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.)

Please click here to read the full article.




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.

And Once More the World Shrugs at the Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s President, Joseph Kabila, has just perpetrated a massive hoax in order to retain power. Bowing in principle to the Western-driven demands to the famous but nebulous “international community,” Kabila has held just held elections, which he would like the world to believe he has won.

The overall tally, 49 percent for the “winner,” and 32 percent for the first runner up, had a ring to it that at first glance, at least for the uninitiated, sounded both plausible and competitive, which in such matters usually go hand in hand. The results proclaimed the Congo to be the latest African country to have traveled far away from the bad old past of continental elections, which authoritarian rulers once routinely “won” with upwards of 95 percent of the vote.

Closer glimpses reveal immense problems with this exercise, beginning with the fact that Kabila, the incumbent, has carried a number of districts by “old African” margins of 100 percent or close to it, in his favor.

If the problems ended here, this story would be bad enough. Unfortunately, they don’t. As made clear by the Carter Center, in the most authoritative review of the results by an international monitoring organization, in Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold, some 2,000 polling station’s results simply vanished. Another 1,000 or so more disappeared in other parts of the country.

The closer one looks at this electoral exercise, down to the composition of the electoral commission, which was stacked in favor of the sitting president, the more one is obliged to conclude that it was a farce. Such an examination may never suffice to overturn the results in favor of the leading opposition candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, toward whom the Western diplomatic world has a marked, if rarely publicly avowed, distaste. But that is not the point here.

Why should anyone care? The Congo is a chronic, seemingly doomed basket-case. It takes a very short step to conclude that it would be unreasonable to expect much better from what has so long been a failed or failing state.

This kind of reaction, best described as a resigned shrug, is the international community’s reflexive, almost ritualized response to negative turn of events in Congo. It is typically followed by a fatalistic acceptance of the newest status quo, and if this reliable old pattern holds, that will mean de facto acceptance soon for Kabila’s election outcome, if not the precise details of the vote itself.

But just as it is dishonest to pin all of Congo’s problems on outsiders, it is equally untruthful to pretend that the international community’s silent tyranny of low expectations has nothing fundamental to do with the country’s cursed situation, or more so even than for most African countries, with its long term history of debilitation.

The resigned shrug — whereby powerful and deep-pocketed outsiders, largely concentrated in the West, come to live with and even support a situation they know to be deeply wrong — has been a signal factor of nearly every disaster the country has faced since the Rwandan genocide, in 1994.

This state of affairs began with the housing of armed Rwandan Hutu refugees in United Nations-run camps close to the Rwandan border, in violation of the UN’s own statutes. Things were done this way not because it was right, but because it was the cheapest and easiest way to proceed.

This chronicle of shrugs continued with the overthrow of the longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese-Seko, in 1997, which began with Rwandan mortar attacks against the UN refugee camps, which scarcely raised a peep from the UN. or the West. Here again, one senses that this is because they had decided that for a variety of reasons, Mobutu, whom they had long favored, had to go, and this was the cheapest and easiest way to proceed.

The West shrugged at evidence that, along the way to power, Mobutu’s replacement and the current president’s father, Laurent Kabila, had presided over the extermination (by Rwandan Tutsi-led units) of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees. A minority of those refugees would have been perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and the feeling was that they had to be liquidated. If that meant also killing a distinct majority of people who were innocent women and children, along with men who were not perpetrators, well, shrug, so be it. This is Congo. It’s a tough luck place.

One could go on and on with examples like these. Suffice to say that things have continued much this way down to the present day, with the world giving the same reflexive response at each critical moment. But there must come a time when the international community, and the Western nations that provide so much of its direction, insists on more and better from the Congo, and from their own engagement with it. And that’s what makes this time potentially so different.

Elections are something that the West loudly professes to care about deeply. And here’s where we get to where Congo’s fraudulent outcome should really matter.

For several years now, Africa has been in the midst of both strong economic growth and a quiet democratic revolution. These developments have commanded few of the headlines dominated by subject like terrorists and pirates in Somalia or rape in eastern Congo, but increasingly vigorous democratic competition is becoming the rule rather than the exception on the continent.

There is any number of holdouts, though, and many of them are in Congo’s neighborhood. One might start with Rwanda itself, where President Kagame arranges to prevent opposition parties from competing, and now flirts with changing the constitution to perpetuate his already long rule. Zimbabwe, a near neighbor to the south, would be another case in point of an authoritarian figure, Robert Mugabe, clinging to power by every means possible.

What kind of standing would the international community have to criticize processes in places like these, or in other holdout countries, from Uganda to Cameroon, if it cannot find its voice in Congo?

A fact too easily lost in the election’s immediate aftermath, but unlikely to remain lost in the longer term, is that the shambling, dishonest way the vote was conducted makes a mockery of more than just the Congo. It casts well-deserved ill-repute on the international community as a whole, and particularly on those who financed the vote: the United Nations ($110 million), the European Union (47 million euros), and the UK (31 million pounds).

It’s tempting to conclude that, if this is the best that your money and technical assistance can achieve in the realm of elections, it would be better to invest in such badly needed things as primary health care or schools, and avoid spoiling the name of a good cause.

Here it is worth recalling the international context, which is newly competitive after years of fading Western interest in Africa after the Cold War. A resurgent China has been happy to mock the West’s obsession with elections and governance in Africa, as it touts the more tangible things it builds, such as roads, ports, and stadiums.

As the West shrugs, how much better for China to compare itself to a model that demonstrably doesn’t work and cannot deliver, as with Congo’s fraudulent elections, a bridge to democratization that was paid for but never got built.

The Bastards We Know

They seemed to say it forever during the Mobutu years, how “we” couldn’t get behind, or really even offer any encouragement to any number of individuals (or processes) that reared themselves up as alternatives to the rule of the Guide.
The Guide, you see, was safe and predictable, and everything and everyone else seemed like such a risk.
Even the Guide’s time eventually ran out, but did this get us to change our approach?
Not really, we just substituted a few names while sticking to the same formula.
An armed takeover of Zaire (the once and future Congo) was better than all other known alternatives such as, namely, any idea of democratic transition, some of the groundwork for which had already been laid.
Congo is too chaotic and the Congolese far too boisterous and querulous. Better to accept the “solution” of our friends, their orderly and reliable neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda. They’ll put the country to rights.
Have we already forgotten how well that went?
Today, we see all manner of ahistorical pseudo analysis as ready to accept a sort of corrupt insider’s conventional wisdom as the babbling heads who make the political horserace odds on our Sunday news shows back home.
The authors privilege the antipathies toward Congo’s main opposition leader, which are mouthed with neither courage nor accountability behind the veil of anonymity by Western embassies.
“We can’t really get behind Etienne Tshisekedi because ‘we’ dont like him very much.” The whys are never much explained. One notable recent piece called Tshisekedi angry, without bothering to explore what he might be angry about. Furthermore, after casting its aspersions, it broke the normal rules of our journalism by not bothering to include a quote from someone in the camp just criticized.
I know better than many first hand how frustrating it can be to deal with Congo’s politicians, none less so than Tshisekedi himself, but what is the real argument here?
Is there an argument that Joseph Kabila has delivered anything worth clinging so desperately to during his years of power? Does he offer a greater prospect for development or for rule of law? We’re speaking of a man who has mustered soldiers in the capital to enforce a favorable outcome, after having proven incapable for years of mustering soldiers for national security and territorial integrity.
One would like to hear it.
Is there an argument that the chancelleries of the West should have veto power here because they are comfortable, as always, with a bastard they know? Let’s hear it.
Is it that pushing for the closest thing possible to a genuinely democratic outcome in Congo isn’t worth the trouble, or wasn’t really the point from the start?
The ambivalence, not so much toward Tshisekedi, but toward the process itself is certainly glaring.
There are no easy outcomes in Congo, which has been diddled with as long and as tragically as any place in Africa. But a good starting point might be to insist on the respect of the ballot, of accounting for votes locally, circumscription by circumscription, by being good to “our” word that democracy in such places is important, and by embracing the true outcome, wherever the chips may fall.
Certainly nothing else “we” have tried has worked very well.

The indispensable (on Twitter) @jasonkstearns is the closest foreign observer of today’s #DRC. The post linked here gives insufficient weight, though, to basic questions about integrity of process, w/o which back of envelope calculations are pretty meaningless: