The Blood On Our Hands, Part II: Paul Kagame and Violence in the Great Lakes Region of Africa

By Madhav Narayan

Out of the fires of the Rwandan genocide rose Paul Kagame, the former head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and current President of Rwanda. Kagame’s rise is important to understand, as it shows us plainly how our governments in the western world have partnered with him to plunder the Great Lakes Region of Africa and have brought death and abject misery to millions of people.

Kagame had lived in exile in Uganda since childhood as a refugee and received military training in the United States, Uganda, and Tanzania. He headed intelligence operations for Yoweri Museveni’s army of rebels, and helped Museveni seize power in Uganda in 1986. From there, he founded the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi rebel movement that took power in the Rwandan capital of Kigali in 1994, marking the “end” of the genocide. He subsequently served as Vice President and Minister of Defence in Rwanda (though he was widely seen as the most powerful figure in the country during this period) until 2000, when he officially became President of Rwanda. As detailed in a confidential US State Department memo, Kagame’s forces were financed at least in part by tobacco tycoon Tribert Rujugiro prior to the April 6, 1994, plane crash that killed then-President Juvénal Habyarimana, an assassination that sparked Rwanda’s bloody genocide. Who killed Habyarimana is the subject of much controversy — for instance, in 2006, French anti-terrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere sought international arrest warrants for nine Kagame aides and for Kagame to be brought in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, citing evidence that Kagame and his staff were behind the operation to destroy Habyarimana’s plane (which was also carrying the President of Burundi at the time of its destruction). It should be noted that another confidential US State Department memo claims that the French government gave Bruguiere the “green light to issue his report, in response to Rwanda’s continuing probes into, and allegations concerning, France’s role in the events of 1994 in Rwanda.”

This would not be the only time when a European court sought warrants against Kagame’s inner circle. In 2008, Spanish judge Fernando Andreu issued international arrest warrants for 40 Rwandan officials, alleging charges of terrorism, genocide, and crimes against humanities perpetrated in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The warrants were issued under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which holds that certain crimes are so serious that they go beyond the sovereignty of a single nation. The United States has been a persistent and vociferous opponent of this doctrine, especially given the accusations against prominent US officials, including former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the actions of American forces in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Chile, Argentina, and France have sought testimony from Kissinger related to murders and disappearances in Chile during the reign of Augusto Pinochet. In private conversations with US diplomats, Rwandan officials seized on this opposition and “asked why the U.S. was not willing, as a friend to the GOR [Government of Rwanda], to apply the same standard to the Spanish indictments.” Publicly, Kagame said that Judge Andreu, could “go to hell,” and the Rwandan foreign ministry brazenly claimed that the case was based on “genocide denial.” Notably, after Spain’s government bowed to pressure to water down its enforcement of universal jurisdiction law, Spain’s Supreme Court dismissed the case in 2015.

Backed by western donors, Kagame quickly built a brand as being pro-development and made further inroads with business, political, and financial leaders in western societies. As reported by The Guardian’s Chris McGreal, former United States President Bill Clinton has praised Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time,” and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has heralded him as “a visionary leader.” Net official development assistance for Rwanda exceeded $1.1 billion in 2018, which was 12% of Gross National Income (GNI) and 54.0% of gross capital formation. Since the 1994 genocide, in part due to significant international aid and investment, Rwanda has made considerable progress on the social and economic development fronts, as indicated in the nation’s significant strides in improving under-5 child mortality. However, crucial problems remain in Rwanda, including considerable inequities between urban and rural areas.

In addition to apparent economic growth, the tenure of Kagame’s regime has been marred by unconscionable acts of violence. The 1994 conflict in Rwanda spilled across its border into the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, as Hutus fled when the RPF took power in Rwanda. RPF soldiers pursued the Hutu refugees, supposedly seeking members of the militias who participated in the Rwandan genocide. In 1996, Rwanda invaded Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)), initially targeting UN refugee camps in the eastern portion of the country, some of which were being used by some Hutu militia members as cover. Men, women, and children who fled deeper into Zaire to escape the renewed violence were mercilessly tracked down by members of the Rwandan Army and a Rwanda-backed Zairean rebel militia called the AFDL. In 1996, Rwanda “planned and directed” an armed rebellion against the government of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, which culminated in the ascension of rebel leader Laurent Kabila as President of Congo. Armed conflict has ravaged the country since that time, and an estimated 6 million people have died due to the effects of war in the DRC over the past three decades, though the actual death toll could be much higher as estimates of the scope and scale of atrocities vary greatly. Terrifying human rights violations have also been reported, leading to the universal jurisdiction investigations described above.

Kagame has sought to consolidate power at every turn. As the BBC recently reported, official ceremonies for the Rwandan diaspora include a pledge of allegiance to Kagame’s political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). As dissidents of Kagame have been targeted and killed, speculation has been abound about Kagame’s role in the murders. Paul Rusesabagina has consistently criticized violence in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and he has worked tirelessly to shed light on the economic exploitation that is central to the continuation of that violence. Now, he too has been illegally arrested and detained. Unfortunately, governments in the western world have worked for several years to protect Kagame, further cementing the disastrous impact of his rule. The sad truth is the following: all of this has been tolerated in large part because of the mineral wealth being smuggled out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And central to the spread of that mineral wealth is the Emirate of Dubai. More to come in The Blood on Our Hands, Part III.

#FreeRusesabagina is fighting for the freedom of the international humanitarian activist Paul Rusesabagina.