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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times