A month of feverish speculation about one of Andrew Mitchell’s first actions as Chief Whip – the infamous incident at Downing Street – eventually led to his decision to resign the post.
Yet there has been much less focus on one of his final actions as Secretary of State for International Development – despite far more serious ramifications. As he prepared to leave his post in the Department for International Development, Mr Mitchell ended a freeze on aid to Rwanda. As a result, £16m was granted to the country in a move which left the UK internationally isolated.
While the move received some coverage – including by the New Statesman here, it did not receive widespread coverage.
It reversed a previous decision made by Andrew Mitchell, in common with allies in the European Union and beyond, following intensification of fighting in Eastern Congo – fighting in which the M23 rebel group played a substantial role.
It is not clear why the UK government made the decision to reinstate aid on the day Mitchell left the department, why it made the decision alone and what, if any, consultation took place with European Union countries who, increasingly, co-ordinate policies and payments with the UK government.
It is also a puzzle that any Secretary of State should make such a sensitive decision on his last day in the job, since the issue was not especially time sensitive and could have been considered, with appropriate discussion with allies, by his successor.
The decision became more sensitive still within a month. A Reuters news report said that concerns have been set out by UN experts in a report due out in November that Rwanda’s defence chief is effectively leading a rebel group against its neighbour’s Government. The M23 rebels have been fighting government forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo for much of the year, a key factor in the initial suspension of aid in July. Rwanda has strongly denied the suggestions.
Andrew Mitchell’s actions in restoring aid moved against the tide of international opinion and left Britain isolated.
The question is: why?
In a parliamentary answer last month, the government confirmed they remain “very concerned by continuing reports of Rwandan support for the M23 rebels, by the humanitarian situation, and by reports that the M23 rebels are setting up a parallel administration, and are committing human rights abuses.”
Asked by Cardiff West Labour MP Kevin Brennan why aid was restored despite those concerns, the Prime Minister said: “We should be very frank and firm with President Kagame and the Rwandan regime that we do not accept that they should be supporting militias in the Congo or elsewhere. I have raised that issue personally with the President, but I continue to believe that investing in Rwanda’s success, as one of those countries in Africa that is showing that the cycle of poverty can be broken and that conditions for its people can be improved, is something we are right to do.”
This response does not sit well with the decision to suspend aid in July.
Certainly, the Foreign Office is sensitive to continued concern on the matter. Minister Hugo Swire, speaking in a debate on the Democratic Republic of Congo on 23 October said in reponse to me pressing him on the matter:
The decision to disburse £8m of general budget support while reprogramming the remaining £8 million to targeted programmes on education and food security took account of the fact that withholding the money would impact on the very people we aim to help. By reprogramming some of the general budget support, we signalled our continuing concern about Rwanda’s actions in eastern DRC.
I am sure that the honourable gentleman was not trying to make some kind of cheap political point about the issue. The point is that we are committed to helping the poorest people in the world and we believe that there are people in Rwanda who are still deserving of our support. The decision to continue that support was taken across Government.
Andrew Mitchell’s decision to reinstate aid amended the package to Rwanda: part of the aid was “reprogrammed” to targeted programmes. This indicates worries that the funding could have been use inappropriately had a simple reinstatement of aid been made.
It is very welcome that Andrew Mitchell will be giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development on 8 November on his decision to reinstate aid to Rwanda. Substantial questions remain for him to answer.
Ian Lucas is Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East and the Labour MP for Wrexham