A Third Term For Paul Kagame: Development At The Cost Of Human Rights

Rwanda’s 2017 presidential election has resulted in a decisive victory for Paul Kagame – the country’s de facto leader since 1994. After waiving the constitutional two-term limit and immunizing himself from prosecution through a referendum in 2015, the former child refugee and leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) won with 99% of the votes. Kagame himself described the election as a mere “formality.” Celebrated by some as a hero who ended the 1994 genocide, others describe him as a ruthless dictator and war criminal who openly intimidates and secretly assassinates his opponents. Despite evidence of the government’s engagement in killings of political dissidents, Kagame has enjoyed wide-spread support from the West for his reconstruction and reform of the country. Now even his strongest supporters have come to criticize his decision to remain in power in what they see as Rwanda’s descent into a long-term authoritarian rule.

Although Kagame’s economic reforms have turned Rwanda into one of the fastest growing economies in Central Africa, his human rights record is far from exemplary. Since the mid-90s, around 5 million people are believed to have lost their lives in regional conflicts Kagame has initiated or been involved in. Motivated by a desire for political control of Hutu rebel groups and the exploitation of Congolese resources, Rwanda invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo twice – once in September 1996 and again in August 1998. The second war erupted into an “African World War” involving a number of African nations. In addition to these charges, a UN report found that the RPF created and supported the Tutsi led rebel group M23, which has been accused of recruiting around 29 child soldiers and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Kagame is also said to have engaged in systematic killings and potential crimes of genocide. Based on interviews in refugee camps, an unpublished UN report estimates that the number of deaths attributed to the RPA in the summer of 1994 alone ranges between 15,000 and 30,000. The actual number, however, is believed to be much higher. In April 1995, the RPA further attacked an internally displaced people’s camp in Kibeho that resulted in more than four thousand counted deaths, with an estimate of a total of 20,000 disappearances. The UN has further estimated that Rwandan forces have caused the deaths of 200,000 to 300,000 Hutu civilians, including women, children, elderly people and the sick. Although these and other incidences are well known, the population is prevented from speaking about it.

The national narrative is a simplistic one: the Hutu-led government and extremist militias are responsible for the genocide and the deaths of around 800,000 Tutsis, neglecting the fact that the Hutus have been both perpetrators and victims of the genocide. It is a dangerous narrative in light of the country’s history of ethnic strife. Meanwhile, Rwanda remains an ethnic dictatorship that has since sidelined the Hutus. The Tutsi-dominated army and RPF control all aspects of Rwandan life. Ethnic labels, however, are no longer allowed and public opposition is faced with the risk of death, thereby stifling any meaningful political dialogue at its roots.

Human rights activists and former members of his inner circle continue to highlight what Western supporters of Kagame, including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, have chosen to ignore: stability and growth in Rwanda has come at the cost of human rights. As an economic miracle, it has become a political dead end. Even its economic development rests on dubious grounds. Foreign donors provide up to 50 percent of Rwanda’s budget, which contributes to its military budget and the income of urban elites, whilst the country continues to exploit the resources of neighbouring country Congo. Although the country’s annual growth rate has remained at around 5 percent since 2005, social inequality is rising on the countryside that reporters have no free access to. Whilst a third term for Paul Kagame is therefore likely to ensure economic stability, the human rights situation remains a precarious one that calls the legitimacy of the government and the consciousness of the international community into question.