Is the world turning its back on Rwanda yet again?
More than 20 years after the world ignored the horrors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, Paul Kagame has been re-elected as the country’s leader with a 99% majority win. And why not? Kagame is widely credited as the man who steered Rwanda out of one of the worst genocides in recent history while the international community turned its back.
Since then, Kagame has become the darling of modern African politics. Adopting the Western model of democracy, Kagame brought economic growth, political security and infrastructural development to his damaged nation. He deployed peacekeeper troops to represent Western interests across Africa, held peaceful elections and brought investment opportunities to the international community.
Kagame was the shining example of Africa’s new leaders. Not only did he bring stability to one of Africa’s most troubled nations, he towed the Western political line with perfect execution.
The fairy tale never lasts
It hasn’t exactly been a tale of happily ever after for Kagame and Rwanda, though. As the praise from Western allies stacked up, his government handed out lengthy prison sentences to political opponents and former allies, implementing a tight grip on political activities. Media oppression has become something of a norm in the country and reports of torture and targeted killings under Kagame’s rule hint of a bitter aftertaste to Rwanda’s post-genocide story.
Kagame’s creditors would suggest his grip on power was necessary to maintain peace in Rwanda’s ethnically complex environment. Perhaps they have a point, too. Rwanda hasn’t experienced the horrors of war or genocide since Kagame took the helm, even if it is at the cost of an oppressive government.
However, Kagame has already served the two terms permitted to him by the country’s constitution. If his reign had been the kind of success many like to insist, surely Rwanda would be in a fit enough state for a new president to guide the restored country forward.
Apparently, this isn’t the case.
His government pushed for a referendum to change the constitution, allowing Kagame to run for a third term. Not because the leader himself wanted to, of course. Because it was the will of the people; undeniably proven by 98% of voters who peacefully voted in favour of amending the country’s constitution.
In a country of almost 12 million people, barely a whisper of opposition was heard. Even less so, last week, when 99% of voters elected a 58-year-old Kagame as their ongoing president. He could now be in power until 2034.
President for life?
To say the international community has done nothing to protest Kagame’s extended stay in power might be too harsh. The US publicly called upon the Rwandan government to abandon its plans to amend the constitution, but that’s about as far as things went.
This is more significant than it might appear, though. Rwanda changing its constitution deviates from the Western democratic model of leaders running for no more than two terms. After two decades as America’s political darling in Africa – a position that comes with a lot of financial benefits – Rwanda told the US where to go.
This follows various assassinations of Rwandans living in exile – including the 2014 murder of Patrick Karegeya, who previously told the British press “there is a deliberate plan to finish us off”.
More disturbing are allegations of war crimes for Kagame’s supposed sponsoring of armed militant in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Its other neighbour Burundi also accuses Rwanda of trying to instigate a genocidal war by backing and even recruiting/training opposition fighters.
While the West is quick to denounce the violence in country’s like Burundi and cut off aid, it remains quiet about allegations of Rwanda’s involvement. Likewise, it remains quiet about the embarrassingly one-sided election results that keep Kagame in power.
Considering how eager the US is to slap sanctions against countries accused of war crimes, Rwanda has done well to go unnoticed. Considering how keen the International Criminal Court is to investigate African leaders, Kagame has done well to raise no eyebrows.
Some experts argue the international community’s guilt over failing to address the genocide in 1994, motivates special treatment. If this is true, it’s certainly not justified. It would also be uncharacteristic. The international community also ignored the plight of Cambodians during Pol Pot’s regime and it shows little guilt for the conflicts it has started in the Middle East.
Guilt doesn’t seem to be a problem for those sitting in the highest seats of the international community. Nor does the fact that Rwanda’s political environment seems eerily quiet of opposition. That the country’s elections seem almost too peaceful and resolutely in favour of one man. Or that Rwandan people might be voting away their futures out of fear of demanding for anything else.
Featured image: By © ITU/J.Ohle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31853376