By Paul Blezard
Rwanda presents well. The shop window it shows to the world is impressive, seductive even.
The land of a thousand hills is indeed glorious, welcoming and endlessly fascinating. “Look here,” it says. “Look at our beautiful country; admire our government with more women than men in the cabinet.”
“Invest here” it offers, citing its World Bank ranking as the second easiest place to do business in Africa, its tech incubator and Innovation City, its new Volkswagen plant and special economic zones.
‘Meet here’ it proposes, offering the ‘world class facilities’ of the Kigali Convention City and flaunting its impending status as host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
“Partner with us” it suggests, wearing its multi million dollar deals with Arsenal and Paris Saint Germain football clubs and its association with the NBA proudly on its national sleeve.
It is all true and admirable, of course. Rwanda’s quest for prosperity follows a well-trodden path, not unlike that taken by Dubai or Singapore, with which it is frequently and flatteringly compared. It is all that it says it is. It is keen to attract your tourism and your investment and hungry to associate itself with your big brand team or company.
But look deeper at how Rwanda is run, how it does business and a darker, more Conradian, picture emerges.
President Paul Kagame has held office for over two decades, putting him in the same league of global long term Presidents as Bashar al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. Tales of Kagame being asked how much of a majority he would like to win an election by and it being duly delivered, abound and have credence. Kagame himself has said “democracy is not defined by the West,” granting himself the liberty to write his own rule book and making an enemy-figure of any country that interferes, in just seven words.
Allegations of his role in the enduring conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are ever being confirmed by emerging evidence. Claims that he bears direct responsibility for over 6 million deaths in the region are becoming harder to ignore.
Evidence of Rwanda playing a key role as broker and agent in the pillaging of D.R.C.’s mineral wealth, offering a conduit to supply high value gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin into the voracious world markets, are well proven. It’s a $4 billion per annum industry that reinvests in appalling rebellions to ensure future supply, regardless of the price paid in blood and lives.
And then there is the lifeblood of any real democracy; freedom of speech and a free press.
In Rwanda’s faux democracy these are virtually non-existent. Dissenting voices are monitored, quelled, silenced and all too often killed. Rwandans who might publicly criticise Kagame from within the country are too scared to do so. Most have sought sanctuary abroad for safety, all too illusory in many cases, as Michela Wrong’s book, Do Not Disturb, a forensic analysis of the murder of Kagame’s former comrade in arms, Patrick Karegeya, details. And he is just one example. The roster of brave, vocal Kagame critics who have disappeared, vanished or died while in prison grows at a terrifying pace.
The current case of world-recognised humanitarian and Belgian national, Paul Rusesabagina, kidnapped and renditioned to Rwanda to face a trail that is as much a mockery of justice as Rwandan elections are a travesty of democracy, is just one example of Kagame’s long arm of vindictive, silencing violence. He has now been imprisoned for nearly 300 days, 250 of them in solitary confinement, when anything above 15 days is a grave contravention of international human rights.
The American Bar Association together with the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch Initiative have this week published an utterly damning report on the Rwandan judiciary’s conduct in Paul Rusesabagina’s trial. It reads like a “How Not To Run A Fair Trial” playbook. You can read it here:
Much of the above story of present day Rwanda you can, will have or should read about in greater detail in the growing mass of analysis, articles and features in the international media. But why does it matter? Why should we care about a small nation that most people will never visit, however attractive the tourist brochures are?
Well here’s one reason. Rwanda’s glossy sales pitch hides uncomfortable truths. For Rwanda is still hugely dependent on international aid, recently for as much as 40% of its budget. Yet despite this, levels of poverty, food shortages and dire or absent health care provisions are growing.
While the capital, Kigali, likes to show off its gleaming new towers, the rural districts, often run by Kagame cronies and puppets, are suffering greatly and, with no press freedom, quietly. It is your money, your taxes, that are being used to support a dictator who suppresses too many of the values that enable you to live your life freely. You might want to mention this to your MP or your congressperson.
Here’s another reason. While Rwanda flaunts its membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and Kagame will doubtless prop up his despotic dictatorship with press-friendly photos of himself shaking the hands of gathered world leaders at the forthcoming CHOGM gathering, it is again your money that pays for it all, with contributions made to the various Commonwealth funds from member Governments. From your taxes. You might want to mention this to your MP or your congressperson too.
The Commonwealth of Nations is an admirable and august body, with well-calibrated ambitions of international support. But member states sign up to its core charter and various articles that include clear values and aspirations regarding democratic principles, rule of law and human rights. Rwanda has for too long ignored or transgressed many of these. It continues to do so.
Any nation that contravenes international standards of behaviour, flouts agreements that it has willingly signed up to and actively seeks to suppress rights of humanity and freedom, is generally considered to have gone rogue. Rwanda is one such and until, and unless, it adheres to the rules it should not be accorded the privileges and aid bestowed on other, more deserving, nations.
So the next time you cheer your team with “Visit Rwanda” emblazoned on its shirt, the next time you plan the holiday of a lifetime or a business conference with a pretty view, or when you next consider investing in an African nation, remember that Rwanda is not friendly, not easy, not world class. It incites and funds deathly rebellions for revenue, it murders dissenting voices, it oppresses its citizens and it kidnaps and tortures heroes.
Until Rwanda plays by the rules, don’t look here.
1002 words © Paul Blezard 2021