Ever since Paul Kagame rose to power after the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000 people, the United States and its allies have embraced him as one of Africa’s greatest hopes.
Each year, they give hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to this East African nation famous for its lush green hills and mountain gorillas.
But a growing chorus of critics charges that Kagame is transforming into the continent’s latest strongman, suppressing political opponents, independent media and human rights to deepen his grip on power. On Monday, the 52-year-old leader is widely expected to win by a landslide in Rwanda’s presidential election, which has been marred by killings, a lack of credible political opponents and censorship.
“American and British taxpayers are sponsoring an authoritative regime, a dictatorship that has oppressed its own people,” said Paul Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager credited with saving hundreds of ethnic Tutsis and Hutus in 1994, as depicted in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” “There is no need for elections. We already know the winners.”
Kagame, tall and bespectacled, has denied using repression to remain in power. His close associates say actions taken against political rivals and the media have been justified and in adherence with Rwanda’s laws. Kagame’s critics, they say, have overblown what is happening and are obscuring Rwanda’s considerable successes.
In recent months, though, even Kagame’s staunchest ally, the United States, has expressed discomfort. In May, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson told a congressional subcommittee that the run-up to the election had been “riddled by a series of worrying actions.”
Those actions, Carson said, included the suspension of two newspapers, the arrest of an opposition leader, the expulsion of a human rights researcher and the barring of two opposition parties from taking part in the election.
Human rights activists welcomed Carson’s statements but said they did little to change attitudes in Rwanda. The United States and other Western powers, they said, are still reluctant to take tougher actions, such as slashing aid or strongly criticizing Kagame’s government.
“A big reason for this is the international guilt for not being able to stop the genocide. That guilt has shaped Western policies towards Rwanda since the end of the genocide,” said Carina Tertsakian, the Human Rights Watch researcher who was expelled from the country in April. “As a result, the Rwandan government believes it can get away with what it is doing.”
Rwandan officials have dismissed Carson’s statements. Others viewed Carson’s comments as meant to please international human rights groups and Rwanda’s critics in the United States, which gave $184 million in aid to Rwanda this fiscal year.
“I don’t think these American officials are that concerned with Rwanda,” said Charles Murigande, Rwanda’s minister of education. “They know Rwanda is a country that is functioning very well, a country that is stable . . . that is using any of their assistance in an accountable and transparent manner.”
Even Rwanda’s harshest critics concede that the country has thrived economically in the 16 years since Kagame led his Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front guerrilla army to end the genocide.
Since 2005, Rwanda’s gross domestic product has doubled to $5 billion. It is widely considered among Africa’s least corrupt nations. Foreign direct investment has increased nearly 17-fold since 2003, to $541 million last year. Investors include U.S. companies such as Starbucks, one of the biggest buyers of Rwanda’s coffee.
The streets of Kigali, the capital, are clean and mostly devoid of potholes. Construction is underway on dozens of buildings. Malls have opened, along with stylish cafes. A fiber-optic network is being laid across the country.
Unlike most nations in Africa, Rwanda grows enough food for its 9.7 million people and exports the rest to neighboring countries. Nearly every Rwandan has state-sponsored health insurance. In 1994, fewer than 1 million children were in primary school. Now, 2.4 million are.
Under Kagame, more women are in government than in any other country in the world. Women can now inherit land, unlike in most parts of the continent. “We are now represented at all levels, from the grass roots to the parliament,” said Speciose Mukandutiye, a female lawmaker. “In Kagame, we have a man we can trust.”
Such progress has caught the attention of Western leaders. Former British prime minister Tony Blair has lauded Kagame as “a visionary.” Last year, former president Bill Clinton gave Kagame a Clinton Global Citizen Award for leading Rwanda through “an unparalleled transformation.”
Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza disagrees with such characterizations. A leading Hutu politician, she returned from exile in January to run against Kagame. She was arrested on charges of denying the genocide and collaborating with Hutu extremist groups, charges she denies.
“The stability we have is stability based on repression, not based on freedom,” said Ingabire, who has been released on bail. “The stability based on repression does not have any future.”
Rwandan officials say they have every right to pursue anyone they think is trying to divide the country and foment instability. Some likened it to McCarthy-era witch hunts in the United States in the 1950s.
“If at one point America had that fear of communists to that extent, why can’t we have fear of genocide to that extent, knowing very well the horrors that genocide has produced in this country?” Murigande said.
Politics and murder
On July 14, Andre Rwisereka, the deputy leader of the opposition Democratic Green Party, was found brutally killed, nearly decapitated. The police said he was murdered over a business dispute, but Rwisereka’s party members contend he was a political target of the government. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has demanded an investigation.
Neither Ingabire’s party nor Rwisereka’s registered for the elections, citing the intimidation. On Monday, Kagame will compete against three challengers — all former allies who share his views.
Another Kagame critic, former army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, was shot and wounded on June 19 in South Africa, where he had fled after being accused of participating in deadly grenade attacks in Kigali.
Five days later, the deputy editor of an opposition newspaper, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, published an online article linking Rwandan intelligence agents to Kayumba’s attempted assassination. By that night, the 38-year-old journalist was dead, shot by a gunman in front of his green-gated house in Kigali.
Rwandan officials denied any role in the shooting and arrested a man they said confessed to the killing because he believed Rugambage had participated in the genocide.
But the editor in chief of the newspaper, who himself had fled to Uganda in April after a series of death threats, said Rugambage was killed because of the article. “I can never return to Rwanda now,” Jean Bosco Gasasira, the editor, said in a telephone interview.
Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager, likened the tensions today to the months before the genocide. “Back then, it was like a simmering volcano,” he said. “It feels like that again now.”