African Regime Gone Bad: The Result

AW Kamau, Going Postal
Golden hours?
Rwanda during the late afternoon Golden hour,
Michael Muli
Unsplash licence

Rwanda’s “story” had the international community so thoroughly by the emotional and intellectual throat, it could not now, wrest free. Some elements of the stranglehold were self-serving. Rwanda’s most prize 21st-century export was not coffee but its well-trained military (and Kagame). Kigali’s readiness to contribute troops to African peacekeeping missions (Darfur and Mogadishu) meant one less headache for Western policymakers, who knew their own publics in the wake of Day of the Rangers (Blackhawk Down) baulked at sending their own men to die on the continent.

Others were expressions of guilt due to wrong assumptions and decisions. No neo-liberal enjoys querying past assumptions. Once personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of a story of policy assumptions and decisions taken, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, not because of the evidence supporting it, but because its collapse will trigger personal and social cataclysm.

And so, it was with Rwanda. Few narratives possess the power of RPF’s redemptive tale of humiliated-refugees-reborn-as-crusaders, returning to the motherland to save their brothers from forces of absolute evil, and on top of it, on the toxic ruins of a racist society, build a spotless, disciplined, tech-friendly African utopia. The injunction was one Western outsiders were all too ready to embrace.

By 2010, a major debate about the visibility and nature of foreign aid was underway in the West. The words “Rwanda” and “poster child” had been twinned for more than a decade, and for a host of NGO workers, diplomats, development officials and philanthropists, criticising Kagame’s regime meant toppling the pillars on which they constructed their careers.

When the late George H.W. Bush declared the New World Order in 1991, Western confidence was at its peak. Governments in the “industrialised north” thought they were rich and magnanimous enough to “fix” problems they themselves created in societies emerging from war, dictatorship and famine. In the UK, Charles Lynton created the altruistic Dfid headed by Clare Short.

Then came September 11th and the botched invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A fearful West went back into self-defence mode. The superpower that had once been bighearted enough to send troops to distribute food in Somalia now turned into a country preoccupied with its own survival, and mainly interested in Africa to recreate its own earlier plans in Afghanistan, as a breeding ground for Islamic Jihad.

Having created, built up and supported the regime and Kagame playing the role of “donor darling”, desperate for success stories, they were ever more eager to turn a blind eye to the repressive side of his regime. With a palpable shift from the NWO, with its commitment to entrenching human rights and democracy, turned full circle back to the Cold War. Only this time round, the winning classification did not solely rely on being on the “right” side in the global fight against radical Islam. The emphasis now was on making places more stable, not necessarily better.

UK’s former Dfid Minister Andrew Mitchell illustrated how far the perceived new thinking (assumptions and polices) had come totally ignoring the basis for being involved at inception (controlling Congo and geopolitically weakening France): “It’s all very well talking about human rights but the fundamental, primary human right is the right to be free from the threat of violence. As far as I’m concerned, Kagame is a hero for ending the violence. If you live in a country in which a million people have been murdered in a genocide, the international community did nothing to stop, inherited an economy where there wasn’t even a typewriter and everything had been smashed, you tend to look at the criticisms of the West and course you consider them. But this is a very tough government that makes up its mind based on its own self-confidence.”

The stance justified a hard-nosed attitude toward the odd army massacre, journalist’s disappearance, or opposition leader’s assassination. It was premised on a strange cockney-eyed view of recent history. For if the Great Lakes remained a turbulent region (the real agenda) Rwanda, with its constant interventions into DR C, its cynical support for proxy militias across its border, its covert meddling in Burundi and Uganda, and its ruthless elimination of presidents with whom it failed to see eye to eye, had played a major role in keeping it that way. For those accustomed to stripping political ingredients from their assessments of African nation states, Rwanda’s incredible statistics made it easy to overlook that inconvenient fact.

Concern about corruption’s corrosive impact on emerging economies was rife in the West, and Rwanda scored superbly there, just as long as the focus was kept conveniently tight. In 2010 the NGO Transparency International (TI) judged it the least corrupt country in East Africa. Rwanda’s Office of the Ombudsman, seen as a model of its kind, found it difficult to comprehend or respond to the systematic looting of DR C’s minerals not counting as corruption. Sure enough, TI investigator, Gustave Makonene, was shot dead in Rwanda in 2013 by two policemen after showing unhealthy interest in mineral smuggling.

Rwanda ticked all the boxes, even if actual foreign investment remained puzzlingly modest. Economists might regard Rwanda as a case of successful “developmental patrimonialism”, as its near monopoly arrangement via Crystal Ventures (the RPF holding company controls all Rwanda’s economic opportunities) was labelled, but international investors seemed a lot less enthusiastic.

So, Kagame ended up performing one of the cleverest, most ironic balancing acts. Admired by some other African heads of state for telling the West to take a hike whenever it dared challenge its policies, a champion of feisty African self-reliance and countless public platforms, he remained dependent on foreign aid to balance his budget year in, year out. He had perfectly calibrated Western donors’ need to be needed.

The Usual Suspects

The support of the World Bank, the IMF could be taken for guaranteed. On top of that, the philanthropic foundations set up by the most influential retirees adored his regime. Bill Clinton (Clinton Foundation) invests (or the US Fed does) in the fight against malaria (and anything else BJ Bill determines useful to himself), hailed Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time”; Charles Lynton’s The Tony Blair Institute for Change, whose tacked additional “charity” (Cherie Blair Foundation for women), courtesy of UK taxpayers, placed “experts” inside the president’s policy and finance units, praised him as a “visionary”.

The messianic US economist Jeffrey Sachs had chosen Rwanda as the site for his third Millennium Village, an experiment in integrated development (akin to Oxford’s 15-minute neighbourhoods); the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation investing in Rwandan farmers (GM crops) and of course Health; Howard Buffett actively sinking US$500 million of his father’s money into the agricultural sector; and Harvard Medical School professor and health campaigner Paul Farmer was so won over he moved his family to Rwanda. Farmer then died in Feb 2022.

The worrying thing about the West’s current gushing enthusiasm for strongman rule in Central Africa is historical naivete. Rwanda has become one of the “sexy” African countries for African research by neo-lib utopians. But any researcher under the age of 40, has no personal memory of the country before the RPF. History for them began in 1994, and the country’s bureaucratic efficiency can inevitably be seen as Kagame’s handiwork.

Peter Uvin pointed out in his book Aiding Violence, Habyarimana’s Rwanda was also a darling “donor” – “there was no colline and no public service where one did not find the 4-wheel drive vehicles of foreign experts” – only the bilateral donors in question were Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and France, rather than today’s US, UK, Denmark and Germany.

If development economists rave today about the efficiency of the Rwandan state, their European predecessors, tellingly, said the same of its “genocidal predecessor”, choosing to overlook the administration’s appalling record of treatment of Tutsis because the figures on vaccinations and primary education were so damn impressive.

But the World Bank, Dfid, USAID (now back under the lack of leadership of Samantha Power) ensconced in Kigali, under pressure from respective HQs to “push money out the door” aren’t inclined to look back that far. Prey to groupthink that comes with meeting the same like-minded clown colleagues twenty-four hours a day, they were working too hard to venture very often to Kigali, where they would have registered the conditions of Rwanda’s dirt-poor rural areas were a far cry from the images on the government’s glossy brochures.

Airbrushing History

The vocabulary routinely adopted by Rwanda’s politicians, government officials and newspaper columnists betray an instinctively totalitarian mindset. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where Winston Smith worked, would have coined “negationist tendencies” said to afflict Rwanda’s dissidents and the “divergent views” they promote. Anyone who questions the official history is a “genocide-denier”, even when the individual concerned is a Tutsi who lost close family members. This is not a trivial accusation, in Rwanda, “minimising” or “denying” the genocide is an offence that carries a ten-year prison sentence. The vaguer charge of “divisionism” attracts five years, although it’s more often used as a deterrent, stifling criticism by NGOs and civil society organisations, or, in the case of the MDR opposition party, once Rwanda’s biggest, banned altogether. Not ignoring the number of proxy militias in Eastern Congo has mushroomed from 25 in 2008 to between 100-150 currently (all Tutsi), which Kagame says don’t exist and are not connected to Rwanda.

The totalitarian’s system, like many, is strongly militaristic. The government’s decision to revive Itorero, which in pre-colonial times produced the Mwami’s warrior elite – his Itore – is part of this philosophy to keep the country in combat readiness. Officially labelled a “civic education programme”, Itorero’s true nature is revealed in photos showing serious faced Rwanda youth in drilling and marching, the same as their parents did in Uganda.

The baseline is Kagame’s, not just a president with a military background, he’s one with a background in military intelligence. In that world (spooks, secrets, informants), he never has to deal with democracy or dissent.

The entire country is a spying machine. The army, pole all visit the president’s office daily to tell Kagame things. He doesn’t govern, he collects rumours, a vast rumour mill. Distrustful of the senior elite, Kagame requires senior military officers and civil servants to apply for presidential permission prior to any foreign trip. He is always known to monitor the army radio network for whispers of incriminating information. With the advent of social media, this has provided him with a far larger stage on which to apply his covert skills, silently eavesdropping on global discussions of his presidency, occasionally dipping into conversations and lambasting critics.

In 2017, Citizen Lab, a unit based in the University of Toronto that specialises in digital espionage, published an investigation into how the Ethiopian government had used spyware made by an Israel-based company called Cyberbit to target dissidents. Citizen Lab identified Rwanda as one of the customers to have been provided a demo[1].

Two years later, WhatsApp, working in partnership with Citizen Lab, publicly acknowledged its platform had been abused. This time the Israeli company identified was the NSO Group, based in Tel Aviv, and the programme, dubbed Pegasus, was so powerful, the Israeli government classifies it as a weapon. It is active in Rwanda[2]. It is also acknowledged to be active in both Uganda and Kenya.

No African government curates its public image more assiduously than Rwanda. Despite being one of the world’s poorest countries, it spends huge sums on Western lobby firms specialising in reputation management.

When some of the most heart-rending coverage of Rwanda’s genocide came from the House of Savile, when it was doing its job properly. But the relationship between Kigali and the HoS soured when the World Service launched a Kinyarwanda current affairs programme, giving Rwandans a platform on which to air their grievances. Kigali set out to infiltrate the HoS, reportedly approaching several employees with requests for uncut, pre-broadcast interviews with government critics, along with regular updates on what the HoS planned to transmit in the Great Lakes.

When in October 2014 the HoS broadcast Rwanda’s Untold Story a blistering TV documentary that broke every taboo by challenging the generally accepted Tutsi death toll, and that Habyarimana’s plane was brought down by the RPF, the outraged Rwandan government (Kagame) suspended the Kinyarwanda service immediately.

RPF’s other weak spot: its human rights record (or complete absence of it). Rwandan human rights groups harassed by authorities and infiltrated by government agents, do their best to keep lists of dead, tortured, and disappeared. Given that no international human rights organisation currently has an office in Kigali – Human Rights Watch’s Lewis Mudge, last man standing, was expelled in 2014, having like many others the conclusion that today’s RPF has assassination in its DNA.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a report detailing 13 cases of former RPF politicians, military figures, intelligence agents and journalists who had fled Rwanda and been assassinated, kidnapped, or attacked in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and the UK[3].

Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution originally limited Kagame to two terms as president. As the deadline for his departure neared, despite “professing claims of exhaustion”, he wasn’t going anywhere. After four million Rwandans spontaneously signed petitions, an amendment approved by 98% of voters in a December 2015 referendum allowed Kagame to keep running for election until 2034. Rwandan lawmakers, apparently unaware of how ludicrous they sounded, said they conducted nationwide consultations but found only ten people who opposed the idea[4].

If Kagame keeps running for office as long as the constitution now allows, he will have been in control of Rwanda for forty years. Kagame has been careful to groom no obvious successors. Instead, he recycles some familiar names: appointed, promoted, fired, arrested, appointed again, ensuring no potential rival stays long enough in any one post to build up a following.

With a very centralised power system, it’s brittle. The technocratic approach looking at constructed buildings (schools, hospitals) is seen as progress. But institutions and buildings are two different things. Setting one up doesn’t mean the norms and values making it effective are internalised. Rwanda is an organisation – the army – which occupies the commanding heights of a very small economy, with all the perverse incentives that creates. That suggests a very brittle future.

In the region, Rwanda has few, if any, real friends. Rwanda and Uganda have repeatedly come close to the brink of all-out war, most recently June last 2022, with each president convinced his counterpart wants him dead. Kagame has managed an even keel with DR C president Félix Tshisekedi, who allows Kagame’s forces (including M23 proxy) to target non-existent militias there. History suggests such collaboration won’t last very long. As for Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza certainly didn’t see Kagame as a benign influence having backed a foiled coup. Nkurunziza in 2020 came to the same fate as Tanzania president Magufuli, both being killed for exposing covid.

Kagame’s real challenge will come from within. By never admitting moral fault and constantly harping on about the wickedness of the previous regime, the RPF has created a tense, tightly repressed society whose two biggest communities, Hutu and Tutsi, both see themselves as victims of monstrous injustice. Where two communities within the same state believe themselves to be victims, the stage is set for endless conflict.

Kagame’s “Western Friends” masters continue using the divide and rule, maintaining economic colonialism with a trusted proxy.


1 Ethiopian Dissodents Targeted
2 Inside the WhatsApp Hack
3 Rwanda: Repression Across Borders
4 Only Ten People Against Kagame 3rd Term Bid

© AW Kamau 2023