The Rwandan Election

Paul Kagame is headed for a landslide victory at the Rwandan polls. Exit polls indicate 93% of the electorate voted for him. If some Western media commentators could vote in Rwandan elections, the number would likely be even higher.

Take Stephen Kinzer, who wrote a biography of Kagame subtitled “Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed it”. Earlier this year, Kinzer wrote in the UK Guardian about the stakes of Rwanda’s election:

“Kagame’s government has passed laws against disseminating "genocide ideology", meaning views that could inflame communal hatreds. People are supposed to describe themselves only as Rwandan, never as Hutu or Tutsi. Kagame claims these laws are necessary to keep Rwanda back from the abyss of violence. If he enforces them during the political campaign, though, critics will accuse him of suppressing free speech.” (1)

Kinzer sees such critics as irresponsible, the equivalent of crying “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. But his description of the elections does not inspire confidence in their fairness:

“Seven years later, Rwanda is in the midst of a promising transformation and Kagame is a darling of the global development community. His enemies know they cannot defeat him in this election; he is the strongman and will do whatever is necessary to win. Their strategy is to bait him into taking actions – like arresting a rival candidate – that would make him look bad abroad and thereby weaken his regime.”

Fair elections and free expression, it seems, are luxuries for countries like Rwanda, in the midst of “a promising transformation”. Such countries get “strongmen” who “will do whatever is necessary to win.” Could a Western commentator say such things about Chavez in Venezuela approvingly, I wonder?

Like Kinzer’s article, other Western commentators provide hints of what Kagame’s regime is really like. The UK Daily Telegraph’s Richard Grant’s interview with Kagame provides some context on what the ban on mentioning Hutu or Tutsi means (2):

“To Kagame’s critics, this is simply a strategy to keep the Hutus, who make up 85 per cent of the population, from organising politically against his small Tutsi elite now controlling the country. There are Hutu members and ministers in Kagame’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), but the inner circle is all Tutsi. And in the past, whenever Hutu politicians have started to gather power or criticise the government, it has usually meant their imprisonment, exile, disappearance or, in the case of Seth Sendashonga and a few others, unsolved assassination.”

Grant’s article takes the reader (somewhat quickly) through Kagame’s rise to power in the 1990s. It also raises Kagame’s greatest, and almost unimaginable, crimes – those relating to the invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda’s subsequent, and continuing, imperialism in the DRC:

“…his army invaded Zaire/Congo (while he strenuously denied that an invasion was taking place). Fighting alongside a Congolese rebel army, it scattered but did not defeat the Hutu war machine, committed a series of brutal massacres against fleeing, unarmed Hutus (also denied, even when the mass graves were discovered), deposed the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and set in motion a horrific cycle of violence, upheaval and pillage in Congo that has been dubbed Africa’s World War. Depending on whose figures you believe, it has caused three million, five million or seven million deaths, mostly from war-related disease and privation.

“The gravest charges against Kagame’s regime relate to the actions of his army. There is clear evidence that the RPF committed systematic massacres of Hutus both in Rwanda when they took power, and then in Congo. According to UN reports, the Rwandan military has also plundered some $100 million worth of gold, diamonds, tin, coltan and other minerals from war-ravaged eastern Congo. It is not a defence of Rwanda but a point of context to mention that eight other African nations, and a dizzying cast of Congolese warlords, have also been fighting over the vast mineral wealth in this region.”

Grant allows Kagame to answer these charges about the DRC. Kagame’s reply amounts to a virtual admission of Rwanda’s role, with the classic justification that ‘if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would’:

Kagame has only this to say on the subject of Congo: ‘The problems there are so enormous and many decades old, so I think it is a mistake to say that the problem starts with Rwanda’s hand in it, and this is where it ends. Even if we were to take Rwanda away, and put it someplace else, Congo still has a lot of problems to contend with – corruption, bad governance, lack of effective institutions, and so on. But at least for those problems related to us we are gradually overcoming them, and are doing so by working very well with the Congolese.’

Philip Gourevitch, who wrote one of the most popular books on the Rwandan genocide, writing in the New Yorker on May 4, 2009 (3), describes Kagame’s development project as follows:

“Although Rwanda still relies on foreign aid for roughly half its budget, Kagame regards aid-dependency as one of the greatest obstacles to development in post-colonial Africa, and he sees his promotion of trade and entrepreneurship as a continuation of the liberation struggle. Rwanda has just signed a three-hundred-million-dollar deal with an American energy company to extract vast stores of methane from Lake Kivu, which forms much of Rwanda’s border with Congo. The methane will drive electrical generators, more than doubling the national supply while cutting the price by more than half. There are now also mining operations in Rwanda, producing respectable amounts of cassiterite, coltan, wolframite, and gold. There are plans to create a large new airport and a free-trade zone about half an hour outside Kigali, and to set up a railroad link to a port in Tanzania. Banks are proliferating, and, increasingly, white-collar professionals from other East African countries are coming to Rwanda in search of opportunity.“

In fact, Rwanda has been exporting much more than “respectable amounts” of the minerals mentioned – because it has been exporting Congolese minerals, as the UN reports establish clearly. As for Gourevitch’s description of Rwanda’s control of eastern Congo in the same article presents the invasion as retaliation (“Rwanda struck back swiftly”) and Rwandan strategy as if it was a natural event (“Congo was soon split up”):

“President Kabila, who had proved to be every bit as capricious as Mobutu, and even less popular, turned against the Rwandan Army, which had helped put him in office, and embraced instead the Hutu fighters whom he had helped to pursue on his march to power. Rwanda struck back swiftly, reoccupying much of Congo… Congo was soon split up, with Rwanda and its local proxies occupying much of the eastern part for the next five years.”

Why does the West support Kagame, and Rwanda, so strongly? Western commentators like Kinzer and Philip Gourevitch are certainly impressed with Kagame’s developmental achievements and organizational and military prowess. The blood price of both of these was paid mainly by Congolese.

The UN reports mentioned by Grant on the Illegal Exploitation of the Mineral Resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo, starting in 2001 and published year after year until the latest in 2009, indicate a systematic pattern of plunder of Congolese natural resources from which Rwanda has benefited, not to the tune of $100 million USD total, but probably more like that sum every single year since 1996. Plunder of the DRC probably accounts for about the same amounts as Rwanda is currently getting in aid – and countries like Norway and Denmark have suspended aid to Rwanda until it proves that it is not supporting warlords to plunder the eastern DRC.

In addition to mass murder abroad, Kagame’s government has resorted to assassination, massacre, and disappearances at home. This, too, is copiously documented and not really denied by Kagame’s supporters in the West, who argue mainly that such things are necessary in the Rwandan context and, without Kagame, would be worse.

Kagame took power at the end of the Rwandan genocide, a genocide that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mostly Tutsi (the group to which Kagame belongs), but many Hutu (the majority). Kagame’s army killed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mostly Hutu but many Tutsi, in the course of the civil war that brought him to power. That same army then proceeded to kill tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Congolese, citing security fears and paying for the occupation by plundering the occupied country. Can all this be consigned to oblivion because he is successfully developing Rwanda (using stolen Congolese wealth)? Does the end of recovery after genocide justify any means, including atrocity? Some of Kagame’s supporters might face this question and answer it honestly in the affirmative.

But most of those in the countries that supported Rwanda financially, diplomatically, and militarily throughout this period and will likely do so for the next 7 years, don’t know this history. People in Eastern Congo, and in Rwanda, do. For us to have such a warped understanding of what has gone on in their countries cannot be in anybody’s interest. We could at least correct the record (4).

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He visited the Eastern Congo and Rwanda in 2009.


1.Stephen Kinzer, “The Limits of Free Speech in Rwanda”. March 2, 2010. UK Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/mar/02/rwanda-free-speech-genocide
2.Richard Grant, “Paul Kagame: Rwanda’s redeemer or ruthless dictator?” July 22, 2010. UK Daily Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/rwanda/7900680/Paul-Kagame-Rwandas-redeemer-or-ruthless-dictator.html.
3.Philip Gourevitch, “The Life After”. The New Yorker May 4, 2009.
4.A review of three very informative books about Rwanda and the DRC is in the September 2009 NYRB: “Kagame’s Hidden War in the Congo”, by Howard R. French. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/sep/24/kagames-hidden-war-in-the-congo/

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