By Horand Knaup – Shortly before elections in Rwanda, once a model country in Africa, the opposition is being harassed and regime critics are being arrested or killed. Despite his success in turning the country around, President Paul Kagame has never had high regard for freedom of expression and human rights.
The gesture was clear and the message unambiguous. Rwandan President Paul Kagame had hardly arrived in the Spanish capital Madrid when he realized that his host was unwilling to shake his hand. The recent United Nations conference that the president was supposed to chair together with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was hastily moved from a government building to a hotel. And then, at the meeting, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon even demanded that Kagame investigate recent incidents in his native Rwanda.
Never before had Kagame, 52, been subjected to such a serious act of political humiliation. Being treated like political outlaws from Zimbabwe or Iran was something he had not yet experienced. For years, Kagame was seen as a model leader in Africa. He had successfully jump-started his country’s economy, international donors were approving funds for Rwanda, and the United States had built one of its biggest embassies in Africa in the capital Kigali.
Kagame was the man who had achieved the miracle of transforming poverty-stricken Rwanda into a model African country. He fought corruption, reduced defense spending and invested in education. In 2009, the World Bank named Rwanda the “world’s top reformer.”
But for the past few months, just in time for the presidential elections scheduled for Monday, the president has shown a completely different face — a face more reminiscent of other African potentates, one that bans newspapers and has journalists arrested and opposition leaders swept out of the way.
In the third week in June, Léonard Rugambage, a journalist, was shot and killed in front of his house in Kigali. And, in mid-June, the deputy chairman of the country’s Green Party, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found dead in a swamp, his head almost completely severed from his body. The leader of the Socialist Party has been detained for weeks, while his secretary disappeared without a trace in mid-June. In July, Kagame had three journalists arrested on charges of insulting the president. His most promising opponent has been under house arrest for months.
The government has distanced itself from the murders, and yet none of the cases has been solved. This seems odd in a country where the police even hands out tickets for throwing away plastic bags.
The world has long regarded Rwanda with favor. A latent sense of guilt for having done nothing about the 1994 genocide prompted many governments, including Germany’s, to generously support the Kagame administration. About 800,000 people, most of them members of the Tutsi ethnic group, were killed between April and July 1994. After 100 days, the massacres were finally brought to an end when Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) marched in.
Unlike other African leaders, Kagame is not suspected of having lined his own pockets while in office. His motorcade is relatively modest, he doesn’t drink alcohol and he values punctuality. Employees who have not arrived at the presidential palace by 7 a.m. are barred from the premises for the next two hours. These virtues have also contributed to his popularity in the United States and Europe.
The United States provides Rwanda with about $200 million (€154 million) in annual foreign aid. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a personal advisor to the president. This spring, the Global Fund promised him $431 million for a program to fight AIDS and tuberculosis. Hardly any other African country receives this much attention and support.
All of this aid and investment has clearly paid off. The streets in Kigali are as good as they are in Europe, two five-star hotels are under construction and a new airport is planned. Some 92 percent of the population has health insurance, and Rwanda, once a starving nation, is even exporting food products today.
But as energetically as Kagame has pressed ahead with economic development, he still holds freedom of expression and democratic rights in low regard. He cites Rwanda’s unique history as justification for his restrictive policies.
For years, the RPF has used the trauma of the genocide as ammunition in its political disputes with critics. The president and the RPF see themselves as the country’s unassailable moral authority, arguing that they were the ones who put an end to one of the worst genocides since
World War II. They point out that it was the RPF that lifted the country out of an African quagmire of corruption and mismanagement. This is why they treat members of the opposition as traitors, and not as people with diverging political convictions.
Frank Habineza, an opposition politician, felt the government’s displeasure when he switched from the RPF to the Green Party. He was sitting in a restaurant when a stranger approached him and said: “We are watching you very carefully. Look out.”
After the death of Deputy Chairman Rwisereka, Habineza now fears for his own life. In his office on the outskirts of Kigali, he likes to show visitors photos taken at one of the first conventions of his party, which was founded only last August. At the meeting, provocateurs wearing suits suddenly jumped and started throwing chairs. When the police arrived, they disbanded the event, handcuffed the troublemakers and took them away. But according to Habineza, the men were promptly released after arriving at the police station.
Nowadays Habineza always locks himself into his office. Then he whispers: “You never know who will suddenly walk in”.