How Rwanda’s Paul Kagame Exploits U.S. Guilt

Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian scholar and leading expert on Rwanda, wrote last year that Mr. Kagame, for all his “vision and ambition,” was “probably the worst war criminal in office today.” But 20 years after the genocide, Mr. Kagame—tall, gaunt and severe-looking—tours U.S. college campuses, where he receives honorary degrees and is toasted by the great and the good of the Western world.


April 18, 2014 3:35 p.m. ET

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

On an early April evening 20 years ago, an airplane carrying the president of Rwanda was mysteriously shot down, and the small Central African country launched itself into a killing spree that would last 100 days. Rwanda’s genocide was shocking: close-quarter, hand-to-hand butchery, mostly with machetes and other implements. Some 800,000 people were murdered after members of the country’s Tutsi minority were targeted by members of its vast Hutu majority.

As Rwanda has sought to rebuild from the ashes of the genocide, the U.S. has felt a special obligation to the victims. During the early weeks of the slaughter, when foreign intervention had the best chance of halting the bloodshed, President Bill Clinton’s administration carefully avoided designating the crisis a genocide so as to duck involvement. (When President Clinton visited Rwanda in 1998, he said that the U.S. “did not act quickly enough after the killing began.”)

But today’s Rwanda—led by President Paul Kagame, who rose to power as the head of a Tutsi insurgency driving back the Hutu killers in 1994—no longer follows a simple narrative of victims and perpetrators. The longer the U.S. has been guided by that narrative—atoning, in effect, for shirking global leadership during one of the worst mass slaughters of the past century—the more it has become complicit in crimes and misdeeds in Rwanda ever since.

A pattern of U.S. indulgence was established in the earliest days of the post-genocide period, when Mr. Kagame was establishing his authority throughout the country. During those first months, Mr. Kagame’s army, composed almost entirely of minority Tutsi, conducted its own mass slaughters across Rwanda, rounding up unarmed Hutu civilians by the thousands and machine-gunning them. These acts were documented at the time by international human rights workers and U.N. experts on the ground. The Kagame government has bristled at accusations of human rights abuses, saying it acted on behalf of the victims of the genocide. (The Rwandan government did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this article.)

A seasoned U.N. investigator, Robert Gersony, estimated that as many as 35,000 Hutu were killed in this manner between April and September 1994 in the 28% of the country that his team surveyed. “What we found,” an investigator who took part in the survey told me, “was a well-organized, military style operation, with military command and control, and these were military campaign style mass murders.” But the U.N. never released the report. Human Rights Watch reported that the U.S. “concurred in this decision, largely to avoid weakening the new Rwandan government.”

Many historians of Rwanda say that this set a powerful precedent of impunity for the new Kagame regime—and paved the way for larger crimes.

Mr. Kagame moved to consolidate his power, with U.S. and other foreign aid accounting for virtually all of the country’s budget in 1995. (That figure stands today at 40%, according to the World Bank.) He quickly set about eliminating sources of opposition and criticism throughout Rwanda. Under his rule, independent-minded journalists were jailed or chased into exile. In 1997, Appolos Hakizimana, the editor of a magazine that had criticized the Rwandan military, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Rival political leaders (such as Pasteur Bizimungu, the titular but largely powerless president in the late 1990s, and Victoire Ingabire in the last election) were imprisoned; some rival parties have been banned.

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Banishing Congo’s Ghosts

See the original New York Times Op-Ed here.


Published: November 17, 2013
  • New York — A new level of assertiveness by the United Nations has produced a swift and fortuitous victory over the worst of the marauding militias that have terrorized eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years.

Remarkably, unlike in past offensives, there have been no reports of mass rapes, pillaging, mutiny or other displays of rampant lawlessness by the Congolese military (the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo), which has long and deservedly been known as one of the world’s most undisciplined armed forces.

The Congolese government, led by President Joseph Kabila, has vowed not to become giddy from the defeat of the militia, the Rwandan-backed force known as M23, earlier this month.

It says it will now work to eliminate the complex patchwork of armies that continue to hold sway over broad swaths of this vast country’s east. A recent government memo appropriately identified one of these armies — the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda — as a priority. This militia consists of remnants of the Interahamwe, original perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Neutralizing it would further delegitimize Rwanda’s nearly constant meddling on its much larger neighbor’s territory.

How did this all come about, and what lessons should be derived?

For too long, the international community accepted high levels of violence and mayhem in the Congo, so long as it did not rebound against neighboring Rwanda, where prevention of instability after the genocide became an obvious priority.

After decades of misrule, war and predation by its neighbors — and a 1996 invasion of what was then Zaire by Rwanda, which brought down the three-decade-long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko — some observers had given up on Congo and its population, by 2012, of 65 million. They even argued that the country, once a possession of King Leopold II of Belgium, no longer meaningfully exists as a state and that the international community should stop pretending that it does.

The recent military developments show the emptiness of this throw-up-your-hands approach. They also show that keeping a Band-Aid on the festering wounds of the Congo costs more, in lives, not just money, than taking resolute action.

The passive, old approach involved nearly 20,000 peacekeepers who never managed to keep a lid on things, much less really keep any peace. When the M23 sacked Goma, the biggest city in the east, last year, the Congolese Army ran away and peacekeepers passively stood by.

Shock and embarrassment over this performance — in effect, a dismal return on the international community’s investment — prompted a turnaround. Earlier this year, the United Nations brought in a tough-minded general from Brazil, Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, to lead the peacekeepers. Their mandate changed to encourage engagement: That is, actually going after the bad guys. Meanwhile, motivated and disciplined combat units from South Africa and Tanzania were pushed to the fore.

“Seeing professional troops doing the right thing day after day has had a really important effect,” Laura E. Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College who specializes in the Congo, told me. “If you think of the history of the Congolese military, the opportunities for this sort of role modeling have been very rare.”

It is worth considering why, aside from the moral imperative of protecting human life, such efforts are worthwhile. Africa still suffers mightily from its balkanization at the hands of Europe’s imperial powers in the 19th century. The continent’s 54 countries are mostly weak and poor. They have little leverage in their dealings with powerful outside actors, whether banks, investors and mining and oil interests, Western-dominated institutions like the World Bank, or big new players like China. Nor does any have enough middle-class consumers to create a major economic market.

At a conference in Morocco recently, a top executive for one of the Big Three American automobile companies told me that even Africa’s richest country, South Africa, barely figured in the company’s plans. “Now, if they could somehow make a single market out of South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and, say, Namibia, that would get our attention,” he said.

A final consideration is geography: access to the ocean. A third of Africa’s countries are landlocked, a feature that silently imposes huge handicaps on their development. Breaking up the Congo, which has only a tiny outlet to the Atlantic Ocean, would merely create more landlocked countries, making it harder to build a viable economy.

The international community should build on Congo’s success in defeating the M23 militia by helping it meet the first condition of statehood: a government monopoly over the legitimate use of force. (Mr. Kabila deserves credit for overhauling his military command structure in the east, resulting in much more professional behavior by his soldiers — and more effective support for the United Nations peacekeepers.)

Building on this will require more security improvements: A coherent national army, which Congo has never had, and pressure on neighbors like Rwanda and Uganda to respect Congolese sovereignty.

Of course, the ultimate step toward a coherent Congolese state is the provision of services and the collection of taxes. Congo has scant experience with either. Its population subsists in large part on foreign aid and the delivery of services by a huge patchwork of foreign charities. However well intentioned, they have become part of the problem: Under this system, Congolese governments have little incentive to actually govern.

This pattern can only be broken if the West begins to demand performance from the corrupt and atrophied Congolese state itself. This will require as much discipline from donors as it does from the recipients. Money must gradually be moved away from annual dollops of life support to longer-term plans for real development, with binding expectations and benchmarks.

Only then can the ghosts of Leopold and Mobutu finally be banished.

Howard W. French, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University and a former New York Times correspondent, is the author of the forthcoming book “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.”



The Case Against Paul Kagame

Copyright Newsweek-The Daily Beast

When Rwandan-backed rebels recently took Goma, the biggest city in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Paul Kagame had every reason to think the world would give him a pass. That, after all, has been the pattern for years.

Paul Kagame
Does the celebrated Rwandan president really deserve an indictment? (Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures)

Frequently lauded by people such as Bono, Tony Blair, and Pastor Rick, the Rwandan president enjoys some extraordinary backing in the West—support that is particularly remarkable given his alleged hand in ongoing regional conflicts believed to have killed more than 5 million people since the mid-’90s.

On the aid and awards circuit, Kagame is known as the man who led Rwanda from the ashes of the 1994 genocide—one of the late 20th century’s greatest atrocities—to hope and prosperity: a land of fast growth and rare good economic governance with enviable advances in health care, education, and women’s rights. Bestowing his foundation’s Global Citizen Award on Kagame three years ago, Bill Clinton said: “From crisis, President Kagame has forged a strong, unified, and growing nation with the potential to become a model for the rest of Africa and the world.”

But that model narrative seems to be shifting in the aftermath of the Goma takeover. After a United Nations report found that Rwanda created and commands the rebel group known as M23, important European friends such as Britain and Belgium partially suspended aid donations to Rwanda, and President Obama called Kagame to warn him against any continued military adventurism.

Leading observers say the reevaluation of Kagame and his legacy is long overdue. Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian scholar whom many consider the world’s foremost expert on Rwanda, describes Kagame as “probably the worst war criminal in office today.” In an interview, Reyntjens told me that Kagame’s crimes rank with those perpetrated by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein or Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Washington and London have long supported Kagame as a bulwark of stability in a volatile region. But a recent U.N. report accused his government of instigating trouble across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Meanwhile, specialists in African affairs say a regime like Kagame’s, an ethnic dictatorship built along unusually narrow lines, represents a political dead end. And international human-rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have raised serious questions about violence committed against journalists and opposition figures. Kagame has generally been dismissive of such accusations of abuse.

Tall, gaunt, and almost professorial in manner, Kagame cuts an unusual figure for a former African guerrilla leader. His rise to power began in 1990, when as head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an exiled movement made up primarily of Tutsis, he launched a war to take over his native country from bases in neighboring Uganda Four years later, the course of history took a dramatic turn: on April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, was mysteriously shot down on its approach to the capital, Kigali, unleashing the murder spree that became known as the Rwandan genocide. In the space of 100 days, about 800,000 people—most of them members of the Tutsi minority—were killed at the instigation of Hutu extremists. As Kagame and his army gained control of the country, ending the genocide, the Hutu extremists, along with hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, fled to neighboring states, in particular Zaire, as it was then known.

Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, was named president in what seemed an effort at providing representation for the roughly 84 percent Hutu majority in Rwanda’s new national unity government. However, Kagame, a Tutsi and the nominal vice president, kept control of the Rwandan Army, becoming the country’s de facto leader. And by 2000, after numerous cases of forced exiles, disappearances, and assassinations of politicians, Bizimungu resigned the presidency, bringing a definitive end to the illusion of ethnic balance in high office. (The government now prohibits the use of ethnic labels.)

Since then, former Rwandan officials say, almost every position of meaningful power in the country has been held by a Tutsi. In 2001, when Bizimungu began organizing a political party in order to run for president, it was outlawed on charges of being a radical Hutu organization. The following year, Bizimungu was arrested on charges of endangering the state, and later he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

(Bizimungu, whom Amnesty International called a prisoner of conscience, was pardoned by Kagame in 2007, but the methods used to sideline him have been applied broadly ever since, with critics of the regime of all stripes being prosecuted for promoting “genocide ideology,” which has become an all-purpose charge.)

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What Susan Rice has Mean for U.S. Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa

Right now, Africa is changing with extraordinary speed and in surprising ways, but American policy there remains stale and stuck in the past: unambitious, underinvested and conceptually outdated.

Copyright The Atlantic

There is another way to think about the prospective nomination of Susan Rice for secretary of state.

It is one that is immeasurably more consequential than the Washington-centered and highly politicized controversy over her role in explaining the September 11 attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi.

It is a way of thinking that looks at what kind of power the United States has been over the last 20 years, and it asks probingly about what kind of role it will play in the thick of this present century.

In any discussion of Susan Rice’s career, there is no escaping Africa. It is the place where she cut her teeth and built her essential record as a diplomat and national security official. Although there has been nary a hint of this in the fuss about Benghazi, I would go further still and say that one would be hard pressed to find anyone in American government who has played a larger and more sustained role in shaping Washington’s diplomacy toward that continent over the last two decades.

If Rice survives the current controversy over Libya and is nominated to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, understanding the details of her past work in Africa, and drawing her out about Washington’s approach toward the continent in the future, should be a matter of serious national concern.


Right now, Africa is changing with extraordinary speed and in surprising ways, but American policy there remains stale and stuck in the past: unambitious, underinvested and conceptually outdated.

This holds true at a time when the continent is growing demographically and urbanizing faster than any place before in history. Africa is booming economically as well, with an overall growth rate faster than Asia, and an emerging middle class larger than India’s.

China, the United States’ preeminent global rival, clearly gets this, and treats Africa not just as a place from which to extract mineral wealth — which of course it does — but also as a vital source of growth for the world economy going forward. China also views Africa as a geopolitical space of rapidly developing markets and huge business opportunities, including a nearly endless supply of new and underserved consumers.

China is not alone, either. Brazil, India, Turkey and Vietnam, to name just a few of the other fast-growing players, see Africa in much the same way, and are racing to establish a new, mature style of relations with the continent — one driven by promise, and not by the pity and strong paternalism that have characterized so much Western engagement for so long.

The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in an approach whose foundation dates to the Cold War, when we cherry-picked strongmen among Africa’s leaders, autocrats we could “work with,” according to the old diplomatic cliché.

These were men like Zaire’s late dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, whose anti-democratic politics, systematic human rights violations, and high tolerance for corruption we were willing to overlook so long as they stayed on our side in the great strategic struggles of the day. We counted on them to hold down the fort in their respective countries and regions, and in so doing, as the thinking went, to protect U.S. interests.

The binary jousting of the Cold War that seemed to justify this strategy is long gone, along with our old adversary, the Soviet Union. But the American approach to Africa remains strangely stuck in that mold even now, and this fact owes far more than the public recognizes to the diplomacy of Susan Rice.

When I first encountered Rice in Mali, during a visit there by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1996, she was a well-connected and high-achieving senior NSC staffer in her early thirties. She was possessed of a quick step and a look of complete self-confidence.

Most unusually for someone her age, she already had a career-defining crisis behind her, one in which she has played an important role: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

According to Samantha Power, Rice’s advice to the Clinton White House in the critical early phases of the killing there was to avoid any public recognition that actual genocide was being committed, because to do so would legally require the United States to take action, and this (echoes of Benghazi?) might affect upcoming congressional elections.

Former senior State Department officials who knew Rice in her next job, as assistant secretary for African affairs, give her great credit for not giving up on Africa. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a policy planning official at the State Department during this period, told me that Rice’s predecessor, George Moose, had been told by higher-ups to “keep Africa off the screen, because it doesn’t matter.”

“Well, she took a different approach, and said it does matter, and we’re not doing enough in Africa,” Morrison said. “And she got the president to make two trips to the continent, and deserves some credit for that.”

An enormous part of why it mattered, however, was bound up in America’s failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda. And it is Rice’s takeaway from that tragedy, and from her role in it — arguably more visceral, personal and emotional than rational — that shaped her approach to the continent ever since.

Rice’s public response to the genocide was to issue a number of powerfully worded statements with the air of mea culpa about them. They have amounted to a paraphrasing and elaboration on the famous post-Holocaust oath of “Never again.”

Put to the hard test of African realities, however, this pledge quickly shrunk and withered into something far more narrow and selective. Indeed, it failed its first test, in Congo, right next door to Rwanda. Since Rice’s famous expressions of contrition began, more than five times as many people have died in a series of wars in Congo than were killed in the Rwandan genocide.

Most pertinent to this discussion, as the United Nations and reports by a variety of international human rights organizations have exhaustively documented, a great many of these people were killed in wars of targeted ethnic extermination, implicating the U.S.-supported post-genocide Rwandan armed forces and a number of surrogates, who have invaded the vastly larger and richer Congo repeatedly. Even in times of relative peace, they have sought to control large swaths of the country’s territory.

“[Rice] venerates the ‘new leaders,’ who over the years have come to be repressive autocrats and despots.”

What this leaves us with, in effect, is a policy stripped of any real moral force. Never again, in effect, has come to mean never let down Rwanda’s post-genocide regime and its leader, Paul Kagame.

On a broader level, the old paradigm of Cold War policy, with its momentous ideological competition, has been repurposed to work for something far more inchoate and hollow: the War on Terror. Accordingly, the United States has persisted in its embrace of leaders who align with Washington on that basis in places like Sudan and Somalia, mirroring the style of cherry-picking allies during the struggle against communism.

Susan Rice isn’t by any means the sole person responsible for this approach. She was, however, present at its creation, when the Clinton administration began to elevate a group of youngish autocrats who all came to power by the gun (and who have clung determinedly to personalized power ever since), as Africa’s new generation of so-called “renaissance leaders.” And although this phraseology has been dropped, ever since two of the countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, fought a calamitous war with each other in the late 1990s, Rice has clung enthusiastically to most of these loyalties ever since.

“Susan venerates the ‘new leaders,’ who over the years have come to be repressive autocrats and despots who feel like they can manipulate the outside world to give them lots of space,” said Morrison of CSIS. “It has been an enduring attachment that hasn’t softened over time.”

Two recent episodes provide compelling evidence of this. As the United States’ representative to the United Nations, Rice worked hard last year to block the release of a U.N. experts report detailing Rwandan atrocities in the Congo, reportedly drawing pushback over this even within the State Department.

When blocking the report proved impossible, diplomats and human rights experts who were involved in this struggle say that she sought to have it sanitized. In the end, it was leaked, which amounted to an end-run around Rice and assured its publication.

“It ultimately comes down to why would the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. not want things that are true [about that part of the world] to be reported,” said Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College. “It is really not clear why it was worth it.”

In September, Rice paid fervent and emotional tribute at the funeral of the late Ethiopian dictator, Meles Zenawi, praising him unreservedly as “uncommonly wise, able to see the big picture and the long game”.

Zenawi’s Ethiopia was a country where journalists and dissidents regularly disappeared and imprisoned.

Asked about Washington’s enduring fondness for the people it had once dubbed Africa’s renaissance figures, people like Meles Zenawi, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Yoweri Musveni of Uganda, John Shattuck, a former Clinton Administration assistant secretary of state, who is now president of the Central European University in Budapest said: “These were authoritarian leaders from the beginning and over time they all became worse. I think Africa has become very poorly served by this kind of rule, and that’s very clear. This has been true for most of the past 20 years.”

Some have argued that steadfast American support for a circle of autocrats is justified by their reputation for strong public administration or fast economic growth, but this has always been a specious justification. If the United States says it favors countries with booming economies no matter how undemocratic or repressive their leaders are, then we have curiously embraced a position not unlike that of China, which has always said it is not its business how other countries conduct their internal affairs. Besides, there is simply no lack of fast-growing economies in Africa now.

There are two obvious ways for the United States to help Africa consolidate its recent gains and move forward into an era of greater prosperity and representative government. This, at the same time, would position Washington to advance its interests and preserve its influence and prestige on this continent in the decades ahead.

The first involves engaging much more strongly in the Congo crisis, helping one of the continent’s biggest countries to finally establish control over all of its territory and begin delivering services to its people for the first time in history.

The other requires treating African democracies as our real friends, matching our diplomacy for once with our rhetoric and values. What is less clear, given her record, is whether Susan Rice is the right person to accomplish this.

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The World Must not Turn its Back on Democracy in the Congo

Last week, the Supreme Court in the Democratic Republic of Congo upheld the result of what was by all accounts a deeply flawed election, marred by widespread irregularities, violent incidents, and reports of fraud. Despite calls from the international community to delay the inauguration of the anointed winner – incumbent Joseph Kabila – the swearing in ceremony went ahead on Monday, amid palpable tension in the capital, Kinshasa. As a clear signal of the uneasiness of the international community in response to the election, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was the only foreign head of state in attendance.

With the leading opposition candidate – Etienne Tshisekedi – planning his own inauguration “by the people” this Friday, the situation in the DRC is becoming more volatile by the minute. The international community must take urgent action to help avert further instability and bloodshed.

Following Kabila’s initiation yesterday, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, issued a statement saying that the United States was “deeply disappointed” that the Supreme Count had upheld the election results without “fully evaluating widespread reports of irregularities.” Those words must now be met with action on the part of the US, the United Kingdom and other international actors. A group of highly respected NGOs, including the International Crisis Group, the Enough Project, and the Eastern Congo Initiative have called for the deployment of an independent international mediation commission, which would help facilitate a solution to the current crisis. British support for such a mission is urgently needed and the response must be more than to simply defer any recommendations for improvements for next time.

Meanwhile, the government of the Congo is keen to portray the situation as returning to normal. Police chief, General Charles Bisengimana, has recently said that the capital is “calm, life is getting back to normal and people are going about their business.” The General is undoubtedly correct, for now. Yet this period could very well be the eye of the storm. With so much at stake and amid allegations of widespread fraud, few were expecting ratification of the results to be met with quiet acquiescence.

Indeed, to those who have followed the elections in the DRC closely, it is clear that the situation is unlikely to be resolved peacefully without international pressure. Frustration has been mounting following the declaration of the election results. The blocking of SMS services across the country, lethal attacks on opposition supporters and the reported abductions of civilians by the security forces led France’s Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, to describe the situation as “explosive” whilst US Senator, Christopher Coons, who presides over the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for African Affairs, noted unequivocally, “this is a moment of great risk.” As tensions continue to rise in the DRC and the Congolese security forces prepare for possible clashes, the international community must make it very clear that violence from all sides will not be tolerated and call for restraint in handling any unrest.

The situation remains too complex to predict with confidence how the coming days will play out, but the propensity for escalation and for the armed forces to quickly lose control amid intense protests has already been observed. Human Rights Watch has recently recorded confrontations that resulted in at least 18 civilian deaths, whilst 100 more were seriously wounded – the majority of those killed were shot dead by the President’s Republican Guard soldiers. The potential for future violence clashes should not be underestimated and independent arbitration may now be essential to avoid a repeat of more lethal clashes.

At present, donor states should be left frustrated with what journalist, Howard French, has so eloquently described as “a bridge to democratization that was paid for but never got built.” But it is not too late to act and turn the tide in the DRC. With billions of pounds, dollars and euros heading for this central African republic over the coming years, now is not the time to blithely further instability and bloodshed. Our financial and moral commitments to the Congo mean that we cannot absolve ourselves from this responsibility. The DRC is a country of great promise, with an estimated natural wealth measured in trillions-of-dollars, but good governance must be recognized as the basis for which this African leviathan can be transformed into a functioning state with lasting infrastructure. If the Congo remains robbed of the opportunity for free and fair election, its potential will remain little more than a cruel illusion.