The unmasking of Paul Kagame must wake the world up to the DRC

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Since playing a central role in the military operation that ended the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, has steadily cultivated an image as a visionary leader ruling a stable, thriving island in an ocean of chaos.

The recent Commonwealth Summit, hosted in the capital city of Kigali, was meant to be Kagame’s moment of glory, where he could proudly display – and take credit for – the admittedly impressive economic growth and stability Rwanda has built out of the ashes of genocide.

Underneath this veneer, however, is a much darker story, which to Kagame’s dismay is increasingly visible. The outcry over Rwanda’s highly-controversial deal to accept asylum seekers deported by the UK government, recently halted after a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights, has shone intense scrutiny on Kagame’s history of human rights abuses, from his domestic repression to his fuelling of armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Suppressing dissent to bring order in Rwanda

Kagame has consistently proven that he is willing to go to extraordinary and brutal lengths to maintain his regime’s absolute control and authority. Not satisfied with ruthlessly suppressing dissent and opposition within Rwanda, he has for years orchestrated an international reign of terror on exiled dissidents, including former generals, government officials and civilians.

One of the most infamous recent examples is his rendition of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved hundreds of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide and whose heroism inspired the film ‘Hotel Rwanda.’ For daring to openly criticise Kagame’s despotism, Rusesabagina has paid a terrible price—in August 2020, Rusesabagina was kidnapped and brought to Rwanda on the President’s orders, and now faces a 25-year sentence.

While Kagame’s iron fist approach may have brought post-genocide stability to Rwanda, he has undermined peace in its much larger neighbour, the DRC, whose great potential has been thwarted by a devasting armed conflict that has killed millions over more than 25 years.

The DRC’s potential for a better future

The DRC has undeniable potential despite the longstanding conflict. Growth rebounded to 5.7% in 2021 after a dip during the first year of pandemic –– driven primarily by its mining sector—and the World Bank projects a favourable medium-term outlook. This expected economic progress will receive a major boost from the 2024 opening of the Kamoa Kakula mine, which aims to become the second largest copper mine in the world.

Another cause for hope is the Congolese government’s dedication to delivering on President Félix Tshisekedi’s ambitious development programme. The government has increased social and infrastructure spending, and is aiming to diversify the mining-centred economy by boosting agricultural exports.

With its size, natural resources and responsible government, the DRC has significant potential if the security situation were more stable, something which would reassure foreign investors and spur them to inject the capital needed to deliver the major infrastructure projects vital to its long-term development.

As President Tshisekedi himself acknowledged, “there can be no development without security”—and at the moment, Kagame’s regime stands accused of blocking the DRC’s path towards peace and stability.

Rwanda’s destabilisation of the DRC

Since coming to power, Kagame has allegedly backed insurrections of armed Tutsi rebel groups in the volatile eastern part of the country, supposedly to create a buffer between Rwanda and ethnic Hutu militias active in the border regions, his purported fear being that these groups might eventually invade Rwanda to continue the genocide.

But considering the effectiveness of the Rwandan army and its international support, Kagame’s security justification no longer rings true. A more cynical reading of Kagame’s actions suggests that his real interest may lie in the DRC’s lucrative mines.

Rwanda has long been accused of using Tutsi armed groups to loot the DRC’s wealth of minerals in its eastern provinces, such as copper, cobalt and coltan – a key component in smartphone batteries—allowing him to enrich his regime at Congo’s expense. Instead of driving economic prosperity and improved quality of life for the Congolese people, the DRC’s coveted minerals all too often end up in the hands of rebel groups that smuggle them to Rwanda, where export revenues are used to fuel continued fighting in the East.

Paul Kagame’s two faces

After years of cooling tensions between Rwanda and the DRC, armed conflict has returned with a vengeance in recent weeks, driven by a resurgent M23 – a Tutsi rebel group fighting DRC armed forces.

Kagame has adamantly denied supporting this insurrection; the Congolese government remains unconvinced, and for good reason. The Rwandan president’s support of M23’s 2012 rebellion in the DRC is well-established, as is the fact that some of the rebels defeated by the Congolese army fled to Rwanda.

“It is time to put an end to […] this form of complicity between the M23 and the government of Rwanda,” DRC government spokesman Patrick Muyaya recently underlined, “because we want to look at Rwanda as a partner country”.

Rwanda has occasionally cast itself as the DRC’s partner, as well. Kagame’s support of the DRC’s accession to the East African Community (EAC) at the end of March, where he advocated the political and economic benefits of regional integration, contrasts sharply with his alleged backing of M23’s resurgence just two months later, something Muyaya characterised as hypocrisy.

The latest eruption of armed conflict impedes EAC plans for investment in improved road and power infrastructure in the DRC’s strategic eastern provinces to boost regional prosperity, suggesting that Kagame does not have the region’s best interests at heart. Kagame may fear that a growing DRC led by a president rising in international diplomatic prestige would challenge Rwanda as the great economic and political success story of the region. As his loss of face in the lead up to the Commonwealth Summit illustrates, however, Kagame will continue being responsible for his own loss of stature as long as he persists in violating human rights at home and abroad.

 

Image from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0