First Published by FT.Com
Jigging merrily with his family at Monday’s election victory rally in the capital Kigali, Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, allowed himself a brief moment of revelry, in a life dominated by bloodshed. On the same day 16 years earlier Mr Kagame was barely three weeks into his position as Rwanda’s ruler. Having led the guerrilla fighters who had helped end 100 days of scarcely comprehensible butchery, he was at the centre of a maelstrom.
Officially, he was only vice president; in practice, he was the driving force behind Rwanda’s new government. The paltry forces foreign powers deployed during the 1994 genocide were preparing to leave. Some 800,000 people – mainly of Mr Kagame’s minority Tutsi tribe, but also including “collaborators” from the Hutu majority – had been killed, about one in 10 of the tiny nation’s population. About one-third had fled. Those that remained included countless women, carrying their rapists’ babies.
That Rwanda exists at all is remarkable. That it would undergo a process of successful reconciliation and go on to post some of Africa’s most impressive economic statistics would have been unthinkable in those dark days of 1994.
For his part, Mr Kagame soon won acclaim from foreign premiers who, partly stung by guilt over their failure to intervene, hailed him as one of a new breed of African leaders. He cultivated friends in high places too, from Rick Warren, the US evangelist preacher, to corporate admirers such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz.
His international kudos, some observers say, flows from his mastery of presentation, after the fashion of one of his most ardent champions, former UK prime minister Tony Blair. To his growing band of critics, however, Mr Kagame is not breaking the mould of failed African leadership. Instead, he risks extending a dire tradition: the freedom fighter turned autocrat.
Beaming in baseball cap and slacks – rather than his typical attire, a suit that inevitably looks outsized on his wiry frame – he waved to delirious supporters at Monday’s rally. His victory, with 93 per cent of the vote, extends his term to 2017.
While it is true to say that political opposition was neutered, even among Mr Kagame’s former comrades the common cause of national liberation that once bound them together is fraying. Politically he is increasingly isolated, a position that some suggest suits a guarded man, with little time for less sharp minds.
Those who have seen him at close quarters speak of his volcanic temper. With his wife and four children, or on the tennis court, he is said to be more at ease. Yet for Mr Kagame, balancing aid donors’ cajoling and domestic politics is child’s play compared to what went before.
“I really don’t think we have before us any more complicated a situation than we have seen in the last 16 years,” he told the Financial Times in an interview earlier this year. Even so, he justifies his stifling of debate, and the suppression of opponents, as a necessary evil in a country where the freedom to whip up ethnic hatred has taken so heavy a toll. But sights such as the decapitated corpse of an opposition leader in the run-up to the election show that poison still swirls in Rwanda’s politics.
Two years after he was born in 1957, in the southern town of Ruhango, a bout of ethnic violence in the dying years of Belgian rule made Mr Kagame a refugee in Uganda. As a student there he grew up fascinated by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and by 20 he had taken arms among Ugandan rebels.
Always more at ease speaking the English he grew up with than the French of his homeland, he went on to steer Rwanda out of the Francophone orbit and into the Anglophone Commonwealth, spurred by the memory of French support for Hutu extremists who instigated the genocide.
To his admirers, Mr Kagame went on to lead a life that wrestled with Rwanda’s dilemma: how to release the pressure of history, without allowing it to repeat itself. For others who farm and wash beside those who slaughtered their parents and children, animosity will take generations to dissipate.
There is also another strand to Mr Kagame’s story that his backers would rather ignore. Some estimates put the toll from reprisal killings by Tutsi groups in the aftermath of the genocide, including members of Mr Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, in the tens of thousands. When the genocidaires regrouped across the Congolese border, Mr Kagame pursued them, sparking a war in which as many as 5m people perished.
His diffident style does not help matters. “He’s sitting on an ethnic powder-keg, and he’s intolerant of dissent,” says one Rwanda-watcher in Kigali, who asks not to be named. “He’s a person for whom control is important: control of himself, control of others.”
Convinced that only development could heal Rwanda’s wounds, Mr Kagame took Singapore as his economic model, and invested heavily in infrastructure and technology, much of it supported by foreign aid. Growth has exceeded 7 per cent in recent years, a record capped when the World Bank declared Rwanda the world’s top business reformer last year.
Yet even here Mr Kagame’s record has been questioned, with business leaders in Kigali complaining that such accolades mask the difficulty of wringing decisions from his increasingly autocratic government. While his policies – including banning plastic bags and banishing street traders – burnished an aura of discipline, foreign investment has been limited, and there are hints that Rwanda’s foreign benefactors are having their doubts, too.
Under the constitution, Mr Kagame’s new term in office must be his last. He has insisted that he will not imitate Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president and his one-time brother-in-arms, and change the rules to stay on. If so, he will have to create space for a successor.
“His challenge over the next seven years will be to detach himself, to allow more people to make decisions,” says Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a Rwanda expert at the London School of Economics. Perhaps it will only be when he leaves the stage that Rwandans and outsiders alike will learn whether he was the glue holding his country together, or the force pulling it apart.
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