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."

 

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August