Why did Andrew Mitchell reinstate aid to Rwanda on his last day at DfID?

The "aid success story" in Rwanda was key to detoxifying the Tory brand. Is that why Andrew Mitchell personally intervened to restore its budget, despite fears that the country is funding violent rebels in the Congo?

David Cameron used his appearance yesterday at the UN General Assembly to re-confirm British support for increasing aid to meet the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP. Coming at a time when billions have been cut from defence budgets dear to Tory hearts, and billions more will have to be cut from welfare, it is a remarkable display of international solidarity. Or is it? While there’s no doubting the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to the poor of Africa, it does not explain why ring-fencing aid is such a high priority in such difficult times.

International aid was critical in redefining the modern Tory party. Aid played, and continues to play, an important part in “Brand Cameron” – which is why there was such anguish when Mitchell went and spoilt it all with his “fucking pleb” rant against the police in Downing Street. As the Daily Mail commented this week: “He lavished billions on foreign aid to detoxify the Tories. Now Mr Mitchell's boorish tirade has set them back years.”

At the heart of the Tory aid project has been Rwanda – a country now boasting impressive growth rates, as it recovers from the genocide of 1994. Having left the Francophone zone behind and joined the Commonwealth, Rwandan president Paul Kagame was an ideal partner for the Conservative Party to embrace.  

All of which explains why Andrew Mitchell went through such contortions to reinstate part of the Rwandan aid budget on 4 September, his very last day in office as Secretary of State for International Development. It had been a job he loved – having served as Shadow Secretary for five years before the 2010 election. Before he left, Mitchell took one final decision. Without consulting his senior officials, I understand, he reversed the cuts that had been made to the Rwandan aid budget less than two months earlier.

The decision flew in the face of the professional advice he had received, and Britain’s Western aid partners have privately expressed their outrage at his action. Mitchell’s successor, Justine Greening, was left struggling to pick up the pieces. 

The initial aid cut had been announced against Mitchell’s judgement, and was only implemented following considerable pressure from Washington, Bonn and the Hague, which had already made the cuts. It followed extensive evidence from UN experts that Rwandan troops and weaponry were slipping across the country’s border to support some of the most notorious rebels operating in Eastern Congo – the M23 (pdf). Their report was backed by evidence supplied by Human Rights Watch.

Andrew Mitchell resisted imposing the sanction as long as possible, but had finally caved in. The decision was grudgingly taken and slipped out in a press release from DFID on 27 July, while the British press and public were immersed in the spectacle of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Just 53 days after the cut was announced, it was reversed. Explaining this decision, Mitchell said that following the delay in British aid: “. . . I sought assurances from President Kagame that Rwanda was adhering to the strict partnership principles.” President Kagame, a past-master at dealing with Western donors, provided the kind of vacuous assurances he has repeated down the years. Mitchell believed them, announcing as he left for the Chief Whip’s office that: “Britain will partially restore its general budget support to Rwanda.”

The UK remains Rwanda’s largest bilateral aid donor. What is so remarkable about the tenacity of British support, is not that it not just that it flies in the face of years of evidence of Rwandan repression at home or Kagame’s backing for Congolese rebels. It also ignores the evidence of the danger Rwandan government death squads pose to exiles living in London.

In May last year the Metropolitan police took the extraordinary step of issuing several Rwandans with “Threats to Life Warning Notices.” (See an example of one of them here, with personal information redacted.) These stated, in no uncertain terms, that they were in danger of being killed by Paul Kagame’s government.

“Reliable intelligence states that the Rwandan Government poses an imminent threat to your life. The threat could come in any form. You should be aware that othr high profile cases where action such as this has been conducted in the past. Conventional and unconventional means have been used.”

While the Met said it could not provide round the clock protection, it instructed the recipients of these warnings not to carry weapons. Instead a series of measures, including burglar alarms, changes to daily routine and the like were suggested to the frightened exiles.

The British fascination with Rwanda dates back to Clare Short’s time, when she was given the development ministry by Tony Blair following the 1997 election. More than a decade later, long after losing her post, she still took holidays in the country. “The wonderful thing about Rwanda” she explained in 2008 “is that people are full of hope and determination to build a better future.” This, despite repeated warnings from human rights groups of Rwandan political repression, the silencing of critical journalists and repeated interventions in Congo.

Tony Blair took a similar position, continuing to support President Paul Kagame after leaving office through his Africa Governance Initiative. Blair still works closely with the Rwandan president, visiting the country earlier this month.

But Labour’s support only laid the foundations for the Tories, who were soon also won over by Kagame’s cool intelligence and free-market principles. Andrew Mitchell was among the first to be charmed, grasping the part this small Central African nation could play in re-branding the Tory party.

In 2007 he formed Project Umubano. Working in Rwanda and that other war-torn African state, Sierra Leone, the project claims to have sent 230 volunteers – many of them MPs and cabinet ministers - off to sunny climes to do a spot of teaching, building and good works. Stephen Crabb MP was an early convert, describing Kagame as “one of Africa's most competent leaders.”

Among their activities has been the encouragement of that most English of exports, the love of cricket. A Rwandan Cricket Academy was formed and the annual match between Umubano volunteers and a side from the Rwanda Cricket Association was a highlight of every visit.

Umubano was more than just a knock-about holiday in the sun; its real aim was to detoxify the Tory brand. Rwanda provided the prefect backdrop for Cameron to launch his development aid programme in 2007, even if he was criticised for leaving his flooded Witney constituency to do so. As a senior Tory MP complained at the time, "Rwanda always looked a bit like a stunt. Now it looks like a very ill-timed one."

Cameron’s critics were wrong. The strategy paid off, softening the Tory image. The links with Rwanda saw Paul Kagame attend the Tory Party conference in 2007, lavishing praise on his hosts, describing Umubano as an “unprecedented” example of aid.

Just how sensitive the Mitchell camp is about Project Rwanda was recently revealed by the Telegraph journalist, Lucy Kinder, who described how in 2009, as a young volunteer with Umubano she was mercilessly bullied by Mitchell’s staff. Kinder had written an article which was mildly critical. It produced fury from Mitchell and reduced some of his senior aides to tears. Anything that might besmirch the Tory image had to resisted at all costs. "You have betrayed the trust of me and the Conservative Party," Mitchell told her.

The complex web of relations between Cameron, Mitchell and Rwanda perhaps explains why the Prime Minister has continued to support his Chief Whip throughout the “fucking plebs” scandal. The success of “Brand Cameron” owes much to the people of Rwanda. Ditching the architect of Umubano could call into question the Prime Minister’s loyalty to his closet friends and undermine his carefully crafted image.

Paul Kagame. Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Hale is a pseudonym.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt