silencing critics ahead of the election. Yet proponents of Rwanda’s “genocide denial” laws note that more than a dozen European nations have similar legislation prohibiting Holocaust denial and that all EU member states are now legally obligated to criminalize such speech when it is carried out to incite violence.

If Rwanda is censuring the media, they argue, it is merely enforcing responsible dialogue in a society where ethnic divisions remain tense. During the genocide, according to most accounts, Rwandan radio played a key role in rousing anti-Tutsi violence, with language similar to that published in the two recently suspended publications. Ingabire’s critics, meanwhile, allege her speech is designed to appeal directly to restive Hutu elements, thus seeking support along ethnic lines in a manner dangerous to national stability.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, she accused the RPF of serving the interests of the Kigali elite while warning of an uprising among neglected rural masses — words spun in a way to avoid ethnic labels yet insinuating future violence by Hutus against Tutsis. Critics allege her language is more extreme when speaking in Kinyarwanda to rural Hutu audiences. According to Prosper Higiro, head of Rwanda’s Liberal Party and one of four registered presidential candidates, such talk is misinformed and divisive.

“She gives the impression she has not well followed the evolution we have made here in Rwanda,” Higiro said. “Her speeches are like those we used to hear between 1990 and 1994. For that reason, I don’t think Rwandan society is fit to accept such speech. That speech is very dangerous.”

An Internal Struggle

The saga of Ingabire and other opposition leaders remains a dominant narrative among election observers in the West. Yet the story of Rwanda’s true power struggle lies elsewhere. Most in Rwanda expect the election to go smoothly, Kagame to win another seven-year term, and business to continue as usual.

Yet a recent string of events show a rising level of unrest among military top brass and RPF insiders. In March, two senior officers, Col. Patrick Karegeya and the since-wounded Kayumba Nyamwasa, fled to South Africa after being accused of masterminding a series of recent grenade attacks in Kigali. In April, the government sacked and detained two others, including Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, the former deputy commander of the international UNAMID peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan.

Now, the shooting of Nyamwasa — who has accused Kagame of corruption and called the RPF a party preoccupied with “furthering intrigue and hatred” — has exposed more cracks in the Rwandan power structure. Though the Rwandan government denies any involvement in the incident, Nyamwasa alleges that Kagame told Parliament he would “crush” himself and Karegeya like “flies with a hammer.” In an ongoing diplomatic row, Rwanda has now accused South Africa of “insinuating” the shooting may have been the work of Rwandan agents.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, contend this is merely the latest in Rwanda’s long string of targeted assassinations, including the 1998 killing in Nairobi of Rwanda’s first post-genocide interior minister, Seth Sendashonga.

And most recently, the body of a senior opposition politician from the Democratic Green Party was found after he’d been reported missing. Andre Kagwa Rwisereka’s head was almost completely severed from his body in what police say may have been a robbery, although his political party is urging the government to investigate all possible causes of his death.

Attorney Erlinder, who alleges that authorities initially planned to make him “disappear,” told reporters on his return to the United States that the Rwandan security services “make the Stasi and the KGB look like amateurs.”

Chugging Along

Despite such accusations, Kagame appears undeterred. Recently, when asked by journalists whether he’s concerned with the increasing rattle from groups opposed to his government, he compared his critics to dogs, helpless against a speeding locomotive. “A dog will bark at a moving train,” he said, “but will not stop the train by its barking.”

Rwandan journalist Joseph Rwagatare took the analogy a step further. “The Rwandan train is moving ahead, chugging along very nicely, the discordant noise from outside regardless,” he wrote in a July 6 editorial for the government-supportive daily The New Times. “Rwandans on the train are amused, but not distracted, by the noise. Instead they are happy to work to make the train profitable.”

With opposition stymied, however, Election Day will not be a proper referendum on the momentum of the Rwandan train, nor its heavy-handed conductor.

Some, like Ingabire, say that although Rwanda appears to be thriving, it may see rough tracks ahead unless there’s a notable move toward democracy. “The stability we have now in our country is not based on freedom of the Rwandan people but it is based on repression,” she said. “Stability based on repression does not have any future.”

Yet others, like Kigali schoolteacher Isidore Bimenyimana, insist that most Rwandans are satisfied with their country’s progress.

“If you look left and right around this city, all of it was built after the war and the genocide,” he told The Washington Diplomat at the city center branch of Bourbon Coffee, a Rwandan-owned, Starbucks-style chain that even boasts a location in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

“Rwanda has been renewed. Our president is a dictator but he does it in the interest of the people.”

About the Author

Jon Rosen is a freelance journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda.