An uncivil partnership

Paul Kagame’s oppressive regime has hurt the British government’s hopes of an international aid succ

One afternoon in the hamlet of Mwoga in south-east Rwanda, I met a 43-year-old single mother named Mary Nyiratabaro. Wearing a bright orange igitenge dress, she was holding a piece of paper in her hand which, for her, signalled security. Rwanda is a country of 11 million people, most of whom live in rural areas and work as subsistence farmers. In the past, the state owned the land, but a British-funded programme to formalise and digitise land ownership is changing that. By 2014, the Department for International Development (DfID) will have spent £23m providing title deeds to about eight million smallholders, guaranteeing them ownership of land and providing collateral for bank loans to cover seed, fertiliser, a cow or school fees. The land reforms allow women to inherit and bequeath land for the first time.

“It gives me great confidence to have land to pass on to my children," Mary told me. "It is my land now and with this certificate I can make long-term plans."

Later, in Kanombe, a suburb of the capital, Kigali, I visited the Efotec secondary school. As classes broke up for lunch, the students stood to sing. Rwanda is a God-fearing country, mostly Catholic but with a rapidly growing Pentecostal movement, and from the red-brick, tin-roofed classrooms, I could hear hymns being sung. Then I heard a different song al­together and saw bemused children being led by a young British man from Wolverhampton through a rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". For two weeks this summer, Arun Photay, a banker and Conservative Party member, was a teacher with Project Umubano, a social action volunteering scheme.

Andrew Mitchell, now Secretary of State for International Development, set up Umu­bano in 2007. During the years of opposition, the project became an incubator of Conservative development policy. It also taught Tory politicians the importance of a success story. I found Stephen Crabb, an affable Conservative MP from South Wales, sitting on a desk in a classroom. "Tories used to have little interest in development, but when Andrew [Mitchell] talks about development he's talking about what he's seen and learned through Umubano.

“This project is about how we think and how we do development," he said. "There's a uniqueness to Rwanda because of the genocide history and unspeakable suffering [it caused] but the wider application of what we learn here is you need a government that provides security and stability for development to take hold."

President Paul Kagame, who was born in the village of Ruhango, central Rwanda, in 1957, has applied military discipline and a rule of near-Leninist order since his rebel Tutsi army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded the country and ended the three-month-long genocide in 1994. As many as 900,000 people were murdered between April and July that year, most of them ethnic Tutsis or so-called moderate Hutus. Many of them were killed by their neighbours or people they knew. Ethnic Hutu husbands murdered their Tutsi wives.

It has been the self-appointed mission of the soldier-politician Kagame to rebuild a wrecked and divided country. In this cause, his government has been generously supported by foreign states, perhaps motivated by guilt at their failure to intervene in the spring of 1994 to halt the genocide. Kagame's achievements are considerable, even if his methods have been harsh, and he has as many admirers as he does disparagers in the outside world. But he is admired in particular for the discipline with which he has led the country back from the abyss and towards a future that, he has said, will help Rwanda become a technology-based, middle-income country - an African Singapore.

On 9 August, Kagame was re-elected for a second and final seven-year term with 93 per cent of the vote. Because two opposition parties were blocked from standing, all three of his rivals were members of his ruling RPF coalition. However, his victory was overshadowed by the mysterious deaths of political opponents and critics, and by the closure of independent newspapers. In June, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, acting editor of the banned newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot in the face and killed in Kigali. In the same month, a dissident general survived an assassination attempt in Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, in July, André Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-president of the Democratic Green Party (one of the barred political parties), was murdered near the southern city of Butare. The Rwandan government denies involvement in these incidents.

None of this was surprising to those who follow events in Rwanda. In the late 1990s, there was a series of disappearances and killings, including one of a former minister of the interior, Seth Sendashonga, who was assassinated in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998. Ahead of the 2003 presidential election, a judge "disappeared" and a politician was murdered. "It was exactly the same thing: small numbers of people turning up dead," said one western diplomat.

In spite of the turn towards even greater authoritarianism, British support for Rwanda has continued. A British government official conceded to me: "We've invested a lot of cash [in the country] and our reputation in Rwanda, which makes it very hard to back off." The repression and murders that preceded the vote are, said Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa programme at Chatham House in London, among "the quite unpleasant side effects" of regimes that, like Kagame's, prize security above all else. "The danger is that the example of Rwanda can lead people to have far more faith in the ability of authoritarian regimes to deliver than is often the case."

Kagame was also implicated in a UN report, published on 1 October, on the decade of violence that convulsed the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1993 and 2003. The report accused Kagame's Tutsi army of possible genocide in the Congo. "The apparently systematic and widespread nature of the attacks, which targeted very large numbers of Rwandan Hutu refugees and members of the Hutu civilian population, resulting in their death, reveal a number of damning elements which, if proven before a competent court, could be classified as crimes of genocide," said the report.

Emotional investment

To date, Britain has given Kagame's Rwanda more than £400m in aid. An agreement signed four years ago promised at least another £46m
a year for the succeeding ten years. The £55m to be given this year makes Britain Rwanda's biggest bilateral donor. Two-thirds of that sum will go directly to the Rwandan government to spend as it chooses. That shows a trust in the government's efficiency that seems well placed.Transparency International rated Rwanda the least corrupt country in the East African sub­region, according to a report published in July. The World Bank also declared Rwanda top reformer of business regulation in its annual Doing Business report, which ranks countries according to "ease of doing business".

The British government's relationship with Rwanda pre-dates the present coalition. During Clare Short's time as international development secretary, from 1997 to 2003, she had an extraordinarily close working relationship with Kagame. Today, Tony Blair sits on Kagame's advisory council along with entrepreneurs and evangelists. In 2007, Kagame addressed the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, after Andrew Mitchell had led 47 volunteers to Rwanda for the first time. "The UK has an awful lot invested in Rwanda and Kagame - financially, emotionally, symbolically," says Dr Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. "The irony is that the UK needs Rwanda more than Rwanda needs the UK." Rwanda proves the British government's belief that foreign aid to Africa can work. At the same time, the Rwandans can turn to many other big donors, such as the United States and the EU.

Britain is committed to giving other countries 0.7 per cent of its annual GDP as aid by 2013. The overseas development budget has been "ring-fenced" at a time when other departments are being subjected to punitive cuts. "The DfID budget will rise to £11.5bn over the next four years," the Chancellor, George Osborne, told parliament on 20 October, announcing details of the Spending Review. "We owe it to the hard-pressed British taxpayer to show that for every pound spent on development we really get 100 pence of value," Mitchell said when we met in Nairobi in July. "We will never sustain public support unless we do that. On behalf of the taxpayer, we are vigorously bearing down on value for money. We are rigorously focused on results and outcomes."

Rwanda delivers results. Take its Revenue Authority: £24m of British aid over 12 years has transformed this once-moribund office into a crucial earner of government income. The department now brings in the same amount - £24m - each month, and helps to fund free basic education and an expanded network of hospitals and health clinics. But not all the aid money is as well spent. Among the institutions DfID has funded is Rwanda's Media High Council. Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who was expelled from Rwanda in April after the government refused to issue her with a work visa, told me that the media watchdog played a "negative role" in the run-up to the presidential elections in August, shutting down two independent newspapers and restricting free speech.

The benign dictator may be a good development partner, but only as long as he remains benign. Kagame's game plan is to maintain iron control, grow the economy and stop people talking about ethnicity until they become rich enough not to care any more. If that goal is achieved at the cost of basic freedoms, human rights and democracy, it is a price he is willing for his people to pay. But because Rwanda is small and landlocked and has few resources other than coffee, the president's partners in development, which together contribute 45 per cent of his government's annual budget, are complicit in his repression. "Rwanda brings the dilemmas of development sharply into focus," said a British official in Kigali.

Like the other diplomats and foreign aid workers to whom I spoke in the capital, he asked not to be named. As did ordinary Rwandans. At coffee shops, hotel restaurants and open-air bars, people would lean in solicitously or glance over their shoulder when talking. Human rights activists speak of a "climate of fear". Even behind the fortress-like walls of one of the western embassies, the diplomat I met paused mid-sentence when a local employee walked by. Nobody has long conver­sations about sensitive matters on the phone, for fear of tapping, and journalists expect to
be shadowed.

Still Hutu v Tutsi?

Victoire Ingabire was studying in the Netherlands at the time of the genocide and stayed there until January 2010. When she returned to Kigali, it was as the chairwoman and aspiring presidential candidate for the FDU-Inkingi party. As soon as she arrived in Rwanda, Ingabire, an ethnic Hutu, visited the main genocide memorial in the hills above Kigali and demanded that Kagame - and, by implication, all Tutsis - acknowledge that during Rwanda's long history of violence, crimes against humanity were also committed by the Tutsi minority against Hutus before and after the genocide.
Her words were incendiary in a country where the designations "Hutu" and "Tutsi" have been removed from identity cards, and all but erased from open conversation. Kagame never refers to himself as a Tutsi, but only as "Rwandan", and encourages others to do the same. This is as politically expedient as it is socially necessary: Tutsis dominate the government yet account for only 15 per cent of the population.

I met Ingabire, who is 42, in a red-brick house in the "Vision 2020" estate (named after Kag­ame's plan for the rebuilding of Rwanda) in Kigali. Her party was blocked from registering for the August poll and she is facing charges of "genocide ideology", "divisionism" and supporting a Congo-based Hutu "terrorist" group. "Everyone in Rwanda is afraid," she told me. "Tutsis are afraid that if they lose power they may be killed; Hutus are afraid that if they speak out they will be accused of having a 'genocide ideology'."

Ingabire was frustrated by Kagame's supporters in western governments. "The international community is not pushing Kagame to accept democracy in our country, and that is a real mistake," she said. "What they want, and what Rwandans want, are not the same thing." Since we met, Ingabire has been arrested; late last month, she was charged with terrorism and moved from her house, and is now in jail awaiting trial.

In Rwanda, western donors are increasingly compromised: they speak of democracy and human rights while offering no resistance to creeping autocracy. "Rwanda shows the limits of aid, because it is very difficult for a donor nation to bind together development aid with good governance and democracy," said Knox Chitiyo of the RUSI. Although Britain generously helps to bankroll the Kagame regime, there is no evidence that aid delivers influence. After all, to cut off aid punishes not the ruling elite, but ordinary Rwandans. "Rwanda demands real questions of what values are important to the west in their development partners, and what western countries can do about it if they're not happy with their partners' values," said Tom Cargill of Chatham House.

There are few answers, but nor is there clear proof that the western democratic model is a faster track to prosperity than the kind of non-democratic path that Rwanda is following. The second route is made even smoother by the influence and deep pockets of China, whose presence and investment in Africa continue to grow. China's centrally controlled, repressive model of governance has nevertheless hauled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The danger for a Conservative-led government that claims to champion individual freedoms and has forged such close associations with Kagame and Rwanda is that the success story is harder to sell when written by an autocrat. One of the diplomats I met in Kigali had been left disillusioned by "waves of repression. We all construct these imaginary futures where Rwanda opens up political space, democratises and so on," he said, "but where is the evidence? These are just fantasies."

 

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).