General Kagame’s authoritarian turn risks Rwanda’s future
by Stephen Kinzer
Paul Kagame’s presidency helped heal genocide-torn Rwanda. But now he must listen to critics, not imprison them
When President Paul Kagame of Rwanda won re-election in August, he could look back with pride on his accomplishments. Rwanda has emerged from the devastation of genocide and become more secure and prosperous than anyone had a right to expect. The central task of his second seven-year term, which by law must be his last, is to add broader democracy to this security and prosperity.
Since his inauguration, however, Kagame has given no sign that he is eager to face this challenge. On the contrary, he has continued to scorn his critics. This month, a Rwandan court issued harsh sentences against four of his former comrades who denounced his rule and urged a change in course for their homeland.
All four of those sentenced are safely outside Rwanda, but the severity of the sentences,which range from 20 to 24 years, was startling. The defendants were Kagame’s former chief of staff and ambassador to Washington, Theogene Rudasingwa; Gerald Gahima, Rwanda’s former prosecutor general and vice president of the supreme court; Col Patrick Karegeya, former director of Rwanda’s external security services; and Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former army chief of staff who survived an assassination attempt in South Africa last year.
The four were found guilty of forming a terrorist group, threatening state security, undermining public order, promoting ethnic divisions and insulting the president. Evidence was taken in part from a “Rwanda Briefing” they issued as their former boss began his second term, describing him as “a callous and reckless leader” shaped by “greed for absolute power”. They asserted that there is “more to Rwanda and Paul Kagame than new buildings, clean streets, and efficient government … Rwanda is essentially a hard-line, one-party, secretive police state with a façade of democracy.” To avoid future conflict, they urged Kagame to convene a “genuine, inclusive, unconditional and comprehensive national dialogue” with the aim of creating a new “national partnership government”.
In one passage, which the court cited as a criminal attempt to stir communal hatred, they warned of another ethnic explosion in Rwanda. “The Tutsi minority cannot hope to impose their will on the Hutu majority forever,” they warned. “The military victory of Hutu insurgency could, in turn, conceivably lead to the genocide of the remaining Tutsi population of Rwanda.”
Adding to the fear of new instability were this week’s reports that regional leaders meeting in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, concluded that a new armed force is emerging on the turbulent eastern Congo, which borders on Rwanda and which has, in the past, been a staging ground for anti-Kagame forces. There was ominous speculation that the force might be collaborating with one or more of the newly-sentenced signers of “Rwanda Briefing”.
Kagame’s repression of opposition during his first term may have been unwise, but it was at least defensible. Some of his most outspoken critics were allies of the defeated genocide army, which still dreams of returning to power. The four men convicted this month, however, became prominent because Kagame himself elevated them to high office. He trusted them once – and should listen to them now.
No authoritarian leader cedes power easily, or turns it over to bodies he cannot control. This is especially true of leaders who come to power by guerrilla war, as Kagame did. Guerrilla leaders win wars by being paranoid and ruthless. Once they take power, they are expected to abandon those qualities and embrace opposite ones: tolerance, compromise and humility. Almost none manages to do so. Kagame has proven himself to be a visionary figure in some ways, so there seemed hope that he would be an exception. Events of recent weeks suggest otherwise.
Kagame and his allies argue that opening too much political space in Rwanda now would unleash ethnic hatreds and possibly lead to another genocide. His critics, including the four who were sentenced this month, argue the opposite: that opening political space is the best way to prevent another genocide. Both arguments are plausible, and both should be openly discussed. Instead of having a court sentence his four ex-comrades to prison terms, Kagame should invite them and others to join him in planning a sustainable path toward Rwandan democracy. By rejecting their counsel, he is increasing his pool of enemies and perhaps even contributing to the destabilisation of the country he has done so much to settle on a better course.
It may or may not be true, as the four men convicted this month have asserted, that Rwanda is “again on the brink of an abyss”. The stakes, however, are enormous. President Kagame should accept the possibility that his judgment may not always be correct, and listen earnestly to Rwandans with different ideas. He still has the chance to enter history as one of the greatest modern African leaders. There is also the chance, however, that he will be remembered as another failed African big-man, a tragic figure who built the foundations of a spectacular future for his country, but saw his achievements collapse because he could not take his country from one-man rule toward democracy.
In Kagame’s early years in power, he made enemies of many he might have turned into allies, including former president Pasteur Bizimungu, former prime minister Faustin Twagiramungu, former speaker of parliament Joseph Sebarenzi, and Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager whose story was the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda. He could plausibly argue that in those days he felt under siege, with the former genocide army waging war against him and the country still in upheaval. Today, the country is secure, and Kagame has attracted foreign supporters ranging from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to Rev Rick Warren and high-powered American business tycoons.
Yet, his contempt for critics seems as intense as ever. Around the same time his four ex-comrades were given long, if symbolic, prison terms, prosecutors asked a Kigali court to impose sentences of 12 and 33 years on two opposition journalists charged with genocide denial, inciting public disorder, insulting the president and spreading false rumours.
“The challenge that Rwanda and her partners have is to engineer peaceful transition to inclusive, democratic governance in time to avoid renewed widespread violence and sectarian bloodshed,” Kagame’s four former aides wrote in their “Rwanda Briefing”. He should heed their warning and seek their counsel.