By Obadiah Mailafia
LATE Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui once described Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana as “a Leninist Czar”. He argued that Nkrumah had his positive side as a revolutionary leader committed to justice and social transformation, but was also a despot who brooked no opposition. That sobriquet captures the moral paradox of Paul Kagame’s statecraft in Rwanda.
On Friday 4th of August Kagame was re-elected to a third seven-year term as President of the small East African nation of Rwanda. He was said to have won by a landslide of 98.8 percent. Before then, he had undertaken a rather controversial re-engineering of the constitution that paved the way for him to stand for a third term.
I have never visited Rwanda. Like many, when I beheld the TV images of bloated bodies floating on Lake Kivu in 1994, I was stricken with grief and could not eat for weeks. The mere sight of meat made me want to throw up. For the first time ever in my life, I felt ashamed to be an African. I still look forward to visiting Rwanda, pays des milles collines — land of a thousand hills. Those of my friends who have been tell me it’s a pleasant and orderly place. Kigali is probably the cleanest city on our continent, barring Cape Town.
If truth be told, I was rather sceptical of Paul Kagame from the word go. He came across as yet another warlord and soldier of fortune. He and his rabble guerrilla army seized power by force of arms in April 2000. It could be argued that the horrible genocide against a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus was enough of a casus belli. But then it is also true that Kagame and the RPF had spent years already in the Virunga Mountains, attacking and weakening the government in power until it came crashing down.
Historians will continue to debate the chain of events that eventually triggered the Rwanda genocide. On 6 April 1994, the plane that was bringing back Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira was brought down as it approached Kigali Airport. They were returning from the Arusha peace talks in Tanzania aimed at finding a political settlement to the Rwanda conflict. Whoever brought down the plane knew that it was the one single flame that would ignite the whole country.
Accusing fingers have been pointed at Kagame and the RPF, who have strenuously denied any responsibility. Others allege it was the handiwork of Hutu extremists who were opposed to the peace talks. Yet others heap the blame on the devious French.
History will give the final verdict. What is clear is that both Hutu extremists and Kagame benefitted from the ensuing tragedy. The one found in it an opportunity to commit genocide while the other saw in it an opportunity to seizure power.
Let us consider Kagame’s Leninist side first. He was born in Uganda, of Rwanda exile parents on 23 October 1957. He belongs to the royal lineage of the last Rwanda monarch, King Mutara III. As a young man, he joined Yoweri Museveni’s Ugandan guerrilla army which eventually captured power in 1986. He rose through the ranks, becoming military intelligence chief. But his heart was always in Rwanda.
For most of the decades following independence from Belgium in 1962, the country had been torn apart by recurrent cycles of inter-ethnic violence, principally between the feudal ruling elite Tutsi minority and the plebeian Hutu majority. Together with a childhood friend, Fred Rwigema, Kagame founded the Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF, as a political machine to capture power and set Rwanda to rights. Rwigema died in the first few months of the PRF onslaught into Rwanda in October in 1990. Kagame abandoned his military studies at the General Command and Staff College at Leavenworth, USA, to take over leadership of the movement. The rest is history.
The austere and highly focused Kagame has shown exceptional leadership in transforming Rwanda from a Third World backwater into a prospective middle-income country. Careful planning and astute public management have brought social and economic stability to the country. Rwanda ranks among the most competitive economies in Africa; with an open and liberal economy that is attracting foreign investors in droves. Growth has averaged a remarkable 8 percent over the past decade, with the GDP having increased by 46 percent, from $5.77 billion in 2010 to $8.4 billion in 2016.
Land and agrarian reforms are leading to self-sufficiency in food production. Rwanda has invested considerably in ICT and is on the road to being the technology hub for East Africa. From a single university in the year 2000, the country now boasts of 29 higher institutions of learning. Considerable investments have been made in electricity, physical infrastructures and human development. Corruption has been brought under control. Cabinet ministers and public officials are given clear performance contracts. Public accountability is enforced. Rwanda is a purpose-driven country that is among the progressive and prosperous nations of our New Africa.
Without Kagame’s exceptional leadership and uncommon vision and courage, none of this would have been possible. In his own words: “Rwanda and a big part of Africa have been lagging behind; it is our responsibility to catch up with the rest of the world and where possible, go even further.”
And now to his Tsarism
I have had misgivings about the regime’s involvement in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. Under the ostensible pretext of hot pursuit against interhamwe Hutus deep inside the Congo, Kagame’s soldiers have slaughtered more than 200,000 people; unleashing a civil war that has consumed an estimated 2,000,000 more. The regime has probably profiteered from the mess by plundering and pillaging the vast mineral resources of the Congo, particularly diamonds, coltan and rare earths. Neighbouring regions of the DRC have become de facto colonies of Rwanda.
The regime continues to treat members of the political opposition in a severe and high-handed manner. Prominent among them is FDU-Inkinigi leader Victoire IngabireUmuhoza. A nominee of the prestigious Sakharov Prize, she continues to languish as a prisoner of conscience since October 2010. Others who have suffered a similar fate include Deogratias Mushayidi of the PDP-Imanzi party, Bernard Ntanganda of the PS-Imberakuri and Theoneste Niyitegeka who ran as a candidate in the 2003 elections.
Known agents of the regime have continued to persecute and attack exile opposition elements. Those who were once in the inner circle of the regime can only leave on pain of death. Examples include former intelligence chief Colonel Patrick Karegeya and a high-ranking army general, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. Both had disagreed with regime and had fled into exile in South Africa. Both have been assassinated. Kagame has fumed, “Anyone who betrays our cause or wishes our people ill will fall victim. What remains to be seen is how you fall victim.”
My prayer is that in the coming years the highly gifted Kagame will become the Abraham Lincoln of Rwanda. He needs to embrace his supporters and critics alike. Both have their place in the building of the New Rwanda. The people of Rwanda need a strong leader; but a strong leader who exercises power with justice, compassion and mercy.