Next week, Commonwealth leaders will gather in the manicured Rwandan capital Kigali for the organisation’s heads of government meeting. For the country’s president, Paul Kagame, the event is an opportunity to burnish his reputation as a man the west can do business with — despite widespread international criticism of his treatment of opponents at home and abroad.
On Tuesday, a flight due to carry people seeking asylum in the UK to Kigali, under a deal initially worth £120mn to Rwanda, was grounded after a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. But the British government remains determined to press ahead with the scheme, in which Rwanda has agreed to process asylum seekers deported from the UK.
Defending the agreement in April, Kagame said: “It would be mistaken for people to just make a conclusion: ‘You know Rwanda got money.’ We are not trading humans . . . We are actually helping.”
Another example of this determination to make himself useful to western leaders came last year, when Kagame sent 1,000 troops into Mozambique after Total’s liquefied natural gas project in the country was threatened by jihadist rebels. The move won him the admiration of his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.
Kagame has been in power in Rwanda, first as an unusually active vice-president and then as president, since he led the Rwandan Patriotic Front that quelled the 1994 genocide.
He has been hailed for turning the country’s economy around, while at the same time forging a sense of national identity from the ashes of one of the most horrifying bloodbaths in human history, in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.
Since he became president in 2000, his regime has claimed impressive economic growth. Announcing its new migration plan in April, the UK Home Office described Rwanda as one of the worlds “fastest-growing economies”.
Some dispute these claims about an economic miracle, saying official figures are manipulated, though few can deny there have been tangible economic gains. Still, in 2019 the FT found that government statistics, approved by the World Bank, had been misrepresented on at least one occasion. His government has dismissed the allegations.
Kagame divides opinion like no other leader in Africa’s recent history. Many see him, a Tutsi who grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp, as the saviour of a landlocked nation and the towering African leader of today — a sort of modern version of Ghana’s independence hero and the father of African nationalism, Kwame Nkrumah. Former US president Bill Clinton praised Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time”, while ex-British prime minister Tony Blair called him a “visionary leader”.
But human rights groups and dissidents depict Kagame as a strongman intent on quelling opposition. In 2017 he was elected for a third time with an eyebrow-raising 99 per cent of the vote. The government in Kinshasa accuses Kigali of supporting rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others claim that Kagame’s agents have murdered exiled opponents, charges he has denied.
In recent years, some Rwandans living abroad have been targeted by NSO Group’s Pegasus software. Kagame has denied using the software, but those targeted suspect Rwanda’s intelligence services are behind it.
The president has said he will not take lessons on democracy from westerners who failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide.
“He is so clever that he has managed to convince the world that he turned Rwanda into the Singapore of Africa,” says David Himbara, a former economic adviser to Kagame who is now in exile because, he says, he fears for his life. Himbara claims to have witnessed the president summoning two officials before shouting and beating them with sticks, enraged about where they had bought his office’s curtains. “Then, I knew I had to flee,” he says. The president’s spokeperson, Yolande Makolo, said: “I have no interest in 10-year-old accusations of a disgraced and disgruntled former official — the achievements of President Kagame and his government speak for themselves.”
Some who escaped have perished mysteriously. In September 2019, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans accused of murdering Patrick Karegeya, the former intelligence chief turned Kagame critic who was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room in January 2014.
Kagame, now 64, has begun to muse on who will succeed him when he eventually steps down. “The problem we have is not even just to have somebody to duplicate my role. The problem is actually also having to prevent somebody bringing down what we have built,” he has said.
Makolo once slammed critics who said that Kagame should relinquish power if he wants to assume the mantle of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratic president and a pan-African hero, who stepped down after a single term.
“President Kagame is a leader in Africa because of what he has done/does for his people,” she said. “He’s never needed reminding to do this and certainly doesn’t need to step into anyone’s shoes. We don’t need adult supervision to choose our own hero.”