Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who is giving a speech at London’s Chatham House today, is viewed by his admirers as the man who saved the nation – who brought stability and rapid economic development to a country devastated by genocide now 20 years ago. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who advises the Rwandan government, has talked of Kagame’s “visionary leadership,” while former US president Bill Clinton has described him as “one of the greatest leaders of our time.” But these admirers – and others – seem to be willfully ignoring the darker side of Kagame’s record in office.
Rwanda under Kagame has no tolerance for dissent or political opposition. Years of state intimidation and infiltration have emasculated Rwandan civil society. In July last year, the last effective Rwandan human rights organization, the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, suffered an internal coup, which ousted critical and independent voices and installed government-compliant ones. The Rwandan media is dominated by government views, and most media outlets follow the official line. Scores of Rwandan journalists have fled the country, unable to report freely and fearful for their safety.
Kagame’s Rwanda is similarly ruthless in its treatment of political opponents. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front dominates political and public life, at national and local levels. Opposition parties have faced sustained pressure , preventing them from operating effectively. Some prominent opposition leaders, like Victoire Ingabire and Sylvain Sibomana, remain imprisoned, following flawed judicial processes.
Rwandans living abroad who criticize Kagame’s government have also been physically attacked, raising serious questions about Rwandan government involvement. In January, Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan intelligence chief turned Kagame critic, was found murdered in his hotel room in South Africa. In the days that followed, Kagame and other senior government ministers branded Karegeya a traitor and implied he got what he deserved. A few years earlier, an attempt was made on the life of dissident and former senior military official Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, who lives in South Africa. In August, a South African judge convicted four people for the attempted murder – including two Rwandans – calling the attack politically motivated and saying it emanated from a certain group of people in Rwanda.
While in London, Kagame is likely to be lauded for Rwanda’s economic and development achievements, which are impressive. But they in no way excuse his severe crackdown on political opposition, the intimidation of journalists and civil society, and any violence against Rwandan critics abroad. Kagame’s hosts in the UK should say so and in the strongest possible terms. And Kagame should be left in no doubt that he will pay a heavy price internationally for his continued repression and authoritarian rule.