The democratic world has always had a double standard when it comes to dictators. Some we oppose vociferously, while others we quietly allow to get on with it.
Money and big business usually play a role in this hypocrisy. Our governments say little about human rights abuses in countries such as Saudi Arabia because we need their oil. The Chinese government is given a free pass because we want them to build our nuclear power stations. And while politicians may today wrap themselves in the blue and yellow of Ukraine, only yesterday they were happy to allow money stolen from the Ukrainian and Russian people to be safely stashed in London’s corrupted property market.
Another factor that leads some in the West to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses is guilt. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s dictator since 2000, has cunningly weaponised this guilt to remain in good odour with the West during more than two decades in power.
Kagame has long been championed by Western elites. Bill Clinton, the former US president, has called him “one of the greatest leaders of our time”. Tony Blair has praised his “visionary leadership”. The UK gives Kagame’s regime £54m a year and well-meaning Conservative MPs hold Rwanda up as an example of responsible African governance to sell the 0.7 per cent UK aid target to sceptical backbenchers.
One might even call this aid “guilt money”. This guilt is one legacy of the West’s inaction during the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by tribesmen from Rwanda’s Hutu majority. The 100-day orgy of violence took place at a time when, much like today, isolationism was back in vogue in the West, whose leaders had little appetite for humanitarian intervention. Elsewhere at that time, as Bosnian Serb forces massacred Bosnian Muslims during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, adapted Margaret Thatcher’s amoral domestic mantra and declared that there was “no such thing as the international community”. The bodies began to pile up, and today the political class feels guilty about it.
And so we return to Kagame. A Tutsi who came to power following the genocide and a former intelligence officer, the Rwandan president was in his younger days nicknamed “Pilato” after Pontius Pilate, due to his relish for executing suspected informers (Pilate ordered Jesus’s execution).
Since coming to power in 2000, Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) movement has ruled over the country’s 12 million inhabitants with an iron fist. Human Rights Watch cited a climate of “intimidation, harassment and other abuse” during a 2010 plebiscite organised to celebrate Kagame’s decade in office. Opposition parties were forbidden from fielding candidates due to spurious legal and administrative rulings. Kagame was subsequently elected for a second seven-year term with 93 percent of the vote. He was elected again in 2017 with 98.63 per cent of the vote, a mandate that would make the leaders of North Korea blush.
Yet Western leaders hardly batted an eyelid. Guilt for their inaction during the genocide played its part. But so did a racism of low expectations. Listening to Western politicians talk about Africa, one gets the perception that Africans are held to a lower standard because they are assumed to be both less capable and more easily corruptible. When asked in 2013 about Kagame’s questionable human rights record, Bill Clinton said that he made “more allowances for a government that produces as much progress as this one”.
What Kagame apparently had going for him was economic growth. And to be sure, Kagame’s government has overseen dramatic improvements in the fields of healthcare and education. Economic growth frequently stands at 7 percent. “The numbers do not lie,” Kagame told the pan-African magazine Jeune Afrique in 2017.
Yet while the numbers themselves may not lie, there is evidence that those in charge of the economic data have fiddled them. According to a comprehensive 2017 Financial Times investigation, far from being an economic miracle, poverty actually increased in Rwanda during the “boom” years of Kagame’s rule. Indeed, the FT’s investigation referred to “a consistent attempt since 2015 to misrepresent the results” regarding poverty.
The report was described as “Western propaganda” by the Rwandan government and rejected by the World Bank, which had been credulously singing Kagame’s praises as a “moderniser” ever since he first came to power.
The Rwandan government’s retort to the FT’s investigation was wide of the mark because Kagame remains the West’s favourite dictator. Indeed, Kagame is still treated with kid gloves by the West after 23 years unopposed in power: he can regularly be seen hobnobbing with the global elite at Davos.
Now, Kagame is set to play a role in Britain’s immigration policy. Boris Johnson’s government announced last week that Rwanda would soon begin processing asylum seekers attempting to come to the United Kingdom. The controversial scheme will see migrants who arrive in the UK via the English Channel, or other irregular routes, deported to Rwanda. As part of a “migration and economic development partnership” between Britain and Rwanda, Kagame’s government is set to receive £120 million from Britain towards an economic development program. The Home Office has said that those who receive refugee status “will be given full rights in Rwanda”.
If Western elites had a less blinkered view of Rwanda and Kagame they would probably not use such hollow phrases. Rwanda today is a country where elections are rigged, independent journalists are imprisoned, and former allies and critics of the president are hunted down abroad or forcibly disappeared at home. Three Rwandan exiles living in London were warned in 2011 by Scotland Yard that they were potential targets of Kagame’s assassins. Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan intelligence chief, was found suffocated in a hotel room in South Africa on New Year’s Day in 2014.
As for poverty reduction, I suppose you could call it that. While the IMF and World Bank wax enthusiastically about Rwanda’s openness to foreign capital, the homeless of the country’s capital Kigali are herded into “re-education” camps, where they can be held for months without charge and subjected to vicious beatings.
Rwanda is not the model of economic development and political stability that some in the West wish to see. Evidence of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Kagame regime is abundant. After 23 years of Kagame’s rule, Rwanda is clearly not the “Singapore of Africa”, as it is often called.
Educated Africa-watchers can see what Rwanda is becoming. The question for us Britons is: what are we becoming as a country if we think it’s OK to send some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees to Rwanda?